Post Archive for May 2008

Haftaras Bamidbar

The final passage of this week’s haftarah includes the following famous verse (Hoshea 2:21): “And I shall betroth you to Me forever. I shall betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in kindness and in compassion.” The Maggid offers a number of interpretations.
1. There are two paradigms for the bond between Hashem and us. One paradigm is the bond between husband and wife. The other is the bond between relatives: we are called Hashem’s “kindred people” (Tehillim 148:14), and we have been so from the very beginning. Now the bond of love between husband and wife is forged through justice, in terms of mutual obligations. The bond of love between relatives, by contrast, is forged purely through kindness. In the end of days, Hashem will show us a dual form of love. It will include the “familial” love that He had for us from the beginning, due to our being His “kindred people” – a love that stems from pure kindness. And it will include as well the love that He will feel for us due to our fulfillment of the covenant we made with Him at Sinai – a love that stems from justice. God will knit these two strands of love together into a unified whole, and pass it over into our hands. (From the commentary on Shir HaShirim 4:9.)
2. Hashem gave us an array of mitzvos, whose true purpose is to benefit us. At the same time, Hashem wished to make us worthy of being called righteous by virtue of having obeyed His will. This made it necessary that we perform the mitzvos solely for the sake of serving Him, and not for the sake of our own benefit. Hashem therefore obscured the true purpose of the mitzvos. He made it seem as if the mitzvah acts we perform are for His benefit, and are meant to promote His governance.
The Maggid brings out the point with the following allegory. A king ordered his servant to move all of his royal possessions to another house. The servant rushed to carry out the order, and he diligently hauled all of the property in the royal palace over to the designated house, down to the very last item. When he finished the job, the king approached him and said: “What is the wage for your work? Tell me, and I will pay.” The servant replied: “Your Majesty, you saw all the effort I exerted. I am sure you realize that I deserve a large sum for my work.” The king declared: “Behold, I give you both the house and everything you carried into it.” The servant thought he was working for pay, but in fact he was working for his own benefit.
Similarly, at present we operate under the assumption that we are following the dictates of righteousness and justice in order to cater to Hashem’s needs. We therefore continually ask Him to reward us with kindness and compassion. In the end of days, however, Hashem will expose the open the hidden truth. We will see that righteousness and justice are actually at one with kindness and compassion – that righteousness and justice themselves bring us kindness and compassion. We will realize that everything Hashem demands of us is for our own benefit. And then, through this knowledge, we will be bound to Hashem and heed His word faithfully. (Also from the commentary on Shir HaShirim 4:9.)
3. At present, due to our limited understanding, we do not truly recognize that kindness and compassion depend upon righteousness and justice. Hence, we ardently seek kindness and compassion, but do not hope so ardently for righteousness and justice. In the end of days, however, Hashem will open our eyes, and we will see clearly that righteousness and justice are the source of kindness and compassion, just as plowing and planting are what lead to reaping. As the Torah says repeatedly, obedience to Hashem’s will brings blessing. Once we gain a clear grasp of this connection, we will crave righteousness and justice just as we crave kindness and compassion. (From the commentary on the haftarah in Kochav MiYaakov.)
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bamidbar

In Yirmiyahu 2:31, we find Hashem exclaiming: “Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of deep darkness? Why have My people said, ‘We separate ourselves (radnu) – we shall no longer come to You’?” In Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2, the Midrash elaborates on this verse. It describes Hashem relating how He took the Jewish People out of Egypt, and granted them sustenance and comfort during their journey to the Land of Israel, so that the land they traveled through could hardly be called a wilderness. The Midrash then notes Hashem’s exclamation: “Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of deep darkness?” Afterward, it describes the Jewish People’s response:
When a loaf is stuck on the wall of an oven to bake, and is then removed from the oven, can it be stuck back on the wall of the oven again? (Here radnu is taken as an allusion to redias ha-pas: the removal of the loaf from the wall of the oven.) We were as if in an oven, as it is written (Yeshayah 31:9): “He [Hashem] has an oven in Jerusalem.” We were then exiled to Babylonia.
Finally, the Midrash presents Hashem’s retort: “Why have My people said, ‘We separate ourselves (radnu) – we shall no longer come to You’?”
The Maggid explains this Midrash with a clever doctor-patient allegory. A patient comes to an expert doctor in the fall season, seeking treatment for an ailment. The doctor administers a series of unpleasant treatments and sends the patient home. When spring arrives, the doctor summons the patient back. The patient is bewildered, and he asks the doctor why he called for him. The doctor explains: “You thought that the treatment I gave you in the fall would cure your illness. But it is not so. The illness you have is one that can be treated only in the spring. The treatment I gave you in the fall was what we doctors call a placebo – a dummy treatment to keep you from worrying. Now I will give you the real treatment, a much more wrenching one than the one I gave you before.”
The parallel is as follows. The Jewish People knew that they would inherit the Land of Israel only through suffering (cf. Berachos 5a). They assumed that the hardships they endured in their journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel constituted the required suffering, and that they would then inherit the land permanently. But afterward they were exiled to Babylonia. They thought they would never return to the Land of Israel, just like a loaf that has been removed from an oven cannot be stuck back on the wall of the oven again. Hashem then explained to them that they had the story all wrong. The journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel was in fact relatively comfortable. They were subjected to a few mild hardships in order to make them think that they were being prepared for inheriting the Land of Israel permanently. But in fact it was not yet time for them to do so, and the hardships were, so to speak, only a dummy treatment. The real treatment began when the Jewish People went into exile. The afflictions we suffer in exile are far worse than the hardships the wilderness generation suffered, but through them we will ultimately inherit the Land of Israel for good. 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bechukosai, Part 3

