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PROMISES, PROMISES

by S. David Ram    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

There is a disagreement between Rambam and Ramban, two classic Medieval Torah commentators, if prayer is a Torah or a rabbinic obligation. However, both agree that there is a Torah requirement to pray to Hashem in a time of distress and need.

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There is a disagreement between Rambam and Ramban, two classic Medieval Torah commentators, if prayer is a Torah or a rabbinic obligation. However, both agree that there is a Torah requirement to pray to Hashem in a time of distress and need. For example, if one would be on a ladder, and the ladder would suddenly start to tip over, and no one would be there to hold the ladder, what should a person do? The Torah tells us that the person has an obligation to pray to Hashem.

After Esau advanced to attack his brother, the Torah says that "Jacob became frightened" (Genesis 32:8). Why should Jacob be frightened of anything? Hashem promised him protection. The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 4a) explains that Jacob had these scared feelings because perhaps a sin which he committed caused him to lose this protection. Jacob then prayed to Hashem that he should be rescued from this interlude with Esau. As the verse reads, "Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him lest he come and strike me down, mother and children" (ibid. 32:12). This seems to be problematic, as Jacob is compelled to pray only in a time of distress and need. But Hashem said to Jacob at the beginning of last week's Torah portion, "Behold, I am with you and will guard you wherever you go" (Genesis 28:15).

The Rambam, in his introduction to the Mishnah, points out an apparent contradiction within the Talmud. Later in the same Tractate (7a), the Talmud says, "Every single statement uttered by the holy One blessed is He, in a person's favor, He does not rescind, even if based on a condition." Meaning, on page 4a, the Talmud says that Hashem can retract a promise that He has made, if there is reason to do so; namely, for a sin. But on page 7a, the Talmud says that even if there is such a condition made, it does not affect the promise, and Hashem will follow through with His promise. The Rambam reconciles this apparent contradiction by saying that the reason why Jacob prayed was because Hashem is, in fact, able to retract the promises made to the individual. The second statement by the Talmud refers only to promises that Hashem instructed a prophet to convey to the people. Hashem will never retract those statements.

The Beis HaLevi, one of the most brilliant Talmudists of the 19th century, asks that if this concept is true, and there is no such thing as a true promise to a righteous person, since it can always be retracted by Hashem if the righteous person sins, then why did Jacob mention the promise of Hashem at the conclusion of his prayer? Jacob said, "And You (Hashem) had said, 'I will surely do good with you and I will make your offspring like the sand of the sea which is too numerous to count'." (ibid. 32:13). If the promise that Hashem offers to the righteous is not necessarily binding, then why did Jacob mention the promise in his prayer? A priori, the reason Jacob prayed was in case he was no longer worthy of the reward. If in fact Jacob was still worthy of this reward, like it seems that he is claiming, then why did he pray?

The Beis HaLevi answers that Jacob was not frightened or worried that the evil Esau would bring harm directly onto him or his household, rather he was scared that there would be a desecration of Hashem's name. He was scared that he committed a sin which could deem him unworthy of the rewards promised to him previously, and this would cause Esau to kill Jacob and his family. If this occurred, consequently, people would see that Hashem made promises that He simply did not keep. This would be a desecration of the name of Hashem. Jacob viewed the Divine promise as a promise to Hashem, and not to himself. Jacob felt that if Hashem did not follow through with his promises, Hashem Himself would be losing out, not Jacob. So the promise on the side of Jacob could be lost because of his sin, but the promise, in Jacob's eyes, was transferred from Jacob to Hashem. He was, therefore, still able to mention the promise in his prayers.

This attitude expressed by Jacob began with Abraham in the Torah portion of Vayeira (ibid. 18:19). There, Hashem was explaining the reasons for His love for Abraham. "For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice, in order that Hashem might then bring upon Abraham that which he had spoken of him." This "charity and justice" that Abraham commanded upon his family, as the Beis HaLevi explains, are actions parallel to the will of Hashem. When we, as the children of Abraham, do the will of Hashem, He, in turn, will fulfill His true will; the will to do good onto us - the children of Israel - and to carry out the promises that he made to our forefathers. And when these promises are carried out by the Master of the universe, then the name of Hashem will not be desecrated, but it will be blessed.

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S. David Ram, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and Yeshiva University, is studying in the Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem.

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