Post Archive for June 2008

Parashas Chukas

This week’s parashah begins with the mitzvah of the red heifer, the classic example of a chok – a mitzvah whose reason is beyond us. The Midrash comments (Bamibar Rabbah 19:1): “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘I have legislated a statute and issued a decree – and you are not permitted to contravene My decree.’” The double language in this Midrash is glaring. The Maggid offers two explanations.
1. The world operates on certain laws that God implanted within it. Some of these we can grasp, while others are beyond us. The Sages teach that the Torah is the blueprint of creation. We can thus explain that laws of the Torah that we can grasp form the basis for the laws of nature that we can grasp, while the laws of the Torah that we cannot grasp for the basis for the laws of nature that we cannot grasp. There are thus two types of chukimchukim of the Torah and chukim of nature, and they correspond one to the other.
2. As our Sages teach, the Torah has four basic levels of meaning: the simple meaning (pshat), hints (remez), homiletical teachings (drash), and hidden wisdom (sohd). The level we are most familiar with is the simple meaning. And it is beyond our comprehension how a prosaic command such as “do not steal” could contain within it a whole universe of deep hidden wisdom. To us, this is a chok. On the other hand, the angels are most familiar with the level of hidden wisdom. They are astounded that a whole universe of wisdom can be encapsulated into a prosaic command such as “do not steal.” To them, this is a chok.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

The Power of Man – A Parable

We do not always appreciate how important our actions are. The Maggid, in his commentary to Koheles 5:1, brings the matter into focus with a sharp parable.
A certain man worked as a architect, engaged in drawing diagrams of buildings. One day the architect received from a distant province a small diagram of a splendid mansion, breathtaking in its length, width, and many spacious rooms and lofts. He told his assistant to make a copy of this diagram, so that he could marvel at it and design a similar building when the opportunity would arise. The assistant made a painstakingly accurate replica of the diagram. He then brought his drawing to the architect, who examined it exactingly. The architect noticed that the assistant’s copy was missing a certain dot that appeared in the original drawing, and he got very angry and bawled the assistant out. The assistant asked him: “My master, why are you so upset over the absence of one tiny dot, which practically no one will ever notice?” The architect replied angrily: “You fool! How could you say such a thing? You should realize that the absence of this dot respresents a major flaw in the building. Think for a moment about how big the actual building is, and how small this diagram is. You will then see that this dot in the diagram corresponds to a sophisticated component in the actual building – a component whose absence would ruin the entire structure.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem created splendid and highly sophisticated worlds in the heavens above, compared to which the entire expanse of the earth is like nothing. The greatness of these worlds is beyond fathom. And Hashem fashioned man as a miniture replica of these great upper worlds, with each of his senses, faculties, and traits corresponding to some component of these worlds. Man is thus called a miniture universe. (The sefer Nefesh HaChaim by Rav Chaim of Volozhin expounds on this idea at length.) Accordingly, his smallest act – even his speech – sets into motion an unfathomably great mechanism in the heavens above.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Korach

This week’s parashah recounts the rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moshe and Aharon. Moshe responds to the rebels as follows (Bamidbar 16:8-11):
Listen now, sons of Levi! Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the assembly of Israel to draw you near to Him—to perform the service of the Sanctuary of Hashem, and to stand before the assembly to minister to them? And He drew you near … yet you seek the priesthood as well! Thus, you and your entire assembly are joining against Hashem – and Aharon, who is he, that you protest against him?
The Midrash elaborates as follows (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:9):
Moshe said to them: “Had my brother Aharon taken the priesthood for himself, it would have been proper for you to protest against him. But since the Holy One Blessed Be He gave him his greatness, power, and kingship, whoever stands against Aharon is standing against none other than the Holy One Blessed Be He.” Thus it written: “And Aharon, who is he, that you protest against him?” Come and see the piety of Aharon the righteous one. When Moshe poured the annointing oil on his head, Aharon was shaken and reeled back. He said to Moshe: “My brother, perhaps … I have embezzled the annointing oil?” … Hence Scripture testifies about him (Tehillim 133:1-3): “Behold, how good and how pleasant, two brothers dwelling together. Like fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard, the beard of Aharon, like the dew of [Mount] Hermon ….” The verse juxtaposes the annointing oil with the dew of Hermon – just as there is no embezzling of the dew of Hermon, so, too, there was no embezzlement in the oil that flowed down upon Aharon. Hence [Korach’s assembly was] “joining against Hashem.”
