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Actual History and Purpose of Nisyonos
1) The Angel’s Visit
Parshas Vayeira opens (18:1) with the story the three angels that came to visit Avraham. We have always understood like Rashi and rov rishonim that this was an actual event that happened. However, Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, quoted here by Ramban, states that in fact this was a dream; it was a mareh nevuah and it was not something that happened in real life.
This is a very controversial opinion and is not accepted by most commentators. There are those that even argue that the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim was only writing philosophically, but did not himhself hold this to be true. There are mashmaus in Chazal that it was indeed something that happened, and the pashut p’shat of ‘ein mikra yotzei midei p’shuto’, the pashut p’shat of the pesukim itself states that it was an actual story. So, it would be hard to say that it didn’t actually happen.
Ramban Disagrees with Moreh Nevuchim
Ramban here takes major issue with the Rambam’s p’shat, and is very unhappy with it, and he asks a lot of questions on this p’shat. What’s fascinating is that the Rambam has multiple places in Moreh Nevuchim, in that section specifically, as well, where he says that a lot of things that happened were just maros nevuah, and they didn’t actually happen. Ramban challenges that premise.
Ramban: Why so Many Details if it didn’t really happen?
Ramban has many questions on the Rambam about this, but basically, his main thrust of the questions are that if this was a nevuah, then there’s a lot of things in the nevuah that don’t seem to make any sense or that are just details that shouldn’t have been shared. Whereas, if it was a story it is recording what happened. Now, what’s interesting to note is that there’s nothing in the Torah that’s for nothing anyway, so according to the Ramban, if it was a nevuah, he seems to be expecting it to be a little bit more precise, even though we know sometimes a nevuah has different aspects of it that maybe are open to interpretation like you know that Hashem sometimes gives interpretations to the navi about what each item, as strange as it is, means, so a lot of the rishonim feel that that’s not such a big kasha on the Rambam because they explain different lessons. For example Ramban is bothered that who cares about this whole seudah which the angels ate. The whole discussion about the malachim eating there, what difference does it make?
Abarbanel, who lived in the 1400s, adds some interesting comments here. Don Isaac Abarbanel was the finance minister of Spain, and when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 he was offered refuge; he was allowed to stay. His response was: Adios! He said: It’s all or nothing, if the entire Jewish nation stays then so do I, otherwise, I am leaving with them.
Abarbanel who wrote a very philosophical peirush on Chumash and explains that: Rambam would answer, that the whole idea of including the seudah and all of the kindness that Avraham did in his dream or in his maros nevuah with the angels was in order to show the zechus that got Avraham to be blessed with children and that what made Hashem love Avraham so much.
Ramban: Moreh Nevuchim Contradicts the Pshat
Ramban’s main problem is that Rambam’s suggestion contradicts the pasuk which states clearly that all the events transpired in real life.
Events in Chazal Symbolic
It’s interesting because there are other, many gemaras throughout Shas that sometimes there’s a dispute whether things actually happened or whether they were a dream or not. Chazal had a mesorah on what did and did not happen and when one has a right to say that something did not actually happen. For example, in the story of Choni HaMeagel in Meseches Ta’anis, we know that Choni came back and claimed to be Choni HaMeagel and no one believed him because he had slept for seventy years, and everybody thought he was dead. And, we know that when he came back to the beis medrash he wasn’t expected, and he ended up dying. So, the question was: Who told Chazal that this happened because if they knew, then they should have accepted him back, and if they didn’t know, then how did they ever know that the story actually happened? Ben Ish Chai says that Eliyahu HaNavi came back and told them the story.
In Baba Basra, perek Hamocher es Hasefina, all those sugyos of agaddatah where a lot of times many of the mefarshei hagemara say that those stories are outlandish and that they were only dreams or visions that people saw or simply parables to express lofty ideas. We see this in the Maharsha, and the Gra, Ben Ish Chai and Maharal.
We don’t have a right on our own to say that a gemara didn’t happen or did happen, and we certainly don’t have a right to say, on our own to say whether something in the Chumash happened or didn’t happen. You might find some rishonim that shed light to these things and it’s obviously a very touchy topic, and a very sensitive topic, so we have to be careful what we say, but the Ramban says clearly that it contradicts the pasuk, and therefore, one cannot say that it was just a prophecy or a dream.