Near the end of the litany of curses in this week’s parashah, we find a verse of consolation (Vayikra 26:44): “But despite all this, though they are in the land of their enemies, I have not rejected them and I have not abhorred them to destroy them, to break My covenant with them, for I am Hashem their God.” The Midrash elaborates (Esther Rabbah Pesichasa 4):
 I have not rejected them – in the days of Vespasian. And I have not abhorred them – in the days of Trajan. To destroy them – in the days of Haman. To break My covenant with them – in the days of the Romans. For I am Hashem their God – in the days of Gog and Magog.
Hashem does not allow any nation to destroy us. He does not abandon us. On the contrary, in His great kindness, He continues to hold onto us. This is a sign that eventually He will redeem us.
The Maggid brings out the idea with a beautiful analogy. Suppose a person has a large collection of possessions. An item he uses all the time he will keep in a secure place where no stranger will get hold of it, while an item he has no use for, he will toss away for anyone to take. Between these two extremes there is a middle case – an item that the person is not using now and does not keep so well secured, but is still particular about. If someone else comes and tries to take the item for himself, the owner rails at him and stops him from taking it. This shows that the owner plans to use the item later, when it is suitable for his use.
It is the same with us. In our exile we are like an item that has been cast aside, apparently unwanted. But when some gentile nation tries to wipe us off the face of the earth, Hashem rails at them, and does not abandon us to them. This is a sign that He will yet redeem us when the proper time comes, and we will become His prized estate.
This is what the Midrash in Esther Rabbah is saying. Even though we are in the land of our enemies, and we appear to have been abandoned, Hashem has not really cast us off. He neither rejected us in the days of Vespasian nor allowed us to be destroyed in the days of Haman. This is a definitive sign that He is Hashem our God, Who will redeem us in the future, following the war of Gog and Magog. Otherwise, He would have abandoned us already to the hands of the gentile nations who arose to destroy us.
A Midrash in Eichah Rabbah brings out the same idea. In Megillas Eichah, Yirmiyahu declares (Yirmiyahu 3:23): “They come anew each morning – Your faithfulness is very great.” On this the Midrash comments (Eichah Rabbah 3:20): “From the fact that You renew [Your relationship with] us at the dawning of each major kingdom, we know that You can be firmly counted on to redeem us.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bechukosai, Part 2

