Part I. Prayers of the Righteous
AVRAHAM’S SUCCESS AND SORROW
In our parsha we read about what should have been the pinnacle of Avraham’s career – he was returning now as a great and successful general from the victorious battle he waged to save his nephew Lot. He had chased the enemy from the south all the way up to Syria, and there, with strategy and cunning, he attacked and defeated the powerful kings. And now he came back to a hero’s welcome as a victorious conqueror, bringing back all the booty and captives. All the kings came out to greet him: וּמַלְכִּי צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן (Lech Lecha 14:18). They all gave their blessings to the great conqueror.
In addition to that, besides for the great honor and glory showered upon him by the kings of Canaan, Hakadosh Baruch Hu revealed Himself to Avraham at that time: אַל תִּירָא אַבְרָם אָנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ שְׂכָרְךָ הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד – Avram, you have nothing to fear; I will be a shield for you and your reward will be very great (ibid. 15:1). Now if Hakadosh Baruch Hu says that, it means something. Even if He would have said, “You have a reward,” it would have been something tremendous – we would love to hear such promises from Hashem. And here Hashem said, “Your reward is very great.” Not just great – very great.
Now, what did Avraham say when he heard that guarantee from Hashem? He said like this: הַשֵּׁם אֱלֹקִים מַה תִּתֶּן לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי – Hashem what good is everything that You’re promising to give me if I’m going childless (ibid. 2). “What good is it?,” said Avraham. “It’s all worthless to me if I’m going to suffer the anguish of childlessness in this world!”
Now, we understand that if he spoke in such terms, it must have been an expression of the deep anguish and sorrow that he and Sarah felt without a child of their own. We have no idea what Avraham and Sarah went through waiting for a yeshua.
AVRAHAM LIVED THE GOOD LIFE
Now, it’s important to note at the outset, that Avraham and Sarah were happy people; together they were one of the most successful husband and wife conglomerates who ever lived. First of all, they were extremely wealthy. Avraham was כָּבֵד מְאֹד; he was very rich in livestock, which was considered wealth in those days. And he had gold and silver in abundance; it says that openly.
In addition, Avraham was extremely respected, even by all the gentiles around him. “You are the prince of Elokim among us,” they said (23:6). He was famed among the nations. The Rambam states in his Hilchos Avodah Zarah (1:3) that tens of thousands of men congregated around him; he had audiences that would be considered large even today. Ancient writers – Greek historians – declare that Avraham was the one who taught mathematics and astronomy to the Egyptian priests. Josephus, quoting ancient sources, says that Avaraham even composed books. There’s one book extant today, that according to tradition was originally begun by Avraham Avinu. By all accounts he was a very successful man, and all of this success was shared by Sarah, his partner in all of his happiness and avodas Hashem.
And yet, despite all of the good times, despite all of their success and happiness, they were pining for a child. Now we understand that they didn’t just have a desire to clutch a baby – to fondle a child like people who want to play with a doll. They had much more than that on their minds.
The Rambam declares in Moreh Nevuchim (3:51) that the sole aspiration of our forefathers was l’haamid umah ovedes Hashem – to raise up a people that would serve Hashem. That was the dearest desire of our Avos and Imahos and if they could not raise up an army of the people of Hashem, they felt that their existence was wasted.
If they weren’t going to be able to pass on the great ideals to a son who would someday produce a great nation of servants of Hashem, if all their ideals were going to die out with them, then it all meant nothing to them. הַשֵּׁם אֱלֹקִים מַה תִּתֶּן לִי – “Hashem, what are you giving me? It’s all nothing!”
TERACH, LAVAN AND LOT
Now, you must know that this suffering of Avraham and Sarah bothered our chachomim very much: מִפְּנֵי מַה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ עֲקוּרִים – Why were avoseinu, our forefathers infertile? (Yevamos 64a). It wasn’t only Avraham and Sarah – it was a recurring phenomenon – they all had difficulty having children. Yitzchok and Rivkah, Yaakov and Rachel. For years and years they waited and prayed.
