Why G-d Loves Prayers of Righteous

In previous Torah portions, we learned of the childlessness of Yitzchok and Rivka.  We are taught they did not have children right away, just as Sara.  And in this week’s Torah portion, we learn that Rochel did not have children right away.  We are taught that this is because Hashem wanted to hear their prayers.

Why?  Is it cruelty – my child is so cute when he cries so I let him cry?!  No, that isn’t it.  It can’t be that with G-d.  He doesn’t let us suffer just to see how cute we are when we cry.  There must be something else of why He wants these prayers.

Prayer is a very powerful thing – it brings blessing to the world.  Therefore, when righteous people pour out sincere prayers, not only do they become a better person and merit getting what they are praying for, but also their prayers change the world and help others who aren’t as good as them.

Think of a faucet wedged closed.  A strong person strains against the tap, again and again, until finally it yields and turns.  The water gushes forth.  And those who were thirsty, but were too weak to maneuver that faucet on their own, they get to drink from the same waters as the tap turner.  The righteous open the spigots of blessings, bringing Heavenly bounty into this world.  Up to them is the heavy work of getting those faucets running.

That is why Hashem wanted to hear the prayers of the Tzaddikim, to bring good to the world.

When Yitzchok was born, we are taught that the whole world laughed.  Why?  Because the blessing of having children, once “turned on” for Sarah, helped many ladies who did not have children.  So Rivka’s prayers were not just for herself, but for the whole world.  With Rochel’s tears and prayers, more blessing came to the world.  With Laya’s prayer for her sister, even more blessings came pouring in.

And I sit here and hope that all those who are yearning for help like me are straining all spiritual muscles to daven and cry, for who knows who in our generation is the Sarah, Rivka, Rochel (or even a Laya davening for a sister) who can turn on the spigot of blessings.  Pray and cry, for yourselves, for me, for the world.  We need the blessings in our lives, sorely need them.

 

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YAAKOV’S PRAYER – the challenge to staying on the good and true

Yaakov, having run away from danger, is heading to his future and to his marriage.  On the way, he dreams a dream, one in which G-d reassures him that all will be well in the end, for him and for his children.  Then…

Passuk Chaf:  “and Yaakov vowed a vow saying, if Hashem will be with me, and will watch me on this way that I am going, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear…”  Passuk Chaf Alef:  “…and I will return in peace to the house of my father, and Hashem will be for me an Elokim.”

 We should have a problem with these few Pesukim [verses].  Hashem just promised Yaakov He would watch over him.  Why is Yaakov then asking for that which he was just promised?  Also, what does it mean, if G-d does X, then I will be good!?  Does that mean if Hashem doesn’t give Yaakov what he wants, then “deal’s off” and Yaakov will not accept Hashem as His Elokim?  We have to really try to understand what is going on in these two Pesukim.

Midrash:  he was not making a deal with Hashem – he was making a vow to keep himself on the Derech [righteous path] and out of danger.  He is saying, not IF Hashem fulfills His promise, but rather WHEN Hashem does so, then he will do something for Hashem.  So let us say a person is in danger, then we can learn from Yaakov and say, When Hashem saves me from the pirates who captured me, I will give $200 to Tzedakah.  That is what Yaakov was doing here – he realized the danger he was going to encounter and made a promise that when he was out of danger, he would do something spiritual as thanks for being saved.

Radak points out that Tzadikim ask for things that are necessity, and not for luxuries.  Yaakov asks for food to eat (not steak, but bread) and clothing to wear and good health.  He doesn’t ask for vacations, jewelry and Lexus cars.    Not too much, not too little, but hopefully somewhere in the middle, is where we want our life to be.  For either end of the spectrum could cause strain on our holding steady in connection with G-d.

RASHI points out that B’Shalom should be read “Shalaym” – that peace is for those who don’t do sin – and Yaakov was actually praying here that he shouldn’t be influenced by Lavan, that he should return Shalaym, as whole in good deeds as when he left Eretz Yisroel.

According to other Meforshim, what we have to see in this Passuk is a Tefillah – prayer –  that Yaakov not get turned away from G-d.  We know Hashem promised Yaakov, as he was now, a Tzaddik [righteous person], to watch over him.  But what would happen if Yaakov would learn from Lavan’s evil ways – that promise of watching him would no longer be valid since Yaakov would not be the same Tzaddik anymore.  So what Yaakov is davening is that Hashem protect him from circumstances which might make folks sin.