The Midrash comments as follows on the blessings and curses of this week’s parashah (Vayikra Rabbah 35:1):
It is written (Tehillim 119:59): “I pondered my ways, and made my feet turn back to Your testimonies.” Said David: “Master of the Universe! … I pondered the blessings and the curses. The blessings begin with an aleph [in the word im] and end with the letter tav [komemiyus]. But the curses begin with the letter vav [ve’im] and end with the letter hei [Mosheh]. Furthermore, the vav and the hei appear in reverse [the vav is at the beginning and the hei at the end, whereas in the alphabet hei precedes vav].
This Midrash is rather enigmatic, but the Maggid explains it brilliantly.
The Maggid says that the inverse order is meant to indicate the nature of these particular curses. They are not definitive curses of the type Hashem pronounces upon us in fierce anger, such as the curse (Devarim 11:17), “And He shall shut up the heavens, and there shall be no rain.” Rather, they are blessings that have been inverted into curses. It is the same with the passage of curses in Devarim ch. 28. There we find a series of curses such as the following:
a. You shall take out to the field a great quantity of seed, but you shall gather in little, for the locusts shall destroy it (Devarim 28:38).
b. You shall beget sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours, for they shall go into captivity (Devarim 28:41).
c. The foreigners among you shall rise above you higher and higher, while you descend lower and lower (Devarim 28:44).
These curses differ in a basic way from the curse of no rain. In the curse of no rain, the source of blessing is removed altogether. By contrast, in the foregoing three curses, the source of the original blessing remains, and is simply turned into a source of anguish. In other words, they are blessings that have been inverted into curses. This is a strong indication that Hashem is not definitively pronouncing curses upon us here. Rather, He is lovingly waiting for us to repent, so that He may turn the curses back into the blessings that they were before.
The Maggid brings out the point with the following charming parable. A very rich man had an only son, whom he always dressed in splendid clothes. Once this man ordered for his son a particularly expensive embroidered silk suit. Beneath the silk exterior, a linen lining was sewn in for support. Some time later the father found, to his displeasure, that the son treated this expensive suit carelessly and made no effort to keep it from getting dirty. The father therefore turned the suit inside out and put it on his son that way. The boy thus became a laughing-stock to all who saw him.
Someone approached the father and rebuked him: “You are quite able to buy your son fine clothes, aren’t you? Why then do you dress him in a linen peasant outfit?” This person thought that the suit really was just a simple linen suit, and that the father was merely being cheap. The father replied: “By your life, my dear man, this is the very same silk suit that my son was wearing before. I just turned it inside out temporarily so that he would learn not to mistreat it. I hope he will indeed learn the lesson, and take the initiative to turn it right side out again.”
The parallel is as follows. On many occasions when we stray, Hashem does not wish to pour out His wrath upon us, but simply to hint to us to straighten out our crooked ways. In these situations, He does not completely nullify the blessings He planned to give us and replace them with outright curses. Instead, He just turns the blessings inside out and converts them into curses. When we repent, He converts these curses back into blessings.
The Maggid employs similar reasoning to explain why Hashem chooses fools for world leaders. When the Jews misbehave, Hashem sends some nation to threaten them with affliction. But there is always the possibility that the Jews will mend their ways, in which case the decree of affliction will have to be reversed. In order to be able to bring about such reversals smoothly, Hashem deliberately gives power to people who are always changing their positions. The reversals then seem perfectly natural.
This is how the Maggid explains a Midrash about Achasheirosh. The Midrash reads as follows (Esther Rabbah Pesichasa 9):
When the beloved children’s deeds made their Father in Heaven angry, He set over them a fickle king to impose retribution upon them. Who was this? This was Achashveirosh.
The Midrash refers to the Jewish People as “beloved children,” says the Maggid, because Hashem indeed still loved them. He knew that they would repent. Hence He set over them a fickle king, who did not follow through consistently on his initial intentions. Achashveirosh was indeed an inconsistent ruler. As the Midrash puts it: “Once he killed his wife for his friend’s sake, and another time he killed his friend for his wife’s sake.” Thus, when the Jewish People repented, he could be easily dissuaded from harming them.
PS: We can combine the ideas in the preceding post and this one in the following way. When we totally disregard the mitzvos, Hashem punishes us by shutting off the conduits of blessing entirely. And when we perform the mitzvos in an improper fashion, He punishes us by pointing the conduits in the wrong direction. In the latter case, repentance can easily reverse the punishment: the conduits can easily be pointed back in the right direction. In the former case, a greater effort of repentance is required to bring the punishment to an end..
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bechukosai