And yet, everybody else, as soon as they got married, they immediately had children. Terach, Avraham’s father, had children. Look at Lavan; Lavan had children right away. Lot had children. They’re from Avraham’s family and they didn’t have to wait long. Hagar didn’t suffer from childlessness; she had children right away. And here was Avraham, אַבְרָהָם אֹהֲבִי, the one who loves Me, and his wife, the righteous Sarah who has no equal among women, and they had to wait and wait for years.
Our sages studied this phenomenon. We see a pattern, some sort of plan and purpose here that deserves an explanation. It wasn’t ‘an accident of fate’, after all. Surely these great people were not subject to accidents of nature. It was the hand of Hakodosh Boruch Hu!
And so our sages wanted to know: Why didn’t Hashem give them the happiness and success of having children that they deserved? Why did our forefathers have to be childless so long whereas others, less worthy people, had no trouble at all having children. Who else in the world deserved to be made happy, if not our Avos and Imahos?
HASHEM LIKES YOUR VOICE
And the gemara answers like this: מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מִתְאַוֶּה לִתְפִלָּתָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים – Because Hakadosh Baruch Hu desires the prayers of tzaddikim. He longs for their prayers. We find a similar language, with more detail in the Yalkut Shim’oni: לָמָּה נִתְעַקְּרוּ הָאִמָּהוֹת – Why were the matriarchs childless? שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מִתְאַוֶּה לְשִׂיחָתָן– Because Hakadosh Baruch Hu desires their words, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר יוֹנָתִי בְּחַגְוֵי הַסֶּלַע – Like Hashem said to the Am Yisroel: My dove in the clefts of the rock, הַשְׁמִיעִינִי אֶת קוֹלֵךְ – Let Me hear your voice, כִּי קוֹלֵךְ עָרֵב, because your voice is sweet to Me.
All those years that Avraham and Sarah were crying out to Hakodosh Boruch Hu for children, He was enjoying their voice. Hakadosh Baruch Hu is declaring to the Am Yisroel the secret to much of the tzaros that we undergo in this world: He wishes to hear our voice; He wants us to pray!
Now, that answer doesn’t satisfy us because we don’t yet understand what it means that Hashem desires our prayers. Does Hashem needs a man’s prayers?! Chas v’shalom; He has no need for it at all. He has no needs, no desires, that we know. And so we understand that when Hakadosh Baruch Hu desires something from a man it is not for Himself; it’s for that man’s benefit. It’s man who needs the prayers.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants to do a benefit to those He loves, to make them as great as possible, and therefore He squeezes them with difficulties. He’s squeezing tefillah from them. When people are brought to tefillah, when they are induced to pray to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, they are the ones who are succeeding – and that’s what Hashem desires, the success of the Am Yisroel.
THE GREATNESS OF TEFILLAH
We have to realize that of all the ideals, of all the achievements that a man must accomplish in his lifetime, the most important one is yiras Hashem. We say it all the time: רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה – What’s the most important of all wisdoms? יִרְאַת הַשֵּׁם – The fear of Hashem. Everyone says the words but we don’t realize what we’re saying. Pay attention now. Yiras Hashem means to be aware of the presence of Hakadosh Baruch Hu as a keil chai v’kayom, a real living G-d. The highest achievement in wisdom, is Awareness of Hashem – that’s the great purpose of life.
And yet, even though we live our lives with this Torah principle of emunah, of belief in Hashem, but actually it has a very faint effect on our minds. Emunah, yiras Hashem, Awareness – they’re all beautiful ideals that have not yet set into our souls.
But when some situation comes up and we respond by turning to Hashem with urgency and desperation, then the benefit we gain thereby is extremely great – that’s when Awareness of Hashem becomes seared into our minds. There’s no question that when people are mispallel with sincerity it causes them to have more Awareness of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. And because there is nothing more valuable in this world than yiras Hashem, a prayer that comes from a feeling of longing and need is actually a great stroke of good fortune for us.
