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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Yayera 5770
Under the Tree
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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11/5/09

STAM TORAH

PARSHAS VAYERA 5770

UNDER THE TREE

The great scholar and ethicist, Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin of Salant zt’l, was once in the home of an assimilated Jew in Vienna. The man’s daughter was an adroit and accomplished pianist, and had achieved much distinction for her musical talent.

While they were conversing the daughter entered and joined the conversation. She asked Rabbi Salanter, “We are always recounting and speaking about miracles that transpired centuries ago. If G-d is so omnipotent why doesn’t He perform such miracles today?”

Rabbi Salanter diverted the question and the conversation continued. Sometime later the man began to brag about the many awards his daughter had received and the many symphonies and recitals she had been part of. She was well known among musical experts as one of the most brilliant pianists in all of Austria.

After the man finished listing his daughters accomplishments, Rabbi Salanter nonchalantly replied, “I don’t believe you!” The man was stunned, “I beg your pardon, Rabbi?” Rabbi Salanter continued, “I am sure she knows how to play the piano but I do not believe that she is really all that good. In fact, I doubt that she really has much talent at all. If she really has any talent let her play and prove herself.”

The young woman was indignant. “I should play for you to prove myself? Listen here Rabbi, many of the greatest musicians in the world agree that my playing is exemplary. The diplomas and award hanging here on the wall attest to that. After they have given their approval, I surely do not need to prove myself to a Rabbi who has an amateurish appreciation of music at best.”

Rabbi Salanter turned to the woman and replied, “Listen to what you yourself just said. You have proven yourself to the greatest musical aficionados and so you feel no need to prove yourself to a lone skeptic. G-d revealed Himself to our forefathers and established for them the basic tenets of our faith. Do you honestly expect Him to come ‘play the piano’ for one skeptic in Vienna?”

Avrohom Avinu was a celebrity in his time. Despite the travails and challenges he consistently encountered, he became an affluent and wealthy person, and was incredibly influential in attracting myriads to his monotheistic preaching.

After his saga with Avimelech, Avrohom settled in the land of the Philistines for a lengthy period of time. The Torah relates[1], “He planted an ‘Eshel’[2] in Be’er Sheva, and there he proclaimed the Name of Hashem, G-d of the Universe.”

Why does the Torah bother to relate about Avrohom’s planting? Furthermore, what does his planting have to do with his proclaiming about G-d?

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l explained that Avrohom taught the masses about G-d through his planting! He would call attention to the miracles of nature and use that to prove the existence of G-d. The flowering and growth of the tree, the withering and falling of its leaves in autumn, the rebirth of its buds and leaves in the spring, the miraculous growth of a fruit tree from dirt and sunlight, the process of osmosis and photosynthesis, etc. Organic life, revealed through the most basic processes of nature, is the greatest testament to an Almighty Creator. Avrohom’s greatness was that he did not only perceive G-d in the supernatural and miraculous, but he was able to perceive G-d in the mundane ‘supernatural’ processes of nature.

“In our obtuse society, man cannot see the infinite, the Creator, nor can he sense Providence. He thinks that all there is on earth is the little that physics, chemistry, and biology have described, and this knowledge is enough to understand the universe… The problem of modern man lies not in his quest for knowledge, but rather in his hubris. He carries an air of arrogance, considering himself an all-capable superhuman, not being able to admit that he knows little and understands less.”[3]

Earlier, the Torah describes Avrohom’s encounter with the three angels. On the third day after his circumcision, Avrohom sat at the doorway of his tent exposed to the intense desert heat, searching and pining for visitors with whom he could perform acts of kindness. Suddenly, he saw three figures in the distance. Forgetting his pain, Avrohom bolted towards them and implored them to stop at his tent. Assuming they were idolatrous nomads he asked them to first wash their feet, before sitting down to a delectable meal.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that there was a deeper significance to Avrohom asking them to wash their feet. The average mortal assumes that existence and creation is only as intricate as his eyes could see and his senses could appreciate. Avrohom assumed that these nomads were no different; that they could see no further than the dust of their own feet.