He asks for the necessities – Yaakov is scared that if he doesn’t have the bare food minimum he will feel like G-d abandoned him and he will go off the Derech, so he asks Hashem, please, make sure I always have at least food and clothing for I don’t want to become bitter.  Then he asks for “shmira b’derech” that Hashem allow him to continue this path of becoming a good person.  Many times we want to be good and begin to start our journey to Torah observance and then we get all kinds of obstacles in our way – like when we decide to keep  a schedule of learning but then life gets hectic and we are pressured and… – so we have to daven that Hashem “watch us on our way” help us stick to our journey of goodness.  Then, Yaakov asks for “shalom” and we are told he asks for good health – again, sickness can make a person bitter, so Yaakov davens for good health. Last, he asks “Hashem to be for him an Elokim”  When the Torah uses the word for G-d which is the four letter name it indicates middas HaRachamim which is the Attribute of Mercy and the word Elokim indicates middas Hadin which is is the Attribue of Strict Justice.  What Yaakov is asking is that when G-d has to be an Elokim, when judgment is decreed, we want that it should be with the Middah of Rachamim – that G-d should always mix mercy with the Din, because if we got judged with pure Din we would not be able to survive.

That is what these two Pessukim are about, a prayer Yaakov formulated asking Hashem to give him the circumstances which make it easier to have a close connection to Hashem.

Many years ago, on one of the coldest, dismal, just-not-happening days, I trudged through the streets of Queens and came up with this:

 I wanted to dance a jig today / as the snow fell. / I don’t know anything / have no answers to any questions / no clear-cut directions / But whatever way,  / I’m going to clutch to You / not letting anyone unclench my grip. / I’m not letting go.

 As I said, it was many years ago, many problems ago.  When young, you think you are strong enough to hold on no matter what.  The more time passes, the more you can see how life might batter a person’s resolve and shake the very foundation of your soul.

Recently I read a disturbing bit of history of one of the Chassidic giants in what has come to be referred to as “THE Shabbos”.  What happened is unclear fully, but what is apparent from the various versions of the story is that something distressing caused the holy man to snap his connection to G-d for a brief moment one Shabbos.  Suffering is a horrible place to be, and suffering, as we learn from Iyov, can make us bitter against our Creator.

Ever watch how pit-bull owners show off their dog’s tenacity and grip?   I have watched some owners have their dogs bite a stick and then those owners twirled the stick.  The dog gets tossed about, somersaulted, flung, but most of those dogs keep their bite strong on the stick.

We, my friends, don’t have to prove we are pit bull dogs.  Yes, if challenged, we must rise to the challenge and hang on through the tough times.  BUT, we ARE allowed to ask that life not get so hard that it breaks us.  After all, that is what Father Yaakov had davened.

May it be G-d’s will that we always have bread to eat, clothing to wear, health and a clear, open path to secure spirituality.  And in our time of age, I add, please Hashem, also heat in the winter and tuition for our children.

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Of Galus Learning & Also of Practicality in Observance

PARSHAS VAYATZAY – and he went out

The Parsha begins with the verse “and he went out…and he went…”  Really it should just say he went.  What is the meaning of the word Va’yay’tzay here.  RASHI:  to show us that when a spiritual, righteous person leaves a place, there is something missing – his influence is taken out of the mix and that affects the place.  So Yaakov’s going was not just about his journey, it also affected the place he was leaving behind because they no longer were having his good influence.

Another possible reasoning from the Midrash of why it says “he went out” and then says “he went toward” is that he didn’t directly leave home and go to Charan.  He actually made a detour of quite some years to go learn Torah with Shem and Ever. Before running toward his destiny of marriage, Yaakov took a detour and went to learn some more spirituality.

Now, you and I might be stumped as to why more time was spent learning.  Yaakov had learned Torah under his father’s tutelage until the age of 63.  Can you imagine sitting and learning with Yitzchok for so long – he must have known so much of the Torah — he must have been steeped in the highest of ideals and most profound of spirituality.  Yitzchok was Gevurah — all the fire of devotion and worship.  Why then did Yaakov think it so important to learn more Torah for 14 years elsewhere?

It was because Yitzchok was a Kadosh [fully holy] who had always been surrounded only by Kedusha [holiness].  The basis of Yaakov’s learning with his father was how to live a life in purity within a pure environment, how to capitalize upon greatness within a great society.  Now that Yaakov was heading to Lavan, he realized he had to learn how to stay pure in a bad environment, something his father never had to do. He would be dealing with corruption, he would be dealing with twisted morals, he would be exposed to shmutz [smut] of the likes his father was unaware.

Yaakov realized the danger, and he figured there were two people in the world at that time who knew how to do just that, how to live a pure life even when immersed in a vile society.  Shem was one of these people.  He lived through the generation of the flood and stayed good.  The second person was Ever who had lived through the generation of Dor HaFlaga and stayed good.  Two men, one who lived through a time of gluttony and base physicality and one who lived in a time of intellectual dishonesty and atheism, and both who stayed true to their inner truth.

That is why Yaakov decided to take that time before hitting Charan and Lavan’s house.  He knew he would now be confronted with exile, with the reality of having to live with truths among people who pandered to their base desires and twisted all that was good.  To stay on the path, to stay steady to his values, Yaakov decided to learn how to stay good even when surrounded by the worst evils by those who mastered it before him.

It worked, those years of learning, for when Yaakov returned from exile, he was able to proclaim, “im Lavan gartee v’taryag mitzvos shamartee– with Lavan I stayed and 613 commandments I heeded.”

Yaakov, having run away from danger, having sat and learned, now is heading to his future and to his marriage.  On the way, he dreams a dream, one in which G-d reassures him that all will be well in the end, for him and for his children.

We are taught of the dream of Yaakov, the dream of a ladder that had its feet on the ground and its head reached into heavens.  There are many different messages being told by this ladder.

One of them is that our job is to bridge between physical and spiritual (the ladder had its feet on the ground and stretched to heaven).   In fact, the word Soolam/ladder and Mamon/money have the same Gematriah [numerical value in Hebrew] – our job is to use money and physical gifts as a ladder to higher places, to connecting to Hashem.  If we do that right, angels go up and down, we affect what the angels do.  You see, based on reward and punishment in the world, blessings or curses come to the world.  And since angels are those who carry out the meting out of blessings or curses, our actions are “ladders” that cause them to come down or go away from our world.

In my life’s journeys I’ve met many kinds of people.  So there are those who keep their ladder laying flat on the ground, both feet and head right in the mud.  They never strive for spirituality, never get away from their earthy desires to do something bigger than self-gratification and never opening their view to see the spiritual.  Not good.  That was not the dream of Yaakov, not the mission of man, to stay with our heads stuck in mud.

However, I also met what I call the helium balloon people, those people who get so enamored in spirituality that they don’t keep themselves grounded.  They don’t engage in being responsible.  And that is a danger, for helium balloons wafting into stratosphere pop.  That also was not the dream of Yaakov, not the mission of man, to completely disconnect from what we have to do down here on earth.  We have to pay our rents, pull our own weights, clothe our kids, be able to engage in life responsibly. Grounded, two feet on the ground, but aiming with that grounding to be able to bridge the vast distance to Heavens.  That is the dream, that is the goal.

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Eisav, Yaakov, Marshmallows and Eternal Gratification in Parshas Toldos

They were born, two boys, twins, Yaakov and Eisav; but they had vastly different natures.  Yet, as you learn the Torah Portion of Toldos and you see with what nature Eisav was blessed, it seems to you, perhaps, that the cards were stacked against Eisav – he had this burning desire for physicality and strength.  However, we are taught Eisav and King David looked alike and had the same personalities.  Both were passionate men.  Ah, passion, it could be used two ways.  Eisav pandered to it and gave in to his huge desires and Dovid didn’t.  Anyone born with a bigger desire for evil, has a bigger chance at being great.  Eisav could have been Moshiach if he worked on himself and fought his desires, if he harnessed his appetite for physicality and used it for spirituality, but Eisav liked instant gratification and refused to discipline himself for anything long-term.

“Eat, be merry, for tomorrow I die,” is Eisav’s motto.  This is what he says: what do I need spirituality, let me have instant pleasure. Soup down my throat.  Now.  In fact, did you ever wonder, why did Eisav have to ask Yaakov to pour the soup down his throat?  What was wrong with his own two hands?  Eisav was actually pleasuring himself as he conducted this whole transaction – he was so wrapped up in gratifying himself, he wouldn’t even stop to feed himself.  Gimme, gimme.  I deserve.  I want.  All nerve endings need pleasuring now.  That is the wrap-up of Eisav’s approach to life.

There was a psychological study, aptly titled the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, which involved, yup, delicious pillowy sweet marshmallows.  Oozing goodness.  And put right in front of some nosh-loving children.  The point of the study was to test the children’s ability to defer on pleasure and see whether there was any correlation with future success.  So, there sat the children and the marshmallows, in a room affording a view to researchers.  In front of each child that mmm-mmm-good marshmallow was plunked down, right there, tantalizingly sweet right under their nose.  The children were told that if they wait and don’t eat it, they would get another one in a while.   Think of that – control yourself and double your pleasure.

