By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
In the opening posuk of this week’s parsha, Mamrei achieves enduring relevance through his inclusion in one of the most fundamental mitzvos. Hashem appeared in his area upon visiting Avrohom Avinu following his milah.
The posuk relates that the visit took place in Eilonei Mamrei. Rashi explains that Avrohom consulted with Mamrei after he was commanded to perform the milah, and thus Hashem revealed Himself to Avrohom in Mamrei’s property.
What did Avrohom ask Mamrei? Hashem appeared to Avrohom (Bereishis 17), creating a covenant with him and promising all sorts of blessings if he would perform the circumcision. If he would, Hashem promised, he and his children would take ownership of the Holy Land and Avrohom would be an “av hamon goyim.”
Avrohom, the premier paragon of loyalty and devotion, certainly couldn’t have been asking advice whether to perform the first mitzvah he was told to do by the Ribbono Shel Olam, whose existence he had discovered. What was the discussion about?
Perhaps we can understand the conversation with Mamrei by analyzing that while we refer to milah as a bris, essentially they are two separate things. Hashem created a bris – covenant – with Avrohom, telling him that if he would perform milah he would be a father to the nations. Avrohom took that as a mandate.
We know that he took his mission of spreading belief in Hashem seriously. He and his wife, Sarah, reached out to multitudes, opening their tent to all and spreading goodness in the world.
Avrohom Avinu was the first tzaddik who belonged to the people. He lived on a higher plane, yet there burned within him a sense of mission to reach as many people as possible. Having received the mitzvah of milah, he wanted to ascertain what would be the best way to go about performing it in a fashion that would enable him to spread Hashem’s message throughout the world, in accordance with his mandate in the bris of being an av hamon goyim.
Avrohom had no doubt that he would perform the mitzvah, but he wanted to ensure that people could understand and appreciate what he was doing.
Because he wished to connect with the people on a level they could comprehend and in a language they could understand, he spoke about the mitzvah with Mamrei to gauge how to maximize the opportunity and best reach the hearts and minds of the people all around him.
Hashem’s brachos were for the future and thus Avrohom was focused on the future. He was looking to impact the future and wanted to find the best way. His concerns weren’t about that very moment, but about the many subsequent moments and opportunities.
Gedolim and mashpiim throughout the generations embodied this concept. Although they were lofty individuals, they did not lose sight of their responsibility to reach the people. They endeavored to reach and teach them and their children and bring them closer to the Shechinah.
Last week was the 81st yahrtzeit of the Lubliner rov and rosh yeshiva, Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l. During his visit to America in the 1920s, Rav Shapiro’s hosts noticed that before he left the house to deliver speeches and shiurim, he would stand in front of a mirror and brush his beard.
The rov explained that he assumed that the European immigrants would bring their children to see him. He knew that they wouldn’t be able to understand the ideas he expressed during his speech. Thus, his only chance to make an impression on the American youth would be via his appearance. He didn’t want to squander that opportunity. If he would look prestigious and dignified, perhaps that alone would break the language barrier and impact them in a memorable fashion. They would remain with a positive view of European rabbonim and authentic Yiddishkeit instead of viewing Rav Shapiro as a greenhorn.
His mandate was to reach people and influence them. His genius in accomplishing his goal led him to share and popularize the concept of Daf Yomi, opening up Shas to the masses. Decades later, the idea gains adherents and the world becomes a better and more holy place daily because of him and his foresight.
Many wonder about the brocha that Hashem gave Avrohom. “Va’agadlah shemecha,” Hashem told Avrohom that if he would follow Hashem’s instruction and leave his home for points unknown, his reputation would spread, despite the anonymity that is often synonymous with travel. Are we to assume that Avrohom Avinu was concerned about his name being made great? Why would he care about public relations and his proverbial poll numbers? Why was that egoistic prophecy a motivator for Avrohom?
The answer might well be that in light of his responsibility to his mission, he understood that his success would be proportionate to how he was perceived. If his name and reputation would be enhanced, he would be able to reach more people and accomplish even more. Thus, Hashem told him not to fear moving to a new place, because his ability to accomplish would be enhanced, not diminished.
Avrohom Avinu wasn’t content with serving Hashem himself. He wanted to cause others to follow his example, and for that he required the attention and respect of the public.
My grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l, was a rov in Lita for many years before escaping to this country in 1938. He went on to experience a sterling career in the rabbonus in Detroit. By the time he was in his high eighties, most of the people in his shul were American-born English speakers. He noticed that his Yiddish speeches were not reaching them. So, he began speaking in English. It was far from perfect and it was heavily accented, but his words emanated from his great heart and neshomah. His mission of speaking to Yidden in a way that would touch and affect them continued.
One of the first goals that my rebbi, Rav Mendel Kaplan zt”l, set for himself after he arrived in America was to learn English. He made a deal with his talmidim in Chicago when he first came. “You will teach me to read the paper and I will teach you how to understand it.” They told him what was written in the lines and he explained to them what was between the lines. He learned how to read and speak English, while they learned a whole new appreciation for what was going on in the world. They began to respect and admire him as he opened their eyes and minds, charting a path to their souls. They were in his class for one year, but he changed them for life.
For many years after that first one, Rav Mendel enlightened and enlivened young minds, instilling in them an appreciation for what is important and what isn’t and how to tell them apart. His mission was to teach Torah and inspire greatness. All who merited being in his shiur room are eternally grateful for the opportunity.