I present here the Maggid’s explanation of this Midrash.
The Maggid defines two basic types of mitzvos. One type is a mitzvah that poses a hurdle, such as fasting on Yom Kippur or giving charity. The second type is a mitzvah that gives a person pleasure, such as eating sumptuous meals on Shabbos and Yom Tov. With the first type, it is clear that a person doing the mitzvah act is doing it for the sake of the mitzvah. But with the second type, it is not so clear: Is the person who sits down for a Shabbos meal doing so in order to honor Shabbos, or in order to please his palate? Maintaining the proper intent when doing mitzvos of this second type is one of greatest challenges in mitzvah performance.
Taking up the position of Kohen Gadol was a mitzvah of this second type. Aharon was therefore afraid that his intent was tainted – that some part of his mind was taking pleasure in the greatness that he was receiving. This is why he was worried about having embezzled the annointing oil. But the Scripture testifies that his intent was pure. And this is what Moshe told Korach and his group. Aharon did not take the priesthood for himself – he took it at Hashem’s behest, without any trace of personal interest. Hence Korach and his group had no grounds for protesting against Aharon, and in so doing they were joining against Hashem.
The Maggid links the phrase “joining against Hashem” (noadim al Hashem) with the constrast our Sages draw between the dream of Yaakov and the dream of Pharaoh. Yaakov saw Hashem standing over him (alav). Pharaoh, on the other hand, saw himself standing over the Nile (al ha-Yeor), which was a major Egyptian deity. In Bereishis Rabbah 89:4, the Sages remark that righteous people set Hashem over themselves, while wicked people set themselves over their gods. That is, the righteous try to spur themselves to serve Hashem, while the wicked try to spur their gods to cater to their desires. Similarly, Aharon took the priesthood in order to serve Hashem, while Korach and his group wanted the priesthood for their own self-aggrandizement.
The Maggid then analyzes the phrase “is it too little for you.” In Hebrew, this phrase is ha-me’at mi-kem, which can be read “the little you have, shall be taken from you.” The Maggid explains the idea behind this through an analogy about a lord who owned many fields, which he put under the care of a number of his peasant servants. The servants would bring in all the grain into the lord’s storehouses, without being given any portion. Yet the lord was not worried about theft, for he trusted his servants, and thus he did not take any steps to ensure accountability. The lord would apportion the workload according to the servant’s strength – some would work one field, some two, and so on. Once one of the servants complained to the lord about having received only one field, while other servants received two or three. The lord responded by taking the servant’s one field away from him. The servant then approached the lord, saying: “It wasn’t enough not to give me more fields, you had to take the one I had away from me?” The lord replied: “From the fact that you pleaded with me for more fields, I knew that you are a thief. If you were loyal, and your sole intent was to carry out your duties faithfully, you would not have asked for an added load. You asked for more fields for your own benefit, in order to be able to steal more. Hence I took away the field you had.”
Similarly, Moshe told Korach and his group that if they were loyal servants of Hashem, setting Hashem over themselves, they would not have asked for more responsibilty than Hashem had given them. The fact that they did seek more responsibility was a sign that their intent was to use their position to serve their own interests. They were, in essence, embezzlers. Hence they deserved to be removed from the positions they had been given.
PS: This piece reminds me of a story I once saw about Reb Zusha of Anapoli. Reb Zusha was asked whether he would have liked to trade places with Avraham Avinu. Zusha replied: “What difference does it make? Either way, there’d be one Avraham Avinu and one Zusha.” This attitude typifies the humble servant of Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shelach

This week’s parashah relates the unfortunate episode of the scouts who went to survey the Land of Israel, and returned with a negative report. The Torah records the Jewish People’s reaction (Bamidbar 14:1): “The entire assembly raised and issued forth their voice; the people cried that night.” The Maggid discusses this reaction in his commentary on haftaras Korach.
