Post Archive for January 2008

Parashas Mishpatim, Part 2

The end of this week’s parashah recounts some events related to the Giving of the Torah. It is here that we find the Jewish People’s famous declaration: “We shall do and we shall listen.” The Midrash, in Ruth Rabbah Pesichasa 1, expounds on this declaration at length. In his commentary on the Book of Ruth, the Maggid offers two explanations of this Midrash. Below I present one of them, in abbreviated form.
The Midrash states:
“Hear, O My People, and I shall speak” (Tehillim 50:7). How did you merit to be called “My People”? From “I shall speak”—because you spoke before Me at Sinai and said (Shemos 24:7): “All that Hashem has spoken we shall do and we shall listen.”
This Midrash seems to take the verse from Tehillim far beyond its plain meaning, which is simply a call from Hashem to the People of Israel to listen to what He is going to say to them. Also, the Midrash seems to make quite a stretch in reading the phrase “I  shall speak” as “because you spoke.” The Maggid, however, shows how the Midrash fits perfectly with the plain meaning of the verse.
The Maggid builds on a simple concept from everyday life. Suppose a person habitually makes all his purchases at a certain store. He will then naturally refer to the manager of this store as “my storekeeper.” Similarly, if a person always uses a certain tailor or handyman, he will speak of “my tailor” or “my handyman.” A person who uses a certain tailor once will not automatically refer to this tailor as “my tailor.” However, if the tailor makes an arrangement with him after the first time to do all his tailoring work from then on, then he can refer to the tailor as “my tailor” even after just one job.
The same idea applies to the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People. The fact that we accepted Hashem’s word on one occasion would not in itself give us the right to have Hashem call us “My People.” We gained this title only because we pledged on that occasion to listen to Hashem regularly from that point on, whenever Hashem would speak to us through His faithful prophets and men of wisdom. When we declared at Sinai “We shall do and we shall listen,” we made a covenant for the future that binds us to heed Hashem’s word at all times.
This is the message behind the verse from Tehillim: “Hear, O My People, and I shall speak.” Hashem is telling us why we are obligated to listen to Him when He speaks. Hashem says to us: “How did you gain the right to be called ‘My People’? Not because you listened to Me on one occasion. Rather, because on that occasion you spoke before Me and said: ‘We shall do and we shall listen.’ With these words, you promised that whenever ‘I shall speak,’ you will listen. And so you are duty-bound to listen to what I shall speak to you now.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mishpatim

In the Midrash on parashas Mishpatim (Shemos Rabbah 30:1, expounding on Tehillim 99:4), it is written: “You established uprightness for Your beloved ones – through the laws that You gave them, they enter into disputes with one another, and go to have them adjudicated, and [thereby] they make peace.” I present below a few interpretations that the Maggid offers on this Midrash: the first three from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Mishpatim, and the fourth from Kol Yaakov on Esther 3:8-11.
A. The first two interpretations relate to the system of Jewish law courts. The Gemara (Makkos 7a) states that we must set up a beis din in every city. The Maggid notes that even very small communities have their own beis din. The Maggid asks why it is necessary for the Jewish People, a nation of righteous people, to have so many law courts for adjudicating disputes. He gives two answers.
1. The Jews are exacting in their moral standards, and hence pay regard even to subtle offenses. This, for example, the Gemara in Bava Metzia 58b states that embarrassing someone publicly is tantamount to murder, and one who calls his fellow-man by a derogatory nickname has no share in the World to Come. The Jews’ high level of moral sensitivity leads them to raise a plethora of legal issues, which creates a need for many courts.
2. In monetary and property matters, parties who are on amicable terms and would be willing to compromise often seek adjudication anyway, in order to ensure a just outcome. Each side wants to avoid taking what is not rightfully his. This practice also creates the need for many courts.
B. The primary purpose of the Torah’s civil laws is not, as might first appear, to prevent physical or monetary harm or to provide redress for such harms. Rather, it is to prevent people from harming their own souls by thoughtless or wicked behavior. Out of love for the Jewish People, Hashem established a system of civil laws, so that their souls may remain pure.
C. The concept of ownership is designed specifically to bring us merit. Ownership is specific to the human realm; neither the heavenly realm nor the animal kingdom is subject to ownership laws. Out of love for us, Hashem established for us a concept of ownership, with an associated system of monetary and property laws, and statutes about using our assets to care for the poor, so that we may gain merit by following His directives in these areas.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Yisro – What Moshe Told Yisro