Everyone knew that you could not approach Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l, whose yahrtzeit is this coming week, to discuss anything while he prepared for his weekly Tuesday shiur kloli. Although he was well-versed in the sugya and the topics he covered in the shiur, he exerted himself to the greatest extent possible in order to transmit Torah to the next generation as best as he could.
Monday night, he would barely sleep. He would walk back and forth in his room, reviewing and preparing, making sure that everything fit and was correct. He would awaken early Tuesday morning and daven Shacharis. He would go to the mikvah, recite Tehillim and the tefillah of Rav Nechunya ben Hakanah, and then painstakingly walk to his shtender and begin the shiur, a culmination of much effort.
Rav Shach would stand there and begin speaking, reviewing the Gemara, Rishonim and Acharonim, laying the groundwork for his kushyos and tirutzim that would follow. He posed questions, and the talmidim, many decades his junior, would pounce on what he said. A lively give-and-take ensued. He was the happiest man alive as he engaged his talmidim in rischa de’Oraisa. His entire being was involved in passing the Torah on to future generations. As the talmidim became more engaged in the discussion, he knew that he had succeeded for that day in bringing the world closer to the time of “umalah ha’aretz dei’ah es Hashem kamayim layom mechasim.”
Avrohom Avinu had the task of illuminating the world. Rav Meir Shapiro, Rav Shach, Rav Mendel Kaplan and Rav Leizer Levin were gedolei Torah who were charged with transmitting the devar Hashem to the younger generation.
It would be a grave mistake to believe that their example doesn’t obligate us. These days, any visible Jew who walks the street has to play that role and be aware of his role. We must always be neat, clean and presentable; speak and communicate clearly and finely. There is nothing cool about being a shloomp, and mumbling and speaking unclearly are not attributes we strive for.
Each of us, in our homes, with our spouses and our children, and with our friends, students and neighbors, has a similar responsibility. Avrohom Avinu was a father to his generation, to those who followed, and to all of us. In the parsha, he teaches us what it means to be an effective father, teacher, leader and rebbi. By speaking to Mamrei and others, he taught what it means to endeavor to understand and appreciate his audience, connecting with them in order to influence the present and the future.
The parsha ends with Avrohom Avinu being challenged with the ultimate nisayon of the Akeidah. No doubt, being asked to offer his beloved son as a sacrifice was something incredibly difficult, but if Avrohom heard the directive from Hashem, how could he have failed to comply? Additionally, throughout the millennia, even seemingly simple Jews have had to pay the ultimate sacrifice. Avrohom may have been the first, but he was the first of millions, so why is his action so exalted.
Many answers have been given over the ages. Some explained that it was Avrohom who enabled his progeny to give up their lives al kiddush Hashem and to watch others do so and still maintain their faith.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l explained that what was outstanding about the nisayon of the Akeidah was that it seemed to run counter to Avrohom’s essence. He and Sarah had given up everything so that they might influence others. His entire life was dedicated to perpetuating the fact of Hashem’s existence. If he were to lose his son Yitzchok, that would be the end of his hopes for the future. The message would die with him. The nisayon was thus singular.
His whole life was dedicated to the future. Here he was challenged to give up his future and, with it, his past and present.
A hint to this answer is given by Chazal, who derive from the Torah’s depiction of the Akeidah that akum are compared to donkeys. The posuk (Bereishis 22) states that Hashem told Avrohom to offer up his only son, whom he dearly loved. The posuk says that Hashem told him to head towards Har Hamoriah, to the mountain that He would show him. Avrohom awoke early the next day, saddled his donkey, and set forth together with Yitzchok and two assistants. On the third day, “vayar es hamakom meirachok,” Avrohom saw the place from a distance. He told his assistants to stay behind with the donkey and went ahead with Yitzchok.
The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 56) states that Avrohom saw a cloud hovering over the mountain. He asked Yitzchok what he saw. Yitzchok related that he had witnessed the same phenomenon as his father. He asked his assistants what they saw and they said that they had seen nothing. Avrohom said to them, “The donkey doesn’t see anything and you don’t see anything. Stay behind with the donkey.”
What was their sin that they are compared to donkeys? Did their inability to see a cloud off in the distance diminish them as people?
Avrohom and Chazal are teaching us is to always look to the future. Avrohom saw the cloud because he was focused on looking ahead and the future. The entire beings of Avrohom and Yitzchok were wrapped up in fulfilling Hashem’s mission. They were thus able to perceive the cloud that hovered in the distance. The donkey concentrates on its next step, never looking ahead and contemplating what is in store.
People who don’t look ahead and don’t look to the future are consumed with the present. They take one step at a time, like donkeys. They are beings with the gift of speech, but they won’t accomplish much with their lives. If you have a mission in life, if you want to follow Hashem’s word, if you seek eternity, then you are an “ish.” Otherwise, you are a chamor.
We must constantly look to the future, planning and plotting the way forward to eternity, for ourselves and our family and those who fall under our influence. We have to continually seek to improve ourselves and inspire others. As the eras evolve, as styles change, as new languages crop up, and as we are confronted by new challenges, we must find a way to remain consistent with Hashem’s word while continuing to influence others, using jargon that they can understand.
We are charged with speaking in a way that people comprehend. If people don’t know what we are saying, and if we lose touch with our audience, then we have failed. It is a constant challenge to find the right words and convey the proper nuances. Our daily nisayon is to remain relevant.
May Hashem give us the wisdom and patience to be heard, understood and have a lasting impact.