The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 16:20 teaches that the night that people cried was the night of Tishah B’Av, and because they cried on that night inappropriately, Hashem designated Tishah B’Av as a day of crying for future generations. In support of this explanation, the Midrash cites the following passage (Tehillim 106:26-27): “He raised His hand against them, to cast them down in the wilderness. And to cast down their descendants amongst the nations, and to scatter them across the lands.” The Midrash comments: “A raising of the hand in correspondence with a raising of the voice.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash in terms of an idea in his commentary on the haftarah for parashas Vayishlach, according to the custom in some communities. In a homiletical reading, the opening verse of this haftarah runs as follows (Hoshea 11:7): “My people are waiting for My response, for they have called toward and upon (el al) Me, but with an inconsistent praise.” The Maggid explains that the terms el and al indicate two different ways of asking something of Hashem. The term el (toward) indicates turning humbly toward Hashem with an entreaty. The term al (upon), by contrast, describes a complaint that is, so to speak, cast down upon Hashem. In using both terms, Hoshea is saying that people’s words are in the form of a humble entreaty, but their tone of voice reflects a complaint. Hence Hashem left them hanging, without a response.
Likewise, after the report of the scouts, the Jewish People raised their voice against Hashem in complaint. This was the essence of their sin. Had they simply cried, it would not have been such a grave offense (although it still would have shown a certain lack of faith), for such a reaction would be understandable as a reaction of fright due to the scouts’ report. If they had turned to Hashem with a plea for help, Hashem would not have been so upset with their behavior. But in raising their voice against Hashem in complaint, they committed a gross transgression. Hence, in return, Hashem raised His hand against them.
The Maggid uses the foregoing idea to explain a Mishnah about prayer. The Mishnah says (Mishnah Berachos 4:4): “One who makes his prayer a fixed matter, his prayer is not an entreaty.” The Maggid explains: if you demand something of Hashem, as if it is coming to you according to a fixed contract, then your prayer is not an entreaty. We can learn a practical lesson from this: when we face difficulties in our daily lives, we must be careful not to complain to Hashem about them (either verbally or mentally); rather, we should humbly ask Him for relief.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behaalosecha

This week’s parashah begins as follows:
Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: “Speak to Aharon and say to him, ‘When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.’” Aharon did thus – toward the face of the menorah he kindled its lamps, as Hashem had commanded Moshe.
Rashi remarks that Aharon carried out Hashem’s instructions exactly, without making any changes to the procedure. We need to understand what new insight Rashi is trying to give us here. Isn’t it obvious that Aharon would follow Hashem’s instructions exactly?
The Maggid explains as follows. Aharon was a supreme Torah scholar and leader, second only to Moshe. As such, Aharon had a poweful mind. He thus had the intellectual capability to conceive innumerable potential embellishments to the service. But instead he took an attitude of simple acceptance, and followed Hashem’s instructions without change. This attitude testifies to his deep fear of Hashem and his great loftiness.
Indeed, the greater a person’s mind is, the greater is the challenge he faces to refrain from adding his own innovations, and the greater is the praise he merits when he indeed refrains from doing so. With simpletons who lack wisdom, it is no great glory that they refrain from adding their own innovations, for they are incapable of developing any. But with a great scholar, such restraint is marvelous. And with Aharon, who was at the pinnacle of wisdom, such restraint is all the more remarkable.
The Maggid connects the above idea with another Torah passage dealing with the menorah. Parashas Tetzaveh begins with Hashem’s directing Moshe to tell the Jewish People to prepare pure olive oil for lighting the menorah (Shemos 27:20-21). The Midrash links this passage with the following verse (Shir HaShirim 1:15): “Behold, you are beautiful, My beloved – behold, you are beautiful, and your eyes are like doves.” The Midrash expounds (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah, sec. 375, end):
See how the Holy One Blessed Be He sings the praises of Knesses Yisrael: “Behold, you are beautiful on account of your deeds; behold, you are beautiful on account of the deeds of your forefathers.” … “Your eyes are like doves” – this refers to the Sanhedrin. Just as a person’s body follows his eyes, so, too, Knesses Yisrael would follow the Sanhedrin. Whatever they were told was impure they treated as impure, and whatever they were told was pure they treated as pure.