The Torah recounts: “Yisro, the minister of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard everything that God did for Moshe and for His Israel, His people …. And Moshe told his father-in-law everything that Hashem had done to Pharaoh and Egypt for Israel’s sake – all the travail that had befallen them on the way – and that Hashem had rescued them.” A question jumps out: “What did Moshe tell Yisro, beyond what Yisro had already heard?”
In Ohel Yaakov, parashas Yisro, the Maggid answers as follows. Initially, Yisro recognized only the wondrous kindness that Hashem displayed in redeeming the Jewish People from Egypt. The enslavement, he thought, was just a happenstance misfortune. Moshe explained to Yisro that the enslavement was also orchestrated by Hashem for the Jewish People’s benefit. The enslavement and redemption together formed a process designed to instill faith and fear of Hashem in the Jewish People’s hearts, and to raise them to the spiritual level they needed to reach in order to receive the Torah.
The Maggid brings out the same idea in his commentary on the Mah Nishtaneh passage of the Haggadah. He brings out the idea with an analogy. Suppose a person had a broken leg, and a doctor healed it. The person then surely would owe thanks to the doctor. But what if the doctor himself had broken the person’s leg, and then healed it? In this case, it would seem that the doctor is owed no thanks. Suppose, however, that the doctor saw that the person’s leg was developing a serious deformity, and needed to be broken and reset. Then the person would owe thanks to doctor not only for the ultimate healing of the leg, but also for the initial breaking of it. Both steps were part of the overall cure.
Similarly, Hashem saw that the Jewish People had developed an insidious spiritual flaw. In order to repair this flaw, He subjected us to slavery and then redeemed us. Both steps were part of the overall cure, and thus we have a duty to thank Hashem for both.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Yisro – Moshe Ascends to Receive the Torah

The Gemara (Shabbos 88b-89b) records that when Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Shamayim to receive the Torah, the angels balked. They said: “This secret treasure that You hid away 974 generations before the world was created, You plan to give to flesh and blood?” Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu to take hold of His Throne of Glory and give the angels an answer. Moshe asked: “Master of the Universe! The Torah that You are giving to me, what is written in it?” Hashem replied: “I am Hashem your God Who took you out of the Land of Egypt” (Shemos 20:2). Moshe said to the angels: “Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should the Torah be yours?” The discussion continues with the rest of the Ten Commandments: not to have other gods, not to take Hashem’s Name in vain, to keep Shabbos, to honor parents, and not to murder, commit adultery, or steal. Moshe notes that none of these commandments have any relevance to the angels. In the end, the angels concede and allow Moshe to take the Torah.
This Gemara presents an obvious question: Didn’t the angels themselves know that Moses could rebut them by citing the challenges of earthly life, such as the temptation to swear in vain and steal, and so on, which the angels do not face? What kind of argument were they trying to make?
The Maggid, in Ohel Yaakov, parashas Yisro, gives three answers.
1. The Maggid’s first answer is based on a business analogy. Consider a merchant who is approached by two potential buyers, one who wants to buy his entire stock except for a dozen or so items, and the other who wants to buy the entire stock with no exceptions. All other things being equal, the merchant obviously should sell to the second customer. But suppose the first customer is a thoroughly dependable person, while the second is not so dependable and cannot be counted on to pay. Then it is better for the merchant to sell to the first customer. Although he will have some merchandise left over, everything he sells will definitely be paid for in full. If, instead, the merchant sells to the second customer, he might not get paid at all.
Similarly, the angels knew that only part of the Torah was relevant to them, but they argued that they would observe this part reliably. But man could not be counted on to observe the Torah at all. However, when the angels saw how great Moshe was – how he was able to take hold of Hashem’s Throne of Glory, which they could not touch – they realized that he was just as dependable as they are. Thus, Moshe was the ideal “buyer” for the Torah: he was prepared to take the entire stock of mitzvos, and he could be counted on to observe them. [The same can be said for all our great tzaddikim throughout the generations.] Hence the angels conceded.
2. The Maggid’s second answer is based on the fact that the Torah has multiple forms: simple meaning (pshat), hints (remez), homiletical teachings (drash), and hidden wisdom (sod). Initially, the angels were aware only of the original spiritual core of the Torah, in the form of sod. That is why they were perplexed when Moshe came to receive the Torah. Moshe brought out that there is another facet of Torah, one that is relevant to man. This is the Torah that he had come to get. The Maggid notes that this is hinted at by the fact that Moshe asked Hashem: “The Torah that You are giving to me, what is written in it?” Moshe spoke specifically of the form of Torah that Hashem was giving to him. We see from all this the greatness of Torah: that it offers something for every being in Hashem’s universe, from the loftiest angels to the simplest mortal.
3. The angels resisted letting the Torah out of Shamayim in order to ensure that we would properly recognize the Torah’s worth and show the Torah due respect.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Beshallach – The Long Route Home