The researchers left the room.  Some children gobbled up the nosh right away.  Some kept poking at it, smelling it, nibbling off its corners.  And some children ignored the nosh and earned the reward of a second marshmallow.  The children were then tracked to see which ones finished high school, which went to college and which ended up with good lives.  It was found (is it surprising?) that children who controlled their desire for the instant nosh were the ones who ended up successful.  Wanting instant gratification is a weakness.

A person who lives in this world only thinking of the pleasures of Olam HaZeh [the temporal world here], like Eisav did, is a bigger idiot.  Good people know we ought at times to deny the instant pleasure because when it comes to Olam HaBah [the next world which is eternal], the pleasure there is greater and we would be idiots to trade a great thing for something stupid just because it’s instant.  An example often given by the late Rabbi Noach Weinberg, ZT”L:  eating ice cream is a pleasure.  Saving a life is a greater pleasure.  If you had to choose between the two, which would you do?  Give up the ice cream- that cool delicious instant feeling of coldness sliding down your throat?  Of course – cuz you know the pleasure of saving a life will last a lifetime.  Eisav refused to self-discipline in anything.  He wanted pleasure – he wanted it now – he wanted it physically, which is why he ended up with no spiritual or emotional pleasures.

Yaakov, his brother, on the other hand, knew how to defer, to wait things out, to channel and harness his passion and keep it in check.  In fact, he was able to wait for the love of his life, working toward his marriage, because he knew how to wait things out.  Those willing to harness passion, control their desires and trade instant gratification for greater things, those are the ones who end up with the ever-lasting pleasures.

After all, instant soup is quite bland.  Instant world is blander, yet.  Go for the real deal, the real lasting spiritual pleasure.

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Prolifer – (and Sara was the epitome -she lived every day of her life)

When the alarm clock rang this morning

I sulked about a new day dawning

“Yuk,” said I, “what a botheration

“to endure the new day’s frustration.”

Pro-choice?  Shouldn’t I be the one to choose?

But, alas, life doesn’t allow for much muse

Reality dictates that one must awake

For if not, one’s livelihood is at stake

And though we might love covers over our head

Most of us can’t afford a day in bed

We cannot end our days before they begin

We’re forced to cope with its contractions

Carry the morning full term until eve

Suffer with its aches and petty peeves

At the end, though, you often can say

Thank G-d we hadn’t aborted our day.

—————–

Rabbi Akiva was once teaching his students when he noticed some of them drowsing off.  He banged on his shtender [lectern] and said, “chevrah, I want you to know something.  Because Sara lived 127 years, Esther many years later got to rule over 127 countries.”  His students perked up and stayed alert and awake.  What they had been told is that each day, each hour, each second has a potential that will be rewarded.  And they didn’t want to snooze through any of life’s opportunities.

 

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Akaydas Yitzchok – understanding its importance — Kindness Must Rule

I have an uncle who, unfortunately, left the tried and true paths trod upon by our holy ancestors.  To his defense, his childhood was filled with tribulations: the Holocaust, being orphaned of his father, smuggled out of Europe along dangerous routes and then a sense of no-family within an orphanage setting for the rest of his young years.  An ear infection that left him deaf in one ear.  Things that stacked up and left him more than slightly bitter.  Every now and then when in his country I visit him.  And he always attacks my religiosity.  Last visit he was spewing hatred at the concept of the Akayda – of the test of Avraham where he was told to sacrifice his son.

“You religious fanatic idiots,” he spat out, “the idea of even trying to do the Akayda is so like you.  No love for your children, whatsoever.”  I wasn’t going to argue that the crux of the test of Avraham was to comply with G-d’s request even while loving his son (The verse says, “take your son..the one you love…” which means Avraham was not to disconnect emotionally from his son, but to love him, even during this trial.)

“Ma’aseh Avos Siman La’Banim – the actions of the forefathers are signposts for the coming generations.”  Anything our forefather did, as described in the Chumash, was foreshadowing and creating realities for history.  The tests of Avraham were hard things he had to do for the good of the future of the world.