Rambam: Fight with Saro Shel Eisav was a dream
One of the Rambam’s ideas was that the fight that Yaakov had with Saro shel Eisav was a dream. He says that it didn’t actually happen, but that it was a maros nevuah. And, the kasha that many of the rishonim ask is that if this is true, then, the pasuk says that Yaakov woke up, “v’hu tzoleia al yereicho”, and he was limping. So, if it never happened, then why was he limping? Abarbanel gives a fascinating answer which is what I wanted to share with you. The Abarbanel says that we all know about Somatic Illness. Rambam would say that since Yaakov had this dream that he was punched by the Saro shel Eisav, this actually impacted him physically, and made it that he actually limped.
Ritva: Defends the Rambam, but teach the Ramban
Ritva, who was a talmid of the Rashba who was a talmid of the Ramban, so when he defends the Rambam, and says why some of the Ramban’s kashas are not necessarily kashas, he ends off by saying: Although the Ramban’s p’shat is the pashu p’shat of the pasuk, and the easier way to explain and the mekubeles way to explain, so that is the p’shat that we should teach our children, and that is the most valid p’shat. However, he says that Rambam wrote his work l’sheim Shamayim and he was trying to help the hamon am better understand the Torah in a philosophical way.
2) Somatic Illness
We mentioned this topic above and I want to elaborate upon it. I want to share two gemaras with you that I think you’ll find fascinating. Perhaps, you’ll agree with my interpretation.
The Gemara (Berachos 5a) says that a person who experiences pain should look into his actions to determine what he did wrong and is thus being punished. The gemara says: pipeish v’lo matza, if you did some searching and you couldn’t find a reason, then: yitleh b’vitul Torah. You should assume that it’s because of bitul Torah. Now, remember, bitul Torah does not mean that you wasted time talking or doing something. Bitul Torah means that on your level, based on how you were dividing your day, Hashem and you understand that there was more time that you could have learned. For one person who’s a masmid, and who is Torahso umanuso, he might learn twenty hours a day, and if he takes a break which he doesn’t need, then that might be bitul for him that he was mevatel, and only learned nineteen hours that day, but for another person, it could be that his work is something that he’s doing, and hanheig b’minhag derech eretz, that’s what he’s doing, but his two hours a day that he learns, that he’s koveia itim, that’s where he’s judged for bitul Torah. So, it’s a personal matter.
Rav Chaim Volozhin has two vorts on this, and they might seem to contradict at first, but they’re really very brilliant and very important.
Question of Rav Chaim Veluzin
So, the kasha is: One second, you already did a pishpeish v’lo matza. You already looked into your actions, and you couldn’t figure out why you’re having yisurim. So, why should you assume that it was bitul Torah? You already looked into your actions, and you know that it’s not bitul Torah, so what’s the p’shat? So, there’s two p’shatim that Rav Chaim Volozhin says.
Answer #1: Torah Gives Clarity
One of them is that if you looked into your actions and you couldn’t figure out a source for what you’re doing wrong, then yitleh b’vitul Torah, the reason you couldn’t figure it out was because you’re not learning enough, because you’re not immersing yourself in da’as Hashem. If you were immersing yourself more in Torah, then you’d have more of a sensitivity towards the things in your life. What a powerful, powerful p’shat. Torah gives clarity to our lives.
Answer #2: Torah is Total Immersion
The second p’shat of Rav Chaim Volozhiner is very fascinating, and that is that he says a gemara in Eruvin which is the second gemara that I want to quote. Eruvin 54a says that when a person is traveling he should always learn Torah because it’s livyas chein heim, it’s a favorable escort for you. And, the gemara says like this: chash b’rosho, if you have a headache, ya’asok b’Torah, you should learn Torah; that’s the solution. Chash b’grono, if you have a throat ache, ya’asok b’Torah, you should learn. That’s the solution. Chash b’meiav, if you have a stomache ache, ya’asok b’Torah, you should learn. Refuas t’hiyeh lishaarecha. If your bones ache you should learn Torah. Chash b’chol gufo, if anything in your whole body hurts, ya’asok b’Torah, you should learn Torah.
