Post Archive for August 2008

Parashas Re’eh, Part 2

Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 1:9): “There is nothing beneath the sun that is all new.” The Gemara in Shabbos 30b recounts a discussion relating to this statement between Rabban Gamliel and a certain contrary student. The student, based on this statement, questioned a number of prophecies about the end of days: women giving birth every day, and loaves and silken robes growing out of the ground in the Land of Israel. Rabban Gamliel responded by showing him examples of some existing precursors: hens laying eggs every day, mushrooms and truffles, and the downy material on the inner side of young palm shoots.
Rabban Gamliel was teaching that, in the end of days, the world will be restored to its original state, as it was before Adam sinned. The student, citing Shlomo’s statement, challenged him. The student argued that, given the world as it is now, the blessings that Rabban Gamliel described would be totally new. They may have existed in the beginning, but Adam’s sin eradicated them. Rabban Gamliel answered the student by showing him that the blessings that were eradicated by Adam’s sin were not eradicated entirely. Hashem left every constituent of the world with some small remnant of the blessing it originally bore – so that when the blessing is restored in its original form, the result will not be a totally new creation. Rabban Gamliel demonstrated his point with the examples he described. From these specific cases, we can infer the general scheme: of every lost blessing there is left some remnant, through which the blessing will ultimately be restored.
Our parashah provides a further example. The Torah states (Devarim 15:1-18):
At the end of [every] seven years, you shall institute a release [of loans]. And this is the law of the release: every creditor must release the claim that he holds against his fellow – he must not demand payment from his fellow or his brother. …When your kinsman, a Hebrew man or Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year you shall send him out free. … And Hashem your God shall bless you in all that you do.
The Maggid explains the idea behind this passage as follows. At present, due to our many sins, the earth is spoiled: it does not yield the bounty that it did before Adam sinned. As a result, hardship compels some people to borrow from others, or even to sell themselves to others as slaves. But the Torah left us with a remnant of our original era of prosperity, when such steps were unnecessary, by directing us to release loans in the sabbatical year and to set Hebrew slaves free after six years of service. We await the era when the earth will produce as before, making us perpetually free of debt and servitude. In order that this state not be a totally new one, Hashem issued the directives just mentioned, which periodically bring us an element of such freedom. By observing these directives, we enable the future restoration of our former prosperity. Thus the Torah declares: “For Hashem your God has blessed you, as He has told you.” When the time comes, Hashem will bless us in a way that will bring us eternally into the state that He is telling us about now: freedom from debt and servitude.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Re’eh

This week’s parashah begins with Moshe making the following declaration (Devarim 11:26-28):
See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing – that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God, that I command you today. And the curse – if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God, and you turn aside from the path that I command you today ….”
The Maggid explains that this world is a blessing if we listen to Hashem, and a curse if we do not. In the same vein, Moshe declares later (Devarim 30:19): “I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse.” Sometimes life is a blessing, and sometimes death is a blessing. Thus, Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:5 states: “The death of the wicked is a benefit to them and a benefit to the world.” Similarly, sometimes bounty is a blessing, and sometimes affliction is a blessing.
The Maggid links this idea to the following verse (Tehillim 22:2): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? So far from my salvation, the words of my roar.” In this verse, David asks why God does not answer our prayers. The Maggid interprets the second half of the verse as an answer to this question: What we are requesting is far removed from what will save us. It will not be a blessing. What we need is something else.
The Maggid goes on to say that David later provides us with a supplication that is guaranteed to be answered (Tehillim 130:1-2): “From the depths I call out to You, Hashem. O Lord, listen to my voice, let Your ears be attentive to the sound of my pleas.” The Maggid brings out his idea with a moving parable.
Once a sick man paid a visit to a wealthy and generous doctor, who would always show compassion for everyone who came to him. The man asked the doctor for a lavish meal. The others present were shocked; they said among themselves: “Not only is this man not asking for medicines that will heal him, but he is asking for something that will bring him closer to death!” The doctor responded: “The reason he is not asking for the treatment that will benefit him is because he is so overcome by his illness that he does not understand the nature of his condition. Hence, not only am I not angry at him, but his lack of understanding leads me to pity him all the more, and to strive my best to heal him. I pay no attention to his specific request; I pay attention only to the fact that he is in distress and asking me for help. I know very well what he needs. What difference does it make that he does not know what to ask for?”
Similarly, we should not expect God to grant our specific requests; rather, we should expect that He will do what is truly for our good. When we approach Him, we should declare that we are calling out to him from the depths of confused foolishness – we do not even know how to ask Him for the right thing. We tell Him to listen to our voice, and take note of what a pathetic state we are in – and then, in His compassion, be attentive to our plea for help and give us what will truly save us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Eikev

This week’s haftarah, the second of the haftaros of consolation, begins as follows (Yeshayah 49:14):
Zion said: “Hashem has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.” … [Hashem replies:] “Can a woman forget her suckling child (ulah)?”
The Gemara in Berachos 32b expounds on this verse as follows:
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “Can I possibly forget the burnt-offerings (olos), fire-offerings, and firstborn offerings that you brought before Me in the wilderness?” [Said the Jewish People to Hashem:] “Master of the Universe! Since there is no forgetfulness before Your throne of glory, perhaps you will not forget the episode of the calf.” He said back to them (ibid. 49:15, homiletically): “‘Indeed, “this” shall be forgotten’” [Literally, these (eileh). The reference is to the declaration the Jewish People made about the golden calf: “This (eileh) is your god, O Israel”]. They then said to Him: “Master of the Universe! Since there is forgetfulness before Your throne of glory, perhaps You will forget the episode at Sinai [i.e., the acceptance of the Torah].” He said back to them (ibid.): “‘Yet “I” shall not forget you’” [i.e., the “I” of the First Commandment]. This is in line with what R. Elazar said in the name of R. Oshaia: “What is being spoken about in the phrase ‘Indeed, “this” shall be forgotten’? The episode of the golden calf. ‘Yet “I” shall not forget you’? The episode at Sinai.” 
The Maggid interprets this Gemara in several ways. One of them builds on a Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah. In Shir HaShirim 8:6 it is written: “Place me as a seal upon Your heart, as a seal upon Your arm – that love is as strong as death, that jealousy is as harsh as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire – the Divine flame.” The Midrash remarks (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 8:6, end): “It is like the fire of Heaven – the fire does not annihilate water, and water does not extinguish the fire.”
The Maggid explains as follows. The Jewish People’s acceptance of the Torah at Sinai led Hashem to harbor a strong love toward them. And their sin with the golden calf led Hashem to harbor a harsh anger toward them. Neither of these annhilated the other – they both remained intact. Hashem loves us on account of the covenant at Sinai, and is also furious with us on account of the sin of the golden calf. Hashem, unlike a mortal man, is capable of fully maintaining opposite perspectives simultaneously. Thus, the love and the fury coexist. Yet, in His kindness, Hashem shunts aside the sin of the golden calf, and focuses His attention on the covenant at Sinai.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Eikev