G-d didn’t want Yitzchok dead, that is clear, for G-d ensured Avraham didn’t harm him.  Then what was the point of the whole charade?  Avraham signifies Chesed-Kindness.  Father Abraham was all about unconditional love and giving.  He gave out free food and shelter, understanding and prayers.  Yitzchak signifies Gevurah-strength.  Father Isaac was all about strict adherence to G-dliness, to the black and white delineations between bad and good and judgment in strict accordance to actions.  Yup, Yitzchok was very different than his father Avraham, and for the world to be a wonderful place for us future, oft-sinning, weaker generations, a precedent had to be set with Akaydas Yitzchok.  This is how it works.  Gevurah [Isaac] had to be bound, roped up and made constrained, by Chesed [Abraham].  In fact, the knife that they carried had to be carried only by Avraham.  Strict judgment should never be the one holding a knife.  Complete kindness should be the one in control.

Jews don’t lace our fingers together to pray.  This is because we want to ensure the right hand and left hand, one which symbolizes strict judgment and one which symbolizes mercy, should not be joined together.  Mercy, love, always must overpower judgment, not be interconnected with it.

That is the true lesson of the Akayda.  That we must love our children and fellow man so much we make sure to always constrict judgment and deliver it into bondage into the hands of kindness

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We’re Never Lost with Hashgacha Pratis – Kabbala Based Outlook on Life’s Journeys

          When Hagar was told to leave Avraham’s house with Yishmael, the Torah tells us  Hagar got lost in the desert.  Rashi comments:  ‘from here we learn that Hagar went back to Avodah Zarah [worshipping idols].’  How is that obvious to Rashi from the fact that Hagar got lost?

             The answer is that a person who is aware of G-d is NEVER lost.  If a person ever thinks they are lost, they are saying G-d was not there, supervising their steps and getting them to the place where they find themselves.  If Hagar would have believed fully in G-d, she would say, “Why did you bring me to this place, G-d?  What has to be my mission here that you led me to this exact spot?”  Hagar, however, was lost, literally and spiritually.  She felt she was in a spot she wasn’t supposed to be, felt like there was no Power guiding her steps.  Any situation you and I find ourselves in has that same truth.  From the trip to the emergency room that we sometimes need to take, to the spot in our bathroom with the toilet all clogged, each situation, each journey, was put into motion for a reason.

At the creation of the world, pristine and pure spiritual holiness existed in one solid mass.  Think of it as one, huge glistening, light giving, blinding light of Kedusha [sanctity].  And then, with a huge shove, this big light was sent shattering and scattering to all ends of earth, breaking into tiny sparks that rolled here and there.  Just like in a scavenger hunt, where players have to track down every item on their list, man was given the task of gathering every last bit of shattered Kedusha, wherever that spark of light may have landed.  Where can the spark be?  Hidden in our food, trapped in a tree, atop a Swiss mountain – anywhere and everywhere.   These sparks are called Nitzeetzay Kedisha [sparks of holiness] and, if we are lucky enough to realize it, they are there for us to release through our exertions.   Each Mitzvah [positive commandment] brings the sparks together to the whole light source, and each Avayrah [negative commandment/sin] breaks up the holiness into smaller pieces, scattering them and hiding them even more.

Each soul has its own sparks it must find and release since each soul comes from prior generation’s souls who might have shattered and hidden some sparks by their sins.  Therefore, G-d with mercy guides each one of us to where we need to be and gives us the experiences we need to release the sparks that are our responsibility.   Suppose you plan to go to Niagara Falls and get lost.  You end up somewhere upstate and find an apple picking orchard.  Hungry by now, you pay the price and pick an apple.  You are not lost.  It is not random.  That apple in that place from that tree needed your soul to have deep concentration when you say the Borei Pri HaEtz [blessing thanking G-d for things growing on trees], because only that way will the spark of Kedusha hidden within the apple be released.    You ordered salmon for Shabbos, but somehow got whitefish and never had a chance to exchange it.  So whitefish it is for the meal.  Not because there was some mistake, not because the fish seller lost your order, but because that whitefish needed to be on your Shabbos table.  You are guided, you are manipulated, you are helped by G-d to get to where your job is; but what you do once you find yourself in that location is up to you.  Hagar lost her chance.  She was guided into the desert, and, instead of releasing Kedusha there, she despaired and felt lost.  We can learn from her mistake and never get lost, not in location and not in mindfulness in the journeys through our daily lives.  Whether you are standing three feet deep in water during a flood moment in your basement, whether you are holding a colicky baby, whatever the moment or location, Hashgacha Pratis [Divine Direct Intervention] brought you to this point because there is a spark of Kedusha in this moment, because there is a potential for you to make that spot, that ordeal, that journey spiritual.  Release that Kedusha, my friend, let it be free to shine.

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