Rav Chaim Volozhin uses this to explain the original quote about not being able to identify the source of your suffering. Let’s say a person had a hand ache or his hand was hurting him, and he said to himself: You know what, I didn’t misuse my hand; I didn’t hit anyone. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t steal. So, how do I explain this pain? I know that Hashem punishes middah kneged middah and this does not seem to correspond to anything, the first approach is first pishpeish, yifashpesh b’ma’asav, when you look into your actions you always just say: what’s hurting me? Okay, what did I do wrong with that limb? But, let’s say a person says: I didn’t do anything wrong with that limb. So, then yitleh b’vitel Torah. Then, you should just know that the punishment is coming middah k’neged middah for bittul Torah because Torah fills up your whole body, and, therefore, since Torah fills up your whole body, if you’re mevatel Torah, you could have a pain in any part of your body and that would explain it.
Now, I don’t want anyone to run away and say that everything is all in their head, and everything is all because of their bitul Torah. That you could speak to your rav about: How much Torah a person should be learning, and how much Torah should be part of one’s life, and how to incorporate that and how to live a normal, healthy life with Torah and with a balance of kol ma’asecha l’sheim Shamayim.
Torah Helps us Deal With Life
So, that being said, with this brilliant p’shat of Rav Chaim Volozhin, I believe that what’s being said is something very deep which is that if a person has these psychosomatic illnesses, whether they’re coming from pains or traumas or emotions or things that are unregulated, and yes, with all disclosure, I am a mental health therapist and I do specialize trauma and psychosomatic issues, so that is a full disclosure, you could take it of leave it. But, I have been privileged to have a lot of experience working with it, and a lot of exposure with being educated about it as well. A person should look into how to heal through normal hishtadlus means and of course through increased limud haTorah. Torah teaches us how to be spiritual people, how to be great people, and how to live our lives in meaning, purpose and holiness, and, therefore, once a person is able to make those changes in his life, and increase Torah in his life, that’s going to take care of the problems and the traumas and the issues because he’ll turn to Hashem and build his bitachon and become closer to Hashem and that will “u’lchol b’saro marpeh” it’ll create a refuah throughout the entire body, and that’s what I wanted to say about psychosomatic issues.
3) Ramban: Why doesn’t Avraham Invite the Guests Inside?
Ramban (Bereishis 18:3) is bothered as to why Avraham did not invite his three visitors into his home. He tells them they could sit outside, but he doesn’t invite them into the house, and doesn’t tell them they could sleep there, and, not only that, but he also just tells them to eat and: v’achar ta’avoru, then you could leave. Why is he so blunt about making sure that they leave? If you want to say it’s because he didn’t want their avodah zarah brought in the house, well he already washed their feet, and he had no problem with that, and, also, according to many rishonim, he understood that they were angels as well, especially with the prophecies that they offered later, but, according to many rishonim, he understood that they were angels from the beginning.
Ramban: Avraham Recognized Their Needs
Ramban shares a beautiful yesod:Avraham wanted to do kindness, and the way that we do kindness is to recognize what other people need. Avraham saw that they were in a rush, and so he didn’t want to invite them in and make them feel stressed that they had to stay longer or sleep there or lay down, and he wanted to make it very clear: Come, eat, take whatever you need, and feel free to leave whenever you want. That’s the way we do kindness.
Praiseworthy is one who thinks Wisely About Others
It says: Ashei maskil el dal b’yom ra’ah yimalteihu Hashem. And, the Yerushalmi says this means: Praiseworthy is a person who is maskil, who thinks smartly about how to help people in need, b’yom ra’ah, on a challenging day, yimalteihu Hashem, in that zechus Hashem will protect you. What does this mean? The Yerushalmi says that praiseworthy is someone who thinks up about important ways about how can I help you. Meaning, he doesn’t just do it through selfish reasons and through selfish means: Well I’m going to do thing because I think that this is what’s best for you, but he looks at the other person and thinks clearly: Well, how can I give him tzeddakkah in a secret way? How can I give him the things that he needs? And, he focuses on that person, and that’s the greatest blessing that comes when you do that. And, so that’s the p’shat here that the Ramban says such a beautiful p’shat: that he wasn’t just doing the kindness for them because he wanted to do kindness and I’m a kind person, so you need to eat, you need to sleep. But, he wanted to look and see what do they need?
Story of the person who came to visit the sick
We all know the famous story of the person who goes to the hospital to do bikur cholim, and the sick person is sitting there and finally fell asleep, and his friend comes in and wakes him up, and says: Come on, wake up. I got to do bilur cholim which contradicts the whole point of bikur cholim which the Shulchan Aruch says is to tend to their needs and give them what they need.
Visit to Rav Hutner
When Rav Hutner was in the hospital hesaid this to his talmidim: Don’t come visit me because I’m you’re cheftza shel mitvah, as if I’m your lulav and esrog that you need to shake. You can come visit because you want to do the mitzvah and you want to fulfill it, and you want to think about what someone else needs.
4) Why So Much Bread?
Ramban (Bereishis 18:6) has a little question that he asks which a lot of the mefarshim try to answer. Why did Avraham ask for so much bread to be made, and why did Sarah make so much bread? Who needs all this bread just for three guests?
Answer #1: The Date
Rav Chaim Kanievsky in Ta’ama D’Kra says that the reason that so much bread was needed was becoming to some midrashim this was Pesach, and it was Yom Tov and at that point they might not have known that they were angels, according to some rishonim, and so, you’re not allowed to cook for non-Jews on Yom Tov, unless you fill up the entire oven. When you fill up the entire oven, then the bread bakes better, so that you’re allowed to do, so he explains that they must have filled up the entire oven in order to use that heter.
Answer #2: The Baker
I add to that one cute thing which is that the Midrash describes who these three angels were, and it says: One of them came looking like an Arab, which is what the pasuk calls them. Another one came looking like a sailor, and the other one came looking like a baker. (Rav Tzadok has a beautiful p’shat about why those three. You could look at him.) I would suggest that perhaps, the baker was someone that they were trying to impress with all the bread, and show all the different options because they thought that they would appreciate that.
5) What is a Nissayon?
The Verse states (22:21): V’Elokim nissa es Avraham. Hashem tested Avraham, and the Ramban says here his yesod on what a test is. Ramban asks: I don’t’ understand? Why does Hashem test people? Hashem knows whether you’re going to pass or not, and you might think that this ties to last week’s discussion, the end of Lech-Licha about foreknowledge. He doesn’t mean that fully. Obviously that’s part of it. He just means to say that if Hashem knows that you’re a good person, then what’s the point of testing you. He already knows whether you’re going to pass or not. So, what is the purpose of the test?
Nissayom is For You
Ramban explains, and, again, the mefarshim bring this out in the Ramban also that the word neis, Elokim nisa es Avraham, is the message. Neis means to lift something up, to hold it up as a banner. The purpose of a nisayon that Hashem gives us, the test that he gives us, are not to show us what you could do. The purpose of a nisayon is not to show what Hahsem what you could do; obviously Hashem knows. They are to show you what you could do because when you are tested and challenged that brings out all the greatness that was dormant inside you.
“Menaseh Yisbarech yizaveh lo l’hotzee hadavar min hakoach el hapoal.” Hashem wants to bring out your potential into fruition, and l’hiyos lo schar ma’aseh tov. Lo s’char lev tov b’lvad. So, that you will have the reward of your good actions. Not just the reward of having a good heart which is also a good thing. It’s a good virtue. Lev tov in pirkei avos. But, it is something that you could bring it out to fruition. And, when you bring it out to fruition it becomes even stronger.
Ramban (Bereishis 22:12) explains: Ki atah yadaati, now I know, ki atah nodeh b’maaseh. Your actions now speak. V’haya zechuso shalem, and your merit is complete.
Story of the man who saved a drowning girl
The first story is about a Canadian man. He was driving over a bridge one day, and he saw a woman screaming at the top of her lungs, and he quickly pulled over his car, noticing that she was in extreme distress, and she was not even able to talk. She was screaming frantically. Her seven year old daughter and her had been looking over the bridge, feeding the ducks or whatever, and her daughter slipped off, and fell off, and fell into the water, and was drowning. And, this man just saw this woman’s face, looked down, saw exactly what happened. Kicked off his shoes. Dived in. Pulled out the girl, and resuscitated her, and saved her life.
This was an amazing event. It was in the newspaper, and they wanted to reward this man and give him credit for what he did. They called a big meeting, and they called them together, and they presented him with a helpful citizen award. And, when he got up to speak he had tears in his eyes, and he said: Ladies and gentlemen you all think that this was an amazing act that I did, and he said: it was. It was a tremendous thing. But he said: I have to tell you something that is even more amazing that only I know this. He said: My entire life I was afraid of the water, and I didn’t know how to swim!, But he continued: At that moment, when I saw this child drowning, there was nothing else that mattered except getting her out, and, all of a sudden, at that moment, I kicked my shoes off, I dove in, and I knew how to swim, and I knew how to pull her out, and I knew how to save her life.
A Nissayon Brings out Potential
When Hashem sends us nissyonos, we say: Ay, Rebono Shel Olam, don’t test me. And, of course w e daven: lo liday nissayon. We ask Hashem: Please don’t test us. We don’t want nissyonos, but when a nissayon comes our way, it’s bringing out our potential. Sometimes we don’t even know what’s inside us.
The Orach Chaim HaKadosh says a beautiful p’shat. When Yosef told his brothers: Ani Yosef achicha asher macharti osi l’Eretz Mitzrayim. I am Yosef that you send down to Egypt. The Orach Chaim says don’t read it: I am Yosef that you sent me down to Egypt. Instead, read it: Ani Yosef asher macharti, I am Yosef because you sent me down to Egypt, because of all the nissyonos that you exposed me to and all of the challenges that I went through, that’s why I became Yosef.
So too, in life, how many of us that were put through things that we don’t want to be challenged with, challenges that we don’t ask for. Of course, all of us. Some big, some small, and some everything in between. But, they are what make us, and how many of us could say that ani, whatever your name is, fill in the blank, I am the person that I need to be, asher, because of all the nissyonos that I’ve been through. So, of course, we don’t ask for nissyonos, but when Hashem sends them to us we could understand that he’s bringing out our dormant success and our dormant power that we have within, and our dormant capabilities and making us aware of them, and bringing them out, and developing us.
Story of Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach with Rav Yosef Chaim Zunnenfeld
My last story is on this topic, but a little bit different, but an interesting idea, and I think you’ll appreciate it. It’s a story that one Pesach, Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach was visited by one of his talmidim, and his talmid brought a son, and Rav Shlomo Zalman was testing the son, and he said to the boy: Did you says the ma nishtana? And, the boy said: Yes, I did. Rav Shlomo Zalman said: Then, I have a question for you. If you said it last year, why did you have to say it again this year? And, so the boy smiled, and he said: I don’t really know. It’s an interesting question. Rav Shlomo Zalman was probably trying to teach him a lesson that every year we grow more in our emunah and our bitachon.
Rav Aurbach continued, let me tell you a story. One year, when I was about your age, my father took me to daven at the Kosel over Pesach, and on our way back home we met Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld who was the Rav of Yerushalayim. We called him Rav Chaim affectionately. He pinched my cheek and said hello to me, and he asked me the same exact question. But, I was very embarrassed. I didn’t have an answer, and I burst out crying. My father comforted me, and he comforted me, and it was okay. He wished us a good Yom Tov.
A few years later, when I was a teenager, my father, who was very close with Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, put out a sefer called Chacham Lev, and in that sefer, my father quoted me a couple of times as well. Throughout the sefer he quoted different thoughts that I had shared with him, and he actually thought they were fit to be put in writing. He went to Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld for a haskamah, and when I had read the haskamah, I had saw something very interesting that Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld he wrote in the haskamah that it was a great sefer and that ‘it includes some very fine thoughts from the author’s outstanding son’ which was referring to me. And, I always thought that it was weird that he put that in.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach shared that many years later he heard from Rav Dovid Jungreis that he was actually present when Rav Yoesf Chaim Zunnenfeld wrote the haskamah. Rav Zonnenfeld commented that many years ago I caused this little boy, Shlomo Zalman to cry, and I, of course, apologized, but I always felt bad for that, and I wanted to make up for it by putting something positive about him in this haskamah, and so I hope that this will make up for the pain that I caused him.
I think that there are two points that I want to bring out today. One of them is that, again, a nissayon is meant to bring out who we are, and when we have experiences in life those are opportunities to bring out who we are. The second part is to recognize that life has all different levels of nissyonos. This was something that could have easily been forgotten, but Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld was sensitive to this mistake that he had held himself accountable for. Obviously, he was just trying to give a bechinah to the boy, and just trying to get him to think which is why Rav Shlomo Zalman himself probably repeated the same question, knowing that this kid wouldn’t be sensitive to it. Yet, he had that sensitivity to be aware of that, and I think that that’s where our middos develop, when we have those sensitivities towards others and towards being able to be introspective about how our words land on others, and that really brings out the great people that we are, and that allows us the opportunity to keep growing, and making ourselves better.
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