True Humility

Vayashkeim Avrohom baboker el hamakom asher amad sham es pnei Hashem (19:27)

The Gemara in Brachos (6b) teaches that if a person establishes a fixed place for his prayers, the G-d of Avraham will assist him, and when he dies, he is mourned as a humble and pious disciple of Avraham Avinu. What is the link between Avraham and instituting a set location for prayer? The Torah records that Avraham woke up in the morning and returned to the place where he had stood before Hashem. The Gemara interprets “standing” as a reference to prayer; in other words, the verse is emphasizing that Avraham came to pray in the same place where he had prayed previously. Nevertheless, the deeper intention of this statement of the Gemara seems difficult to understand. What is the connection between humility and establishing a fixed place for prayer?

Harav Meir Tzvi Bergman, shlita, explains, based on the Mishnah in Avos (5:22) which teaches that a person who possesses three traits — a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul — is classified as one of the students of Avraham Avinu, while those who have three opposite qualities — an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul — are considered disciples of the wicked Bilam.

In Parashas Balak, Balak took Bilam to a location from which they could see part of the Jewish encampment, and they prepared seven altars, and seven bulls and seven rams to be offered upon them, in an attempt to receive Divine permission to curse the Jewish people (Bamidbar 22:41-23:3). When their efforts were unsuccessful, they proceeded to a new location with the hope that their quest to curse the Jewish people would succeed there (23:13). When Hashem once again denied Bilam permission to curse the Jews in this new place, they traveled to a third location, hoping that now it would be proper in Hashem’s eyes to allow Bilam to utter his curses (23:27). Each time, Bilam and Balak attributed their lack of success not to themselves and their wicked ways, but rather to the location, thereby relieving themselves of any guilt or responsibility for the undesirable outcome.

This stands in direct contrast to the conduct of Avraham, who stood in intense prayer beseeching Hashem on behalf of the inhabitants of Sedom and Amorah, and negotiating the number of righteous people who would be required to save them from destruction, only to see his efforts for naught, as Hashem proceeded to obliterate Sedom and Amorah and their inhabitants, sparing only Lot and his family. Nevertheless, after seeing that his prayers were ineffective, the Torah stresses that Avraham proceeded the following morning to return to the exact place where he had unsuccessfully prayed the day before. In his humility, Avraham did not attempt to come up with excuses and rationalizations for the inefficacy of his prayers, but rather blamed himself for not praying with enough intensity, and there was therefore no reason for him to choose a new place as Bilam did.

Similarly, many people today attempt to justify their lack of kavanah (concentration) in prayer by blaming it on peripheral causes, such as the conduct of people sitting nearby, the discomfort of the seat or other distracting factors. As a result, they constantly switch seats in pursuit of the perfect spot, where they will finally be able to pray without being interrupted or disturbed. However, this is the approach of Bilam, as the Gemara teaches that the humble students and descendants of Avraham understand that “the buck stops here” and establish a fixed place for their prayers. In that merit, they should enjoy the reward promised by the Mishnah to Avraham’s students: enjoying the fruits of their good deeds in this world and inheriting the World to Come.

Q: Did Avraham sleep the night before setting out with Yitzchak for the Akeidah?

A: As Avraham prepared to set out for the Akeidah, the Torah records (Vayeira 22:3): Vayashkeim Avraham baboker. The Brisker Rav maintains that the word vayashkeim means “to wake up early” and can only be used if the person was sleeping during the night. He explains that this reveals the greatness of Avraham, who was calm enough to sleep the night before setting out for the Akeidah, which he viewed as just another mitzvah to perform. However, Harav Tzvi Pesach Frank, zt”l, and Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, point out other places where the word vayashkeim is used even though it is clear that the person did not sleep the night before. For example, the verse records (Shmuel 1 15:11) that Shmuel davened to Hashem the entire night, and the next verse states vayashkeim Shmuel likras Shaul baboker — Shmuel rose up early in the morning to greet Shaul — even though he clearly had not slept the previous evening. Additionally, the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (40a) teaches that in certain cases, the judges on the beis din should remain awake discussing a case, and in the morning, mashkimin u’ba’in l’beis din — they should get up early and come to the beis din, even though they were awake the entire night. As such, they argue that there is no proof whether or not Avraham slept the night before setting out for the Akeidah.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.