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. Torah study involves constant use of the human intellect as a tool for learning, explaining, and comparing one case with another. There are some principles, however, that we are forbidden to subject to intellectual analysis, but must instead accept on the basis of tradition. These principles are represented by the pure olive oil of the menorah. Thus, our Sages say that one who sees an olive tree in a dream should anticipate the light of Torah (Berachos 57a, with the opening verse of parashas Tetzaveh being the proof-text). Just as the olive oil of the menorah is pure, so, too, the secrets of the Torah can be absorbed only through pure acceptance, without intellectual analysis.
The Sages describe the transmission of Torah in the following terms: “From statement to statement, from faithful one to faithful one, from righteous one to righteous one, from mouth to mouth, from hand to hand.” Torah teachings are to be passed down as they are, with no additions, deletions, or changes in phrasing. On account of this system of tradition, our Sages – the builders of Torah – are worthy of great praise. Not only did they exert their minds to listen, to learn, and to teach, but they also took care not to make changes based on their own judgment. They passed down exactly what they heard from their teachers, and nothing else. In this vein, the Gemara explicitly reports that R. Eliezer and R. Yochanan ben Zakkai never presented a teaching they had not heard from their own teachers (Sukkah 28a).
We can liken those who transmit the Torah to a purchasing agent who is sent by his employer to make certain purchases. The agent might deviate by failing to buy some of the items that the employer asked for. Or he might deviate by deciding on his own to buy items that his employer did not ask for. Both types of deviation are undesirable; the second type often is worse than the first. A good purchasing agent will buy exactly what his employer asked for, no less and no more.
It is written (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 Gemara says that the end of this verse refers to men who strip away their own judgment and conduct themselves with the docility of a farm animal (Chullin 5b). This is the attitude that Aharon adopted in regard to lighting the menorah. And this is the attitude that Noach took in building the ark. Even though Hashem explained to Noah the reason for building the ark, he did not allow himself to exercise his own ingenuity and introduce new features that Hashem did not specify. Rather, he did exactly as Hashem said. The Torah praises Noach for his conduct, declaring (Bereishis 6:22): “And Noach did in accordance with all that God had commanded him.” Similarly, in parashas Pekudei, in connection with the making of the priestly vestments and the setting up of the Mishkan, the Torah notes repeatedly that each step was carried out exactly as Hashem had commanded.
This is how Knesses Yisrael is praised in the Yalkut we quoted above. Among the Jewish People are many great thinkers, who have the capability of developing all kinds of arguments for one course of action or another. Nonetheless, the Jewish People conduct themselves with the docility of a farm animal: They submit themselves completely to the direction of the Torah leaders, without allowing their own judgment to divert them from the path their leaders have set forth.
The Midrash declares: “Behold, you are beautiful on account of your deeds.” If we wished to be clever, we have the capacity to do so. But, no: “Behold, you are beautiful on account of the deeds of your forefathers.” We do not deviate one iota from the ways of our “fathers” – the sages and elders of the generation. We neither subtract nor add from what they instruct us. On account of our great fear of Hashem, we submit ourselves completely to the direction of our Torah leaders.
The Midrash conveys this teaching in connection with the preparation of the pure olive oil of the menorah. Pure olive oil represents pure wisdom, totally free of any admixture of improper thought patterns or extraneous ideas. It represents a mind that is set to absorb only the true wisdom passed down from true Torah scholars. Steadfast obedience to Torah leaders is the attitude that characterizes the Nation of Torah, and for this we merit abundant praise.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Ruth – Compensation and Reward

In Ruth 2:11-2:12, it is written as follows:
Boaz answered, saying to her: “It has been well told to me all that you did for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death – that you left your father and mother, and your birthplace, and went to a people you did not know the day before. Hashem shall compensate you for your deed, and you shall obtain full reward from Hashem, the God of Israel, as you have come to take shelter under His wings.”