In the beginning of this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Shemos 13:18): “So Hashem turned (vayaseiv) the people to the road of the wilderness, toward the Sea of Reeds.” The Sages link this verse to the law that even the poorest Jew must not begin eating on the Seder night until he leans (yeiseiv) (Shemos Rabbah 20:19). The association seems very far-flung. What is the connection?
The Maggid explains as follows. After 210 years of Egyptian enslavement, a large enough “critical mass” of Jews had spiritually matured to make it time for the Jewish People to leave. As the Midrash indicates (Shemos Rabbah 15:1), this is indicated by the following verses (Shir HaShirim 2:10–12): “Arise, My mate, My beautiful one, and go on your way. For, behold, the winter has passed …. The blossoms have appeared in the land.” The “blossoms” are the Jews who had spiritually matured. On account of this “critical mass” of righteous Jews, Hashem took the Jewish People out of Egypt.
Yet there remained a large segment of Jews who had not yet matured. In order to allow these Jews to mature, Hashem led the Jewish People to the Land of Israel via the long route through the wilderness, rather than via the short route through the land of the Philistines. In this way, Hashem ensured that every last Jew would reach the spiritual level needed to enter the holy Land of Israel.
The final redemption will follow the same pattern. This is what our Sages meant to teach us when they linked the Jewish People’s detour through the wilderness to the law that every Jew must lean on Seder night. As we begin the Haggadah, we declare: “Now we are slaves; next year may we be free men.” Our Sages wished to stress that every Jew is ensured a share in the great final redemption, just as it was when Hashem led the Jews from Egypt into the Land of Israel. They wished to prevent the Jews of humble rank from giving up hope, and concluding that the promise of redemption is directed only to the lofty, but not to them. Hence the Sages legislated that every Jew—even the poorest—must lean on Seder night, to show that every Jew is destined for freedom.

David Zucker, Site Administrator

The Purpose of the Onslaught Against Egypt, Part 2

In the preceding post, I presented the Maggid’s explanation that the main purpose of Hashem’s onslaught against the Egyptians was not to punish them, but rather to instill fear of Hashem in the hearts of the Jewish People. We were left with a question: Why did Hashem use the Egyptians as a tool for this purpose? I will now present the Maggid’s answer to this question.
The Maggid brings out the idea with a parable. A widower hired a woman to nurse his infant child. The baby got sick, and a doctor was called in. The doctor prescribed certain medications for the wet-nurse to take, so that when the baby nursed he would take in the medications and be cured. The wet-nurse asked: “Why do I have to take medications to cure this baby?” The doctor answered: “The main cause of illness is bad food. Now this child did not ingest anything except your milk. How, then, did he get sick? It must be that you ate bad foods, and these bad foods harmed the baby. It thus makes perfect sense that, just as you caused the baby to get sick by eating bad foods, you should now cause the baby to get well by taking the medications that will heal him.
It is the same, the Maggid says, with Pharaoh and the Jewish People. Hashem sent the Jewish People into Egypt in order that they become purified and acquire a firm awareness of Him. And indeed, the process initially had the intended effect. Thus, when Moshe first approached the Jewish People and told them that Hashem was going to take them out, the Torah testifies (Shemos 4:31): “The people believed, and they heard that Hashem had remembered the Children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.”
Then Moshe went to Pharaoh and told him, in Hashem’s name, to let the people go out. Pharaoh became furious and made the people’s servitude harder, as the Torah records. In so doing, he diminished the people’s level of faith. Thus, when the people met Moshe and Aharon again, they declared (Shemos 5:21): “May Hashem look upon you and judge, for you have put us in bad odor in the eyes of Pharaoh and the eyes of his servants, placing a sword in their hands to kill us.” And, as the Torah reports (Shemos 6:9), the people no longer listened to Moshe.
Shemos Rabbah 23:2 recounts the sequence of events. Initially, the Jewish People believed. Later, they stopped believing. Then, when they saw the miraculous downfall of the Egyptians at the Yam Suf, their faith returned reports (Shemos 14:31): “Israel saw the great hand that Hashem had inflicted upon Egypt, and the people feared Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in His servant Moshe.”
The Egyptians had to absorb Divine blows in order to bring the Jewish People a spiritual cure, and bring them back to their original level of faith. The Egyptians deserved be used as Hashem’s instrument in this process, because they were the ones who caused the people’s fall in faith.
Thus, it is written (Nechemiah 9:10, a verse we recite daily in Pesukei D’Zimrah): “You cast signs and wonders upon Pharaoh, and all his servants, and all the people of his land, for You knew that they did wickedly (heizidu) against them [the Jewish People],” The Maggid points out that the verb heizidu is not in the usual pa’al form of a simple active verb (the pa’al form is zadu), but rather in the causative hif’il form. This, says the Maggid, is a hint that Egyptians caused the Jewish People to become wicked – and hence Hashem used the Egyptians as the instrument to undo this damage and restore the Jewish People’s righteousness and faith.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