EIGHTY YEARS OF DAVENING
All those years that Avraham and Sarah were begging for a son, they were becoming more and more aware of Hashem, more and more successful in this world. And it’s a remarkable thing – Hakadosh Baruch Hu didn’t let up! He kept pressing on them more and more.
Avraham was in his seventies when he pleaded with Hashem: הַשֵּׁם אֱלֹקִים מַה תִּתֶּן לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי – Hashem what good is everything that You’re promising to give me if I’m going childless (ibid. 2). And nothing happened! They were denied children for still another thirty years. And the purpose was, because Hashem wanted to get out of them thirty more years of prayer.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu pressed and pressed, and Avraham and Sarah responded with the achievement of more and more Awareness. They poured out their hearts in prayer, day in and day out for another thirty years. They were praying, begging, for close to a century, and every time they cried out they became more aware. They weren’t talking to themselves after all. If you’re crying out to Someone, if you’re talking to Someone then that Somebody becomes more real to you. And so Hashem pressed and pressed on Avraham and Sarah, and they became greater and greater every day.
AVRAHAM WAS ALREADY AWARE
Now, we have to understand that Avraham and Sarah were great to start with. Avraham was the most original thinker the world ever saw; he was more aware of Hashem than anybody else. The Rambam explains that Avraham made his great journey towards Hashem by studying all the phenomena around him. He studied the world around him and in every flower, every leaf, every plant, every fruit, every animal, every cloud, he saw plan and purpose. He saw that Hakadosh Baruch Hu had filled the world with wisdom in order to teach man to be Aware of Him.
Avraham was a very precocious boy. בֶּן שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים הִכִּיר אַבְרָהָם אֶת בּוֹרְאוֹ – Already at the age of three Avraham began to recognize the presence of the Creator. And as he grew older he became more and more keenly aware of Hashem’s presence until בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה הִכִּיר אֶת בּוֹרְאוֹ – at the age of forty he recognized the Creator again. That means that he didn’t desist from thinking – he continued making progress all his life.
Not like people coming to a shmues, a lecture, and they are convinced, but they go home and forget all about it. Avraham took every advance that he made, and he intensified his awareness by doing more and more. If anyone had awareness of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, it was this great man.
AVRAHAM ON THE WINE-PRESS
And so, it seems to us that Avraham didn’t need any more prodding from Hashem; he was making tremendous progress on his own. And yet Hashem had other plans, better plans for Avraham and Sarah.
It’s like a man who has a vineyard that produces good quality grapes; blue-blooded grapes with yichus. So he puts them on the wine press and gives a kvetch and he squeezes out the precious juice. But even when the juice comes out, it’s a pity to take that mash, the residue, and throw it away. So he decides to press it a little more; he puts it back on the wine press and gives another kvetch. And a little more good wine squirts out. And even that’s not enough for him. He says, “I can’t leave any wine inside the peel. Maybe there’s some more good wine in there.” So he puts it under the press again and puts some more pressure to get out the last drop!
Hashem wanted to press from Avraham and Sarah all the prayers – all the Awareness of Hashem – that He could get out of them, because the more precious the grapes, the more precious are the drops that are extracted.
PRECIOUS DROPS OF AWARENESS
And so Hashem denied this righteous couple a son; He forced them under the pressure of sorrow to achieve even more perfection. Hakadosh Baruch Hu pressed them to pray with all their hearts. And Avraham began crying out even more than ever before; he and Sarah looked to Hashem and shed tears: “Hashem please, You’re the only One who can save us; It’s in Your power.” – they constantly cried out to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
And all these years they were making progress that raised them to heights way beyond what they were able to accomplish by their own efforts. The perfection that comes from the anguish of a person longing for something and turning to the only One who can give it, that perfection is incomparable to anything else.
