Post Archive for April 2008

Parashas Kedoshim, Part 2

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Vayikra 19:23): “When you come to the land, and you plant any fruit tree, you shall treat its [initial] fruit as sealed off; for three years it shall be sealed off from you – it shall not be eaten” (this is the mitzvah of orlah). The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 25:3):
At the beginning of His creation of the world, the Holy One Blessed Be He engaged first in planting, as it is written (Bereishis 2:8): “And God planted a garden in Eden.” You, also, when you enter the land, you should engage first in planting, as it is written (our verse): “When you come to the land, [and you plant] ….”
The Midrash then expounds further on the verse, building on the following passage (Koheles 2:2-4):
I did great things: I built myself houses and planted myself vineyards. I made for myself gardens and orchards, and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made for myself reservoirs of water from which to irrigate a forest growing with trees.
The Midrash states (Vayikra Rabbah 25:4):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “Tell the forefathers, ‘I have done great things with your children, in accord with everything I stipulated with you. I build for Myself houses, as it is written (Devarim 6:11): “And houses full of all good things.” I planted for Myself vineyards, as it is written (ibid.): “Vineyards and olive-trees that you did not plant.” I made for Myself reservoirs of water, as it is written (ibid. 6:11, ibid. 8:7): “Hewn cisterns” – “Springs and deep water sources.” To irrigate from them a forest growing with [non-fruit] trees. (Said R. Levi: “Not even wooden sticks for making arrows did the Land of Israel lack.”) I made for Myself gardens and orchards, as it is written (ibid 8:8): “A land of wheat and barley.” I planted within them all kinds of fruit trees, as it is written (our verse): “When you come to the land, and you plant ….”’”
In his commentary on this week’s parashah in Ohel Yaakov, and in his commentary on the passage in Koheles, the Maggid analyzes the above two Midrashim.
The first Midrash indicates that Hashem issued an edict obligating those entering the Land of Israel to plant all kinds of fruit trees immediately upon entry. The second Midrash, on the other hand, indicates that Hashem Himself filled the land with all forms of good, even down to wooden sticks for making arrows. Moreover, in the passage in Devarim 6 that Vayikra Rabbah 25:4 builds on, Hashem states that all the resources He lists would be already in place when the Jewish People entered the land, without their having developed them. If so, why would they need to take up planting as their first act upon entering the land, as if they had entered a desolate area and needed to put forth their own effort to develop it? We can ask a similar question about the passage in Koheles. If Shlomo HaMelech wanted houses, vineyards, and so on, he could easily have bought them. Why, then, did he build these things himself?
To answer these questions, and thereby draw out the message of our passage, the Maggid directs us to a basic teaching. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 36:7): “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains; Your judgments are like the great deep. You save both man and beast, Hashem.” The Midrash remarks (Vayikra Rabbah 27:1): “Just as the mountains subdue the [waters of] the deep, so that they do not flood the world, so, too, righteousness subdues misfortunes, so that they do not come upon the world.” The idea behind this teaching is as follows. Our physical desires are themselves our misfortunes, for they are what bring misfortune upon us. They are like the currents of the great watery deep. If not for the mountains, these currents would flood the world. Similarly, the currents of physical desire that race within us, if unchecked, would lead us to follow the whims of our hearts and forget about Hashem – the One Who provides the power behind everything we do. We would succumb completely to our desires. The only force keeping us from going under is the Torah. The mitzvos of the Torah are what subdue our physical desires.
Hashem gave us mitzvos to accompany our every act. Thus, the Midrash teaches (Yalkut Shimoni I:766, slightly paraphrased):
No one, not even the lowliest commoner, puts a piece of bread into his mouth without first fulfilling [a whole series of] mitzvos. How so? When he plows, he fulfills the mitzvah of not plowing with an ox and a donkey together. When he plants, he fulfills the mitzvah of not planting a forbidden mixture of seeds. When he reaps, he fulfills the mitzvos of leaving over for the poor the corner of his field, the gleanings, and the forgotten sheaves. When he threshes, he fulfills the mitzvah of not muzzling his ox while it is threshing. When he stores his grain, he fulfills the mitzvah of terumah (the Kohen’s portion) and the mitzvah of the first and second tithes. When he bakes, he fulfills the mitzvah of challah (giving some of the dough to a Kohen).
Similarly, when a person builds a house, he must fulfill a number of mitzvos. Likewise, there are mitzvos associated with food and clothing. And even when he is on the road, he has mitzvos to fulfill, such as the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird before taking eggs or chicks from a nest. In short, every single act that a person does to take care of his needs involves a number of positive and negative mitzvos. These mitzvos subdue misfortunes and keep a person from falling into the clutches of the yetzer hara. And Hashem judiciously fashioned the mitzvos to suit their purpose, just as He did with the mountains. Yeshayah HaNavi states that Hashem “weighted the mountains with a scale and the hills with a balance” (Yeshayah 40:12). That is, Hashem configured the mountains and hills in accord with their function of subduing the waters of the deep: He put mighty mountains in the places where the currents of the deep are strong, and gentle hills in the places where the currents are gentle. Hashem followed the same strategy with the mitzvos. He carefully analyzed every human activity, and for activities that involve a high level of physical desire – with its consequent threat to a person’s soul – He developed a multitude of mitzvos, in order to subdue the yetzer hara. This is the message of Vayikra Rabbah 27:1. Without the Torah and mitzvos that are associated with every human activity, in just the right measure, a person’s soul would be deluged by the many waves of desire that race within him.
We can now understand why Shlomo developed his great land assets on his own rather than acquiring them from someone else. When a person builds something on his own, meticulously observing the corresponding mitzvos, his righteous conduct serves as a buffer that keeps his evil inclination from leading him astray. Without this buffer, one cannot be secure. Indeed, after telling us that He is bringing us into a land full of ready-made resources, Hashem warned us to guard ourselves from forgetting Him (Devarim 6:12). Hence, Shlomo did not trust himself to acquire his land assets from others and enjoy them straightaway. He wished instead to develop them himself, so that the mitzvos he fulfilled in the process would guard him against the pull of desire, and thus protect him from misfortune.
And this is the idea behind the Midrashim we began with. The first Midrash teaches that Hashem ordered us to plant fruit trees upon entering the Land of Israel. We are led to wonder why. The second Midrash points to the answer. Hashem tells us that He filled the Land of Israel with ready-made resources in order to fulfill His promise to our forefathers. But the panoply of ready-made resources posed a risk of spiritual degeneration. This is why Hashem ordered us to plant fruit trees on our own as well – so that would fulfill the corresponding mitzvos and thereby be sheltered from all evil.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Kedoshim