This week’s parashah begins with the following words (Vayikra 26:3-4): “If you follow My statutes, and observe My commandments and perform them – I shall then provide your rains in their proper time: the land shall give forth its produce and the trees of the field shall give forth their fruit.” Note that Rashi interprets the phrase “follow My statutes” as referring to arduous Torah study.
The Maggid comments on the above passage as follows. In the physical realm, there are activities – such as eating – that can be either beneficial or harmful, depending on circumstances. If a person eats a given food at the proper time, in the proper quantity, and with the proper quality, the food will nourish him. But if any of the necessary conditions is missing, the food will cause him harm. The same is true, the Maggid says, in the realm of mitzvos. Each mitzvah involves certain conditions: to the time for performing it, the intent necessary when performing it, and the specific details of how to perform it. If one of the conditions is violated, the putative mitzvah act could actually become a transgression.
There are two ways in which a person can lapse in regard to a mitzvah. One type of lapse is not to do the mitzvah at all. When a person disregards a mitzvah, Hashem withholds entirely the blessing associated with doing the mitzvah: “He shall shut up the heavens, and there shall be no rain.” The other type of lapse is to perform the mitzvah improperly. This is just like eating improperly. The food is taken in, but it causes harm instead of benefit. In the same way, when a person performs a mitzvah improperly, Hashem sends down His blessing under the wrong conditions; for example, He sends down rain in the wrong place or at the wrong time. (This probably serves to call a person’s attention to his errors.) Thus, one must study Torah arduously to learn how to perform the mitzvos properly. If one studies properly, and performs the mitzvos properly, then one’s mitzvah acts bring benefit: the rains come in their proper time, and the land and the trees produce as they should.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behar, Part 2

The blog directory service BlogCatalog has designated May 15 as “Bloggers Unite for Human Rights” day. Clearly the Torah supports the notion of social conscience; indeed, the Torah is the leading basic source for this notion. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that nowhere in the Five Books of Moses is there a discussion of “human rights.” The Torah discusses responsibilities, not rights. The emphasis is not on what a person can demand for himself, but rather on what is demanded of him. If people would adopt this outlook, we would see better progress on the issues typically raised under the heading of “human rights.” This is my contribution to BlogCatalog’s human rights campaign.
The latter part of this week’s parashah deals with the responsibility of caring for the poor. The Torah states (Vayikra 25:35): “If your brother becomes impoverished, and he falters financially in your midst, you must bolster him – [this includes a] convert or resident gentile – so that he may survive along with you.” The Midrash comments (Vayikra Rabbah 34:5):
Rabbi Tanchum the son of Rabbi Chiya expounded: “‘When seeing good fortune, be glad – and when seeing bad fortune, realize that God also brought about this, in parallel with the other …’ (Koheles 7:14, in a somewhat homiletical rendering). If misfortune strikes your fellow, see how you can provide for him and sustain him, so that you may receive due reward.” And thus it was with Rabbi Tanchum the son of Rabbi Chiya: when his mother would go to the market to get him a litra of meat, she would buy him two – one for him and one for the poor. This was in keeping with the saying “this, in parallel with the other.” The Holy One Blessed Be He made rich people and poor people, so that these could provide for those.
The simple meaning of this Midrash is that some people are granted wealth because others are poor. If poverty did not exist, then wealth would not exist either; instead, everyone would simply receive what they need for their sustenance.
The Maggid, in his commentary on Ruth 1:2, explains the Midrash as follows. According to the dictates of strict justice, Hashem should give each person day by day exactly what he needs to survive the day. This is how it was when the Jewish People lived on manna: each person, no matter how much he tried to collect, was left in the end with precisely what he needed, no more and no less (Shemos 16:17-18). And this is in fact how it should be: ideally, people should trust in Hashem to provide their immediate needs moment by moment, like a baby suckling from its mother (cf. Tehillim 131:2). But, human nature being as it is, most people cannot live this way. Only the exalted few have such whole-hearted faith in Hashem’s providence. The average person would die worrying about how he will make it through the next day.
Hashem therefore devised a brilliant strategy whereby He can accommodate the average person and still allow strict justice to operate. The system is that most people are granted extra assets, but some people are made poor and receive only the bare minimum needed for survival. The poor bear the burden of strict justice, so that the well-off can receive the great measure of Divine generosity that they do. In effect, the poor are doing the well-off a service: the poor absorb afflictions that the well-off would otherwise suffer. Thus, simple common sense calls for the well-off to care for the poor. And the extra assets that the well-off are granted are intended precisely for this purpose.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behar

One of the segments of this week’s parashah discusses the prohibition on cheating in buying and selling (ona’ah). The Maggid offers a number of comments.
1. The Maggid notes that the segment begins by stating that the parties to a deal are not allowed to cheat each other regardless of whether the deal is a sale or a purchase. The Maggid points out that this phrasing is curious, since there is no such thing as a sale without a purchase or a purchase without a sale. The Maggid explains that the way a deal is labeled depends on which of the two parties has a greater need to make it. If the seller has a greater need, the deal is called a sale; if the buyer has a greater need, the deal is called a purchase. Thus, the Maggid says, the Torah is speaking of cases where one party has the upper hand because the other party has a pressing need. The Torah is telling us the party with the upper hand should not exploit his more favorable position to force an unfair deal.
2. The Midrash links the segment to the following verse (Mishlei 18:21): “Death and life are in the domain of the tongue.” The Maggid explains that the Midrash is hinting at how a dishonest merchant engages in double-talk, switching between two positions that are polar opposites of each other, just like death and life. When he buys goods from a wholesaler, he denigrates them, in order to induce the wholesaler to sell at a low price. But when he sells these same goods to customers, he praises the goods, in order to induce the customers to buy at a high price.
3. The Midrash comments further that when a person commits a pile of sins, it is the sin of theft that comes forward first to indict him. The Maggid explains the idea as follows. In line with an idea he developed in parashas Kedoshim (presented in a previous post), the Maggid states that Hashem decreed that we work for our living in order that the mitzvos we must perform in the process will protect us from the evil inclination. When a person cheats, he thwarts the whole system. Instead of accruing mitzvos in the course of making a living, he accrues a pile of sins. And since it was with the sin of theft that the person began his spree of sin, the sin of theft is the first to indict.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Emor – Sefiras HaOmer

In regard to Sefiras HaOmer, there is a classic question: Why do we count up to Shavuos rather than counting down to Shavuos? The Maggid answers this question in the following way.
Righteous people and wicked people relate in opposite ways to the days of their lives. A righteous person treasures the days he has already lived, taking satisfaction in the mitzvos and good deeds he has accumulated over the course of these days. But a wicked person, whose sole focus is on worldly pleasures, treasures only the days of life he has remaining. The days he has already lived are of no significance, for he has nothing left from them. The pleasures he indulged in the past have come and gone, and afford him no further benefit.
The Maggid sharpens the point with an analogy to two beggars. One beggar spends his money as soon as he collects it, so he never has more than what he collected on his last outing. The other beggar, by contrast, saves up the money he collects. He accumulates copper pennies until he has enough for a silver coin; he then accumulates silver coins until he has enough for a gold coin. Similarly, the wicked person never has more than the pleasures of the moment. And when he reaches the end of his life, he is left with nothing at all. The righteous person, on the other hand, accumulates bundles of mitzvos in increasing denominations of time: days, weeks, months, years. And when he reaches the end of his life, his mitzvos generate for him an eternity of contentment in the World to Come.
In a similar vein, the days of the sefirah period are days for accumulating units of preparation for receiving the Torah. We count up in order to keep track of how many units of preparation we have acquired. Moreover, since every unit of preparation is essential, we are direct to make sure that the count is of seven complete weeks, without a single day missing.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Emor