The Purpose of the Onslaught Against Egypt

I present here a piece from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Bo, that relates to the ten plagues and the drowning of the Egyptians at the Yam Suf.
The Maggid discusses the idea that punishing the Egyptians was not Hashem’s main purpose of the miraculous onslaught against them. If Hashem simply wanted to punish the Egyptians, He could have done so with a single massive blow. Rather, Hashem’s main purpose was to lead the Jewish People to fear Him. Hence He cast against Egypt a variety of miraculous plagues, so that each Jew would see a miracle that “spoke” to him and would lead him to fear Hashem. The Maggid draws an analogy to a purveyor of prepared foods, who presents a variety of dishes to suit the varied tastes of his customers. Similarly, Hashem presents a variety of miracles to suit the varied mindsets of the Jews.
Hashem’s deliberate choice to present a variety of miracles is particularly apparent in the plagues of hail and locusts. Hashem could have wiped out the Egyptians’ crops with either one alone. But instead He broke the process up into two steps, in order to display two different facets of His control over the world.
After the drowning of the Egyptians, the Torah reports (Shemos 14:31): “Israel saw the great hand that Hashem had inflicted upon Egypt, and the people feared Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in His servant Moshe.” The Maggid regards this declaration as a summing-up of the onslaught against the Egyptians: It achieved its intended purpose – instilling fear of Hashem in the hearts of the Jewish People.
PS: The Maggid addresses the question of why Hashem used Egypt as a tool to accomplish this objective. I plan to follow up with another post presenting the Maggid’s answer.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo, Part 2

I present here a piece relating to this week’s parashah, adapted from my translation of the Maggid’s commentary on Shir HaShirim.
In Shir HaShirim 2:4, Knesses Yisrael declares: “Draw me along, and we shall run after You.” The word mashcheini, meaning “draw me along,” can be read with different vowels as mishcheinai – “from my neighbors.” Building on this, the Midrash describes Knesses Yisrael saying to Hashem (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:27): “On account of the booty You gave us from our [Egyptian] neighbors [as described in this week’s parashah – Shemos 3:22], we shall run after You.” We will show how this homiletical teaching serves to bring out the simple meaning of the verse.
The Jewish People’s entreaty – “Draw me along, and we shall run after You” – seems self-contradictory: if the Jewish People are ready to run after Hashem, they do not need to be pulled. But we can view the verse as referring to two complementary spiritual traits: fear of Hashem and love of Hashem. Both traits are discussed in the Torah [e.g., Devarim 10:12], and both are necessary to serve Hashem properly. Thus, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 112:1): “Fortunate is the man who fears Hashem – who greatly desires His commandments.” David mentions fear of Hashem and love of Hashem together in the same verse.
These two traits differ in both origin and effect. Fear of Hashem stems from punishment, and forces a person–as if he were being drawn–to follow the proper path. Love of Hashem, by contrast, stems from natural gratitude for bounty received, and leads a person to run to come close to Hashem. We ask Hashem to instill both traits within us, so that we will serve Him steadfastly.
How can Hashem bring about this result most efficiently? As we just said, the means of instilling fear and the means of instilling love are completely different. The Midrash provides the answer: Hashem can instill both fear and love in our hearts with a single stroke by punishing our enemies and giving their wealth to us, as He did when He took us out of Egypt. We are filled with love for Hashem because of the bounty He has granted us. At the very same time, we are gripped with fear, lest Hashem do to us what He did to our enemies. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 19:25): “Strike the scoffer, and the simple one grows clever.” This is exactly what happened to the Jews who witnessed the splitting of the Yam Suf (Shemos 14:31): “And the People of Israel saw the mighty hand that Hashem cast against Egypt, and the people feared Hashem ….” When Hashem punished the Egyptians and gave their wealth to us, He instilled within us the fear and love that made us ready to receive the Torah.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo

In the piece on Hallel that I posted during Chanukah, I discussed one of the Maggid’s fundamental teachings about our observance of festivals. The Maggid, in his commentary on Esther 9:28, explains that the miracles that Hashem does for the Jewish People effect benefit not only the generation that experienced the miracle, but also all future generations. When Hashem does a great act of kindness for us, the time when that kindness was done becomes infused with eternal blessing. This is particularly so of the festivals, which is why we observe them as days of joy and thanksgiving. The Maggid cites various examples of how a miracle performed at a certain time becomes a wellspring of salvation for the future. Two of these examples relate to this week’s parashah.
First, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 43:3) states that just as Avraham went out to war against the four kings at midnight (Bereishis 14:15), so too, Hashem smote the Egyptian firstborn at midnight (Shemos 12:29). Avraham’s salvation, rooted in the hour of midnight, established this hour as a time of salvation for the Jewish People in later years. [The closing Nirtzah section of the Haggadah Shel Pesach includes a poem enumerating a series of miracles that Hashem performed for the Jews at midnight. The first event mentioned is Avraham’s conquest of the four kings.] 
Second, in the very first Torah passage on the laws of Pesach, it is stated (Shemos 12:17): “For, on that very day, I brought your hosts out from the land of Egypt.” The Maggid explains that the very day itself was infused with the benevolent influences with which God blessed us at the time of the Exodus, thereby investing the day with the force of redemption forever. Hence the verse concludes: “And you shall keep this day in your future generations – it is an eternal statute.” For the eternal blessing infused in this day, we must eternally express our joy and thanks.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeira, Part 2

Just before Moshe and Aharon went to Pharaoh the second time, Hashem said to Moshe (Shemos 7:8-9): “When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Provide yourselves a sign,’ you shall say to Aharon, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh – it will become a snake.” The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 9:1) notes that Hashem did not say “If  Pharaoh speaks to you saying, ‘Provide yourselves a sign,’” but rather “When Pharaoh speaks to you saying, ‘Provide yourselves a sign.’” That is, Hashem was declaring in advance that Pharaoh was going to ask for a sign. The Midrash points out that various righteous men asked for signs. Noach asked for a sign that Hashem would never again bring a flood. Chizkiah asked for a sign that he would be healed from his illness. Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah asked for a sign that they would be saved from the ravages of the furnace. The Midrash then says that since these righteous men asked for a sign, it stands to reason that Pharaoh would ask for one. This syllogism is baffling. Let us see how the Maggid explains it.
The Maggid says that it was part of Hashem’s plan that Pharaoh ask for a sign. Hence Hashem said, “When Pharaoh speaks to you saying, ‘Provide for yourselves a sign.’” By declaring that Pharaoh would ask for a sign, Hashem “locked in” the demand for a sign – He voided Pharaoh’s freedom of choice, and made it inevitable that Pharaoh would ask for the sign. Hashem wanted Pharaoh to ask for a sign for the same reason that the righteous men that the Midrash mentions asked for a sign. Although Hashem had promised these men that He would act favorably, they feared that some future sin on their part would nullify the promise. They therefore asked for a sign, in order to lock the promise in: once Hashem gave a sign, He would be “bound” not to rescind the promise.
In this vein, it would have been fitting for Moshe and Aharon to ask Hashem for a sign that He would rescue the Jewish People from slavery. But they did not ask for any sign. Hence Hashem placed into Pharaoh’s mind the idea of asking for a sign. The sign was for the Jewish People’s benefit. [Perhaps the Maggid means to say that the sign of the snake was a harbinger of the miracles that Hashem would be performing later.] This is apparent from the phrasing of Pharaoh’s demand: Not “Provide me a sign,” but rather “Provide yourselves a sign.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator