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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayera 5774 "Clouds and Donkeys"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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In the early years of our marriage we would spend many a Yom Tov in Lakewood, New Jersey, at the home of my in-laws, including Succos 5767 (2007). That year I decided that it would be a wonderful educational experience if I could bring my (then) three-year-old son, Yaakov Meir Shalom, to meet Harav Matisyahu Salomon shlita, the Mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoha, the famous Lakewood Yeshiva.

When I called his home during Chol Hamoed, I was informed that the Mashgiach would be available in his Succah an hour before Shemini Atzeres would begin. It wasn’t easy but we made sure to be ready for Yom Tov well in advance. Then, along with my (then) nineteen year old brother-in-law Sender, I took my son to meet the Mashgiach.

Along the way I tried to prep Shalom by explaining to him about the greatness of the tzaddik we were about to meet. When we arrived, we were the first people there so my son was able to sit at the head of the table, right next to Rabbi Salomon. Rabbi Salomon immediately gave Shalom a lollipop which he accepted excitedly.

As we conversed, more people entered the Succah. When Shalom finished his lollipop he began to get restless. He started fidgeting in his seat and then went outside to play with some of the other children who were there. A few minutes later he came back in and noticed a silver tray on the table filled with cookies. “Abba”, he whispered loudly, “I want a cookie.” I whispered back that he should sit back down for two more minutes because we were about to leave. Seeing that I was not going to be of much help, Shalom turned to my brother-in-law and repeated his request. To my chagrin, Sender replied that if he wanted a cookie he would have to ask the Mashgiach.

Meanwhile the Mashgiach was responding to an inquiry that someone had raised concerning the significance of the holiday of Shemini Atzeres. I will never forget the moment when the Mashgiach’s hands were raised in the air mid-explanation and a little voice resonated throughout the packed Succah, “CAN I HAVE A COOKIE?!”

The Mashgiach however, was unfazed and quickly responded, “Of course that’s what they are there for. Pass over the cookies.” Everyone else in the Succah found it amusing, except for Shalom’s father who was quite embarrassed.

Avrohom had been tested nine times. Each time he had proven with conviction that he was a devoted Servant of G-d above all else. However, there was still one final test that he had to surmount. It would challenge - not only the character of loving-kindness that Avrohom epitomized, but also the promises G-d had made to Avrohom. All of Avrohom’s hope for the future, to father the Chosen Nation who would inherit the Promised Land, was dependent on Yitzchak. Yitzchak himself had been born supernaturally. Not only had Sarah been physically unable to bear a child she was ninety years old, well beyond child-bearing age. His miraculous birth granted Avrohom and Sarah the joy of being the progenitor’s of the Chosen People. And now he was commanded to offer all of those hopes and dreams as a sacrifice to G-d on Mount Moriah.

With extraordinary faith and devotion, Avrohom gathered his faithful servant Eliezer and his two sons Yitzchak and Yishmael and immediately set out on his mission. “On the third day, Avrohom raised his eyes and perceived the place from afar. And Avrohom said to his young men, ‘Stay here by yourselves with the donkey, while I and the lad will go yonder; we will worship and we will return to you’.[1]

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer explains that Avrohom immediately noticed a cloud resting atop the mountain which he recognized as the Divine Presence. Yitzchok too was able to see the cloud. But when Eliezer and Yishmael were asked what they saw atop the mountain, they replied that they saw nothing. At that point Avrohom asked them to remain there with the donkey, and not proceed further. The Medrash explains that he was classifying them with the donkey, “The donkey sees nothing and you see nothing, therefore, stay here with the donkey.”

The concept of spirituality and holiness has been the subject of intense debate and philosophical pondering since time immemorial. Concepts such as self-abnegation, nirvana, metaphysical, transcendence, holistic being, karma, and meditation are often associated with saintliness and devoutness.

The Torah’s view of holiness does not involve any of the aforementioned concepts. One becomes holy by heeding to the dictates and commands of the Torah. All other means and mediums of achieving spirituality may indeed allow us to feel “spiritual” but it is only a farce.

The Ramchal expressed this idea in the timeless words of his introduction to Mesillas Yesharim: “The result is that saintliness is construed by many to consist in the recitation of many psalms, very long confessions, difficult fasts, and ablutions in ice and snow – all of which are incompatible with intellect and which reason can not accept.” The Ramchal continues by explaining that true saintliness is a result of introspection, fear of G-d, love of G-d, and purity of heart, all of which result from keeping the laws of the Torah.

