This week’s column, dear readers, is apropos of —nothing. It is not an explanation of anything in Parshas Vayigash and it is connected to nothing about Chanukah or Asarah Be’Teves. However, upon reflection, it does seem to relate to all of the above. The following Devar Torah relates to some fundamental ideas of life and life events that occur to all of us. This is a piece on how to cope, what it all means, what we are supposed to learn from it all, and how to grow from the vicissitudes of life.

..which brings me to interject with this “plug” for an unusual talk being given this Motzei Shabbos (7-Dec-13) at Beis Tefillah Yonah Avraham by a remarkable person:

Rabbi Shabse Werther, a Rebbe and educator from Lakewood and presently a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, will share his experiences in dealing with the loss of the tenth of his eleven sons, Sholom Benayahu a”h at the age of seventeen. Rabbi Werther has inspired audiences across the United States by sharing the message of how, even in times of difficulty and challenge, Hashem has a loving plan for each of us individually  and for all of us collectively as a nation. As we approach the Tenth of Teves, the first fast of the year observed in mourning for the Beis Hamikdash, Rabbi Werther will share with us how to view tragedy and setback as a means of personal growth and spiritual development.  The presentation will take place, iy”H, at Bais Tefilla Yonah Avraham on Motzei Shabbos Vayigash (December 7) at 8:30pm.  Admission is free and all men and women are welcome.

The inspiration for this week’s column was actually a shiur that I delivered this past Shabbos at Beis Tefillah Yonah Avraham. This is a weekly class on Ein Yaakov, which is a compendium of the aggadic, Midrashic, non-Halachic parts of the Talmud. The compendium is published along with many commentaries that explain those sometimes puzzling, and at times actually strange sounding, teachings. One of the sefarim that we use at the shiur is “Ein Iyah,” a sefer written on Ein Yaakov (and there are not too many of those!) by the late Gaon, Harav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook zt”l, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi. It is an amazing sefer; deep, profound, and captivating, and Rav Kook has something weighty and sagacious to say on every single piece in the Ein Yaakov.

This past week, we studied a somewhat famous piece of Gemara that is baffling and puzzling. The Gemara quotes a “conversation” between the angels and Hakadosh Baruch Hu, as it were. The angels have a “question,” a “contradiction,” so to speak, in Hashem’s words in the Torah. In Devarim (10:17), the Torah describes Hashem as one “Who does not show favor” or perhaps “Who does not show special consideration.” In contrast, in Bamidbar (6:26), the passuk states “yissa Hashem panav ailecha,” which, at least in this aggadic interpretation, means that Hashem will be “nossaiy panim” (show favor) to B’nei Yisrael, the recipients of the berachah described in the passuk. How can this be?

The Gemara states that Hakadosh Baruch Hu responded, “How could I not show favor to K’llal Yisrael? I wrote in my Torah that a person must recite birchas hamazon only after one is satiated (as the passuk states ‘vesavatta’), but K’llal Yisrael have adopted a rule that they recite birchas hamazon even after just eating a minimal amount of a kezayis (the volume of an olive) or perhaps a kebeitzah (the volume of an egg).”

The difficulties here are obvious. First, how does this response answer the question? Is there indeed a “contradiction” in the pesukim of the Torah? Is this a satisfactory answer? What does one thing have to do with the other? And of course, of all the chumros in the world to choose from, of all the countless laws that are “only” miderabanan, the rabbinical laws that are in addition to those of the Torah, for any number of reasons —why in the world was this one picked?

Rav Kook zt”l beautifully explains: When Hashem “punishes” people for their misdeeds, in reality —he is not “punishing” them at all. He is not chas ve’shalom “taking revenge” for an act of disobedience. Rather, on the contrary, this is meant to guide the person or the nation back to proper behavior, connecting him or it back with his Creator, which is of course the ultimate goal of life. Seen in this light, Hashem’s “looking aside” from a sin would constitute a huge problem —the flaw that caused or brought about the sin would remain! And that would be the ultimate disservice to humanity! Thus Hashem, Who cares so much about each and every one of us, would not “look aside” from any flaw even —or perhaps especially— in an almost perfect person, for the flaw must be rectified! Moreover, a person, upon not being punished for his sins, would tend to actually actively neglect to correct his flaws, given the quite normal reaction to “getting away with it” (e.g.,”I guess it’s not so bad.”  “Hashem doesn’t mind so much.” “Let me try that just once more.”) Therefore, the very goodness of Hashem compels a treatment of non-veetur —no “concessions.”

However, there is a circumstance that would allow for just such allowances. That is, when dealing with someone who absolutely excels in the middah of hakaras hatov —appreciation and gratitude. Of course, the hakaras hatov that we have above all others is our hakaras hatov  to Hashem for all that He has granted us—starting with existence itself and on through the slightest pleasure or benefit that we have in this world, including all the things that we tend to think of as “nature.” Someone who is suffused with this middah of gratitude is always thanking Hashem for all that occurs, and feels obliged to —in some small way— ‘repay’ Hashem by being loyal to Him and His Torah. Such a person, if faced with a situation where he feels that Hashem is not punishing him as he deserves, will not  react as described previously, but on the contrary, he will redouble his efforts vis-à-vis his avodas Hashem, being more punctilious than ever —because he feels that he has yet another overwhelming reason for his hakaras hatov! Thus, he will see to it to correct any faults he may have in his appreciation of Hashem, for such is his general outlook on life! And so, the ultimate goal will be reached without the dangers of lack of punishment.

This was Hashem’s response to the angels: If in general there is veetur (overlooking of punishment) towards K’llal Yisrael, it is because they are permeated with this middah of hakaras hatov; that is the general national attitude. This is best brought out when —they bentch! When they express gratitude towards Hashem for their sustenance, they do not wait until they are satiated to thank Hashem! Even if they are still a bit hungry, having eaten only a kezayis or a kebeitzah, they fully express their gratitude and appreciation. Thus, they can accept and be the beneficiaries of Hashem’s “looking aside” without the dangers otherwise inherent in such a hanhagah (mode of conduct).