Going Against the Grain

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Toldos
Going Against the Grain

Scorners will always have something to poke fun at, regardless of whom they are speaking of. The scoffers in Biblical times were no different than the jokers of today.

There were people who claimed that Sarah was impregnated by King Avimelech. They argued that Sarah had lived with Avraham for many years and never conceived. But, shortly after Sarah was abducted by Avimelech, and spent just one night in his palace, Sarah conceived. To some people, there could be only be one explanation; Sarah was impregnated by Avimelech.

To refute such claims, God formed Yitzchak's facial features to look identical to Avraham's. When everybody saw that Yitzchak was a spitting image of Avraham, it testified to them, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Sarah was impregnated by Avraham.

This is why our parsha begins by stating, "Avraham begot Yitzchak." Although this information might seem superfluous, because we already know this from the previous parshios, nevertheless, it is mentioned again to teach us that God made Yitzchak look like Avraham's identical twin, to disprove the ridiculers (Rashi, Gn. 25:19, citing Aggadas Bereishis).

The Gevuros Aryeh explains where those mockers were coming from. He says that they recognized that Avraham's personality trait was chessed (kindness). They also realized that Yitzchak's character was din (harsh and strict justice).

The deriders were not mistaken about their assessment. The Zohar (Terumah, pg. 176a) verifies that this was true; Avraham was indeed a man of compassion, whereas Yitzchak was a man of strictness. Therefore, the jokesters questioned how a man of din such as Yitzchak could have come from a man of chessed such as Avraham.

Since those scorners recognized Avimelech's nature to be din, they concluded that Sarah must have impregnated by him. Therefore, Hashem turned Yitzchak's face into an Avraham look alike in order to repudiate such accusations.

However, the question still remains, how did a Yitzchak come from an Avraham? How did a man of din come from a person of chessed? There is a fundamental teaching within Chassidus that will shed light on this matter.

The Arvei Nachal (Rabbi Dovid Shlomo Eibenschutz, b. Ukraine 1755, d. Safed 1813) says that each and every person must serve God, not only with what comes natural to him, but also with what goes against his nature. This means that a person must be prepared to do mitzvos that go against his grain. Because, if one only does mitzvos that he agrees with, there is no reward for them, because maybe he does them because he wants to do them, not because it is God's will. Only by doing what comes unnaturally does a person refine his character. Only then will he be rewarded.

Basically, this means to say that a person should try to break his nature in the service of Hashem. We find another source to this idea in the Tzetel Katan (small note), written by the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, who says, "A person was only created to break his nature."

Considering this principal within Chassidic thought, a difficulty arises with respect to the Patriarchs. We often say that Avraham served God with chessed because he was a man of chessed. We frequently state that Yitzchak served Hashem with din because he was a man of din.

However, according to this rule, the Patriarchs merely did what came natural to them. Shouldn't they have served God with what went against their essence? Wouldn't that have proven that they were true soldiers of God, willing to do whatever it took in the line of duty?

The Ateres Yeshuah (Lech Lecha chap. 11) addresses this by saying that when the Zohar says that Avraham was a person of chessed, it does not mean that he was born with chessed. On the contrary, Avraham was, at first, a man of din. This is because his father Terach was a man of din. Terach was a very harsh person. Avraham inherited that quality in his DNA.

Moreover, Terach educated Avraham to be a person of din. Additionally, Avraham's birthplace, Charan (Gn. 11:31-32), was a place of din. This is hinted to in the name "Charan" which is related to the word "Charone", as in "Charone Af" (wrath). The people of Charan were angry people who dealt with each other with harshness. Charan was a society of intolerance and callousness.

The Arizal (Likkutei Torah, Lech Lecha) adds a hint which indicates that Charan was a place inhabited by mean people. God's name "Elokim" represents din. The numerical value of the Name "Elokim" is 86. When multiplied by 3 (for a "chazakah" - a presumed status quo), we get 258. The number 258 is a propitious one because that is the exact same numerical value as the word "Charan." This numerical equivalency teaches us that Charan was a place in which people were extremely rigid with each other. By growing up in that environment, Avraham was effected. Because his surroundings were tough, Avraham became a tough person.

Therefore, God commanded Avraham to leave that land, his birthplace, and his father's home (Gn. 12:1). This wasn't just a geographical command. On a deeper level, Hashem instructed Avraham to distance himself from the cruelty of Charan. God wanted Avraham to move away from the rigidness of his birthplace and of his father's house. Instead, Hashem wanted Avraham to serve Him by transforming himself into a man of compassion.

