HaKadosh Boruch Hu has blessed the Orlofsky home with another beautiful baby girl, Mindel, named after my wife’s great-aunt. That makes the count eight to one, girls winning. To those who feel that the most important part in the process of bringing a yiddisha neshama into the world is in order to make a bris, then we are the New York Mets of the children World Series. We won one. My wife and I have always been amazed at the reactions you get from people when you have another girl: “Oh well, maybe next time”. Or “at least you get to pick your son-in-laws”, or “look at Rashi”. Personally, I would be happy with a mazel-tov and a bracha that she should grow up to be an emessa bas Torah. But, we have learnt to take what we can get.
One area where the discrepancy becomes more pronounced is Shabbos night. As our kinderlach line up to receive their brachas, only one gets the one mentioned in parshas VaYechi – “Yisimcha Elokim K’Ephraim U’Menashe”. Here Yaakov Avinu sets up the basis for the beracha we give our children, that they should grow up to be like Ephraim and Menashe. One Shabbos night, my son and I were sitting in shul listening to the Dvar Torah before Maariv. The speaker asked why we bless our children to grow up to be like Ephraim and Menashe, as opposed to the Avos, or Moshe Rabbeynu, or any of the other many greats of our people. He gave the famous answer – that Ephraim and Menashe were the first brothers who got along, especially considering that the younger one surpassed his older brother.
When we returned home from shul there was what would appear to the untrained eye to have been a violent altercation, but an experienced parent could see immediately that it was merely a lively discussion between a brother and a sister. None the less, as the neighbors were beginning to become alarmed I thought it best to reign in the exuberance. “Yaakov” I said quietly to my son (again to the untrained it might have sounded like I was yelling) “remember what the Rav said in shul – the gadlus of two brothers who don’t fight?” “True” he responded. “But he didn’t say anything about a brother and a sister”.
Which brings me back to the subject of girls. There doesn’t appear to be an explicit reference in the Torah as to what bracha to give your daughters. Perhaps it’s for this very reason. The obvious choice for a beracha are the Avos and the imahos, but because the Avos had strife in their relations with their brothers we hold off until we can find two who can get along. But by the imahos, we don’t have that problem. The obvious example being the selflessness of Rachel and Leah. So we don’t have to be michadash a beracha for the girls, like we do by the boys.
The subject of the beracha we give our daughters raises an interesting point about the imahos in general. We say “Yisimaich Elokim KiSarah, Rivka, Rochel ViLeah”. However, even a cursory reading of this weeks parsha will present an obvious problem with the beracha. We ask that our daughters should grow up to be like Sorah, Rivka, Rochel and Leah. But a third of klal Yisroel don’t even receive a mention. Namely, the shevatim descended from Bilha and Zilpa. Why don’t we say you should be like Rachel Leah Bila and Zilpa.
Now that we have started to open this particular can of worms, the problem grows larger. Who were Bilha and Zilpa exactly? Why doesn’t the Torah tell us anything about them? For that matter, neither do the Chazal. You will search in vain for Midrashim chronicling the secret lives of Bilha and Zilpa. Nothing. Not a well or a sheep. They are complete non-entities. Yet we know that the midos of the mother will be passed on to the children. If a third of klal Yisroel have these traits, why don’t we know what they are? What merits did they possess that allowed them to give birth to four shevatim?
This question had plagued me for years. Nowhere could I find an answer, or for that matter anyone who even addressed the question of the mystery of Bilha and Zilpa. I saw an apparently unrelated idea by Rav Yitzchok Izzik Sher in Leket Sichos Mussar that I believe holds the key to solving this problem.
Let us turn our attention to a question that has to bother you. Even if you manage to remain unmoved by the mystery of the missing imahos, the problem presented by the story of Hager has gotto bother you. Sarah Imeynu, whom we bless our children to grow up to become, the paragon of Chesed, comes across in a pretty poor light if we read the possukim with Rashi on a simple level.
Simply put, Avraham and Sorah are childless, so Sorah suggests that Avraham marry her personal slave. It certainly seems like a strange choice – with every woman from the finest homes longing to become part of the house of Avraham, you choose an Egyptian slave? Avraham marries Hagar on Sorah’s suggestion, and then Hagar becomes pregnant.
On some level, Sorah senses that Hagar is no longer treating her with as much respect as she had before. Sorah, apparently furious and burning with jealousy insists that it’s all Avraham’s fault. Avraham, instead of trying to make shalom between his two wives, tells Sorah that she can have her slave back and do whatever she likes with her. This, even though Hagar is his wife and pregnant with his child! And what is Sorah’s reaction? How does Sorah Imaynu, the prophetess, the mother of Klal Yisroel, respond? She oppresses her! She oppresses her so badly that Hagar finally flees into the desert to escape from Sorah’s mistreatment.
Why aren’t we deeply disturbed when we read this story every year? Some very frum intelligent people have told me over the years, “you’re right. Sorah was wrong. It was an aveira. The Ramban says so”. I must tell you however that even to a simple intellect like me, that answer is unacceptable. When the Avos and Imahos hakadoshim did something wrong, our tradition tells us that it was on a barely detectable level. The way I presented the story, Sorah comes across like an evil stepmother in a bad fairytale! Could you imagine a biography of a great Rebbetzin with such a story in it! Is this what people think every Shabbos night when they are mivarech their children to grow up like Sorah Imaynu? No wonder everyone wants boys! Chas VaShalom to present Sorah Imaynu in such a light.
Reb Yitchok Izzik Sher, the Rosh Yeshiva of Slobadka gives a mehalach that sheds light on this difficult story. But first a commercial announcement. I was speaking someplace recently and someone came up to me to tell me that they had listened to all my tapes. Now, as I have over two hundred tapes on various topics, I concluded that this fellow must be a real glutton for punishment. But then he said something that made me thrilled that I had made all these tapes. He said he was so intrigued by the ideas that I had said over by Reb Yitchok Izzik, that he went out and bought both volumes of Leket Sichos Mussar. And he agreed with me that it was one of the best investments he ever made. To me, there isn’t one idea that I have gleaned from those seforim that hasn’t touched my life. If you are going to buy a sefer on Parsha, or the Chagim, or Mussar, please consider those.
Sorah Imaynu was married to Avraham for many years without having children. Once they moved to Eretz Yisroel, however, the clock started ticking. If in ten years she didn’t have a child, then Avraham would have to take another wife. Can you imagine a more painful experience than that of Sorah at the end of those ten years? She now has a new task – finding a wife for her own husband. I once heard of a woman who knew she was dying. Her one great fear was that her husband would never remarry and her children wouldn’t have a mother. She was asking around about available women, hoping to find someone appropriate for her own husband. It is hard to imagine a more pathetic scenario.
Obviously Sorah wanted to find a wife for Avraham who would be someone like herself, someone who had also worked on herself to develop into a spiritual paragon. Who was Hagar? An Egyptian princess. What could have motivated her to give up the life in the palace to become a slave? Money, power, honor? The royal family were worshipped as gods, all the money Avraham had he had gotten from her father. There was only one thing Avrahams home could offer her – spiritual greatness. She was willing to become a slave, not a hanger-on, not an honored guest, not an observer, but rather a slave. She wanted to submit herself totally to Avraham and Sorah and in the process attain what they had attained. She wanted to be Sorah.
And after ten years of hard work she had achieved it. She had become the second most spiritually developed woman in the world. So when Sorah had to pick a wife for Avraham, who was more appropriate than the person who had spent ten years trying to become Sorah? ותקח שרה As Rashi explains, she had to be convinced that she was worthy of this task. But Sorah felt that Hagar, with her coaching could serve the role as a surrogate for Sorah herself.
That, at least was the plan. Then Hagar became pregnant. And Hagar thought to herself “Wow! Who could believe it! Sorah, my rebbe couldn’t get pregnant all these years and I became pregnant immediately. Hard as it is to believe, I must have become even greater than Sorah. I guess I haven’t realized how much I’ve accomplished these past ten years.”
As every rebbe knows, there is one student who it is impossible to teach – the one who knows more than you. A number of times in the gemera you find a story where someone asks a question and the amora responds, “I’ll answer you, but first carry my towel to the bathhouse”. Carrying someone’s towel to the bathhouse is a sign of servitude. It’s one of the menial tasks you’re not allowed to ask an עבד עברי to do for you because it’s too demeaning. Why ask someone to do something demeaning just because they want an answer to a question? Obviously they could tell by the way they were asked the question that the person didn't take them seriously enough. You can’t answer someone who knows more than you. You want my opinion? First show me you are prepared to take me seriously. I was once in shiur when the bochurim were arguing with the Rosh HaYeshiva Reb Zvi Kushelefsky שליט"א in a manner that was a little too inappropriate. Reb Zvi, paused and said, “you know, I’ve also learnt this Meiri. I’ve also thought about it a little bit”. You want to ask, fine. But remember who is the Rebbe and who is the talmid.
Sorah could tell from Hagar’s attitude that something had changed, subtly to be sure, but changed none the less. Sorah went to Avraham and said “I don’t know what you did, but you just managed to destroy the second most spiritually developed woman in the world.” Avraham said “look, she’s your talmida, you’ve brought her to where she is, you do what you think is right.”