In this week’s parashah, we read about the cycle of festivals. The Torah states (Vayikra 23:2): “Hashem’s appointed festivals that you are to designate as holy convocations (mikraei kodesh) – these are My appointed festivals.” In his commentary on Shir HaShirim 3:11, part of which was presented in one of last week’s posts, the Maggid elaborates on the holiness of Shabbos and the Yomim Tovim.
On these holy days, the Maggid says, we hope to receive from Hashem a special awakening to holiness. Admittedly, since we are not in Hashem’s inner circle, we are unable to reach the ultimate level of holiness. We have no dealings with hidden wisdom. But the revealed things are given over to us. And when we make a sincere effort to sanctify ourselves before Hashem on the holy days, we bring out an emanation of enlightenment from above, giving us an insight into the lofty levels of holiness. As explained in last week’s post, the degree of revelation we receive from Hashem depends on us. The verse we just quoted reflects this fact. Hashem exhorts us to designate the festival days as holy convocations – to make an effort, from our station on earth below, to strive toward sanctity and purity. If we do so, then these days become Hashem’s appointed festivals as well – special days on which Hashem awakens us to lofty levels of holiness. We thus see that the root of the holiness of the festival days is our own effort to enhance our level of holiness. As the Zohar puts it: “An awakening below generates an awakening above.” [See, for example, the segment in the Zohar on parashas Lech Lecha that deals with the Akeidah.]
[This idea is reflected in the term mikra kodesh. The word mikra derives from the Hebrew verb l’kro – to call. Thus the term mikra kodesh can be read as meaning “a call to holiness.”]
The Gemara, Sanhedrin 65b, reports an interchange regarding the Sabbath between the wicked Roman governor Turnus Rufus and R. Akiva. Turnus Rufus asked: “What makes the Sabbath different from all other days?” R. Akiva responded: “What makes you different from all other men?” Turnus Rufus replied: “My master wished it so [that I be elevated].” R. Akiva said: “It is thus with the Sabbath too—our Master wished it so [that it be elevated].”
The Maggid interprets this Gemara, b’derech drash, aong the lines of the discussion above. What makes the Sabbath and festivals different from all other days? What causes such a surge of holiness from above? It is not due to any change in Hashem’s mode of operation, for Hashem is absolutely unchanging. To Hashem, one day is no different from any other. Rather, R. Akiva teaches us that the reason for the surge of holiness on the festivals is that on these days we undergo a change – we elevate ourselves. We become different people on the festival days. The festivals are invested with a special power to sanctify us – to awaken us to love Hashem and serve Him faithfully, each man according to his spiritual level and inclinations. When we take the initiative to strive for holiness, we merit a special influx of holiness from above. And if we get no spiritual “charge” from the festival days, it is because we have not taken the necessary initiative. As the Midrash quoted last week puts it, if holiness is distanced from us, this distance is due to us.
We can draw an analogy to a person looking at himself in a mirror. When he steps toward the mirror, his reflection appears closer to him. And when he steps away from the mirror, his reflection appears farther from him. It looks as if the person and his reflection have each stepped toward or away from the other. But in reality it is not so. Rather, the person alone determines the “distance” between himself and his reflection. As he steps toward or away from the mirror, his reflection automatically appears closer to or farther from him. It is the same with us and Hashem. As we step toward or away from Hashem, we automatically find Him stepping – so to speak – toward or away from us.
Nefesh HaChaim, gate 1, ch. 7, brings out a similar idea in connection with Tehillim 121:5: “Hashem … is your shadow alongside your right hand.” The way a person acts toward Hashem determines the way Hashem acts toward him, just as the way a person moves determines how his shadow moves. Let us strive to draw close to Hashem, so that He will draw closer to us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Pirkei Avos, Mishnah 1:3

This past Shabbos, we began learning Pirkei Avos. It is the custom to learn one chapter a week during the six weeks between Pesach and Shavuos. Many repeat the cycle over the summer, until Rosh Hashanah.
Avos:1:3 reads as follows:
Do not be like servants who serve their master for the purpose of receiving a reward, but rather be like servants who serve their master not for the purpose of receiving a reward.
The Maggid, in his commentary on Ruth 2:11-12, explains this Mishnah based on what the Rambam says about another Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (4:2): “The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” [See Rambam’s commentaries on Avos 1:3 and 4:2, and his famous introduction to Chapter 10 of Mishnah Sanhedrin (Perek Chelek).] The Rambam explains that there is no greater reward or pleasure than the enjoyment a person’s soul will feel in the World to Come on account of a mitzvah. It is only due to the scourge of desire for worldly pleasures that a person’s soul cannot fully appreciate the sweetness of a mitzvah during his sojourn in this earthly world. Occupation with worldly pleasures causes a spiritual malaise, analogous to a physical sickness that cause a person to lose his sense of taste.
Note that the Mishnah does not merely say: “Do not serve God in order to get a reward.” Rather, it says that one should not be a person who serves God in order to get a reward. The Maggid brings out the idea behind this with a brilliant analogy.
David sees his friend Jonathan, and finds him worried and upset. He asks: “What is making you groan like this?” Jonathan answers: “My precious only son has been sick for three days.” David remarks: “Why, I saw him just today, running around outside as usual.” Jonathan replies: “So what? Still, he is sick. I can tell, because he has no appetite. He turns down with disgust even the most delicious food.”
David goes to Jonathan’s house to visit the boy. He asks: “Why are you upsetting your father by refusing to eat?” The boy says: “What can I do? I am just not hungry.” David retorts: “I see! You want a prize for eating nicely.” David offers the boy a few gold coins. After some discussion, the boy agrees, in return for this reward, to eat a little bit of kugel and a small piece of meat. David runs to Jonathan and announces ecstatically: “My friend, I have good news for you! Your son ate some kugel and meat.” Jonathan says: “Tell me exactly what happened.” David tells him the story. Jonathan cries out: “You fool! This story itself shows how sick he is. Eating delicious food is such a burden to him that he has to be paid for it.”
The Mishnah is telling us not to be like this boy. We must guard our souls and strive for purity, so that we do not become so spiritually sick that we lose our sense for the sweetness of a mitzvah and relate only to reward. Rather, just doing a mitzvah should bring us more pleasure than any other reward in the world.
David Zucker, Site Administrator