This week’s parashah opens with the charge: “Be holy!” The Maggid, in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 3:11, expounds on this charge at length. I present here an abbreviated version of this lengthy essay.
The Maggid begins by noting that that the charge is addressed to “the entire congregation of the Children of Israel.” This shows that holiness is not a far-flung goal. Rather, it is a state that every Jew can reach – and without great exertion. The soul of a Jew is quarried from beneath Hashem’s throne of glory; it is, as the sefarim say, “an extract of God on high” (chelek Elokah mi-maal). Etched within it are the noble character traits that lead a person to devote himself to serving Hashem: understanding, fear of Hashem, love of Hashem, and all the offshoots of these attributes.
Thus, to attain holiness, all we need do is divest ourselves of the defiling effects of sin. Consider, by analogy, how we can use water to wash a white garment that has become soiled. The washing makes the garment white – not because the water is white, but because the water clears away the dirt. After the washing, the garment’s original whiteness automatically returns. Similarly, as long as a Jew keeps his soul pure, holiness automatically abides within him. In this vein, the Midrash says that anyone who guards himself from immorality is called “holy” (Vayikra Rabbah 24:6). This Midrash teaches that when the Torah exhorts us to “be holy,” it is telling us simply to keep from defiling ourselves. Then our inner holiness will come to the fore.
The Torah declares (Devarim 30:11): “This commandment that I command you this day – it is not far removed from you, and it is not distant.” On this verse, the Midrash relates (Devarim Rabbah 8:3): “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘It is not far removed. And if it is far removed, it is due to you, because you do not delve into it.’”
The Maggid brings out the point of this Midrash with another analogy. Consider two men standing next to each other. If each one walks off in a different direction, we would say that the two men are moving away from each other. But now suppose that only one of the men walks off, while the other remains in place. In this case, we would not say that the two men are moving away from each other; rather, we would say that one of the men is moving away from the other. Similarly, a Jew’s inner wellspring of holiness remains in place within him, embedded within his soul, without budging one iota. When a Jew becomes distanced from holiness, it is because he has distanced himself from holiness by exposing himself to impure things and sullying himself with sin. This is the meaning of the Midrash: If the Torah is far removed from us, it is on our account that this is so. But if a Jew divests his heart of all evil influences, it then can serve as a vessel for storing spiritual bounty – and then, as a natural result, words of Torah will enter it.
The Maggid reinforces the point with yet another analogy. Suppose you are thinking about buying a certain suit, and you want to try it on to see how it fits. To do so, you must first take off the clothes you are presently wearing, and then put the new suit directly on your body. If you keep your clothes on, you cannot properly judge how the suit fits. Similarly, if a person finds love of Hashem an elusive goal, it is because his heart is cloaked in worldly interests. In order to develop a vibrant awareness and love of Hashem, a person must shed all external desires and place the Torah’s words directly upon his heart. One must strive, as the first paragraph of the Shema says, to love Hashem with all his heart, without harboring other affections and yearnings. In a similar vein, in the second paragraph of the Shema it is written (Devarim 11:18): “You shall place these words of Mine upon your hearts and upon your souls.” A Jew must guard his heart by infusing it with Hashem’s words – and nothing else. If he takes just this one basic measure, he will automatically be filled with love of Hashem, to the ultimate degree.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shir HaShirim

