Friday, November 7, 2014

Vayeira. The Emotions and Motivations of the Avos

Someone asked me this week about the relationship between Avraham Avinu and Sara Imeinu.  Educators tell us that there is no such thing as a foolish question.  I think that might be true, but educators will agree that there is such a thing as a fool. A fool is entitled to ask questions, but a fool he remains.

We find the term אהבה used in regard to the Avos several times,  For example,
Avraham/Yitzchak- ויאמר קח נא את בנך את יחידך אשר אהבת את יצחק,
Yitzchak/Rivka- ויקח את רבקה ותהי לו לאשה ויאהבה וינחם יצחק אחרי אמו,
Yaakov/Rachel- ויאהב יעקב את רחל,
Yaakov/Yosef- וישראל אהב את יוסף מכל בניו כי בן זקנים הוא לו.
Despite the use of the word, it is absurd to read it as if the word meant to them what it means to us.  Attributing emotions and motivations as we experience them to the Avos is simply wrong.  Just because the same word is used, it does not necessarily mean the same thing, just as we cannot confuse שכל and שכלות (more commonly, סכלות)

Shabbos 112b,
אמר ר' זירא אמר רבא בר זימונא אם ראשונים בני מלאכים אנו בני אנשים ואם ראשונים בני אנשים אנו כחמורים ולא כחמורו של ר' חנינא בן דוסא ושל רבי פנחס בן יאיר אלא כשאר חמורים

Sanhedrin 102b, regarding Menashe, that calling him an equal was a chutzpah. Rav Ashi referred to him as "Chavrin," and he was shown that this was totally inappropriate, that he should have realized that Menasheh was far greater than him in Torah.  Rashi-
אמר למחר נפתח בחברין. נדרוש בחברינו שהיו תלמידי חכמים כמותנו ואין להם חלק לעתיד: א"ל. מנשה בחלום חברך וחברא דאביך אנן. כלומר וכי סבור אתה שנהיה חבירך וחבירי דאבוך:

Another example from Rabbeinu Bachay (Bereishis 29:21.):
ואבואה אליה - ...וידוע שאין הפרש אצל השכל בין אברי המשגל לשאר האברים, כגון הפנים והידים... וכיון שכן היו האבות שכליים כמלאכי השרת, אין לתמוה עליהם בדבר הזה, כי כל כוונתם בהשתמשם בכלי הגוף כדי להמשך אחר השכל, גם האמהות רחל ולאה שהיו מריבות זו עם זו על הפעולה הזאת הטבעית כל דבריהם היו מן המין הזה... לא היתה כונתן רדיפת התאוה חס ושלום, כי אם כוונת המצוה בלבד, כאשר ידעו בנבואה

Same thing with Shammai and Hillel, Reb Zeira and Rav Yirmiah, Abayei and Rava.  Only a naar would say that Shammai was short tempered by nature, and Hillel long suffering.  Shammai and Hillel carefully and objectively chose their ways to serve the Ribono shel Olam, they chose their individual paths to perfection.  One chose the path of Middas HaDin, and the other chose the path of Middas HaRachamim.

Reb Moshe Feinstein rebuked me when I asked him is he was hungry.  He responded that he is never "hungry."  When it is time to eat he eats, and when it is not time to eat, he does not eat.  What I should have asked was "Can I give the Zeideh something to eat?"

So it would be foolish to even discuss a question like "Did Avraham Avinu love his wife Sarah Imeinu."  Can a malach love someone?  Doesn't perfect love for, and fear of, the Ribono shel Olam, mean that any human emotions lose any recognizable meaning?  A malach's experience is so vastly removed from ours that to use the term "love" for that relationship would be like describing a sefer Torah by its weight.  But, you say, perhaps the love of the Avos is for the Tzelem Elokim that every person has within himself!  That is certainly true, but your wife and son don't have more tzelem elokim than the Hottentot in Africa, so the special love is not for the tzelem elokim.

I know that modern writers, in the tradition of the Haskala, talk about emotions, motivation, and analysis, as if we could lie the Avos HaOlam down on a couch and help them with their issues and family dynamics.  To put it mildly, Chazal do not agree.


  1. We find ahavah used by Yitzchak/Rivka (and Yaakov/Rachel), but not by Avraham/Sarah. On the other hand, we do find the word yir'ah by the latter, which we don't find by Yitzchak/Rivka (I noticed this when learning the Netziv cited by R' Chaim B. last year). Given the apparent connection between ahavah-chesed and yir'ah-din/gevurah, I think this is interesting.

    1. You don't find Ahava by Avraham/Sara, but you do by Avraham/Yitzchak- asher ahavta.
      You're saying that it's surprising that davka by Avraham we don't find Ahava, but we do find Yir'a. I have to think about that. I can't find the Reb Chaim post you mean- he has around 100 citations of the Netziv on his website. Please identify which post you mean.

  2. Doesn't perfect love for, and fear of, the Ribono shel Olam, mean that any human emotions lose any recognizable meaning?

    That's an interesting perspective. I thought the Mekubalim say it in the other direction. Until you experience love in the human sense, you cannot reach ahavas Hashem. In other words, you have to go through the stage of human love to reach ahavas Hashem and that there is no other way of understanding/experiencing ahavas Hashem.

    1. Kabbala involves its own set of assumptions, and a methodology that differs from that of Nigleh. My expertise is limited to Nigleh, and even there only in limited areas.