As a result of their ordeal they achieved their purpose in this world – they became great in Awareness of Hashem! Tangible emunah! That’s the prime achievement of a person’s life. And the pressure from Hakodosh Boruch Hu was their stepping stone to this greatness.
Part II. Our Prayers
A NATION OF GRAPES
Now you have to know that we too are good grapes – we’re not the rare quality of Avraham and Sarah but we’re the best there is, and therefore Hashem wants to press from us all the yiras Hashem that He could in order that we should fulfill our purpose here. The purpose of life is not merely to continue to exist, like rabbits and squirrels exist. “I expect much more from you,” says Hashem.
Now the truth is, rabbits and squirrels are very useful in this world; they live purposeful lives. Squirrels, when they’re busy burying acorns, they may think they’re preparing food for the next spring. But really they’re planting some more oak trees. Many squirrels never live to dig out those acorns they planted. But the oak trees begin to grow. And so they’re very important. Rabbits too, they’re busy catching field mice or doing other useful things. They’re not wasting their lives; they’re busy fulfilling the plan of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
But we can’t just live in this world and then go into oblivion like animals. Hakadosh Baruch Hu didn’t give us life just to plant oak trees without thought, like a squirrel. And so He squeezes us here and there. Hakadosh Baruch Hu is waiting to hear from us. And therefore, all our lives, whenever we are pressed by a crisis, we have to know why it’s happening.
CHECKING YOUR MEZUZOS
“What does Hakadosh Baruch Hu want of me? Maybe I should I check my mezuzos?” he thinks. “Maybe I should be bodek my tzitzis and my tefillin? Should I give more tzedakah?” Of course there’s nothing wrong in doing all these good things. Certainly Hashem wants your tefillin and mezuzos to be kosher. Certainly, He wants you to give tzedakah. All of those good things he wants from you.
But among everything, what He chiefly desires is that you should cry out. Not once and not twice; over and over again you should cry out with all your heart. Pour out your heart to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. And that’s going to be a success that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants for you. And if subsequently He grants your request and you’re redeemed from your tribulations, and from then on you live a tranquil life, don’t think that now you’ve achieved the purpose of life – to live successfully and happily. No; your success was already achieved when you were in the midst of the tzarah and you called out to Hashem. And the more you called out, the more you thought about Hashem, the more successful you are.
OTHER WAYS OF SUCCESS
Now you might ask, why did Hakadosh Baruch Hu have to make people succeed in such a way? Why shouldn’t He give us other ways, happier ways of becoming aware of Hashem? So, it’s very important to realize that the pressure, the squeezing of the grapes, is a tiny portion of man’s experiences.
Most of people’s lives are spent happily. Most of your days are spent without headaches, without aches and pains. Most of your days you’re able to function. Inside your body everything is working. There are so many different parts that have to work perfectly and everything is functioning smoothly. The great majority of Mankind, most of their lives, are given the opportunity to call out to Hashem in happiness and become aware of Him that way. You can squeeze out Awareness of Hashem that way too. Unfortunately, however, we’re not doing it. Who’s fault is that?
HASHEM PRESSES DOWN
When the grape doesn’t yield its wine readily; it has to be crushed. And even good people sometimes have to be crushed by some tzaar. I don’t want to say misfortune, because it isn’t a misfortune. But it’s a tzaar, a distress, and it causes them to grow in emunah and awareness, and that’s the greatest benefit a man can achieve in this world. Reishis chochmah, the highest achievement in wisdom, is yiras Hashem. And that’s what Hakadosh Baruch Hu desires from us. That’s what it means הקב”ה מִתְאַוֶּה לִתְפִלָּתָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים, that He desires our prayers.
