12 Oct PARSHAS LECH LECHA: “PSHAT” IN RASHI – DEVELOPING POTENTIAL
How Did Rashi Know That?
The Almighty informs Avraham Avinu that his wife will have a child: “And G-d said to Avraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife—do not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. I will bless her, and, I will also give you a son through her; I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples will rise from her.’” [Bereishis 17:15] Avraham is flabbergasted to receive this prophecy, but then he says, “O that Yishmael might live before You.” [Bereishis 17:18] Rashi interprets “Would that Yishmael should live! I am not worthy to receive a grant of reward such as this.”
Then the pasuk continues: “Indeed your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Yitzchak; and I will fulfill My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. But regarding Yishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful and will increase him most exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes (shneim asar Nesi’im) and I will make him into a great nation.” [Bereishis 17:19-20]
Rashi comments on the fact that Hashem promised to give Yishmael twelve princes (Nesi’im): “They will disappear like clouds.” (The word nesi’im can also mean clouds) “as in the pasuk ‘clouds and wind’ (nesi’im v’ruach)” [Mishlei 25:14]. We use this latter meaning of the word in tefilas geshem [the prayer for rain recited on Shmini Atzeres] and in the Hoshanos (that are recited on Succos). Rashi is interpreting this pasuk, in which Hashem is promising Yishmael nesi’im (as opposed to Sarim or Roshim, which also mean princes or leaders), as not such good news. Yishmael will have princes alright, but they will be like clouds (nesi’im). Clouds come and clouds go! Clouds disappear! The twelve princes Yishmael will have are no big deal. They will dissipate like clouds.
The Tolner Rebbe asks a question. Rashi says in the beginning of Bereishis [3:8] “I have only come to provide the p’shuto shel mikra [the simple interpretation of Scripture].” In other words, Rashi realizes that if he wanted to explain the pesukim of Chumash according to all the Medrashic interpretations, then a set of Chumash with Rashi would be as big as a set of shas. There are thousands of medrashim. Rashi makes it clear in Sefer Bereishis that he does not consider it his mission to provide a Medrashic interpretation of Scripture. Certainly, Rashi occasionally quotes Medrashic interpretations, and he typically will label an interpretation as such. However, Rashi considers his job to say “p’shat” [the simple interpretation of the pesukim of Chumash].
Given that “job description” of Rashi— to say p’shat—why does he interpret the pasuk regarding Yishamel “he will give birth to twelve nesi’im” in this way? The linkage to the pasuk in Mishlei regarding the clouds certainly does not seem to be the simple interpretation! Where does Rashi see that this interpretation of the word nesi’im becomes peshuto shel mikra in this context?
This question did not originate with the Tolner Rebbe. The super commentaries on Rashi—the Mizrachi, the Maharal, and others—are troubled by this comment of Rashi as well. It is a strange Rashi. Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi answers that if it really meant princes, it should have used a more common Biblical expression for political and military leaders—sarim, alufim, etc. Since the relatively unusual expression for head of a tribe—nesi’im—is used, it means dissipating like clouds.
But this answer leaves something to be desired. Is nesi’im such an uncommon expression? The argument can be made that it is every bit as natural to use nesi’im as it is sarim and alufim! What kind of answer is this?
The Tolner Rebbe gives a brilliant interpretation: The solution lies in a Medrash Tanchuma in Parshas Vayechi. When Yaakov Avinu blesses the twelve tribes on his deathbed, the Medrash says “All these tribes of Israel, twelve in number, these are the Tribes.” The pasuk there uses the expression “Kol eleh shivtei Yisrael, shneim asar” but by Yishmael the pasuk says “twelve nesi’im he will father (yolid)”. The Medrash contrasts the Biblical expression used to describe the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve princes of Yishmael.
What is the contrast? The Tolner Rebbe says the key to the contrast lies in one word: shneim asar nesi’im yolid. What is unusual about this expression? The expression is unusual because a person does not give birth to a prince. No one is born a nasi. No one is born President of the United States. You become President. You need to work your way into the job. What does it mean “he will give birth to twelve princes?”
The Tolner Rebbe explains that this is the fundamental nature of Yishmael. Yishmael is about extraordinary potential that was there at birth but was never developed. When someone has extraordinary potential that was never developed, nothing comes from it. He gives an example.
Sometimes a youngster is a child prodigy (an illuyishe kid), a genius of a child. People may assume the child will grow up to be the next gadol hador! However, genius needs to be cultivated. It must be nurtured. A child prodigy may sit down at the piano and play beautiful music when he is three years old. If someone takes that three year old and sends him to the Julliard School of Music where he can be trained and develop his talent, then he can become something special. However, if someone has a child genius—whether in math, science, music, or art, or in learning—and no one works with him and develops him, nothing will come of him. (If someone has been in Yeshiva long enough, he sees this often.)
Hashem tells Avraham, “Avraham, you prayed for Yishmael. Okay. Your prayers will be answered. He will give birth to twelve princes—child prodigies with awesome potential. But the promise is only that they will be that way at birth. Let’s see what he does with them!” Yishmael, unfortunately has a history of not developing his talent.
That is the point of the Medrash. “All these are the Tribes of Israel….” Yaakov Avinu had twelve sons by his death bed. They were not all perfect. But they worked on themselves. They developed. There on his death bed, Yaakov Avinu was still giving them mussar. “You still have not perfected yourselves.” This is Klal Yisrael. Klal Yisrael were not perfect from birth. They had to develop, they had to work, and they had to sweat. Yishmael fathered “twelve princes” from the moment of their birth. That is the difference.
From this, the Tolner Rebbe goes on to decry the phenomenon we have in our day and time of a “Yeshiva for metzuyanim” [A yeshiva for geniuses]. Sometimes a good boy is not the brightest child, but he is willing to work hard to achieve in learning. Many times, his parents will apply to get him into a high quality Yeshiva and they are told “No. We cannot take him into our school. He is not a genius.” So what if he is not a genius? He is a “plugger”! At the end of the day, that wins the race. You want geniuses? That is Yishmael. Klal Yisrael is “Kol Eleh Shivtei Yisrael – twelve in number.”
He slams the concept of Yeshivas where everybody must be “above average.”
Travelling a Circuitous Route before “Tying the Knot”
The other observation I would like to share is a story I heard in the middle of last winter. The details of the story were becoming a bit hazy, but I decided I wanted to tell over the story this week. The fellow who told me the story last winter is Yosef Chaim Golding. I have worked with him in the past, but do not see or talk to him on a regular basis. Amazingly, just this Tuesday, unexpectedly, he called me about something. I asked him to please tell me over again the story he told me last winter. Here is the story:
A couple of years ago, we said a shiur on the week of Parshas Lech Lecha about tying shoes. The Halacha proscribes an appropriate sequence for putting on and tying shoes based on the laws of putting on hand tefillin (which we put on the left hand and tie with the right hand). Usually, we give the right side precedence. Therefore, we first put on our right shoes and then our left shoes. However, by tying, we tie the left shoe first, just as we tie tefillin on our left arms.
The connection between shoes and tefillin is learned from this week’s parsha where Avraham comments that he would not take from the King of Sodom “neither a thread nor a shoelace” (so that the king not later claim that he was responsible for Avraham’s wealth). The gemara in Chullin comments that because of this statement of Avraham, his descendants merited receiving the mitzvoth of techeiles [the blue thread on the tzitzis fringes] and tefillin (represented by the “shoelace“). Since the Talmud makes a connection between tefillin and shoelaces, the tying of shoes is supposed to correspond with the tying of tefillin (where the left side has precedence).