In this week’s parashah, the Torah discusses how Hashem sustained us in the wilderness with manna. The Torah states (Devarim 8:3): “He afflicted you and starved you, and He fed you the manna, which you and your forefathers did not know.” The Midrash relates (Koheles Rabbah 5:11-12 , slightly paraphrased):
R. Chananiah and R. Yonasan asked Menachem the baker: “What is the meaning of ‘and He afflicted you and starved you, [and He fed you the manna]’? Was the manna that Holy One Blessed Be He gave the People of Israel a food that made them feel starved?” How did Menachem answer? He brought in two cucumbers, one whole and the other broken in pieces. He asked: “The whole one, how much does it sell for?” They replied: “Two manehs.” Menachem continued: “And the broken one, how much does it sell for?” They replied: “One maneh.” He said to them: “Isn’t the broken one the same size as the whole one? But they are not the same, for just as one enjoys the taste, one also enjoys the appearance.” … Thus Shlomo states (Koheles 5:10): “As the blessing grows great, so does the number of those who consume it. [What advantage, then, does the owner have, aside from what his eyes see?]” One who sees his breadbasket empty feels hungry, while one who sees his breadbasket full feels satisfied. [I.e., the verse teaches that a wealthy man benefits simply from seeing his great wealth, even though he himself partakes of only a small portion of it.]
I present here (in part) the Maggid’s explanation of this Midrash.
There are two basic forces that motivate a person to strive for material assets: intellect and desire. The force of the intellect leads a person to acquire the material resources that are necessary to maintain his existence, but goes no further than that. Thus, if a person were driven by his intellect alone, he would disdain extra indulgences. The force of desire, however, leads a person to hanker for everything that the world encompasses, including those things that he does not actually need. Human tendencies bear innumerable footprints of the force of desire. The Midrash above presents one example. Although the two cucumbers are the same size, the whole one is more appealing because it caters to the force of desire, as manifested in the appetite for looking at pretty things.
This idea sheds light on another Midrash. In regard to the end of the six days of creation, the Torah relates (Bereishis 1:31): “And God saw all that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.” The Midrash comments (Bereishis Rabbah 9:7): “‘Behold, it was very good’ – this refers to good inclination. ‘And, behold, it was very good’ – this refers to the evil inclination.” We see here that Hashem distinguishes between the forces that that drive a person to seek material assets, and places a sharp demarcation between them. The force of the intellect, which leads a person to seek simply what he needs, is called the good inclincation. In parallel, the force of desire, which eggs a person on to seek more and more – as reflected in the word and – is called the evil inclincation: It is evil in Hashem’s eyes.
We now explore the rationale behind Hashem’s decision to sustain the wilderness generation specifically with manna. Hashem showed extraordinary kindness to the wilderness generation, and cared for them in every way, as the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2 describes at length. We may ask, though, why Hashem chose to care for them through miraculous means. With His unlimited power, He could have easily employed natural means – sturdy homes for shelter, bread and other regular food for nourishment, and so on. Instead, He sheltered them in booths and clouds of glory, and nourished them with manna from heaven. Why?
The answer is that Hashem had a disdain for natural means. The Gemara in Sukkah 52b tells us that Hashem regrets creating the evil inclincation. One clear sign of Hashem’s regret is that when He needed to care for the Jewish People in the wilderness, He did not reemploy the means He originally employed to care for man, because they awaken the force of desire. He instead created a new scheme which did not awaken the force of desire.
This is the idea behind the Midrash we began with. Moshe tells the Jewish People: “He [Hashem] afflicted you and starved you, and He fed you the manna, which you and your forefathers did not know.” Hashem wanted to place the Jewish People under a new regime – one that would avoid all stimulation of their physical desire, so that their holy souls would be purified and purged of all defilement. He was therefore led to develop for them a new form of food. He gave them bread from Heaven, which provided their essential sustenance while starving their physical desire.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Suffering and Salvation

In my last post, I presented a portion of one of the Maggid’s discourses on Koheles. The discourse that follows that one echoes the same theme.
Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 7:8): “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than arrogance.” The Midrash links this verse to Moshe’s complaint to Hashem after the meeting he and Aharon had with Pharaoh that led Pharaoh to intensify the Jewish People’s servitude. Moshe said (Shemos 5:27): “My Lord, why have You done evil to this people; why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he did evil to this people, and You did not save Your people.” The Midrash relates that Hashem responded as follows (Shemos Rabbah 6:2):
I wrote about you that you are humble, and you are fussing over My words? By your life, you should know that it is written: “The end of a matter is better than its beginning.” Israel’s end will be better than the beginning I set out for them in Egypt.
The Maggid explains that everything that Hashem brought upon the Jewish People in Egypt was designed for their ultimate benefit. Building on the multiple meanings of the Hebrew prefix mem, the Maggid reads Shlomo’s declaration as saying that the Jewish People’s glorious end stemmed from their toilsome beginning. It was on account of the intensified servitude that the Jews suffered in Egypt that they ultimately flourished so exceedingly.
In his commentary on Eichah 1:6, the Maggid makes the same point in regard to our current exile. The afflictions we suffer in exile fuel our eventual redemption. There, too, the Maggid builds on the multiple meanings of the prefix mem, to read Yirmiyah 30:7 in the following way: “It is a time of trouble for Yaakov, but through it he will be saved.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Mourning and Rejoicing

Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Koheles 7:2): “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting.” On the day after Tishah B’Av, I was translating one of the Maggid’s discourses on this verse, and I found there a thought that is especially appropriate for the period following this national day of mourning.
The Maggid begins his discourse with a Midrash in Koheles Rabbah 1:4. This Midrash relates that Bar Kappara once wrote the following saying on Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s front gate: “After all your rejoicing comes death.” The Maggid explains this saying in terms of a teaching of the Toras Chaim in his commentary on Chullin 86a. The Toras Chaim describes how Hashem runs the world through two primary mechanisms, the Attribute of Justice and the Atttribute of Mercy. These two mechanisms operate in a complementary fashion: In the same proportion that the Attribute of Justice doles out punishment, the Attribute of Mercy doles out reward, and vice versa. Now, if a person eats, drinks, or indulges in other worldly pleasures to an exceptional degree, he is taking a large allotment from the Attribute of Mercy. He must therefore, correspondingly, take a large allotment from the Attribute of Justice, in the form of pain and suffering. This is what Bar Kappara meant by his saying – he is using the term “death” to refer to suffering in general.
Shlomo HaMelech presents the other side of the coin. When a person goes to a house of mourning, he takes a large allotment of pain and anguish. Hence, in the end, he will be granted a large allotment of joy and jubilation.
The Maggid illustrates this idea with a parable. A man had a young son, whom he loved very much. The king issued a decree that after three months, marriages would be prohibited for ten years. Because of this decree, the man was forced to marry off his young son right away, to a girl of similar age. He spent a large sum on the wedding. But immediately after the traditional week of celebration following the wedding, the couple separated. The boy and the girl each went back to their respective family homes; since they were just children, the family home was the only place they felt happy. The parents were very upset, for apparently all the great effort and expense he had invested in the wedding had gone for naught. But when the boy and the girl came of age, they reunited on their own. The parents marked the occasion privately with a single modest meal, without much expense, and they rejoiced greatly. This rejoicing mirrored their earlier anguish: Initially they suffered anguish at having spent a great sum without gaining any satisfaction, but in the end they gained satisfaction without any effort or expense.
This is the idea, the Maggid says, behind Yeshayah’s consolation (verses 35:10 and 51:11): “Those redeemed by Hashem shall return and come to Zion with exuberant song, with eternal joy upon their heads. They shall attain gladness and joy, and anguish and groaning shall flee.” Yeshayah is comforting us over the fact that we are now suffering so many afflictions, and seeing almost no blessing. He is telling us that in the end we will experience the mirror image of our current state: We will attain blessing without any pain and anguish, and we will then be joyful and glad of heart. Our Sages, in Shabbos 88a, read the phrase “eternal joy (simchas olam)” as referring to the “joy from time immemorial” (simchah shemeiolam). The Maggid intepretes this as meaning that we will be granted joy in return for the afflictions we suffered in times past. We will attain eternal gladness and joy – the anguish and groaning will flee, never again to plague us.
The Midrash relates (Devarim Rabbah 2:37, middle):
Said Israel: “Master of the Universe! This soul that sings praises to you, until when will it be set down in the dust?” [As it is written,] “For our souls are bowed down in the dust” (Tehillim 43:26). Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to them, “By your lives, the end will come and your souls will rejoice!”
At present we suffer, Hashem says, but in the end we will only rejoice.
PS: For a beautiful thought by the Maggid on haftaras Nachamu, click here.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Remembering Jerusalem