He asked them to wash their hands and feet, and to wash away their juvenile understanding of the world. “Let some water be brought and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree.[4]” Avrohom requested that they make themselves comfortable under the tree, for it was the tree that was the basis of his teaching. As they settled comfortably, Avrohom would challenge them to consider the beauty of the tree, eventually extending beyond the treetop to the heavens, the stars, and ultimately to the vast expanse of the universe.

Man’s purpose in general and a Jew’s mission in particular, is to recognize the G-d of the universe through the leaves of the Eshel!

The Ramban writes[5], “Through recalling the great manifest miracles a person acknowledges the hidden miracles (of everyday life) which are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a person has no share in the Torah of our teacher Moshe until he believes that all our affairs and experiences are miracles; that there is no element of nature, or ‘ordinary course of the world’, whether regarding the community or the individual.”

Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt’l was legendary for studying and preaching about the wonders of creation, and the love and connection to G-d that one can feel through such analysis and thought. He gave numerous lectures about the wonders of oranges, apples, elephants, and flies.

He related that, when he was a student learning in the famed Solobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, during the summer break he often went on excursions and hikes in the nearby mountains. On one occasion he sat and stared a flower for over an hour. He reported that it was the most spiritual experience he ever had in his life.

G-d does not need to prove Himself to us. The legacy of Avrohom, the progenitor of Klal Yisroel, is to seek out G-d in the mundane. One who can recognize the miraculous in the mundane realizes that all of life is supernatural. Conversely, one who fails to see the divine hand in the mundane may very well fail to appreciate the supernatural.

Avrohom merited many miracles during his lifetime, including emerging from a blazing furnace alive and fighting off a four-nation army almost singlehandedly. But none of that occurred until Avrohom recognized that there was a Creator through sheer logic and pondering.

The Medrash[6] writes, “G-d said to Avram, 'Go for yourself from your land'" (Bereishis 12:1). Rabbi Yitzchok said: This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw a (birah dolekes) fortress illuminated/burning. He said, "Will you say this fortress has no governor (manhig)? The master (ba'al) of the fortress peeped out (hetziz) at him, and he said to him, "I am the master of the fortress."

“Thus, because our father Avraham would say, "Can one say this world has no governor?" The Holy One, blessed is He, peeked out at him and said to him, "I am the Master of the world”.”

The Kotzker Rebbe once commented that he cannot comprehened how people do not become believers in G-d, simply from the words of Birchas Hamazon[7], which discuss how G-d provides for the entire world.

The Chiddushei HaRim[8] added, “And I don’t understand how people do not become believers from the food they are eating itself.” If one focuses on the texture, taste, and aesthetic beauty of his food, he cannot help but be overwhelmed by the graciousness and goodness of G-d.

As the descendants of Avrohom it is incumbent upon us to seek out G-d in every facet of nature and life. G-d can be found everywhere, but only to one who searches for Him.

“He planted an ‘Eshel’[9] in Be’er Sheva”

"I am the master of the fortress”

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[1] Bereishis 21:34

[2] Rashi quotes a dispute between Rav and Shmuel whether the ‘Eshel’ was an orchard, whose fruits Avrohom served to the wayfarers, or an inn for lodging, in which he maintained a supply of fruit for wayfayers.

[3] Derashot Harav

[4] Bereishis 18:4

[5] Shemos 13:17; this lengthy Ramban contains numerous fundamental concepts relating to the basic faith of a Jew.

[6] Bereishis Rabbah 39:1

[7] Grace After Meals

[8] Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter zt’l, the first Gerrer Rebbe, and a contemporary of the Kotzker Rebbe/

[9] Rashi quotes a dispute between Rav and Shmuel whether the ‘Eshel’ was an orchard, whose fruits Avrohom served to the wayfarers, or an inn for lodging, in which he maintained a supply of fruit for wayfayers.



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