On Pesach we read Shir HaShirim. As the Midrash explains, Shir HaShirim is a dialogue between Knesses Yisrael and Hashem about their unique relationship. It is thus a fitting reading for Pesach, for it was at the time of the Exodus that this relationship was formed.
The dialogue begins with Knesses Yisrael making the following exclamation:
Kiss me with the kisses of Your [literally, His] mouth, for Your love is more pleasing than wine. Because of the fragrance of Your fine oils, Your name is like oil poured forth; therefore young maidens fell in love with You. Draw me along, and we shall run after You. Let the King bring me into His inner chamber. We shall jubilate and rejoice in You; we recall Your love as better than wine – we love You devoutly.
I present here a few points from the Maggid’s extensive commentary on this passage.
When we ask Hashem to kiss us with the kisses of His mouth, we are asking Him transplant from His mouth to ours a true sense of taste for the sweetness of the Torah’s ways, for He is the One with a full sense of this sweetness. We then will serve Hashem with the proper spirit, rather than just for reward or out of an inchoate belief in the Torah’s value.
When we say to Hashem that if He will draw us along we will run after Him, we are saying that if He will give us an initial pull to get us out of the clutches of our evil inclincation, we will then run after Him. Our true inner desire is to serve Him, but our evil inclination holds us back. Once Hashem gives us a pull towards Him, we will serve him with joy and zest.
We then say: “We recall Your love as better than wine.” We use the term recall to rule out the notion that we never before experienced the sweetness of Hashem’s Torah. We did experience it – at the time the Torah was first given. Indeed, in regard to the Giving of the Torah, it is written (Shemos 24:11): “They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” The simple meaning of this statement is that we imbibed the radiance of the Divine Presence as if we were partaking of the finest delicacies. We thus describe Hashem’s love as better than wine – more delightful than all the delicacies of the world, which are represented by the term wine.
We also say: “Let the King bring me into His inner chamber.” This refers to what the Kohen Gadol experienced when he entered the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was a place of captivating splendor; one could stare on and on at the glorious sights there and not tire. Yet the Kohen Gadol would pay no regard to all this splendor. Indeed, if he diverted his attention from his holy duties for even a second, far be it, he would be instantly struck down. It must be, then, that he was so captivated by the sublimity of the Divine Presence that his attachment to worldly delights was completely obliterated. This is the experience we plead for: “Let the King bring me into His inner chamber; we shall jubilate and rejoice in You” – in You alone. We yearn for the day when our joy in Hashem will eclipse all worldly joy, as it did in days of yore.
PS: Over Pesach, I will not be connected to the Internet, and therefore will not be posting. I hope that the extra posts this week will make up for the hiatus. IYH I will resume posting after Pesach. I wish everyone a chag kasher v’sameach.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