When the Zohar said that Avraham served God with chessed because he was a man of chessed, it does not mean that he was born with chessed. Quite the opposite. He was born a man of din. However, the Zohar means that Avraham served God from chessed because he broke his nature to become a man of chessed.

The Shvilei Pinchas finds a proof that Avraham was a tough type of person at first. Terach told Avraham that he would be going out of town for a while on a business trip. Terach told Avraham that he wanted him to manage his store which sold idols. Avraham wound up taking an axe and destroyed the idols (Bereishis Rabba, 38:13, Rav Chiya bar brei d'Rav Ada d'Yafo).

What type of person grabs an axe and breaks everything in sight? Think about it. Go ahead, take a sledgehammer and smash all the furniture and appliances in your home (Don't really do this! This is not the practical application!). Only tough people have the capacity of trashing a place in the way that Avraham did.

This was one of the first steps that Avraham took in serving God. When he began on this path, he served Hashem with what was familiar to him; harshness, rigidity, and a policy of no tolerance. Only later did Avraham develop himself into an accepting, patient, and compassionate type of person.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains why Avraham was called "Eisan" (Psa. 89:1, Baba Basra, chap. 1, "Hashutfin", pg. 15a, Rav). "Eisan" means strong and powerful. These are qualities that belong to a rough person. How did the merciful Avraham receive this title? Because, at his core, Avraham was tough as nails.

Now we can understand how a person of strictness like Yitzchak came from a person of compassion like Avraham. It is because Avraham was really a person of din. How fitting then that din came from din (Shvilei Pinchas).

However, this generates another question. Although Avraham transformed himself from chessed to din, Yitzchak was born with din and remained a din type of person his entire life. What type of role model is that? Apparently, Yitzchak took the path of least resistance. But, as one of our forefathers, Yitzchak should be the ultimate role-model, demonstrating the willingness and ability to break his character. Where do we find Yitzchak doing that?

The Shvilei Pinchas answers this question by saying that after Avraham altered himself into a compassionate person, the transformation was so thorough that he created a gene of compassion within himself which resulted in the birth of a kind and compassionate Yitzchak. Yitzchak inherited Avraham's kindness. Yitzchak was also educated in the ways of loving kindness by Avraham. The environment within which Yitzchak was born and raised was one of acceptance and patience.

This is why his name was Yitzchak (laughter). How did a strict and serious man of din like Yitzchak wind up with a name like laughter and softness? When you think of a strict person, the image of a person who hardly smiles surfaces. Din people certainly don't laugh very much. Apparently, laughter belongs to a person who is chilled and relaxed. What does laughter have to do with Yitzchak? It is because Yitzchak actually began as a compassionate person.

We could suggest an example which supports this. It says that Yitzchak was "mitzachek" (playing) with his wife Rivka. This teaches us that Yitzchak naturally was a playful type of person.

Only later, when Yitzchak matured, did he realize that in order to be a true servant of God, one must break what comes naturally. This is when Yitzchak began to forge a new path; serving God from a place of strictness. Like Avraham, Yitzchak was also a role-model par-excellence for the Jewish people to emulate.

God made Yitzchak look like a spitting image of Avraham in order to make a statement; just like Avraham broke his character from din to chessed, so did Yitzchak break his character from chessed to din.

We find this quality of breaking oneself to do God's will by Ya'akov as well. Ya'akov's character is described as tiferes (beauty; splendor). The beauty of tiferes is that it is a synthesis of both chessed and din. Ya'akov served God with both qualities, even though they are diametrically opposed. If you want to argue that at the core, Ya'akov was a chessed man, then when he would execute an act of cruelty in the service of God, he broke himself. If you wish to argue that at the core Ya'akov was a man of din, then whenever he would perform an act of chessed, he broke his essence. Either way, Ya'akov also lived up to this expectation.

However, all of this is going to be challenged by a Zohar (Vayeira, pg. 119b). Regarding the Akeidah (binding of Yitzchak), the verse says, "And God tested Avraham" (Gn. 22:1). The Zohar asks why the verse only mentions that it was a test for Avraham. True, it was difficult for Avraham to offer a loved son as a human sacrifice. However, it was also hard for Yitzchak to stretch out his neck in order to be slaughtered in the sanctification of God's Name. Apparently, the verse should have said that God tested Avraham AND Yitzchak.