And so Hakodosh Boruch Hu presses us with all kinds of pressure. One pressure might be trouble with parnassah, another might be trouble with your children, or trouble having children, chas v’shalom. Many single people need shidduchim. Many people are crowded in small apartments. And when you cry out to Hashem, that’s the Good Wine of Awareness dripping from the Good Grapes of your neshama. When your heart is torn with anguish, and you turn to Hashem for His help, that’s already a success. When you weep and you pour out your heart in tefillah, that’s the good wine that Hakodosh Boruch Hu wants from you. And sometimes He might press you again and again and again, and the good grapes will keep on giving good wine.
And so when a man has trouble; he’s being threatened with bankruptcy, or with illness, or some other peril, he has to understand that this is sent from heaven as an incentive to become great. No matter what happens the results will be good, but there’s no better outcome than the achievement of reishis chochma, Awareness of Hashem.
OPEN YOUR BIG MOUTH
And not only big perils – little ones too; ask Hashem for everything. Hakadosh Baruch Hu says, Harchev picha, open your mouth wide – it doesn’t refer to the freezer, for ice-cream – it means, “Open your mouth in tefillah to Me. The more your mouth is open wide to ask Me for help, the more of a success you are.”
And so anytime something that seems to be a misfortune occurs, we already know one reason for that. Right away you know that it’s for your benefit, so that you should be brought to tefillah. But not only tefillah that you say by rote, or rapidly. If all you do is daven three times a day by rote, if that’s all you’ll do, then it’s a great tragedy. We’re talking now about tefillah that’s squeezed out of you like a good wine, when the heavy beam of the wine press comes down on the grapes.
Jewish people are a praying people; nobody prays like Jews pray. And if today it has fallen asleep, it’s because Judaism has fallen asleep. That a big part of our lives is wasted away by rattling off words, is a tragedy of immense proportions. Those who saw the old time synagogues – even in America, way back, where the immigrant Jews used to pray – that was prayer. There was shouting and weeping.
SCANDAL IN THE SYNAGOGUE
Of course, the more modern Jews don’t understand that, but that’s what tefillah is. Once a meshulach was stuck in Germany, in a small town, Heidelsberg, for Rosh Hashana. It’s a true story; he was a Polish Jew, so he prayed as he was accustomed. And he wept and he prayed with outcry. So the gabbai, the German gabai came over to him, and said, “Machen sie keine skandale” – “Don’t make any scandals in the synagogue!” Many Jews follow the Gentile customs and have lost contact with the Jewish concept of prayer. A Jew prays because he believes in Hakadosh Baruch Hu. He’s talking, begging, cajoling, crying to a Real Being. And the more he prays, the more he believes.
If you’re a young man, and the shadchan has given you a telephone number, so before you call up, bother Hakadosh Baruch Hu. He’s waiting for you. And when the time comes to meet the first time, say a tefillah that if it’s the right one, He should give you success.
PRAYING IN MIDDLE OF LEARNING
If you’re a yeshiva man, beginning a new mesichta, or a new perek, so before you start, don’t demonstrate that you’re relying on כֹּחִי וְעוֹצֵם יָדִי, that you’re a ba’al kishron, you have the abilities, that you have good chavrusahs, and you’ll be diligent. No, that’s all koach basar v’dam. Before you begin, ask Hakadosh Baruch Hu, יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם שֶׁתַּצְלִיחֵנִי בְּמֶסִּכְתָּא זוּ, בְּפֶרֶק זוּ – “Hashem please help me succeed in learning this perek.”
Greater men than you, men with greater heads than you’ll ever have, constantly asked Hakadosh Baruch Hu for help. In the middle of learning too. Reb Yehoshua Leib Diskin zichrono levracha, whenever he came to a difficult thing, he said a tefillah. Before he started a difficult sugya he asked Hashem for help. Of course, you can’t say a tefillah every line, but you can ask Hashem for His help hundreds of times a day.