We Were Slaves in Egypt, and Hashem Delivered Us

The Maggid, in his commentary on the Haggadah, notes that it is important to really understand why we are thanking Hashem for taking us out of Egypt. After all, Hashem is the One Who originally put us there. The Maggid gives analogy to a doctor who is healing a broken arm for someone. If the patient came to the doctor with the broken arm, he certainly should thank the doctor for healing it. But if the doctor himself broke the person’s arm, and then healed it, why should the doctor deserve any thanks? Better that he should not have broken the person’s arm in the first place. Seemingly, we could say the same thing about the Exodus: Better that Hashem should not have put us in Egypt in the first place. What, then, are we thanking Hashem for?
The Maggid answers that we are thanking Hashem for making us His holy people; in the Haggadah’s words, for drawing us near to serve Him. The servitude in Egypt was an essential step in the process of preparing us for this mission. Egypt was the iron crucible (Devarim 4:20) through which Hashem purged us of all impurity, just as a smelter puts a piece of silver into fire to purify it. In this way, we became fit to receive the Torah. Thus, in reciting the Haggadah, we declare: “Blessed is the One Who gave Torah to His People Israel.” The final touch was the ten plagues. The wondrous miracles that Hashem performed in bringing the plagues, which involved turning nature inside-out, implanted deep within us a recognition of Hashem as Creator and Master of the universe. With our impurities purged and our hearts imbued with this recognition, we were prepared to become a nation devoted to serving Hashem. Hence, it is incumbent on us to thank Hashem for the enslavement as well as for the deliverance, for both played an key role in bringing us to our lofty station.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shabbos HaGadol

This Shabbos, we read the special haftarah for Shabbos HaGadol (Malachi 3:4-24). This segment in Malachi comes on the heels of a segment describing how Hashem will subject us to a rigorous cleansing and smelting process to purify us. The haftarah itself begins with the following verse: “The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will then be pleasing to Hashem as in days of yore and former years.” The Maggid notes that this verse can be read b’derech drash as a plea: “May the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasing to Hashem as in days of yore and former years.”
The Maggid links the verse, read in the above way, to a Gemara on Shir HaShirim 4:9: “You have captured My heart, O my sister the bride – you have captured My heart with [just] one of your eyes ….” The Gemara remarks (Shabbos 88b): “In the beginning, with [just] one of your eyes; when you fulfill, with both of your eyes.”
The Maggid develops the idea by analyzing the difference between the service our forefathers offered to Hashem and the service we offer. The forefathers kept the Torah voluntarily. Hence Hashem was pleased with their service; He did not scrutinize it strictly, for it was a pure gift. We, however, are obligated through the covenant at Sinai to keep the Torah. Hashem therefore has reason to scrutinize our service according to a strict standard – and we are not fully meeting our obligations. Hence Hashem’s love for us is diminished – we are capturing His heart with only one of our eyes. In the verse from Malachi, in the Maggid’s rendering, we plead with Hashem to temper His outlook toward our service. We ask Him to view our service with favor, as if it were a gift, like the service of our forefathers.
In the end of days, we will rise to a lofty level, and fufill our obligations to Hashem under the Torah in full measure. And then, in turn, Hashem will love us in full measure – we will capture His heart with both our eyes. 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Acharei Mos

The first segment of this week’s parashah describes the Yom Kippur service that was performed in the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash. In regard to Yom Kippur, the Torah declares (Vayikra 16:30): “For on this day He [Hashem] shall grant you atonement, to purify you from all your sins – before Hashem you shall become purified.” The closing Mishnah of meseches Yoma, the tractate dealing with Yom Kippur, records the following statement of Rabbi Akiva: “Fortunate are you, Israel! Before whom do you become purified, and who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven!”
The Maggid elaborates on the signficance of the fact that it is specifically our Father in Heaven who purifies us. He gives an analogy to a doctor treating a patient. If there is no special relationship between the doctor and the patient, the doctor will proceed as he sees fit without making a special effort to lessen the patient’s suffering. But if the doctor is the patient’s father, he will go out of his way to keep the suffering at a minimum.
Thus it is with Hashem and us. As we noted in a previous piece, the Torah calls Hashem our Healer – the One Who cures our spiritual ills. One way to eliminate the negative spiritual effects of sin is afflictions. But, in His kindness, Hashem gave us a special day – Yom Kippur – on which the effects of our sins can be wiped out with no suffering at all (except for very serious sins, as the Gemara in Yoma explains).
There is, however, a precondition that we must fulfill in order to the healing power of Yom Kippur to have effect: We must become purified before Hashem. In other words, we must raise ourselves, for the full 24+ hour period of Yom Kippur – evening to evening – to a lofty level of holiness, purity, and fear of Hashem. Only then will Yom Kippur purge us of our sins.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Metzora, Part 2

In Vayikra Rabbah 16:9, the Midrash interprets Yeshayah 57:17-18 as referring to a metzora. The passage in Yeshayah reads as follows:
Because of his sinful thievery I became incensed and I smote him. I [later] hid Myself and became incensed, for he waywardly followed the course of his whim. When I saw his [penitent] ways I healed him and I guided him; [later] I paid consolations to him and his mourners. [As we noted in a previous piece, theft is one of the sins for which a person is stricken with tzaraas.]
The Midrash inteprets this passage as describing a metzora who repented and was healed, but then fell back into waywardness; upon his return to sinful ways, he was stricken once again with tzaraas, and was then mourned over by his own limbs.
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. Our Sages teach: Kol Yisrael yesh lahem chelek l’olam ha-ba (Sanhedrin 90a). The Maggid notes that the teaching says l’olam rather than b’olam. Thus, the Sages are not saying that every Jew has an automatic portion in the World to Come. Rather, they are saying that every Jew is given a portion of spiritual assets that provide him a way to gain entry to the World to Come. Ever since Sinai, Hashem has implanted every Jew with a propensity to fear and love Him. If a person engages in willful sinning, this propensity can die out. But so long as a person does not defile himself in this way, his propensity for righteousness constantly abides within his soul. And so, when he commits a sin, he feels shame and mourns over himself. This is what the Midrash means when it describes the person’s limbs mourning over him.
An earlier passage in the same chapter of Yeshayah reflects the foregoing ideas. This passage reads as follows (Yeshayah 57:11-12):
Whom did you dread and fear, that you have become duplicitous? You did not remember Me; you did not take [Me] to your heart. Behold, I have kept silent, as always, but you did not fear Me. I attest to your righteousness and your [propensity for performing worthy] deeds, but they do not avail you. 
The Maggid explains this passage as follows. There are a few sinners who are brazen enough to show their face in public. These are people who have gone completely bad; they are like a garment that is completely black with dirt, so that the dirt is not even recognizable as dirt. But most people hide themselves in shame when they sin. This is a sign that their inborn fear of Hashem has not died out, but remains still implanted in their hearts. In the passage in Yeshayah just quoted, Hashem challenges such people: “You act with duplicity – because of your fear of other people, you hide your evildoing from them. Why, then, do you not show fear for Me? The fact that you hide shows that your inborn fear of Me still abides within your heart. But it does avail you, for you are not exercising it properly.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Metzora

