I love this week’s parshah. Three is something about the ladder dream that evokes the deepest and most profound longings for seeing the flow of Hashem’s will and human choice meet. There are many ways to phrase this; “An awaking from below draws down an awaking from Above”. Tefillah goes up, and salvation comes down”’, Distancing from Hashem goes up, and exile comes down”. The message is that the relationship between Hashem’s unknowable infinity and His compassion and our deeds and longings is real.
When I was growing up, was an avid reader (probably because being an only child is so boring), and the theme of book after book was that it’s No One’s Fault. If people were mistreated, they inevitably would become enraged and explode with violence. The only other option open to the mistreated folks who could do no wrong, was servile mindlessness passivity. From Upton Sinclair’s lurid portrayal of the meat factories (the option the workers chose was passivity and despair) the pro-violence protest books, the theme of blamelessness was engraved in cement. Soul on Ice (the option there was shall we say more active…) in the more sophisticated books, the victims of the victims and even the oppressors all had something in common. Absolute absence of real accountability or recognizing the consequences of their choices.
In Bais Yaakov, I heard an entirely different narrative. It was a given that you have choices to make. Ramban told us astounded juniors in BY High that the main focus of the entire book of Breishis to inform you of the consequence of choices that you make.
No. Adam didn’t need therapy; he needed more humility and more awe of the One who made him; he needed to listen to Hashem’s word. The generation of the flood were not innocent lost flower children, victims of their times. They were accountable. They turned into a generation of exploiters whose desires redefined what being a human is all about. The folks who built a tower had created a human centered world, (much as the Greeks tried to do thousands of years later) were accountable for treating Hashem is a competitor.
People made other choices. Avraham chose both knowing G-d and walking in His ways. Sara, who was one of the worlds’ most beautiful women, chose modesty and restraint. Yitzchak chose devotion even when that would mean extinguishing the “I”. RIvka chose to be whatever her depraved family wasn’t. Then the story gets more complicated.
When you look at Yaakov and Eisov the old determinism raises its head. How much choice did either of them really have? Why Yaakov’s greatness should be credited to him when it was inherent. Why Eisov should be held accountable for being what was so clearly the logical outcome of his most essential nature. Yes there were choices.
Many of you are familiar with the concept (mentioned by Ramban) that we know what Eisov looked like because unlike the way things usually play out, he was what he looked like he was. “Red” passionate, fiery. “Hairy” ready to absorb whatever his senses told him would give him pleasure. You also may have heard that the other person thus described was King David, who had all of the same proclivities but he used them positively. He was a warrior, but fought against evil. He was passionate, so he wrote Tehillim. There still may be a small voice that tells you that some paths are easier than others.
The sages say (Makkos 9) that “The way a person wants to walk is the way they lead him.” What this means is that if you find someone doing the kind of deeds that leave you breathless with their beauty (think of Moshe, who could have lived the life of an Egyptian prince) choosing to live the kind of life he lived. His story includes Pharaoh’s daughter, who saved him for certain death. Was she just in the right time in the right place? It was what she really wanted, and Hashem took her to where she wanted to be.
Maharshah (Rav SHmuel Edel’s 1555-1631, one of the greatest analytic minds when it comes to grasping the aggadic sections of the Talmud as well at the more studied sections. He was also a great scholar known for his analysis of Rashi and Tosephos.) Adds a crucial thought that changes (at least for me) the entire picture. He asks, “Who is the “they” in the statement made by the sages. Wouldn’t it flow better if it said, “The way a man wants to go, and He leads him”? They, he explains, can only be understood when you understand the huge effect your choices have on the person that you decide to be. Whenever you make a choice to do a good deed, the story doesn’t end there. You created a “good angel”, a positive force that will come down as a result of what you have chosen to do. The same thing takes place in reverse when you make a bad choice. It doesn’t end with the moment or with you.
When you want to make something of yourself, all of your positive choices will lead you to being where you want to be at the end of your story. Your “angels” ascend the ladder, and the angels that Hashem sends down will give you the strength to evolve as the person that you want to be.
What does that mean for you?
It means that your small choices are important. That your deeds may not seem impressive when you look at each one individually, but they have enormous force. They lead you to the next choice, and the next one. Each of you has her own definition of “small choice”.
The Maharsha’s mother in law was a wealthy woman. Instead using her wealth to live a life of luxury, she chose to maintain her son-in-law’s yeshiva for twenty years. He used her name (Edel) as his own last name. Did she know that almost every addition of the Talmud would have her son in law’s comments included? Of course not. The deeds she did took her where she wanted to go.