Thursday, October 22, 2015

Parshas Lech Lecha 5776, October 2015, Avodas Hash-m

Many people focus on Avraham Avinu in this week's parsha thoughts, though last year I discussed how central Sarah Imeinu actually is. Tangentially, we referred to Shem ben Noach's role in the parsha, and it is him whom I want to discuss this year.
Reach out to others. Just realize you must do it for G-d's honor,
not for your own.

While Avraham and Sarah were known to be leading others towards fear of G-d and Noahide laws, it must be remembered that Shem, the son of Noach, was at that time already leading what is referred to as a yeshiva, a home of higher Torah study at this time before the giving of the Torah itself. While the forefathers and mothers are known to have observed the laws of the Torah due to their prophetic vision and inner sensitivity to G-d's laws, this obviously cannot have been the basis of Shem's students' learning. While Shem himself was a tzaddik, his students were simply those who had learned to appreciate the ways go G-d from Avraham and felt they needed further instruction. They were not Jews and there was no suggestion that they would inherit the Torah themselves; they were simply those who were most inspired and possibly most intellectual among those who learned from Avraham.

Shem, in fact, aside from acting as the greatest in-depth teacher of G-d's law in the land, also had inherited the kehuna, the rights of the priestly first born, as the oldest son of Noach. He and his brothers and their wives were the only humans (after the death of their father and mother) who knew exactly what life had been like in the time before the great flood--a time when children were conceived and born within one day, infants were born with the ability to walk and speak, humans had enormous strength, no suffering was known, crops were sown only every 40 years for continuous harvesting, and the climate worldwide was mild (Midrash HaGadol, Midrash Bereishis). No suffering of any kind was known. It was under those conditions that mankind fell away from appreciation of G-d's gifts and took them all for granted. Shem could explain directly how things had changed and how man must appreciate what he does have and the gifts G-d does give, even if they are not as extensive as those before the flood.

Yet Shem lost the rights to the priesthood to Avraham and his descendants (eventually to the Kohanim of the tribe of Levi).  Despite his extensive knowledge, his great appreciation for the gifts bestowed by G-d, and his ability to transmit appreciation of Torah values to his students, he failed to show honor to G-d in front of Avraham. When he and Avram greater each other, each sure the other would be angry (Avram had slain Shem's unrighteous son Kedarlaomer in war; Avram was sure Shem would want revenge for his family while Shem was sure Avram bore a grudge that Shem would have such an unworthy son who had threatened Avram's life). Rather than curse Avram, Shem blessed Avram and G-d, but in that order, placing Avram and his honor first (Midrash Nidarim Lev). For this mistake committed by one who had always held G-d's teachings and primacy in his heart, Shem lost the rights to the priesthood.

So we must always have G-d foremost in our hearts and in our speech as well. Our own honor, that of others around us, are nothing compared to G-d's. We must take care though not to justify our own actions as being sanctified by dedication to G-d's honor though. Only through very extensive and deep Torah study can we come to know what G-d truly wants of each of us. It's simple to take the first steps though; simply follow the laws as you learn them, and primarily those of self-conduct. Behave towards others as though the first words from your mouth will always be a blessing of G-d and of the other person's actions, as Shem should have done and Avram did.

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