In Devarim Rabbah 6:10, the Midrash teaches that a person who speaks loshon hara cannot argue that he told the story to someone who would not spread it, and thus meant no harm. The Midrash says that when loshon hara is spoken, an angel writes down the whole story and passes it on to heaven.
The Maggid, in his commentary on this week’s parashah, explains this Midrash as follows. The Gemara states that the ministering angels do not give forth song in Heaven above until the People of Israel give forth song on the Earth below (Chullin 91b). The Maggid holds that this principle applies not only to song, but to other forms of expression. Thus, in Kol Yaakov, in his commentary on Eichah 2:19, the Maggid says that the angels do not cry over the Churban Beis HaMikdash and the exile until we cry first. Here he says that the same idea applies to loshon hara.
When a person does bad deeds, he generates prosecuting angels (Avos 4:13), but these angels initially do not have the power to speak. The situation changes, however, when someone relates these bad deeds to another person. After the story is written down by the recording angel and passed up to heaven, the accusing angels can then come forward with their evidence. Thus, even if the story is not spread to other people, the one spoken about suffers great harm. Moreover, the one who spoke the loshon hara can also be prosecuted.
Thus, speaking loshon hara is dangerous. The hazard is compounded by the fact that loshon hara tends to become a habit. As the Midrash indicates (Devarim Rabbah 6:9), one begins by speaking loshon hara about people one hates, but over time one ends up speaking loshon hara about friends as well. If a person would only realize how much damage he can do to himself by speaking loshon hara, he would never start.
The laws of the metzora are meant to provide a lesson in the power of speech. Thus, a person with a lesion that looks like tzoraas does not become tamei (ritually impure) until a Kohen declares him so. And, similarly, when the lesion heals, the person does not become tahor (ritually pure) until the Kohen declares him so. It is not enough for the Kohen to call in a scholar to examine the lesion and render a verdict. The Kohen must proclaim the verdict. Moreover, as the Sifra states, it doen not matter if the Kohen is an ignoramus: When the scholar examines the lesion and informs the Kohen of his finding, it is the Kohen’s proclamation that gives the verdict effect. Such is the power that a word can have.   
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas HaChodesh

This week we read the special maftir of parashas HaChodesh (Shemos 12:1-20). Here, the Torah states that we are to count the month of Nisan – the month of the Exodus – as the first of the months of the year, and presents the laws of the Korban Pesach, the mitzvah of eating matzah on the first night of Pesach, and the mitzvah of avoiding chametz during Pesach.
Among the laws of the Korban Pesach, we find the law that it is to be eaten in haste. The Midrash indicates that this law is meant as a remembrance of the haste with which we left Egypt. The Maggid asks why it is so important to remember this haste. Seemingly, the fact that the Jews left Egypt a few hours prior to daybreak is not significant. Why does the Torah stress the haste?
The Maggid answers that when the Torah mentions the haste of the Exodus, it is, in truth, not referring to the fact that the Jews left Egypt a few hours prior to daybreak. Rather, it is referring to the fact that the Jews left Egypt before the originally alloted 400 years of exile had been reached. The Jews had to be taken out because they could no longer bear the suffering of slavery and the evil influences of the decadent Egyptian culture: “they could not tarry.” Nonetheless, the Jewish People’s obligation to suffer in exile had to be made up for, which Hashem did by sending us into a succession of further exiles under the rule of the four great gentile kingdoms: Babylonia, Persia/Media, Greece, and Rome. The law of eating the Korban Pesach in haste serves as an indication of why Hashem subjected us to these other exiles.
In the end of days, however, it will be different. As it is written (Yeshayah 60:20): “Your days of mourning will reach their completion.” The exile will run its full course. And thus (Yeshayah 52:12): “You shall not go out in haste.” We will go out in the proper time, not before. Yet Hashem has the power to stir us to repent and purify ourselves, so that the proper time will come earlier. Thus it is written (Yeshayah 60:22): “I am Hashem; in its time I will hasten it.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator