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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Vayishlach 5770
On Guard
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Paysach Krohn relates a beautiful story[1] about a Jerusalem Jew named Yosef Gutfarb who was extremely meticulous to always pray with a minyan. Even the worst weather could not deter Yosef, and he was invariably one of the first people to enter the synagogue whenever it was time to pray. If he had to travel he would ensure that would be able to attend a minyan along the way.

One night Yosef arrived home at 3 a.m. and had not yet prayed ma’ariv. He traveled from his neighborhood of Shuafat, to the Zichron Moshe synagogues near the Geulah neighborhood. By the time he arrived it was 3:15 a.m. To his dismay, the place was virtually deserted, save for one man who also had not yet prayed.

R’ Yosef thought for a moment. Then he pulled out his phone and called a local taxi company. He asked the dispatcher if he could send eight taxis to Zichron Moshe. He also insisted that they all be Israeli drivers. The dispatcher replied, “Who has eight taxis available at this hour?” R’ Yosef replied, “How many do you have available?” “Five” “Okay, please send them as soon as possible. And remember, only Israeli drivers.”

He then called another taxi company and asked them to send three taxis, only with Israeli drivers. Both taxi companies were sure a wedding had just finished and many guests needed rides. The cabbies were surprised when they pulled up in front of the deserted building of Zichron Moshe.

R’ Yosef walked out to greet them. “Gentlemen, please start your meters. And then please follow me into the synagogue.” He explained to them that he needed them to complete a minyan so that he could pray ma’ariv. Although they were all familiar with reading Hebrew, some of the drivers were unfamiliar with the prayer text. They had to get yarmulkes from the glove compartments of their cars and be shown the page on which the service began.

After the prayers had concluded, R’ Yosef excitedly offered to pay each of them for their time. But none of them would accept his money!

The great confrontation was imminent. Yaakov and his family were heading home to Eretz Yisroel, and his wrathful brother Eisav was heading towards him, with an army poised for battle. Yaakov dispatched emissaries to portend his arrival. The Torah states, “He charged them saying, ‘Thus shall you say, ‘To my lord, to Eisav, so said your servant Yaakov: I have sojourned with Lavan and have lingered until now’.”

Rashi explains that Yaakov utilized the unusual terminology “Gartie” (I have sojourned) to intimate to Eisav that, although he had lived in the home of the duplicitous Lavan until now, “The six hundred and thirteen commandments[2] I have safeguarded, and I did not learn from his (Lavan’s) evil ways.”

Yaakov’s message to Eisav is surprising. In fact, it seems to be blatantly untrue! During his years in the home of Lavan, Yaakov married two sisters. Although Yaakov was unquestionably justified - in fact obligated - to marry both Rochel and Leah[3], still-in-all the Torah expressly prohibits one from marrying two sisters[4]. Although Yaakov may have literally been ‘above the law’ in regards to the prohibition against marrying sisters for various reasons, how could he say that he observed all 613 commandments of the Torah, when he clearly violated one[5]?

For many summers, Camp Dora Golding, where I have spent (and spend) many of my summers, would host a concert. A Jewish music star/group would perform for the delight of the campers and staff, and it was always a memorable event.

A number of summers ago, the camp hired a certain Jewish group to perform. The members of the group were known to be somewhat ‘unconventional’ in their performance, sometimes becoming hippie-like and wild.

Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman shlit”a, the spiritual leader of Dora Golding, met with the band members beforehand in order to discuss various guidelines.

Suffice it to say the guidelines were not adhered to.

The next morning, Rabbi Finkelman spoke to the older division of campers. He explained that before the administration of the camp agreed to bring in that band to perform they had sought the counsel of Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky shlit”a. At the time Rabbi Kaminetsky told them that if the band members were “shomer Torah and mitzvos” then they could be brought in.

Rabbi Finkelman noted that Rabbi Kaminetsky did not say if they were ‘mikayem Torah and mitzvos’ they could be brought in, but rather if they were ‘shomer Torah and mitzvos’. ‘Mikayem’ means to fulfill, and indeed refer to one who is Torah observant as a mikayem Torah and mitzvos. But a ‘shomer’ is a guard. A guard doesn’t just react when confronted. A guard must be vigilant and ready; a guard must be proactive.

Rabbi Finkelman continued by explaining that the performers who came to camp were good Jews with good hearts. They were mikayim Torah and mitzvos by observing Shabbos and putting on tefillin each morning. However, they could not be classified as ‘shomrei Torah and mitzvos’. He explained that when they met before the concert to review some guidelines, the bandleader replied, “Rabbi, you need to understand that sometimes I just lose myself in the music!” Rabbi Finkelman countered that a Torah Jew can never justify his actions by claiming that ‘he just loses himself’. He is obligated to always maintain control over himself and his actions. One who admits to ‘losing himself’ may be observant most of the time, but he isn’t much of a guard.

With this poignant idea in mind, we can understand Yaakov’s message to Eisav. Yaakov did not say that in the home of Lavan he had observed all 613 commandments, for that would indeed be untrue. Rather, Yaakov said that in the home of Lavan he safeguarded all 613 commandments. Yaakov may not have observed the letter of the law per se, but in regards to the spirit of the law he was meticulous to a fault. There was a precise calculation to his every action and he never proceeded an iota without first ascertaining that his actions were in accordance with the Will of G-d. In that sense, Yaakov was the epitome of a shomer, vigilant and attentive, to G-d’s Will.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt’l clearly expresses this same idea. At the beginning of parshas Vayeshev, the Torah records the dreams of Yosef, which symbolized Yosef becoming the ruler over his brothers and parents. Yosef understood his dreams as being an expression of prophecy and he felt obliged to recount them to his brothers. His brothers did not take kindly to the dreams and they developed an enmity for him.

Although Yaakov externally chastised Yosef in order to mitigate the envy of the brothers towards Yosef, the Torah relates “His father guarded the matter.” Rashi explains that the word “Shamor” connotes that Yaakov waited and anticipated the fruition of the matter.

Rabbi Wolbe notes that when Yaakov told Eisav that he was “shomer” the 613 mitzvos, he also meant that he waited and anticipated fulfilling the mitzvos. Throughout his years in the home of Lavan Yaakov was perpetually searching, pining, and anticipating opportunities to serve G-d and fulfill mitzvos[6].

Rabbi Wolbe continues that in our daily prayers we beseech G-d, “Place in our hearts understanding to comprehend and to discern, to perceive, to learn, to teach, to safeguard, and to perform, and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah with love.”

Here too, “Lishmor” means to anticipate and to yearn. We pray that G-d not only grant us the ability to understand and perform His commandments, but that He also grant us the wisdom to safeguard ourselves from transgression and fulfill our obligations properly. To do so we cannot be ‘passive fulfillers’, we must be proactive guards.

On Shabbos morning there is a well-known zemer (song) with the refrain, “Hashomer Shabbos . . . One who safeguards the Shabbos, the son with the daughter, to G-d it is desirous like a Mincha-offering on a flat pan.”

The commentators explain that the shomer which the lyricist refers to is one who anticipates and is excited about Shabbos[7]. The ‘shomer Shabbos’ passionately looks forward to Shabbos and prepares himself – mentally and physically – for Shabbos well in advance. His whole week centers around Shabbos, and he yearns for the holy day to commence. One who observes Shabbos in such a regal and excited fashion is analogous to one who offers a Mincha offering to his Creator.

The holiday of Chanukah is inextricably connected to this idea as well. In fact, the miracles of Chanukah would never have occurred if the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) did not possess this level of inextinguishable love.

After their miraculous victories over the far superior Syrian-Greek forces, the Hasmoneans entered the Holy Temple with the intention of immediately resuming the daily Service, which had been stopped by the invading enemy. While there was plenty of oil available for lighting the menorah, it had all been rendered ritually impure by the Greeks. According to halacha, the Hasmoneans had many leniencies upon which they could have relied in utilizing that oil, despite its impurity. However, they refused to do so. They insisted on searching for ritually pure oil, although finding such a bottle was virtually inconceivable. The very fact that they found a bottle of pure oil was in itself an incredible miracle[8].

If the Hasmoneans merely fulfilled the letter of the law the holiday of Chanukah would have never come about. Therefore, the Chanukah holiday is an elongated celebration that emerged because of those who were ‘shomer’ Torah and mitzvos, seeking to serve G-d in the most ideal manner possible.

It is for this reason that the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles can be performed on three different levels[9]. The holiday created out of passion and excitement contains opportunities for us to demonstrate our own desire to fulfill its mitzvos in the optimal manner.

The holiday of Chanukah is essentially a celebration of our national unyielding passion and desire to go beyond the letter of the law and prove that we not only fulfill, but we seek to safeguard as well. It is a testament that we don’t only do what we have to do, but we seek to do whatever we can, however we can do it.

“I have sojourned with Lavan, and the 613 commandments I have guarded”

“Place in our hearts understanding… to safeguard”

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[1] In the Spirit of the Maggid, p. 133

[2] The numerical value of the word תריג is 613, the amount of commandments that there are in the Torah. The letters of the word גרתי (I have sojourned) are the same as in the word Tarya”g (613).

[3] The commentaries expend great effort to explain why Yaakov had to do so. For example, Ramban writes that the Patriarchs only observed the Torah in Eretz Yisroel. It was for that reason that Rochel had to die as they were re-entering Eretz Yisroel. [That explains why it was permitted for Yaakov to marry two sisters. Many other commentaries offer lengthy explanations as to how Yaakov knew that he was expected to do so, because the Jewish people had to come from Rochel and Leah.]

[4] See Vayikra 18:18 “You shall not take a woman in addition to her sister.”

[5] I am grateful to my dear friend and mentor, Rabbi Yehoshua Kohl shlit”a, who first mentioned this question. Last year, Rabbi Kohl related to me that his daughter had asked him this question at their family Shabbos table.

[6] In fact, Rabbi Wolbe learns that this must be Yaakov’s intention when he said he kept all 613 mitzvos, because he clearly did not observe all 613 mitzvos, as we mentioned.

[7] He does not seem to be referring to one who guards himself from desecrating Shabbos, because he makes reference to one who guards the Shabbos from desecration later in the song (“Kol shomer Shabbos kadas maychalilo”).

[8] Some commentators explain that although there was sufficient oil for one day’s lighting of the menorah (and thus the miracle of the burning oil would seem to have only been for seven days), we celebrate Chanukah for eight days (not seven) as the first day is a celebration of the fact that they found the jar of oil in the first place.

[9] The mitzvah itself is to light one candle each night of Chanukah. Mehadrin (beautified level) is to light a candle for every member of the family each night of Chanukah. Mehadrin min hamehadrin (the ultimate level) is to light candles for every member of the household corresponding to the night of the holiday.

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