Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Vayeira 5771

שבת טעם החיים וירא תשע”א

Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Vayeira 5771

Truthful in speech and in the heart


ויהי בעת ההוא ויאמר אבימלך ופיכל שר צבאו אל אברהם לאמר אלקים עמך בכל אשר אתה עשה, at that time, Avimelech and Phichol, general of  his legion, said to Avraham, “G-d is with you in all that you do.” (Bereishis 21:22)

On Rosh HaShanah this year someone asked me what I know about Phichol, the general of Avimelech, who was the king of the Plishtim. The question was intriguing because I had never really paid attention to this character that appears to be mentioned only in passing. Upon further investigation, I discovered that Phichol is mention three times in the Torah. Phichol is mentioned twice in this week’s parasha regarding the covenant that Avraham made with Avimelech. He is also mentioned in Parsahas Toldos when Avimelech made a covenant with Yitzchak. It is worthwhile to understand why the Torah felt it necessary to even mention Phichol

Phichol’s name contains a deeper meaning

As is often the approach to understanding the true nature of a person or a place, it is important to explain the etymology of the name. The word Phichol is a derivate of the words pi and chol, which mean mouth and all. What is the association between these two words and Avimelech and the covenant? Interestingly enough, the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 54:2) cites a dispute regarding the name Phichol. Rabbi Yehudah maintains that this was his actual name. Rabbi Nechemia, however, posits that he was called Phichol because all of his armies would kiss him on the mouth, i.e. he was well liked. What is the meaning of this Medrash? What lesson can we learn from the fact that Phichol was a well liked general?

One must be truthful in speech and in the heart

The name of Avimelech’s general is mentioned regarding the covenant that Avimelech sought to make with Avraham. Avimelech requested that Avraham not harm him, his sons or his grandsons. The justification of this treaty was because Avimelech felt that he had treated Avraham with kindness. Thus, Avimelech requested that Avraham swear to him that he would act kindly to Avimelech and his descendants. Avraham declared that he would swear that he would not cause Avimelech and his descendants any harm. Nonetheless, Avraham notified Avimelech that Avimelech’s servants had seized Avraham’s wells of water. Avraham was demonstrating to Avimelech that while it was noble of Avimelech to request a treaty, he should know that he was guilty of thievery. Dovid HaMelech writes (Tehillim 24:3-4) mi yaaleh bihar HaShem umi yakum bimkom kadsho niki chapaim uvar leivav asher lo nasa lashav nafshi vilo nishba limirmah, who may ascend the mountain of HaShem, and who may stand in the place of His sanctity? One with clean hands and pure heart; who has not sworn in vain by My soul, and has not sworn deceitfully. Avraham was demonstrating to Avimelech that in order to make a treaty with a righteous and G-d fearing person, one’s hands must be free of any form of stealing. Avimelech merely responded that he was unaware of the stealing, but he apparently made no attempt to rectify the sin. It is not surprising, therefore, that generations later, the Plishtim violated the pact (see Medrash Shochar Tov §60) and that allowed Dovid Hamelech to capture the land of the Plishtim. When one is tainted by stealing, he eventually will forfeit his assets. We can now better understand why the Torah informs us of the name of Avimelech’s general Phichol. The name Phichol, pi chol, moth all, symbolizes the idea that one must be complete, both in speech and in the heart. Making a treaty with Avraham was insufficient, as Avimelech was responsible for the stealing of his servants. One must be truthful in his speech and in all his actions, as this is the only way to ascend the mountain of HaShem and to reach perfection.

The Shabbos connection

With the onset of Shabbos, HaShem grants us a gift that causes all harsh judgments to depart, and only goodness exists. The Gemar (Shabbos 12a) states chayav adam limashmeish bigadav bierev Shabbos shema yishkach viyeitzei, one is required to check his clothing prior to the onset of Shabbos, lest he forget and he will carry in a public domain on Shabbos. This statement can be interpreted homiletically to mean that one should check his actions prior to the onset of Shabbos, as he should not be guilty of stealing or of any deceit. He can then be assured that he will merit ascending the Mountain of HaShem and basking in the light of the Holy Shabbos.

Shabbos Stories

Masked Bandit

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky writes: When I was two years old, I visited My grandfather, Reb Yaakov Kamenetzky, of blessed memory, together with my parents. After four years as a widower, my grandfather had recently remarried and my step-grandmother was just getting used to the new family. I entered the apartment and immediately began playing with items that were not meant to be touched. Do distract me, my new grandmother called to me. “What is your name?” she asked.

Beaming like a politician with a prepared response, I shouted, “bahn-deet Muttel!” Muttel, of course, was a nickname for Mordechai, an affectionate sobriquet that I was called in memory of my great-grandfather. But bahn-deet, a term that in all vernaculars, from Yiddish to English, means bandit, shocked all of the adults. Obviously someone had labeled me a troublemaker right from the onset of my career.

My mother was beet-red, as her new mother-in-law began chiding her upon the use of derogatory nicknames for children, even in jest.
Before my mother got a chance to defend herself, my grandfather, whose brilliance through the years had earned him the reputation as the great peacemaker and conciliator par excellence, stepped out of his study and declared “it’s all my fault.”

Everyone looked shocked. In what way was the great sage Reb Yaakov Kamenetzky, responsible for a two-year old child running around and declaring himself a bandit?

“Let me explain,” my grandfather began. “Young Mordechai is named for his grandfather Boruch Mordechai Burstein. However, I asked my son to follow my tradition and give only one name, as in Biblical times. That’s my opinion, and it is something my daughter-in-law is not accustomed to. The name Boruch was totally left out.” The great sage continued.

