November 21st, 2015
Kislev 9th 5776
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Progressing Step By Step In The Service Of G-D
by Rabbi David Hanania Pinto
It is written, “And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward” (Genesis 28:12). Concerning this subject, the commentators say that the ladder symbolizes man, who is placed on earth, standing on his own two feet. By the strength that he acquires, he can reach the heights of heaven.
Let us explain this concept. If the Torah wants to make us understand that man, well attached to the earth both by his physical and terrestrial nature, is capable of soaring and acquiring a level of spirituality akin to that of the angels, why does it tell us this by showing Jacob a ladder? Why not show him that he himself can make it to the heavens? What is the exact nature of the ladder?
It should be noted that a ladder is made of rungs that allow one to ascend – or to descend – which would be impossible without these steps. This means that to attain these heights, a man is forced to put himself in danger and to take it upon himself to make an effort to climb, for the service of G-d is a progressive ascent. The one who climbs the rungs gets tired and becomes short of breath. He groans as much for the effort that he has to put in so as to continuing climbing, as for the time that it takes before reaching the goal (which is contrary to climbing down, which requires little effort or time). All this is because the goal that he aspires to – the top of the ladder – is still far away. In the same way, the one who wants to progress and attain spiritual goals should advance upwards with his own strength, progressively, and elevate himself in stages. It is precisely by a progressive elevation on the ladder of perfection that one can make it to the top. We find the following instruction several times in the Talmud: “Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair said, ‘Torah leads to prudence, prudence leads to diligence, diligence leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to separateness, separateness leads to purity, purity leads to piety, piety leads to humility, humility leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to holiness, holiness leads to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead. And piety is the greatest quality of all’ ” (Shekalim 6a). In books of ethics, this teaching is called “The Ladder of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair,” and it serves as the foundation for Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzato’s book Messilat Yesharim, concerning which the Vilna Gaon said that there was not one superfluous word to be found therein.
The word סלם (ladder) has a numerical value of 130, which points to the 130 years that Adam separated himself from his wife Eve (Eruvin 18b) after having eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge. Adam wanted to separate himself from material things, so much was he mortified after having brought death into the world. This separation allowed him to be called “pious” (Eruvin 18b; Zohar III:76b). This teaches us that to attain the degree of piety which is the summit of the ladder (since piety is the greatest of qualities on Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair’s ladder), a man should separate himself as much as possible from the desires of this world in order to make them meaningless to him. In this way, he will be able to elevate himself ever more in the rungs of sanctification, and after having successfully climbed every rung that leads to piety, he will reach the height of perfection.
Jacob’s ladder – and its secret – represents a progressive march, a step-by-step climb that allows one to attain ever greater heights, until reaching the virtue of piety and the resurrection of the dead.
We should also mention that the verse which states, “and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12) teaches us that abandoning the lures and temptations of this world is so difficult that, despite himself, man “ascends and descends” – there are rises and there are falls. But a man should not panic, nor should he get discouraged, for it is written right afterwards, “the L-RD was standing over him” (v.13). If a man understands that G-d is standing above him, that He is there to support him despite his falls (failures that are due to the fact that man is “on the earth,” attached to material and earthly things), he will realize that G-d will always be there to help him climb to ever higher levels and to make it to the highest rungs, allowing him to reach the very heavens.
Nevertheless, a man risks becoming discouraged and telling himself, “How is it possible that a being such as myself – a creature of flesh and blood, dust and ashes, and sunk in materialism – can climb and attain the level of an angel in heaven?” Yet this thought should not bother him or create impediments in his mind. He should realize that G-d loves him and will not abandon him, but that He demands ever more effort from him. It is clear that this is not an easy thing to achieve because the evil inclination stands on the lookout and “everyday tries to kill the righteous man” (Kiddushin 30b). The evil inclination tries to catch man in the net that it throws for him, and to make him fall to the lowest levels. A man should guard himself from these dangers, knowing that G-d watches over him and calls him to serve and honor Him with all his heart.
In fact, we see that Jacob elevated himself progressively, even above the angels, as during the fight with Esau’s ministering angel (Chullin 91a). He defeated the latter and said to him, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:27), and the angel could not leave without Jacob’s permission: “He said to him, ‘let me go’, and the one who sends is greater than the one who is sent” (Bereshith Rabba 78:2). Furthermore it is written, “You fought against the heavenly powers and you defeated them; you fought against the earthly powers and you defeated them. The heavenly powers refer to the Esau’s angel” (ibid. 78:6).