In the Shemoneh Esrei prayer of Shabbos and Yom Tov we beseech G-d, “Sanctify us with your commandments and grant us our portion of your Torah, satisfy us through your goodness and gladden us through your salvation, and purify our hearts so that we may serve you with truth.” Sanctity is a consequence of mitzvah-observance. It alone is the key to purity of heart and the internal joy that is reserved for those who feel connected to G-d.

The first time G-d spoke to Avrohom Avinu was when He commanded him to leave his father, family and homeland to travel to Canaan. However, G-d did not ‘appear’ to Avrohom until after he actually arrived. “G-d appeared to Avrom and He said to him, ‘To your descendants I will give this land…[2]

Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh questions why G-d did not appear to Avrohom when He spoke to him originally and commanded him to undertake the journey? The explains that when Avrohom recognized G-d as the Creator of the world, he was the first person to proclaim his faith in ten generations. Since Noach, nine faithless generations had come and gone. G-d did not want to reveal Himself to Avrohom in all of His Glory, “ad shebachan oso im mikayem gizayrosav - Until He (Hashem) tested him (Avrohom) if he would fulfill His decrees.” It was not until Avrohom proved himself by unhesitatingly adhering to G-d’s command that G-d revealed Himself to him.

How can the Ohr HaChaim say that G-d wished to test Avrohom at that juncture before appearing to him if Avrohom had already proven himself when he allowed himself to be cast into the furnace of Nimrod rather than recant his faith?

If one carefully analyzes the words of the Ohr HaChaim the answer is apparent. Before G-d revealed himself to Avrohom, He did not test Avrohom’s faith. Rather, he was testing Avrohom’s devotion. The Gemara states, “Greater is the one who is commanded and performs than one who is not commanded and performs.[3]” In other words, it is greater for one to do as he is told than to go beyond what is expected of him. Our ego pines autonomy and abhors instruction. Ritva explains that for this reason, as soon as one is instructed or commanded to do something his evil inclination convinces him to defy it. The ability for one to swallow one’s pride in order to fulfill a command is greater than going beyond the letter of the law, which is performed voluntarily.

Although Avrohom’s allowing himself to be cast into the furnace was an incredible demonstration of his faith, he was not commanded to do so. Despite the fact that Avrohom had recognized his Creator, he was never obligated to sacrifice his life in order to sanctify His Name. However, when G-d commanded Avrohom to undertake an arduous journey which would guarantee to be physically and emotionally taxing on him, and he did so, that was a testament to Avrohom’s devotion. Not only did he believe in G-d but he was prepared to subjugate himself to His commands as well. It was only then that G-d appeared to Avrohom[4].

Throughout history there have been many unscrupulous individuals who have accepted to “walk into furnaces”. They have agreed to sacrifice their lives for their religion but, in so doing, they willfully and maliciously destroy the lives of their enemies. The Ohr HaChaim is teaching us that such sacrifice is inconsequential; it is not a proof of one’s complete devotion. The genuine test of subjugation is when one fulfills what he is commanded to do. Arab suicide bombers may fool themselves into thinking that they are dying for “the sake of G-d” but they are surely not heeding the Word of G-d!

When I was learning in a Yeshiva in Yerushalayim years ago, I began contemplating extra study sessions outside of the Yeshiva curriculum. When I asked one of my friends if he would be interested in learning with me late at night, he responded that, at that point, he was strictly trying to adhere to the Yeshiva’s schedule. He commented that he found it far easier to study after hours – even for lengthy periods of time - than to maintain the ordained Yeshiva schedule.

His words are very true. When I set up added study sessions, I felt like I was going beyond my duties; it made me feel scholarly and studious. But keeping to the regular schedule was a far greater challenge. Doing what one is supposed to does not earn accolades or generate the same inner feeling of piety, and therefore is a far greater challenge.

True holiness and the ability to appreciate sanctity comes from fulfilling one’s responsibilities. Eliezer and Yishmael were not privy to the Clouds of Glory for they were somewhat wanting in their level of holiness and spirituality. Avrohom and Yitzchok however, whose lives were devoted to G-d with every fiber of their being, were able to see the Spirit of G-d in all of its Majesty, Glory, and Splendor.

“Stay here with the donkey while I and the lad will go yonder”

“Until He tested him if he would fulfill His decrees.”

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[1] Bereishis 22:4-5

[2] Bereishis 12:7

[3] Kiddushin 31b

[4] Heard from Rabbi Alfred Cohn, Congregation Ohaiv Yisroel, Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Lech Lecha 5768

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