From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
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By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara Dâ€™Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood
She (Leah) was pregnant once again, and bore a son. She said: â€œThis time let me express gratitude to HaShem.â€ She named the child Yehudah. Then, she stopped having children.
Rachel saw that she bore Yaakov no children. Rachel was jealous of her sister (Leah) and she said to Yaakov: â€œGive me children, or else I will die.â€Â Yaakov became furious with Rachel: â€œShall I take HaShemâ€™s place?â€ he said â€œIt is He who is holding back the fruit of the wombâ€.
Â There are teachings of Chazaâ€l that, when measured in the crucible of reality, challenge our emunas chachamim– faith in the Torah sages.Â Perhaps none so regularly and personally as this one: â€œIf one were to tell you â€˜I have toiled but I have not found- tried hard but have not succeededâ€™ do not believe him. Â â€˜I have not toiled but I have found- have not tried but have succeededâ€™ (again) do not believe himâ€ (Megillah 6B).
How many of us have been frustrated by failure in our personal lives, our academic efforts and/or our careers despite having put forth our very best efforts? Conversely, how many times has unanticipated success come our (or our competitors) way, relatively effortlessly?
The Izhbitzer teaches that our two matriarchs Rachel and Leah, are, to all appearances, the exemplars of these two claims, equally lacking in credibility. Â Â Rachel, after years of heartfelt prayer and buying a â€œfertility drugâ€ (the mandrakes) was still childless. To that point, her life story had been one that veritably shouted: â€œI have toiled but I have not foundâ€.Â Â On the other hand, Leah named her fourth son Yehuda as a way of thanking HaShem for having â€œtaken more than my fair shareâ€ (Rashi ibid). Taking more than ones fair share is another way of saying â€œI have not toiledâ€¦ but I have foundâ€.
But the Izhbitzer tweaks the claims of the sisters and, in so doing, answers our questions. For now, weâ€™ll concentrate on Rachelâ€™s claim that â€œI have toiled but I have not foundâ€.
Imagine a person wanting to enter a home, banging loudly and repeatedly on one of the homes windowless and doorless solid exterior walls the livelong day, but, tenaciously maintaining his position at the solid wall and refusing to move towards the door.Â WhileÂ expending great efforts and burning many calories to achieve the goal of entry, heâ€™s banging in the wrong place, his enormous efforts are misdirected. He may be working hard but he is not working smart. Were he to move a few feet and just rap on the door ever so lightly, it would immediately swing open and he would gain entry.
HaShem provides every individual soul with a unique makeup and an incomparable defining middah– characteristic, a leitmotif that colors all their perceptions, impacts all their decisions, tests them at every juncture and motivates all of their thoughts, words and deeds. The Divine Will desires that oneâ€™s leitmotif Â be both their greatest strength, their supreme source of good and their worst weakness, their most horrible enabler for evil.
Rachel was toiling mightily in prayer but where she really needed to concentrate her efforts was on the birur-the purification of her particular defining middah. Â Â Rachelâ€™s soul was endowed with a matchless capacity for jealousy. But jealousy can be a stingy, malcontent green-eyed-monster or the engine that drives self-improvement and self-actualization.
Unholy, evil jealousy begins with an attitude of â€œItâ€™s not fair. You donâ€™t deserve that. I hope that you lose it. Only then will justice be served!â€Â But jealousy can be sublimated into something good and holy, into the proverbial kinas sofrim â€“the academic envy of the wise students that spurs them to greater scholarship. The anthem of kinas sofrim is: â€œHmmmâ€¦that looks good.Â Youâ€™re certainly entitled to what youâ€™ve gained but Iâ€™d like some too.Â Some is good so more must be better. Thereâ€™s plenty to go around and I wonâ€™t rest until Iâ€™ve gotten it, and more, too.â€ Kinas sofrim observes a good mousetrap and the boons that it bringsÂ Â to the mousetrap builder and to society. It then goes out and builds a better one.
The Rambaâ€n fails to understand Yaakovâ€™s vehemence.Â What did Rachel do wrong?Â After all, the Gemara advises those suffering from illnesses, in her case infertility, to approach sages and ask them to daven on their behalf (Bava Basra 116A).Â Yaakov grew testy over Rachels misplaced yegiah-efforts and exertions. All her prayers, or any that Yaakov might have added, were like knocking on a brick wall instead of on a door.Â He recognized that she was jealous, that this was her defining characteristic. But he realized that she had yet to be mevarer– to clarify and purify her middah.Â Was her jealousy of the run-of-the-mill, catty, begrudging variety, or, was it the high-minded kinas sofrim that utilizes the irritants of envy to produce the pearls of ever-greater effort, innovation and achievement?
Rachel said: ‘Here is my handmaid Bilhah. Come to her and let her give birth on my lap. Â Through her I will then also have a son.’
â€œIsnâ€™t it enough that youâ€™ve taken my husband away?â€ snapped Leah â€œNow youâ€™d even take my sons mandrakes? â€œAll rightâ€ Rachel responded â€œYaakov will lie with you tonight in exchange for your sonâ€™s mandrakes.â€
Â Rachel offered Yaakov Bilhah, and negotiated a deal resulting in yet another pregnancy for Leah. These concessions brought more â€œcompetitorsâ€ into the marriage. By doing so she had rid her jealousy of any elements of pettiness and malice and distilled pristine kinas sofrim from her defining middah. With this small, yet significant step, she had stopped working hard and started working smart. Sheâ€™d stopped pounding the brick wall and began lightly rapping on the door. Unsurprisingly, the door then swung open and she soon conceived Yoseph.
Essentially Yaakov bellowed at Rachel â€œIâ€™m skeptical when you claim â€˜I have toiled but I have not foundâ€™ because youâ€™ve toiled, but in the wrong way, at the wrong spot. To unlock the doors of fertility you donâ€™t need to pray anymore.Â Purify your jealousy and youâ€™ll be knocking on the doors. Â You have not â€œtoiledâ€ smartly and thatâ€™s why you have not yet â€œfoundâ€.Â Work smart and those doors will swing open â€œ
The second Izhbitzer adds that the efforts Rachel expended at working hard were not wasted.Â The Gemara teaches that if one sees that their prayers were not answered they should pray again (Berachos 32B). The Divine Will decrees precisely how long we must work our hardest before we attain salvation by working smart. There is no free lunch and there is no free epiphany that allows a person the sudden intuitive leap of understanding to correctly identify precisely which middah is their own leitmotif . Once discovered, one may begin the â€œworking smartâ€ of distilling the goodness of, i.e. being mevarer, their middah.
To carry the allegory further, there is something about banging on walls that eventually, cumulatively points us towards the door. And so, even while working hard and, apparently, ineffectively; claiming â€œI have toiled but I have not foundâ€ is a lie. All the banging on te wall eventually culminates in allowing the wall-banger to see the door that he must knock on. We toil, then we find. We work smarter, davka after working our hardest.
Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I VaYetzai Dâ€H vaTomer haPaâ€™am
Bais Yaakov VaYetzai Inyan 66 (page261)Â