THREE GOOD MEN.
The Zohar compares No’ach, Abraham and Moses. It asks which of the three was the greatest. Its answer: the one who was the best when others were in trouble.
No’ach was warned by God that disaster was impending. He built an ark to save himself and his family and the various categories of animals. A great good deed, but marred by the fact that he took no apparent interest in what was happening to other human beings. He was what is called in Yiddish a “Tzaddik im Pelz” – a good man in a fur coat, who is warm even if the others are freezing cold.
What about Abraham? Told about the looming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he pleaded for the cities. He asked God to save their inhabitants even if there were only ten righteous people there. But if there were less than ten? He didn’t go into that. He was concerned for the other people; but his compassion had its limits.
Moses? At the time of the Golden Calf incident he pleaded that the people should be preserved despite their sin; and if they were to be destroyed he wanted to go down with them. Their suffering was his suffering, their pain his pain.
The truly good person can’t bear it when others are hurting. His fate is bound up with theirs.
GOING TO A SIMCHAH.
The first simchah mentioned in the Bible is the feast Abraham made to celebrate the weaning of his son Isaac (Gen. 21). According to the rabbis (Rashi, quoting Talmud Sanh. 89b), Satan heard about it and came to God with a complaint: “With all the hype he didn’t do a thing to acknowledge You!” In modern terms we would say it was a secular occasion, with nothing religious, nothing really Jewish.
Maybe this comment tells us more about the mindset of the rabbis than about the period of Abraham, but it is still a pertinent comment. The Talmud gives other examples of events that went overboard – even burials. Rabban Gamli’el, for example, objected to the extravagant displays that sometimes took place at funerals, and made an enactment that such occasions should always follow an ethic of simplicity (Mo’ed Katan 27a).
Medieval Jewish history knows many recorded cases of over-the top-celebrations, to such an extent that many communities established sumptuary laws limiting how many guests one could invite and the maximum one could spend.
It’s a precedent that ought to be followed in our own day. If you are fortunate enough to be affluent, who says you have to splurge on a lavish feast? Why not keep the occasion modest (and dignified) and accompany it with a worthwhile donation to Israel, to the synagogue, the local community… or a hospital, school or other charity?
And bearing in mind Satan’s accusation, why not make sure that God and Judaism are not left behind at the door?
THE MERIT OF ABRAHAM – HOW THE MIDRASH SEES IT.
The eyes of Abraham looked into the eyes of Isaac and the eyes of Isaac looked up to Heaven. The tears ran down Abraham’s cheeks until his whole body was bent over in weeping.
He raised the knife to slay Isaac, but Satan came and pushed his arm so that the knife dropped from his hand. When he put out his hand to pick it up, he wept bitterly and sighed deeply. He looked up and raised his voice and said,
“I lift up my eyes to the hills: from whence shall my help come?” (Psalm 121:1).
At that moment the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself above the angels and opened up the firmament. Isaac raised his eyes and saw the heavenly chambers and he trembled and gasped. In the firmament rows upon rows of ministering angels stood lamenting and weeping, and they said to one another:
“See, an only son slaughters and an only son is slaughtered. Lord of the universe, what will come of Your oath, ‘Thus shall your seed be’ (Gen 15:5)?”
At once the Holy One, blessed be He, said to the angel Michael,
“Why are you standing there? Do not let him do it!”
“And the angel of the Lord called to him out of heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham’” (Gen. 22:11),
twice, like one who cries out in pain. Abraham turned his face to him, and the angel said to him,
“What are you doing? ‘Lay not your hand upon the lad’ (Gen. 22:12)”.
Abraham said to him,
“Who are you?”
Suddenly the Holy One, blessed be He, broke open the firmament and the thick darkness and said,
“By Myself have I sworn…” (Gen. 22:16).
Abraham said to Him,
“You have sworn, and I too have sworn that I will not descend from this altar until I have said all that I must.”
He said to him,
Abraham said to Him,
“Did you not say to me, ‘Count the stars… Thus shall your seed be’ (Gen. 15:5)?”
“Did You not say to me, ‘I will make your seed as the dust of the earth’ (Gen. 134:16)?”
“I could have answered You and said, Yesterday You said to me, ‘For in Isaac shall your seed be called’ (Gen. 21:12). Now You say to me, ‘Offer him up there for a burnt-offering’ (Gen. 22:2). I overcame my evil impulse and did not answer You. So, when the children of Isaac shall sin and be led astray, let the binding of Isaac be remembered for them, and consider it as if his dust were gathered on this altar, and be filled with mercy for them and forgive them and redeem them from their sorrows.”
And the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:
“You have spoken yours and I shall speak Mine. The children of Isaac are destined to sin before Me, and I shall judge them; but if they seek that I forgive them, I shall remember for their sake the binding of Isaac.”
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.