The Maggid asks: Why did Boaz have to promise/bless Ruth that Hashem would reward her for her deed? We know that Hashem faithfully rewards us for our good deeds, and does not deprive anyone of reward. We can assume Ruth knew this and believed it, for Naomi had already told her about the reward for keeping the mitzvos and the penalty for violating them, as we know (cf. Ruth Rabbah 2:22-24). What, then, did Boaz mean to tell her?
The Maggid adds a further question. The Midrash says Boaz told Ruth that she would be rewarded by having King Solomon descend from her. But we know that the reward for doing mitzvos comes in the next world rather than this one (except for the wicked, whom Hashem pays right away in order to cut them off from a share in the next world). How, then, could having King Solomon in her lineage be Ruth’s reward?
The Maggid answers by analogy to a scenario described in Mishnah Bava Kamma 10:4. David and Jonathan are walking down the street. David is carrying a barrel of wine, while Jonathan is carrying a jar of honey, which is more expensive. The jar of honey breaks, and David spills out his wine to catch Jonathan’s honey.
Under the strict letter of the law, David is entitled to be paid only for the time and effort he expended in saving Jonathan’s honey. He is not halachically entitled to be compensated for the loss of wine that he incurred, for Jonathan did not agree to bear the loss of David’s wine. But if Jonathan wants to be fair and right, he should compensate David for the wine as well.
The same idea applies to Ruth. Generally speaking, doing mitzvos entitles a person to reward in the next world, but not in this one. This is the basic rule that Hashem has set down. But with Ruth it was different. Ruth originally had all the good things of this world. She grew up in the royal household of King Eglon of Moab, who was her father. But, as Boaz notes here, Ruth abandoned her royal family and opulent lifestyle in order to join the Jewish People. She spilled her wine, so to speak, for the sake of a greater good. For this deed she deserved to be compensated in this world, while still receiving her full due reward in the World to Come. This is what Boaz was telling her. “Hashem shall compensate you for your deed” – in this world, by granting you King Solomon as a descendant. “And you shall have full reward from Hashem” – in the World to Come, as is your due.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Naso / Megillas Rus

In his commentaries on parashas Naso and Ruth 1:2, the Maggid discusses the importance of giving the proper amount of charity. I present here a digest of the Maggid’s discussion. This is a lengthy post, but the original is even lengthier.
The Book of Ruth begins with an account of how Elimelech, a wealthy and prominent Jew, fled the Land of Israel in the wake of a famine. The Sages explain that he wished to avoid being overtaken with requests for help from the poor. The Midrash in Ruth Rabbah 2:5 interprets the name Elimelech as reflecting the inner thoughts of its bearer – Elimelech would say: “Kingship is coming to me” (Eilai tavo malchus). The Sages criticize him for his attitude and conduct.
In parashas Naso, the Torah states (Bamidbar 5:10): “What a man gives to the Kohen shall be his.” Rashi, based on Tanchuma Re’eh 10 on Devarim 14:22, comments that a person who does not give terumos (Kohanite portions) and ma’asros (tithes) to the Kohen and the Levite will eventually see his field produce only the amount that should have been given as ma’aser. The Maggid analyzes the reason for this specific punishment. I presented the Maggid’s basic idea in a previous post on parashas Behar. Here I will review the discussion there and present further comments of the Maggid on the theme.
The basic idea is that, from the standpoint of strict justice, Hashem should take upon Himself only to 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.
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 common people would die of anxiety if Hashem did not give them more than their minimal daily needs, in order to quell their fear over how they will manage tomorrow.
Hence, Hashem devised a brilliant strategy whereby He could give most people more than they need and still follow the strict letter of the law. He designated one cherished family – the Levites – to be free from all worldly toil, their lives devoted to serving Him at all times. This family is sustained by the terumos and ma’asros that the Jewish People give, receiving no more than their immediate needs. Correspondingly, by necessity, the rest of the Jewish People receive much more than they need, so that they can give the terumos and ma’asros without suffering any lack.
