(From the teachings of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef ztvk”l)
(written by his grandson HaRav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a)
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
We shall read in this week’s Parashah, “Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and Hashem had blessed Avraham with everything” (Bereishit 24:1).
Avraham Avinu a”h was old, “well advanced in years”. What does this mean? There are old people who waste their time, since they don’t have so much strength left, they have no serenity, so what do they do? They go and play backgammon or they go and play bowls. What a pity! Avraham Avinu was old, 175 years old, and yet all these years he toiled in Torah! All his years were reckoned for Torah-study and the fulfilment of mitzvot, even one day didn’t go to waste!
It is related that a rav accepted a rabbinic position in a large city, a prestigious city, a city of scholars and scribes. When he arrived at the city, they accorded him great honour and they arranged an induction for him. The day after his induction the rav said, “I wish to visit the city’s cemetery, since this is a city of scholars and scribes, for sure there will be great rabbanim in the cemetery that served before me!” The head of the city said to him, “Our pleasure, and we will accompany the rav and take him to the cemetery.”
When he arrived at the cemetery, the rav looked at the headstones and much to his surprise he saw that the city’s inhabitants died young! On one it said, 18 years, on another 20 years, on a third 25 years, and so on, the oldest was merely 28 years old! They all died young! The rav was shocked. He asked those around him, what is this? I was in your city and I saw old men with white hair, so how is it that I witness here that they all died young?
They replied to him, rav, “In our city we only write the ‘net’ years of a person and not his ‘gross’ life!” Astonished the rav asked, “What is this? Is there a fine on a person’s life?” They explained to him, “In our city there is a minhag that each person has a ledger and in his ledger he writes down daily how much time he invested in serving Hashem. For example, he prayed Shacharit for one hour, then he studied Torah for an hour, Minchah and Arvit half an hour, Daf Yomi another hour, so from 24 hours he writes 3.5 hours! And so the people of the city do this every day. At the end of each month they tally it all up and generally a person has lived about 4 or 5 days. Someone who studies a lot may have 6 days. What does he write, the ‘net’ amount. And when he reaches the end of his days a final tally is made, and he will have lived in one year two months, and so the final amount for his whole life is 25 years! On the contrary, if he reaches the sum of 25 years, this is a sign that he was truly diligent! Why do we do this? Because who cares about the rest of the time that that person ate and slept? Animals also eat and sleep! Can we call this life? Can this time that went to waste be recorded on the head stone? Only spiritual things should be written on the headstones and not irrelevant things.”
Likewise with Avraham Avinu a”h, his whole life, 175 years, all “net”, all his days were fulfilled, there wasn’t one moment when Avraham Avinu stopped thinking about his Creator!
And so when Hashem relates Avraham’s praise, what does he say about him? “I have given him special attention so that he will command his children and his household ‘after him’, and they will keep Hashem’s way, doing charity and justice” (Bereishit 19:18). Hashem sees everything and speaks to Avraham and rests His Shechinah on him. What does Hashem highlight from all of Avraham’s sterling qualities? That he educated his children and those close to him to observe the path of Hashem. Avraham Avinu gave his life to educate others and to draw them near, so that they would all recognise Hashem. This is Avraham’s great accolade, that Hashem said about him “I have given him special attention so that he will command his children and his household ‘after him’”.
But what does it mean that he will command his children and household “after him”? This seems superfluous. It could simply have stated, “…so that he will command his children, and they will keep Hashem’s way”. For what reason is it written ‘after him’?
Our chachamim explain that a person who recites Kriyat Shema without tefillin, without tzitzit, is as if they are giving false testimony against themselves. Why? Because in Kriyat Shema is states, “Bind [these words] as a sign on your hand, and let them be an emblem in the centre of your head” (Devarim 6:8), and likewise it states “…and have them make tassels,” (Bamidbar 15:38), yet this person, whilst reciting Kriyat Shema, has no tzitzit and no tefillin, so it is like he is bearing false testimony! And it is precisely so that a person who educates his children in secular schools, also bears false witness against himself. For he recites in the Shema “you shall teach your children”, and not only he doesn’t teach his children Torah, but the reverse, he sends them to a secular school! An education where they won’t know what Pesach is, what is Purim, what is Yom Kippur, and even the first passuk of Kriyat Shema they won’t learn there! Therefore the person’s prayer is an abomination and he must quickly repent and place his children in Torah schools. Then it will be considered as if he himself teaches his children, because the schoolteachers are his agents to teach his children Torah.