And what does Sorah do? ותענה שרה, “she oppressed her”. Now how do you oppress a spiritually developed person? Scream at her? Beat her? The Chazal tell us that that’s all part of a rebbe’s prerogative. Not today of course, because we are such a weak generation. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard for us to do tshuva – we can’t handle being told we’ve done anything wrong. But that’s for a different article. Says Reb Yitzchok Izzik, says there’s only one way to oppress a person like this. Cut her off from her source of spirituality. Can’t you almost picture the scene? Hagar comes in like she usually does, externally submitting herself to her rebbe and says “what are we going to learn today?” And Sorah says “Oh no, I have nothing left to teach you. You are greater than me. Why don’t you teach me something?’ Now that’s a potch. Can there be anything worse than a talmid hearing such words from a rebbe, seeing through to their very core, stripping away the act that they think the rebbe must be falling for?
So she runs away. Understandable. Rav Shalom Shwardron זצ"ל tells of the time he was a bochur in the Chevron Yeshiva and the yeshiva was davening mincha. The shliach tzibbur noticed as he finished chazaras hashatz that it was after sunset. He was lookingaround to find out if he should say tachanun and Rav Shalom, then just a bochur, told him to say kaddish. After mincha the mashgiach, Reb Leib Chasman gave a clop on the bima and said “I would like to ask all the Roshei Yeshiva to leave the Mizrach wall. We have a new Rosh Yeshiva and Posek in the yeshiva.” All eyes turned to Reb Shalom. The mashgiach continued, “I would like to ask the new Rosh Yeshiva to bring me a chalek bais of mishna berura.” Reb Shalom said he didn’t know how his feet moved. Somehow he managed to bring him the sefer and Reb Leib Chasman read out the halacha that in such instances you say tachanun even after sundown. Reb Shalom said he ran to his apartment and stayed there for two days until the mashgiach sent another bochur with the message that he wanted to see Reb Shalom. He said he didn’t know if he was more frightened to go or to stay. He decided he was more afraid not to go. The mashgiach reassured him that he would grow from this experience. Reb Shalom said the mashgiach was like a surgeon, sticking in the knife and pulling out half of my gayva. “I just regret” he would recall winsomely “that he didn’t pull out the other half”.
It wasn’t another student who came to get Hagar, it was a malach telling her to return to Sorah and submit yourself to her, because therein lies your greatness. Hagar returns, she tries, but she never really manages to give up her own self-interest. She wanted to be Hagar more than she wanted to be Sorah. And she has a son, a son who could have attained his greatness by trying to become a Yitzchok. Instead he wanted to be Yishmael. In fact he says to Yitzchok, “I’m greater than you! I had my bris milah at thirteen, you only had yours at eight days.” Sorah said to Avraham “like mother like son. Hagar thinks she’s greater than me, Yishmael thinks he’s greater than Yitzchok. Send them back to Egypt. Let her be a princess, that will make her happier.” The end of the story is that Yishmael does tshuva, Rashi explains, when he is prepared to let Yitzchok go before him at Avraham’s levaya.
The reason we know nothing about Bilha and Zilpa, I believe, is for exactly this reason. Because if we did they never would have been able to become the mothers of a fourth of klal Yisroel. You see, Bilha and Zilpa succeeded where Hagar failed. They became Rochel and Leah. We don’t say Yisamaich Elokim kiSorah Rivka Rochel Leah, Bilha and Zilpa because it would be the same thing as saying Yisimaich Elokim kisarah, rivka rochel leah, rochel and Leah. Their greatness was they were able to become their rebbeim. To achieve a greatness they never could have if they had insisted on being only themselves.
There is a dichotomy to the Jewish people. The Avos are promised that we will be like the dust of the Earth and the stars in the heaven. The difference on one level is that a dust mote has very little value. It’s strength comes from it’s ability to lose itself in billions of other dust motes and form solid ground. On the other hand the stars of the heaven are numerous, but each one has an individual identity. We have to strive to become something more than just an individual. We have to strive to become something greater than ourselves, and be willing to emulate and serve those great people who can help us achieve that greatness. Only then can we shine like individual stars.
Reb Itzila Blazer was the Rav of St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian empire. But he gave up that position to become a talmid to Reb Yisroel Salanter. Why be me, he must have thought, when I can try to become Reb Yisroel? Reb Boruch Ber had written many chiddushim before he went off to learn by Reb Chaim Solovechik. After he had learnt his Rebbe’s mihalech, he refused to publish his earlier chiddushim. Why be Reb Boruch Ber when I can be Reb Chaim? Reb Yaakov Kaminetzky once said of my Rebbe Reb Chenoch Leibowitz, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim that he was the greatest talmid of the Alter of Slobodka, even though they had never met. Obviously Reb Yaakov felt that Reb Chenoch had strived his whole life to become the Alter, instead of merely being himself.
People always hang a picture on their wall of who they aspire to be in life. In the outside wall the pictures are athletes or music stars, actors or millionaires. We put up pictures of gedolei Torah. Why be just me, when I can be a malach. And so my fervent hope is the same as every Jewish parent throughout the generations. I hope my little Mindel grows up to become, not just Mindel Orlofsky, but Sorah, Rivka, Rochel and Leah.