The Prophet Malachi declares (Malachi 3:10): “‘Bring all the tithes into the storage-house, and let it be for sustenance in My House. Test Me through this, if you please,’ says the Lord of Hosts, ‘and see if I will not open up for you the heavenly portals, and pour down upon you blessing without measure.’” Hashem is saying that He will grant us bounty without trying to measure out exactly enough; instead, He will bless us lavishly, giving us more than we need. The reason is that we are setting aside a portion of what we receive, to provide the Kohanim and Levites with their needs.
But when someone disregards Hashem’s instructions and withholds the terumos and ma’asros, Hashem deals with him according to the strict letter of the law. He receives no more than the exact minimum that he needs – an amount equal to the terumos and ma’asros that he should have given to the Kohanim and the Levites. This is the lesson that the Midrash teaches.
In Devarim 15:7-11, the Torah exhorts us to care for the poor members of our people. The Torah passage begins (ibid. 15:7): “When there is a destitute person in your midst … you must not close your hand to your destitute brother.” The passage concludes (ibid. 15:11): “Destitute people will never cease to exist within the world. Therefore I command you, saying: You surely must open your hand to your brother, your poor, and your destitute, in your land.” Two related questions arise concerning this command.
1. Our Sages infer from this passage that, in regard to giving charity, whoever is more closely related to the giver is accorded greater priority, if a choice must be made among various potential recipients (Sifrei Devarim 133). But with other mitzvos, such as tzitzis or tefillin, there is no such specification. Each mitzvah has its basic laws, but beyond these the Torah does not tell a person how, when, and where to fulfill the mitzvah. Why is the mitzvah of charity different?
2. We see that the Torah stresses the relationship between the giver and the needy recipient. The opening verse of the passage states: “When there is a destitute person in your midst [the Hebrew word is bach, meaning literally in you] … you must not close your hand to your destitute brother.” Similarly, in the closing verse, the Torah speaks of “your poor, your destitute.” Why does the Torah stress this factor?
The answers to these questions follow easily from what we have discussed above. When Hashem makes a person poor, it is not necessarily to punish him for his sins. Rather, in certain cases, Hashem makes a person poor in order to benefit the rich. This is shown by the fact that Hashem sometimes miraculously rescues a poor man from a dire situation while still leaving him in a state of poverty (see Shabbos 53b for an example). When this happens, we know that the man was made poor only in order to absorb the suffering that otherwise would befall the rich.
This is the message behind the Torah passage we quoted above. The phrase “your poor” refers to a person who lives in poverty as a service, so to speak, to you. Hence Hashem directed that each person, when dispensing charity, should give priority to his own relatives. Hashem selects certain people from each family to bear the burden of strict justice, living with the barest minimum, while the rest of the family lives in comfort.
As for the amount that a wealthy person should give, in truth he should give everything he has beyond what he himself needs in order to live. Hashem gives a person material assets only to sustain himself over the course of his lifetime, not for any other purpose. We see this from an episode in the Gemara (Gittin 47a). When R. Shimon ben Lakish was about to die, he saw that he was going to leave over a kab (about 1.4 liters) of saffron. He described this as illustrating the saying (Tehillim 49:11): “Wise men die, and the fools and the boors perish together, leaving their wealth to others.” He lamented having left over a small extra asset, rather than using it to benefit others.
One who shuts his eyes to the poor, failing to show regard for them, is straying from the path of wisdom. His attitude is the exact opposite of the proper one. He acts as if Hashem gave him wealth so he could live like a king.
This was Elimelech’s error. He would say: “Kingship is coming to me.” He felt he should hold onto his royal grandeur. Previously he had provided for the poor, but when people came flocking to him during the famine, he fled to a foreign land. He did not fully appreciate the principle that the rich are given their wealth in order to care for the poor.
The Maggid concludes by taking the idea a step further, stating that the obligation to give to others applies not only to wealth, but also to a person’s other assets. When a person sees that Hashem has given him a special endowment, such as a exceptional physical strength or wisdom, he should realize that he is supposed to direct its use to the benefit of the whole community.
David Zucker, Site Administrator