“I’m sure you are aware of the name Benedict, or even Bendet. Those were Jewish names that were translations of Boruch, just as Wolf was for Zev and Ber was for Dov. Our daughter-in-law was refused the opportunity to name her son Boruch Mordechai, but can we stop her from the affectionate memories she evokes if she calls him Bendet Muttel?”

Mistaken Envy

The following story involves Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Glick, zt”l, when he was a young child. It is related in the sefer Be’er Yitzchak, which was authored by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak’s son-in-law:

In the city where the bright young Avraham Yitzchak lived, there lived a great Torah scholar (talmid chacham) who had two sons. These boys studied in the same yeshiva as Avraham Yitzchak, and their father had an unusually strong desire for his children to grow up to be nothing less than the Torah giants of their generation. He even named his children after the great Ketzos Ha-choshen and the Shelah Ha-kadosh, in the hope that the boys would grow up to be like them.

From the day he enrolled his sons in yeshiva, the talmid chacham had very high hopes. He eagerly waited to see in them the signs of budding talmidei chachamim, poring over their studies night and day. He expected them to understand their learning at a level far beyond their abilities, and to remember everything they learned. Thus, when he learned that neither of his sons was turning out to be exactly what he had hoped for, he was crushed. He saw in them neither the righteousness nor the brilliance of the Ketzos nor the Shelah. And to add salt to his wound, there was another boy in their class, Avraham Yitzchak, who was excelling in his learning and showing signs of great promise. “What an embarrassment,” the father of the boys thought to himself, “Avraham Yitzchak knows and understands everything he learns; he puts my boys to shame!”

His envy over Avraham Yitzchak’s success was relentless. He could not tolerate the notion that some other boy in the class surpassed his children in learning. His jealousy ate at him every minute of the day, until it affected his sanity. Sadly, he began to conspire to bring about the other boy’s undoing…

One day the jealous father went to the rebbe of the class and demanded that he inform Avraham Yitzchak’s father that his son was incapable of learning Gemara. For some unknown reason, perhaps in deference to the man’s reputation as a Torah scholar, the rebbe complied with his instructions.

“As much as I would like to see your son become a great talmid chacham,” said the rebbe to Avraham Yitzchak’s father, “I must tell you that despite the fact that I have invested much time and effort in him, I have yet to see the fruits of my labor. It seems your son regrettably does not have what it takes to succeed in Torah study. I feel it would be a waste of your money to continue to pay his full tuition.”

Avraham Yitzchak’s father was crestfallen. He couldn’t believe his ears. All along, he had worked hard in order to send his son to Yeshiva, in the hope that one day he might become a talmid chacham. He had thought his son was doing extremely well in school, and now he had been informed that it was no more than a pipe dream. He decided that before making a final decision, he must consult a Torah scholar on the matter. Lamentably, he went to consult with the very man who was jealous of his son.

The rabbi listened intently to the man’s sorrow, and “shared” in his pain. “I suggest you ask the rebbe not to burden your son with Gemara, but rather to concentrate on the basics – such as prayer, Chumash and simple Halacha.”

As he left the room, his sorrow deepened. He wept bitterly over his son’s fate, but felt he had no choice: he would have to follow the rabbi’s advice. Thus, an arrangement was made whereby Avraham Yitzchak would sit in class while the other boys were learning Chumash, but was sent outside to play while the rebbe taught Gemara.

This arrangement continued for several weeks until one day a substitute teacher came to instruct the class. The substitute had been told that Avraham Yitzchak should be allowed to leave the classroom while he taught Gemara, and the teacher did as he was asked. However, he noticed that young Avraham Yitzchak did not go to play, but rather stood outside the classroom and listened to his shiur. This caught him by surprise. He decided to test Avraham Yitzchak on the material he had taught. Of course, Avraham Yitzchak understood the material perfectly, and was in fact far more advanced than the rest of the students.

The rebbe went back inside the classroom and asked the students, “Why does Avraham Yitzchak go outside to play while the rest of the class studies Gemara?”

“Because he has a weak head,” they explained unanimously. “Our rebbe decided not to be too hard on him.” The substitute teacher sensed something was very wrong, and decided to visit Avraham Yitzchak’s father after class.

“I don’t understand – your son is far brighter than anyone else in the class! Why doesn’t he remain in the class for Gemara?” The father explained the whole story, including the advice he had received from the rabbi.

“Here’s what I suggest,” said the substitute, “let me teach your son privately until the end of the year. At that time, you can have him tested on fifty pages of Gemara. If you are not satisfied with his progress, you don’t have to pay me a cent. However, I am certain that your son will surpass all of our expectations. I have a feeling he will grow to be a great beacon of light in the Torah world.”

As the year went on, Avraham Yitzchak made rapid progress. By the time he was twelve, there was no one in the city qualified teach him. Because of this, and due to his father’s discovery of what the rabbi had done to him, he decided to send Avraham Yitzchak away from home to study in one of the great European yeshivos. There Avraham Yitzchak developed into a true talmid chacham.

Ultimately, the jealous rabbi was filled with remorse over what he had done. Unfortunately, his sons turned out far differently than he had hoped for. However, whenever Avraham Yitzchak returned to his hometown, the rabbi treated him with the greatest respect. Over time he came to love him. He gave Avraham Yitzchak the honor of speaking in his shul, and when he had finished, kissed him before the entire congregation. (Quoted in Yated Neeman 12/13/01) (

Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Vayeira 5771

Have a wonderful and delightful Shabbos

Prepared by Rabbi Binyomin Adler

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