The Zohar answers this question by saying that Avraham was a man of chessed through and through. But, at the Akeidah, Avraham was being asked to do an act of cruelty. This went against everything that Avraham stood for. It was very difficult for him to do. Therefore, the verse only says that it was a test for Avraham.

However, Yitzchak was a man of din. Being slaughtered to sanctify God's Name is right up Yitzchak's alley. When faced with dying Al Kiddush Hashem, a truly tough person's attitude is, "Go ahead, shoot, you can force me to...!" Therefore, it was not such a huge test for Yitzchak, therefore, the verse does not mention him.

Considering what we learned above, this Zohar is difficult to understand. Avraham was actually a man of din. Apparently, the Akeidah should not have been such a test for him. If anything, the verse should have said that the Akeidah was a test for Yitzchak because Yitzchak was actually a man of chessed. This may just be the first time that Yitzchak was being asked to do an act of din.

The Yitav Panim (Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Teitelbaum, 1808-1883, Austria-Hungary, the grandfather of Reb Yoel Teitelbaum, the first Satmar Rebbe) reconciles this difficulty by saying that every time Avraham performed an act of chessed, it was clear that he was doing God's will because it went against his natural self. However, when Avraham executed an act of din, it is not clear that it was done only in the line of duty. Maybe he enjoyed it. Maybe he liked a good blood bath once in a while.

It is very easy for a person to slip back into his old habits and do them because he enjoys them; not because it is the will of God. However, Avraham did go back to his past and pulled out the streak of harshness that still existed within him, but he only acted with cruelty because God asked him to do so.

This was Avraham's new test. After living a life of breaking his natural tendencies for God, he had to go back to the dark side of his personality and utilize even that in the service of Hashem. Doing so may even be harder than breaking the personality trait to begin with. This is why the verse only mentions that it was a test for Avraham; because it was even harder for him than it was for Yitzchak.

To summarize, there are two paths in the service of God. The first is to break our characters to serve Him. The second is to go back to our old selves and harness those traits, directing them to serve Hashem.

These two paths to God will help us understand the following Midrash (Bereishis Rabba, 55:7). It says that the expression "Lech Lecha" (go for yourself) appears twice in the Torah. The first time was when Hashem told Avraham to "Lech Lecha" from your land to Israel (Gn. 12:1). The second time was when Hashem told Avraham to "Lech Lecha" to Mount Moriah and offer Yitzchak up as a sacrifice (Gn. 22:2). The Midrash begins by saying that it does not know which mitzvah was cherished by God more.

The Shvilei Pinchas explains the Midrash's doubt. It is because the two "Lech Lechas" represent the two approaches of serving God.

The first "Lech Lecha" was about leaving Terach's home and Charan by abandoning harshness and adopting a new trait of compassion.

The second "Lech Lecha" was about going back to that place of harshness on condition that it be used only in line of service to God.

The Midrash concludes that the second one is even greater than the first one because it's even harder to channel old habits properly than to break them to begin with.

We do not only find Avraham tapping back into his toughness by the Akeida. When it came time to rescue Lot from the four kingdoms that had captured him, Avraham stood up to them and defeated them, almost single handedly. What type of person does it take to be able to achieve this? Only a hard-hitting person can accomplish a feat like that. Avraham was not the type of person you would want to mess around with (Yitav Lev, same author as the Yitav Panim above).

After that victory, Hashem says to Avraham, "Don't worry, your reward is great." By inference we could deduce that Avraham must have been afraid that he was not going to be rewarded for that battle. He may have even been concerned that he was going to be punished for it.

This seems odd. Avraham went to do a mitzvah by rescuing his nephew/brother-in-law Lot. Moreover, by freeing Lot, Avraham was involved in the mitzvah of saving Moshiach! This is because Lot had a son named Moav, who fathered the Moabite nation. Ruth was a descendant from Moav. Ruth converted to Judaism, married Boaz, and became the great grandmother of King David which began the Davidic dynasty which culminates with Moshiach. Why would Avraham be concerned that he was not going to be rewarded for those incredible mitzvos? How could Avraham possibly entertain the thought that he was going to be punished for them?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that it is because Avraham was concerned that his getting involved in toughness was because he liked it, not because it was a mitzvah. Maybe he simply enjoys a good blood bath occasionally. If that was his motivation, it would hardly be a mitzvah. It would be sinful.

