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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Chayei Sarah 5776 "Character Analysis"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Stam Torah is lovingly dedicated to the memory of my Zaydei, Rav Yaakov Meir Kohn zt’l, R’ Yaakov Meir ben R’ Yosef Yitzchok, whose yahrtzeit is Monday, 27 MarCheshvan.

Rabbi Yossi Lieber[1] related that soon after the passing of his father he was invited to speak at the Hebrew Academy of Philadelphia. He began his speech by saying that his recently widowed mother was having a hard time coping with her husband’s recent passing. He therefore requested that if anyone enjoyed his speech and was inspired by his words, instead of telling him they should be so kind to call his mother and tell her. He then announced her home phone number and began his speech.

The following day Rabbi Lieber’s mother mentioned to him that the evening prior she had received a phone call from someone who had heard his speech. The caller told her how much he had enjoyed her son’s lecture and how proud she should be.

After she thanked him for the call she asked him his name. He replied, “Shmuel Kaminetsky[2]”.

Avrohom dispatched his trusted servant Eliezer with the sublime task of seeking a worthy wife for Yitzchok. The Torah relates, in punctilious detail, all of the events that transpired with Eliezer along his journey.

When Eliezer met Rivka he was immediately overwhelmed by her sterling character and he was convinced that she was destined to become Yitzchok’s wife. Rivka led Eliezer to her home where he sat together with her wicked father Besuel and duplicitous brother Lavan.

The Torah then records Eliezer’s narrative to Rivka’s family, which is an almost verbatim account of the events that the Torah detailed previously.

Every letter in the Torah has meaning and significance. It is therefore surprising that the Torah repeats Eliezer’s account of the events that the Torah has already recorded. To explain the unusual prolix, Rashi quotes the Medrash: “Rabbi Acha said: יפה שיחתן של עבדי אבות לפני המקום מתורתן של בנים -The conversations of the servants of the patriarchs were more beautiful before G-d than the Torah of the children, for the narrative of Eliezer is mentioned and repeated in the Torah, while many vital concepts of the Torah are merely alluded to.”

In other words, there are many important laws that the Talmud derives from analytical expositions and detailed expounding from a superfluous letter in the Torah. The Torah is exact in its wording and thus every extra letter contains myriad lessons and central laws. The fact that the Torah repeats Eliezer’s narrative in such vivid detail symbolizes how dear and beloved the patriarchs were.

Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt’l once quipped, "תורה קען מען דרשינן אבער מדות דארף מין אויס לערנן" “We can expound in regards to Torah (i.e. laws) but character traits must be taught”.

Laws are black on white and rigid. Although it is an arduous task to analyze and understand a law, once one has gained mastery over that law he can offer a halachic ruling based on that knowledge.

The development of character traits and proper conduct however, is altogether different. One must always be studying, analyzing, contemplating, and pondering how to act in any given situation. What is proper behavior in one situation may be egregiously inappropriate in another situation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to study and analyze the behaviors of our patriarchs and matriarchs so we can understand how they approached each situation. Character traits must be taught, especially by example so that they can be developed by osmosis.

One day the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz zt’l, had completed delivering his daily in-depth Talmudic shiur, when he met an old friend from Europe. After conversing for a few moments, Rabbi Shmuelevitz invited him to join him at his home for lunch.

When they arrived at his home, Rabbi Shmuelevitz approached his wife, Rebbitzin Chana Miriam, and told her that they had a guest. She immediately set down an extra place and served both of them a bowl of soup. Rabbi Shmuelevitz finished his soup very quickly (as he was wont to do) and immediately asked his wife for another portion. He then finished his second bowl before his guest had completed his first bowl. The guest was shocked when the Rosh Yeshiva asked for a third bowl, and then a fourth bowl.

When the Rebbitzin had left the room the guest asked Rabbi Shmuelevitz to explain his behavior, which seemed unbecoming for a respected Torah leader. Rabbi Shmuelevitz replied, “You must understand that the Rebbitzin’s soup is her ‘shiur klali’[3]. When I expend time to prepare a shiur, and then after I deliver the shiur someone approaches me and asks me to repeat some of the points that I said and challenges my approach, it makes me feel accomplished and gives me a feeling of inner joy. If a second student comes to ask another question I feel even better.