PRAYER IN THE KITCHEN
Now we can apply this in every endeavor. No matter what you do, you won’t overdo it. When the lady of the house makes a cake, let her show that she recognizes that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is the one who gives success to all our efforts. She should talk to Him in the kitchen; ask Him for hatzlacha. Many things can go wrong when you’re baking a cake and you need His help more than you can imagine.
When a man sets out on a journey, when he leaves town, he says tefillas haderech. Now, that was in the good old days, when the only perils were outside of town. But today, even in the city, you should say a prayer before you set out on any kind of trip in a car. Even without a car. You walk into the street, it’s a good idea to say a prayer. We don’t say a bracha because of a technicality in the halacha, but to ask Hashem for help to get to the destination safely, that you must do.
It’s a very good idea to turn to Hashem for every need you have. You’re in college and you have to take an exam, don’t be bashful. Hakadosh Baruch Hu listens to you there too. He’s not so happy about it, but He listens to you. If you have a cut, and you want to apply an antiseptic, bother Him. Don’t show him that you worship the antiseptic; say יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם שֶׁתְּהֵא עֵסֶק זֶה לִי לִרְפוּאָה, Hashem, please, this thing should help me. Show that your trust is not in chemicals. Of course you should use them, that’s what he wants you to do, וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא, you should heal yourself, but first call out to Him.
That’s the way to live a successful life. If you’re going to buy a car, or a home, or a refrigerator, or air conditioner, first say a tefillah – “Ribono Shel Olam, it shouldn’t be a mistake what I do now. Please guide me; help me succeed.” You should bother Hakadosh Baruch Hu in all the details of your lives. Because that’s what He wants. The more we bother Him, the more we are beloved by him.
NO ANSWER IS ALSO A SUCCESS
Now the truth is that sometimes you cry out to Hashem and He doesn’t answer. A man called me on the telephone and he tells me: He’s crying out and crying out, and there’s no answer. He wants to know what he’s supposed to think. He’s supposed to think that Hakadosh Boruch Hu wants him to cry out even more! What takes place subsequently, one way or the other, makes no difference. If he spoke to Hashem, then he has achieved the purpose of life.
Even a man on his deathbed; here’s an old man, he’s 119 years old so he can’t expect to live much more. But still he cries out on his deathbed: “Oh, Hashem, heal me!” So you’ll say, “It’s silly,” The bystanders think it’s ridiculous. “You want to be healed?! How long do you want to hang around here?! 119 years is not enough?!”
No, for him it’s not enough. When you’re on your deathbed it’s never enough. He wants to live a thousand years and he’s crying out to Hashem. Why not? He has the right to cry out; he should cry out. And when he finally takes his last breath don’t think he didn’t accomplish with the crying out. He accomplished plenty. The crying out, that’s the biggest achievement there is. It could be that he achieved in his last minutes more than he did his whole life. Nobody is ever frustrated in his davenen when he’s not answered – because he has gained the most important thing, more Awareness of Hashem.
THE LONELY YEARS OF PERFECTION
And so, when Avraham and Sarah were finally given a son, I’m sure it was a very big happiness. Mazel tov! It was a tremendous simcha! But was that the success of Avraham and Sarah? No. Their greatest success in life was before that, during the years when they did not have any kind of feeling of success. All those lonely years under the duress of anxiety, pressured by a dark foreboding that all of their great teachings would die out with them, those years when they could only turn to Hashem, those were the years of greatness – greatness in Awareness of Hashem. And because they became so perfect in the Awareness of Hashem, they were now ready to become the progenitors of Hashem’s people.
We’re learning here that one of the most fundamental forms of success of life, one of our biggest achievements, is turning to Hashem every time we are pressed. It’s an achievement that’s worth living for – the clarity of emunah, the reishis chochma, the Awareness of Hashem. When a man utilizes his misfortunes, not merely he suffers like a stone, like a tree, but he reacts, he reacts with emunah, and he prays and prays and prays, and he pours out his heart more and more, then this man should know he’s gaining the most out of life. Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants the outcry.