Is seems necessary for us to read the passage which states, “And you shall spread to the west and to the east, and to the north and to the south” (Genesis 28:14), which Rashi explains as: “ ‘And you shall spread’ – you shall be powerful,” powerful in your service of G-d. Rabbi Chiya explains the verse that states, “Bless the L-RD, O His angels; the strong warriors who do his bidding” (Psalms 103:20) as follows: “ ‘His angels’ are those upright men of the earth who are, in the eyes of G-d, like heavenly beings, for they heroically overcome their desires, as a courageous man overcomes his enemies … and henceforth who can stand by their side, other than those who are sanctified, and whom the Divine Presence never leaves?” (Zohar 190a, 108).
“The entire world receives its sustenance because of righteous men” (Zohar III:216a). When Israel walks in the ways of Torah and “your people will all be righteous” (Isaiah 60:21), all the prosperity they receive from on high is rightfully theirs, and the nations of the world also rejoice, thanks to Israel (Zohar III:147b). In such a case, the Children of Israel, who as we know have the status of the “sons of the King” (Shabbat 67a), are like the King himself, who opens the way (Pesachim 110b), going from the front and uniting everything that they undertake, for everything was created for them and their merit. This allows us to understand what G-d told Jacob: “And you shall spread” (Genesis 28:14) – you will have the strength to rise and to elevate yourself on the ladder of perfection, and this will allow you to receive that which was promised to you; “And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (ibid.) – all the peoples will be blessed and rejoice in the prosperity that stems from you.
It would be disastrous if the situation were otherwise, if the Jewish did not follow the ways of Torah and justice, for then the nations of the world would receive all the good destined for Israel. Thanks to upright behavior, we can dominate our own desires as much as we can dominate our enemies, and we can elevate ourselves on the ladder of perfection until we reach the virtue of piety and the resurrection. As it is written, “Who is the pious man? The one who shows himself to be pious towards his Creator” (Zohar Mishpatim 114b; Pinchas 222b). G-d stands by his side and watches over him, and He helps him to climb the rungs and to elevate himself ever higher.
The Moral of the Story
From the Maggid of Dubno
“[Jacob said] ‘And G-d has taken away the cattle of your father, and has given them to me.’ … [Rachel and Leah answered] ‘For all the riches which G-d has taken away from our father, it is ours and our children’s’ ” (Genesis 31:9,16).
It must be understood why Jacob’s riches are described as “taken away” (Hebrew הציל ; lit. “to save”, “to rescue”). Jacob’s response to Laban should also be noted: “What is my transgression, what is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? … These twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and your she-goats have not miscarried. … That which was mangled, I did not bring to you; I used to bear the loss of it. … I was by day consumed by heat, and frost by night. … G-d has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, and He decided last night” (Genesis 31:36-42). This response seems to want to awaken in Laban a realization and a cognizance capable of making him change and want to draw Jacob closer to him, in a way so as not to suffer the losses mentioned. As Laban himself says, “I have learned by divination that the L-RD has blessed me on account of you” (Genesis 30:27). Now this was certainly not Jacob’s intention! Moreover, we are not exactly sure where the criticism lay when Jacob stated, “G-d has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, and He decided last night” (ibid. 31:42). But what did he prove? We are forced to conclude that Jacob did not act disloyally (“And Jacob took for himself rods of fresh poplar, and of the almond and chestnut tree” [ibid. 30:37]), especially since Hashem approved of his actions (“And an angel of G-d said to me … ‘I have seen all that Laban is doing to you’ ” [ibid. 31:11,12]). All this demands an explanation.
I believe that all these verses together find their explanation in the following Midrash: “ ‘I used to bear the loss of it’ [Genesis 31:39] – I sinned against the lion, for the Holy One, blessed be He, had decreed that every day the lion should devoir one of the animals from Laban’s flock. But perhaps another shepherd would have managed to save them. It is written, ‘For thus said the L-RD to me: Just as a lion or a lion cub roars over his prey and a gathering of shepherds assembles against it, it is not frightened by their voice and is not humbled by their noise’ [Isaiah 31:4].” Let us now return to our question.
The Maggid of Dubno explains this Midrash with the following parable.
A renowned tailor had hired someone as his employee, but refused to pay him a salary that everyone else in the company was earning for such a job, meaning that he refused to give him the fabric left over after clothes had been made. He only agreed to give him one golden coin every month, keeping all the leftover fabric for himself. After the first month, the employee came to ask for his salary, but he was made to wait until the next month, and so on from month to month. Finally, having still not received anything by the end of the year, he brought the tailor to court and demanded all the leftovers from all the clothes that he had manufactured during the year, which was worth far more than the amount they had initially agreed upon. The tailor told him, “Why do you want the leftovers? Didn’t we agree that I would give you money?” The judge answered, “Let’s admit it, even if you had agreed to pay him a ridiculously small sum of money instead of what he had the right to claim, you still didn’t pay it. His reward becomes, therefore, that his rightful salary should never have ceased, and hence you are obligated to give him all the fabric leftovers, as is done in general for your employees.”
Since the time that the Holy One, blessed be He, gives life to all creatures (beasts of the field, wild animals, reptiles, etc.), He provides them with their sustenance in accordance with their nature: Certain look for herbs, others for grains, still others are carnivores – such as the lion or the wolf – which have no means of survival other than to live by devouring prey, such as sheep or goats. The merit of Jacob benefited Laban to such a point that during al the time that he worked with him, nothing happened to his flocks – neither wild beasts attacked them, nor did common ailments afflict them. This is what Jacob recalled when he stated, “These twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and your she-goats have not miscarried. … That which was mangled, I did not bring to you; I used to bear the loss of it” (Genesis 31:38,39).
As we noted earlier, the Sages have explained as follows: “I sinned against the lion, for the Holy One, blessed be He, had decreed that every day the lion should devoir one of the animals from Laban’s flock. This is the meal that the King has assigned him, and I, because I stood up against the lion to save the animal, sinned against it.” It would have been normal for all the animals saved by Jacob’s merit to be owed to him, but the fact that Laban had promised him a salary meant that Jacob did not have any other right. If Laban had kept his word, it is certain that Jacob would have kept the animals that he had saved. However Laban constantly modified the nature of Jacob’s wages (“You changed my wages ten times” [v.41]), so much so that at the time, “G-d has taken away the cattle of your father and has given them to me” (v.9), which means that G-d gave Jacob all the animals that he had saved.
The same subject is being mentioned by Jacob’s wives in their response: “For all the riches which G-d has taken away from our father, it is ours” (v.16). Jacob is therefore perfectly justified to tell Laban, “These twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and your she-goats have not miscarried” (v.38). Why are you so disturbed by the extent of my wealth? Make a calculation of all the animals that I saved from the day that I started to guard your flock. I saved the flock from its predators, and consequently “G-d has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, and He decided last night” (v.42). He retroactively judged the saved animals as belonging to me. This same thought prompted Jacob to show the peeled and spotted rods to the ewes. This was done with Hashem’s consent, Who in this way only wanted to give him the saved animals.
In Memory of the Tzaddikim
Rav Saadia Gaon
Rav Saadia Gaon was the Rosh Yeshiva of Sura in Babylon. He was very wealthy, but also merited teaching Torah to numerous disciples.
The story that we shall recount occurred in the month of Nissan. There was much work to be done in the home of the Rav. As part of his duties, one of the Jewish servants journeyed to the river located at the other end of the city. He went there to immerse some cutlery in order to make them usable for Passover. In arriving by the river, he set down some precious crystalware, but before having time to immerse them, he saw a large wave arise from the river and carry them off into the depths. The servant looked on stunned as he saw them disappear, his heart filled with grief. However he quickly reassured himself by thinking, “Certainly no one will notice the loss of a few plates at my master’s home. He has a great deal of cutlery, and who will think to look for these exact ones? Besides, even if someone notices that they’re lost, why would anyone suspect me? It’s better if I keep all this to myself and that I relate it to no one.” He continued to immerse the rest of the cutlery, and when he was finished he went back to the Rav’s. Several days passed, and no one figured out the servant’s secret. He himself almost forgot the incident.