And so let us return to that which the passuk states “…so that he will command his children and his household ‘after him’, and they will keep Hashem’s way” we remember when people came for the Eastern countires and made Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael they were required to enrol their children in secular schools. For in those days the bureaucrats were wicked and had been appointed by Ben Gurion. They endeavoured with all their strength to ensure that everyone will send their children to secular schools. And anyone who enrolled their children in a Torah school wasn’t given a Certificate of Work and these people became hungry for bread [due to lack of work and therefore money]. Anyone who doesn’t send to a secular school, won’t have work! So it was!
Despite this, many of those who made Aliyah had already tasted Torah in the Diaspora, they had an air of being G-d-fearing (yirat shamayim), they had derech eretz, they respected their parents. And so, even though they studied in secular schools, despite this, when their father returned home on Friday night from the Bet Knesset, his children, even if they were grown up, 18 or 20 years old, nevertheless, when the father entered the home, he would say “Shabbat Shalom!” And they would all respectfully reply to him, “Shabbat Shalom! Shabbat Shalom Abba!” Then the father approached the table to recite kiddush and all his sons took out a kippa from their pocket and stood for kiddush. After they would kiss their father’s hands. Then the seudah followed, they ate and drank, and after the seudah the father left his home and went to hear a derahsha. There was [for example] a derahsha in Porat Yosef at 10pm at night! So he went to the shiur and when he left he would say “Shabbat Shalom!” And his children would reply “Shabbat Shalom! Shabbat Shalom Abba!” And he went on his way. They would look after him and as soon as he was out of sight, one put the radio on, another took out a hookah, and they all smoked cigarettes. They knew that at 11pm their father would finish the shiur, so before he returned home they opened all the windows so that their father wouldn’t smell the “strange incense that was not commanded” [see pessukim Shemot 30:9 and Vayikra 10:1]. And they would sit and read books such as “Mosif Yediot” and “Mosif Ma’arav”, sitting quietly and behaving like good children! So that when their father returned they said to him, “Shabbat Shalom Abba!” Their derech eretz was worth nothing.
But regarding Avraham Avinu it states “I have given him special attention so that he will command his children and his household ‘after him’”, also “after him”, even when he is not at home, even “after him”, and even “after him for a long time”, after he leaves the world, he still has children who have yirat shamayim, they received an appropriate good chinuch (education) of Torah and yirat shamayim! This is the meaning of “…so that he will command his children and his household after him”!
But [sadly] due to our many sins, someone who places his sons and daughters in secular schools, about him it is said, “Your sons and daughters will be given to a foreign nation. Your will see it happening with your own eyes, and will long for them all day long, but you will be powerless” (Devarim 28:32). Literally a different people, devoid of Torah and devoid of Mitzvot, nothing! They go out as “a root whose fruit is gall and wormwood”! [see Devarim 29:17]. Happy is the person who observes the path of Avraham Avinu! The path of the holy Avot, and fulfils for himself “Succeeding your fathers will be your children” (Tehillim 45:17). They shall study Torah and go from strength to strength! “…all who see them will recognise them, that they are the seed that Hashem has blessed”! (Yeshaya 61:9).
Contemplate! How about the many wonderful qualities of Avraham Avinu! How many gems were in him! He was a man of kindness! He sat in the shade of the Shechina and ran to the Arabs that appeared before him. They had traditional Arab headdress and he thought that they were Arabs! Avraham Avinu loved all people! And despite this Hashem praises him mainly with this quality, that he educated his children properly! Happy is the person who goes in the path of Avraham Avinu!