And not just one time – He wants as much as possible. Don’t feel that you’re bothering Hakadosh Baruch Hu too much. The more you become aware of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, the more successful you are – that’s what Hashem desires! הקב”ה מִתְאַוֶּה לִתְפִלָּתָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים. If you think about Hashem one minute a day you’re already great. If you do it more frequently then you’re an exceptional person! Try it. Right now. Don’t postpone; it’s an opportunity. And if it becomes part of our daily program, it means that we are embarked on a career of coming closer and closer to Hashem. קָרוֹב הַשֵּׁם לְכָל קֹרְאָיו – To whom is Hashem close? To all those who call out to Him (Tehillim 145:18). And to be close to Hashem, that’s the success of a person in this world.
Vort on the Parsha
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי הַשֵּׁם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים:
Hashem said to Avram: I am Hashem who took you out from Ur Kasdim.
When we read this possuk in our parsha, immediately people remember what Rashi (11:28) says on that; he quotes the ma’amar chazal that Ur Kasdim means ‘The fire of Kasdim’. Avraham Avinu was cast into a pit of fiery coals because of his opposition to idolatry and Hashem miraculously rescued him from the fire. And that’s what Hashem told Avraham Avinu: “I took you out from the fire of Kasdim.”
Now, while this story is true, of course – the Rambam speaks about it at length – but it’s not in the Torah. So the question is, what is the plain meaning, the pshuto shel mikra of those words, “I took you out of Ur Kasdim”?
Ur Kasdim was a very big city near the Persian gulf. It wasn’t just any city; it was the capital of moon worship in those ancient times. It was like a monastery – an entire city devoted to the avodah zarah of worshiping the moon. Everybody in the city had some idolatrous function and Avraham’s father made his living by selling figurines to be worshiped.
That’s the environment where Avraham grew up – that was his home, his chinuch, until Hakodosh Boruch Hu removed him from that city.
So now Hashem comes along and says, “Avram, you know what I did for you? I took you out from there. I took you out from Ur Kasdim! That moment was the big neis, the big yeshua that was the beginning of all your success.”
A man is his environment. People change, for good or for bad, because of their environment, and therefore the easiest way to make a change in your mind, a change in your attitudes and behavior, is by finding the best environment you can. Hakodosh Boruch Hu stressed that to Avraham: אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים – I took you out from Ur Kasdim, because that was the catalyst for his greatness.
You can’t calculate the effect that those around you have on your behavior. People who live around a yeshiva are different than people who live someplace else. Shabbos is a different kind of Shabbos. It’s a different kind of life.
You know there are a lot of people in this neighborhood who wear their tzitzis out; not only yeshiva people. It became a style on this street, in this neighborhood; because there are yeshiva people here so even plain people do that too. Everyone is wearing a black hat. Of course a black hat is not the biggest achievement, but it’s an example that you can clearly see of what a good environment does for a person.
Even in the best shul, if you sit down next to a person of bad character, he can ruin you chalilah. Let’s say you come into a new synagogue and you think, “Where should I sit?” don’t just sit down at the first empty seat. Look around and study the people and find the best man to sit next too.
Once a new man came into our synagogue; he was an idealist who meant business. He was a ba’al teshuva, full of enthusiasm. And at first he was making a lot of progress. But he sat next to an old man who was a leitz; he was speaking all the time against everybody in the shul – including me. Finally this ba’al teshuva became so ruined, so spoiled, that he became my enemy and he left the shul. I wanted to make something out of him but choosing the wrong seat ruined him.
If you want to be something in this world, you’re going to have to leave your Ur Kasdim. Move your seat in the beis medrash, find a better work environment. Wherever you are it’s of utmost importance to seek out the best ones.
All your life, keep walking in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu, by moving closer to the better environment and clinging to the better people. That’s how Avram was able to become Avraham Avinu and that’s how his children are ensured their own success as well.
Have a wonderful Shabbos