When the holiday of Passover returned the next year, he was again sent to immerse the cutlery in the river. Immediately, the incident of the previous year came to mind, and he was seized with freight that this should happen to him again. When he went down to the river, what should he see in the current but some crystal cutlery floating and making its way the shore, finally being tossed up onto land! The servant approached, and he saw that it was the same actual cutlery that had sunk into the depths the year before. What’s more, not one of them was missing!
His joy was immense, but his surprise was greater still. He decided to recount everything when he went back to his master’s. When he arrived at the house, he went to find Rav Saadia Gaon and admitted everything to him. At the end he added, “Apparently, success smiles upon the Rav. He has merited having everything of his recovered.” Now instead of the joy that the servant expected, a large sigh escaped the Rav’s lips, and his servant remained mute with astonishment.
Not long afterwards, Rav Saadia Gaon began to become poor, to the point that he no longer had anything to eat and had to resort to charity. When his house was seized, his servants found themselves dispersed, and the servant mentioned above went down to Egypt, where he settled and established a flourishing business. One day, during the course of his travels, Rav Saadia Gaon arrived at the home of his servant in Egypt, who, appalled at seeing him in poverty, invited the Rav to stay there with him. The invitation came from the heart, and the Rav accepted. The servant gave him a special room and provided him with everything he needed, yet tranquility did not last. As soon as the next day, the Rav became sick with a grave disease, one that brought him to the threshold of death. The host cared to the utmost for the needs of his guest and called in the best doctors, but without success. One day, the doctors ordered that he should drink a very concentrated broth in which several fattened chickens were repeatedly cooked, concentrated to the point that it was boiled down to a single spoonful. Without discussing these instructions any further, the concentrate was prepared and brought to nourish the patient, his heart filled with hope. Yet at the exact moment that the spoon was brought to his mouth, a cobweb fell into it from the ceiling, and the solution that had been so carefully prepared was lost.
The residents of the house began to lament over having done all this work for nothing. The servant looked upon Rav Saadia with disappointment, yet there he was with a smile on his lips! At that moment, the servant recalled the previous incident – the Rav’s sigh when he told him the story of the cutlery that had washed ashore. He could not contain his curiosity, and so he asked, “May the Rav explain two astonishing things to me: The first, why he sighed at that moment; and the second, why he is smiling now, when the precious solution has been lost.”
The Rav answered, “I know that in the same way that riches are not forever, neither is poverty. When you told me the story of the crystal cutlery that the river had returned, I understood that this was a supernatural occurrence, and I feared that I had arrived at a summit of wealth and had benefited of too many good things. I realized that the wheel risked turning at any moment, and that is why I sighed.
“Now, however,” continued the patient, “when the medicine was ruined after all the trouble we had gone to, I suspected that I had arrived at the height of my suffering and henceforth salvation would arrive. That is why I smiled.”
This is effectively what happened, as the Rav was healed a few days later. He immediately got up and left for Sura, his city, and at the end of a short time he regained his exalted position, that of Gaon of Israel, of whom he was the glory.
According to Rav Ovadia Yossef Zatsal
Birkat Hagomel, Tefilat Haderech, And Shecheyanu
1. Women are obligated to recite the Birkat Hagomel blessing after an illness in which they were confined to bed, as well as after childbirth. They may recite this blessing in the woman’s section of the synagogue when a minyan of ten men is present. They may also recite it at home when ten men are assembled for the ceremony commemorating the birth of a girl, and for a boy on the night before the Brit Milah (called Brit Yitzhak) or during the meal following the Brit Milah itself. One must recite this blessing in a raised voice so that it may be heard.
2. A woman who travels more than 72 minutes from one city to another should recite Tefilat Haderech (the prayer for travelers). This blessing is performed when one travels by car, train, or airplane.
3. It is traditional to have a small party and a thanksgiving meal for a girl’s Bat Mitzvah, the day when she reaches the age of twelve years and a day (which is to say, on her twelfth birthday). During this celebration, it is advisable to speak Devrei Torah, to discuss Jewish ethics, and to address praise and thanks to G-d. One must equally ensure that all rules of modesty demanded by our Holy Torah are respected. It is recommended that the young girl wears new clothes on that day, and that she recites the Shecheyanu blessing.
4. Women recite the Birkat Hailanot blessing (for trees in bloom) in the month of Nissan when they see two fruit trees in bloom.