“Think about the “shiur” that my wife prepared, and how much effort it took on her part. For the last few hours she was busy preparing it so that I could enjoy it when I came home. When I asked her for another portion, and then a third portion, and a fourth portion, it gave her that same feeling of accomplishment and joy.”

When the Torah records that Avrohom dispatched Eliezer, he is not mentioned by name. In fact, Eliezer’s name is not mentioned once throughout the entire narrative, but is referred to merely as, ‘the slave’

Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt’l explained that Eliezer is the symbol of ultimate servitude and subjugation to a master. Eliezer devoted every fiber of his being to the fulfillment of Avrohom’s every request, and to a great extent, Eliezer forfeited his own identity and singularity. He is therefore not identified by name because he reached such a level of devotion that his whole identity was inextricably bound with his service to Avrohom. In fact by being called the servant of Avrohom, he was indeed essentially referred to by name.

In a Jewish court a servant cannot serve as a witness. A witness must be able to testify about what he witnessed with an unbiased perspective. A servant however, sees everything through the lens of his obedience to his master, and therefore his testimony is unacceptable.

Eliezer symbolizes the level of devotion and servitude we must have towards G-d. Our names must be secondary to our true identity, as the loyal adherents to the commandments of G-d and His Torah.

If the conversations of the servants of the patriarchs are replete with timeless lessons, how much more so are the actions of the patriarchs themselves. It is for that reason that the Torah does not mince words when relating the lessons of the patriarchs. Every detail mentioned must be analyzed and understood, for the lessons to be gleaned are endless.

This idea is not only true about the patriarchs and matriarchs themselves, but about all of our righteous forbearers. A Torah leader is not merely one who has a scholarly breadth of Torah knowledge. He/she must also possess sterling character and uncanny sensitivity towards others.

At times those who were close with great Torah leaders will most nostalgically recall their glowing countenance and sensitivity, and the care and sensitivity that the scholar exuded toward everyone he encountered.

Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt’l was walking down the street in Flatbush one day when a secular looking man approached him. The man asked Rabbi Pam if he recognized him and Rabbi Pam admitted that he didn’t. The man continued, “You were my fifth grade Rebbe many decades ago. One day you caught me cheating on a test[4]. You walked over to me and whispered in my ear, “If you need help, I can help you”. Then you walked away.”

We can probably assume that this individual, who had tragically left the path of Torah, did not remember much of the Torah that Rabbi Pam had taught him. But he remembered the Rebbe’s sensitivity and patience.

In a similar vein, a secular Jew who lived on the same floor as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l in his apartment on the Lower East Side, was once asked what he remembered about Rabbi Feinstein. He replied that that whenever he would see Rabbi Feinstein walking down the street in the city and children would be playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, Rabbi Feinstein would wait until the child finished his turn before he proceeded walking.

One can, and must, study laws in order to know how to conduct himself. But one who has the good fortunate of being close with a righteous person will learn the laws from watching the conduct of the righteous person. By watching and analyzing his every act he will see the words of the Shulchan Aruch[5] come to life. Our patriarchs and forbearers were living examples and we must follow their lead.

“And he said, ‘I am the servant of Avrohom’”

“Character traits must be taught”

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[1] Rabbi Leiber was the administrator of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah for some time when I was a student at the yeshiva.

[2] Rabbi Shmuel Kamintesky is the legendary Philadelphia Rosh yeshiva and one of the most respected Torah leaders in the world today.

[3] Shiur Klali refers to an encompassing Talmudic lecture, which includes discussion involving many Talmudic opinions and intense Talmudic dialogue. Many Roshei Yeshiva, (including Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz), deliver a shiur klali on a regular basis.

[4] To Rabbi Pam cheating or lying was an anathema.

[5] The Code of Jewish Law

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