Therefore, Hashem calmed Avraham down. Basically, God said, "Don't worry, I know that you waged war altruistically. I know this because you have already demonstrated that you are willing to break your nature for Me. Therefore, even when you do things that come easier, I know that they are done for Me and not for some other ulterior motive. I have already searched the deep recesses of your heart and I know that you had the right motives."

Perhaps we could add another instance where Avraham drew from his core essence of harshness to do God's will. Sarah said to Avraham that she witnessed Yishmael playing around with Yitzchak in a dangerous way. Sarah said that Yishmael must go because Yishmael and Yitzchak will never be able to live together side by side.

This disturbed Avraham greatly. By then, Avraham had already become such an accepting person. Avraham was all about love and peace. Avraham wanted to be patient with Yishmael. Maybe we can talk and work things out. Maybe we can find a way for us to coexist.

After finally falling asleep that night, Hashem appeared to Avraham in a prophetic dream and said, "Listen to the voice of your wife Sarah. Yishmael and Yitzchak will never be able to live together. But, let me clarify. The block to peace is not Yitzchak. As far as Yitzchak is concerned, he wants nothing more than peace. Young Yitzchak is all about love and peace. The preventative of peace is coming from Yishmael. He will never be satisfied until Yitzchak is completely annihilated."

Upon wakening, Avraham had realized that he had been mistaken. It is alright to be open minded, but not to the point where your brains fall out! Once he understood that this was the will of God, at the drop of a dime, he turned on Hagar and Yishmael and said, "Get out of my house! Get out of my country!" Avraham not only placed a loaf of bread and a canteen of water on Hagar's shoulders, but he also placed Yishmael on her shoulders.

Why couldn't Yishmael walk on his own? He was a strong man. What was he, a mama's boy? The answer is that Yishmael had such a high fever that he couldn't even walk. One would think that Avraham should at least wait a few days until the boy recovers and then kick him out. What's all the rush about? We see from here that once the will of God becomes clear, action must be executed immediately. Every moment that Yishmael resides with Yitzchak, Yitzchak's spiritual and physical life is in danger (Rashi Gn. 21:14, Tanchumah Ex. #1; Bereishis Rabba 53:13).

When the situation called for it, the Avraham, who wouldn't even hurt a fly, kicked his wife and son right out of the house. Of course, Avraham would have preferred that Yishmael do teshuva (repentance), but the reality was that Yishmael was dangerous. Yishmael had to be expelled. When needed, Avraham drew from his wellspring of strength, roughness, and even callousness, when that was what God expected him to do.

This teaching is very relevant to us all. Each and every one of us must ask ourselves from time to time, "When will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov?" (Tanna Dbei Eliyahu Rabba 25). Therefore, we all have a responsibility to follow in their paths by first breaking our natural characteristics in the service of God, and then go back to our old selves and channel the old habits toward Divine service as well.

For example, let's say somebody got us angry. The anger came naturally. The first path to serving God is to break that anger and turn it into love for that very person. How can we achieve this? First try to imagine when that person was a cute baby. This can paint the person in a more favorable light. Then, try to think of at least one good thing that that person did. This association can cause us to think differently about him. Finally, try to think about that person's past. Maybe he was abused or had other challenges that made him the way he is. Now I'm beginning to feel bad for being angry to begin with. Slowly we can turn anger into having positive feelings for that person.

Another example. Let's say that a person was struck with a lustful passion for promiscuity. That love came naturally. We must try to break that love by turning it into anger. How are we supposed to accomplish that? We have to think about how this impulse is only going to bring us trouble, punishment, and purgatory. Imagining this will get us angry at the urge. We have just turned love into holy hatred in the service of God.

Once we have become proficient in breaking our middos (characters), then we must go back to our old behaviors and channel them to God. For example, if somebody gets us angry, it came naturally. Once we are angry, we must channel it towards Divine service. Let's take that anger and direct it at the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) who is trying to kill us. This is using anger in the context of a mitzvah.

Or, if we start to feel an impulse of love for a sin, let us direct that love towards something positive. For example, start thinking about how much we love God. After all, Hashem loves us so much. Look at the things that Hashem has given us. Let us think about how much we love the Torah, the Jewish people, Eretz Yisrael, and all the mitzvos for that matter.

These exercises will help refine our characters even more, developing ourselves into true soldiers of Hashem.

So, may we all be blessed to reach the level of our Avos by cultivating the Eitan (strength) to serve God against our nature, and then be capable of directing our natural tendencies towards God as well, thus passing all of our tests in life, and subsequently cause all "Charon af" to be lifted from the world.