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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeira: Every effort makes a difference
Every effort is worthwhile. In the merit of Abraham's efforts to look after his visitors, G'd provided for the Jewish people during their forty year sojourn in the desert. G'd rewards measure for measure to the smallest detail. Every word uttered by Abraham in his prayers was a merit for him and his future offspring. A prayer could achieve the intended result at a different time, even generations later. Every step and every action taken by Abraham and Isaac to fulfill G'd's commandment during the Akeidah resulted in tremendous merits for them and for their offspring throughout all future generations. We must follow in the footsteps of our Patriarchs and not hesitate to do what we know is right, even if we are not sure that we will be able to complete the job.
Every effort accomplishes
We often think that if we cannot do a complete and perfect job, we should not get involved. We rationalize that there is no purpose, and therefore we do not even start. However, the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:16) teaches that this is not the right approach. The Mishnah says, "It is not your obligation to finish the job, but you are not at liberty not to get involved." Similarly, we often get disillusioned after spending effort, time and money, if we do not achieve what we set out to do, and feel that it was all wasted. This approach is wrong, as the Chofetz Chaim used to say, "We are not obligated to achieve. We are obligated to do." The truth is that every effort we make is worthwhile.
In this week's parasha, we find several instances where our Patriarch Abraham spent much time and effort, and, at the end of the day, it appears that he did not achieve what he had set out to do. In the beginning of the parasha, the Torah relates how Abraham went out of his way to bring strangers into his house and look after them three days after his Brith Milah (circumcision). He was old and sick but nevertheless exerted himself to be hospitable to his visitors. Our sages explain that these visitors were not human beings but angels sent from heaven. They neither ate his food, nor did they benefit from any of his other efforts on their behalf. It seems that this was a total waste of Abraham's time and energy. Why did G'd put Abraham through such an ordeal, when He knew how ill Abraham was feeling? We find the answer to this in the words of our sages. They teach that in the merit of Abraham's efforts to look after his visitors, G'd provided for the Jewish people during their forty year sojourn in the desert. As the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) says: "As a reward for three things (that Abraham did, his descendants) merited three things: In reward for the butter and milk they received the Mann; in reward for standing over them they were protected by the clouds of glory; and in reward for providing water they were escorted by Miriam's well."
Measure for measure
G'd rewards measure for measure to the smallest detail. The Talmud (ibid) explains that as a reward for Abraham preparing his visitors' food and attending to their needs on his own, G'd directly provided the Jewish people with food and other needs. Since Abraham made the water ready through an intermediary, therefore G'd involved Moses in bringing water to the Jewish people. This teaches how a seemingly worthless effort can bring about an immense and worthy reward many generations later.
Further on in the parasha, the Torah relates how Abraham prayed for the wicked inhabitants of Sodom. Several times, Abraham tried to find a way to save them. The commentaries ask, why did G'd not tell Abraham immediately not to waste his time and effort, as there was absolutely no hope to save Sodom from destruction? Why did He allow Abraham to repeat his prayers so many times for seemingly no purpose? They answer that Abraham did not waste his time. Every prayer is an accomplishment. Even if he did not succeed to save the inhabitants of Sodom, every word Abraham uttered was a merit for him and his future offspring. Abraham extracted a promise from G'd that wherever there is a place with ten righteous people, this could save the entire population from destruction. We have no idea how many towns and places have been saved throughout the generations as an outcome of Abraham's prayers with the resulting promise made by G'd. Obviously, when G'd punishes it is beyond our comprehension to understand G'd's rationale for doing so. We find situations where G'd has punished the righteous together with the wicked rather than saving the wicked in the merit of the righteous. The Talmud (Shabbos 55a) explains that sometimes this is because they should have rebuked the wicked. In other instances, G'd punishes the righteous due to their own shortcomings (see Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 15:24). In a time of punishment, the righteous need extraordinary merit to even save themselves. If they do not have sufficient merits for that, for sure they cannot save others.
We sometimes feel frustrated when we pray for the health and welfare of ourselves and others, and it appears that our prayers are not answered. The truth is that our prayers, just as Abraham's prayers, are never wasted. Firstly, it is a merit for both the one who is praying and the one who is being prayed for. Secondly, even in a situation where G'd, for reasons known only to Him, decides not to grant us what we pray for, this prayer could achieve the intended result at a different time, even generations later. For example, a mother prays for her sick child, and the child passes away. Generations later her great-grandchild is sick but is suddenly healed to the wonderment of the doctors and all others present. The serious sickness appears to have mysteriously vanished. If we saw the complete picture, we would realize that the sickness healed in the merit of the great-grandmother's prayer many years ago. In another instance, parents are devastated when they find out that their daughter is dating and planning to marry a gentile. They fast and pray and do everything in their power to stop the marriage but to no avail. Years later, their grandson starts showing interest in his Jewish roots and eventually brings his mother back to the fold as well. No one realizes that this is the direct result of the parents' efforts so many years back. However, G'd remembers everything and keeps account of every detail. Nothing is lost or forgotten.
In the end of the parasha, G'd put Abraham to his most difficult test and told him to bring his beloved son, Isaac, as an offering. In his great love for G'd, Abraham did exactly as he was told, and Isaac willingly accepted to be sacrificed. At the last moment, an angel called out from Heaven and commanded Abraham to stop. The angel told him that G'd did not intend that he should kill his son, only to bring him up on the altar. At this point, Abraham wanted to bring an offering, and he found a ram that he brought instead of his son. Again, it seems that Abraham did not achieve what he had set out to do. The obvious question is what was the purpose of telling him to bring Isaac as an offering, if the test was not intended to be completed? The answer is that here as well, every step and every action Abraham and Isaac took to fulfill G'd's commandment, resulted in tremendous merits for them and for their offspring throughout all future generations. Our prayers are full of references to the test of the Akeidah, especially during the High Holidays. We plead to G'd to have mercy on His children, and to show us His love in the merit of Abraham and Isaac's willingness to make this tremendous sacrifice in their great love for G'd.
Do not hesitate
In our daily life, we must draw strength and encouragement to follow in the footsteps of our Patriarchs. We shall never hesitate to do what we know is right, even if we are not sure that we will be able to complete the job. Neither, should we get disillusioned if we do not see that we have accomplished what we set out to do. For the truth is that every effort makes a difference, and the real accomplishment is the effort itself.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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