In Eichah 1:7, it is written: “Jerusalem remembered, in the days of her poverty and degradation, all the treasures she had in former days. When her people fell by the hand of the oppressor, with none to help her, her oppressors saw her and made jest over how she had come to a standstill.” The Maggid interprets this verse in conjunction with the following famous declaration (Tehillim 137:5-6): “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I fail to remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my foremost joy.” The Maggid asks: Why is it not enough for Jerusalem to be included on the list of things that we must keep in mind? Why must Jerusalem take center stage, and be raised above our foremost joy? He answers with a striking parable.
A man wished to move into a certain city, but did not seek the consent of the townspeople to settle there. Instead, he relied on the power of the baron of the city, who told him he could live there wherever he liked. When he set out to build himself a house to live in, the townspeople raised a hue and cry, and declared a ban against him. The word went out that no one in the city should sell him a plot of land to build on. When the man told the baron about this, the baron gave him permission to build his house on any vacant spot that he might find.
The man searched for a plot. Finally, he found one site that appeared suitable. He built there spacious houses and lofts, and he was quite satisfied. But he saw that the passers-by all laughed at him as if he were out of his mind. He kept asking people why they were laughing, but he would get no answer. Eventually he approached one of the townspeople and asked: “Please tell me, what is wrong with my building? Why does everyone who passes by it laugh at me? In my opinion, it is a splendid structure, and there is nothing wrong with it at all.” The man replied: “Your building is indeed splendid. But you have built it on a frozen river. When warm weather comes the ice will melt. Your building will then sink, with all you put into it.”
The point of this parable is to show what a precarious state we are in now. When we were established in our own land, we had a measure of  security. Whenever Hashem blessed someone with wealth and material goods, he and his heirs would have a firm hold on these gifts for whatever length of time Hashem granted them. But now it is not so. Now our very lives are hanging in the balance; we are not sure we will live even another hour. We are even more insecure about our money and property. Even if Hashem blesses someone with wealth and possessions and everything good, what can it all mean to him, really, if he knows that it may not last the night? What satisfaction can a person’s assets bring him, when he knows that it all could be gone overnight, plundered by strangers?
This person’s great wealth will remind him of when we were well settled in Jerusalem. He will say to himself: “If the Holy One Blessed Be He had given me all this wealth while we were settled in our land in peace and tranquility, free of adversaries and misfortune, the blessing would be complete. But of what value is it now, when it causes me such sorrow?” Thus it is indeed fitting to raise Jerusalem above our foremost joy. In our times of joy we feel the pain of exile all the more, for even our joy is not complete. As it says in an earlier verse in the same psalm (Tehillim 137:4): “How can we sing a song to Hashem on foreign soil?”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Devarim/Chazon

In this week’s haftarah, Yeshayah conveys the following Divine complaint (Yeshayah 1:11-12):  “‘For what do I need your many offerings?’ says Hashem. … ‘When you come to appear before Me – who asked this of you, to trample My courtyards?’” This apparent disdain for offerings calls for explanation, since a large portion of the Torah that Hashem gave us – including the bulk of Vayikra – is devoted to the Temple service and the laws of offerings. Also, the phrasing at the end of the passage is puzzling. It could have been written simply: “Who asked you to trample My courtyards?” What is the import of the added word this?
The Maggid explains with a sharp parable. A general goods dealer noticed that a certain man in his town made a lot of purchases, in cash, from other dealers, but never bought anything from him. So he courted the man with a slick speech: “My dear friend, why don’t you stick by me as your father did? Your father always hung around my house. He was my bosom buddy, and we stuck together all the time. Why is it that you never even come to visit me?” His sole intent was to induce this man to buy only from him, as a good friend would do.
However, the man did not catch on to the dealer’s intent; he took the dealer’s words at face value. And so, from that day on, he made it a habit to visit the dealer’s house every day, and would idly putter around there for an hour or two. It grated on the dealer’s nerves. After some time, the man needed to make some purchases, and he went to the dealers that he usually bought from. The dealer was incensed, and he berated the man: “You idiot! Why do you think I invited you to visit me? To piddle around with silly games? You should have seen that the reason I wanted to make you a regular guest was to get you to buy everything you need from me. But instead you come over here just to pass the time with idle nonsense. You have made yourself a nuisance. What do I need you here for?”
Similarly, in Yeshayah’s prophecy, Hashem is telling us: “When I told you to go up to Jerusalem, My intent was that the pilgrimage would lead you to love and fear Me truly. By making you a regular guest, I hoped – so to speak – to profit by having you ‘buy’ My Torah and mitzvos. As I taught you (Yeshayah 2:3): ‘For from Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.’ But you show no interest in Torah and mitzvos. Who asked you to act like this – to come here and just trample My courtyards?”
The same idea, the Maggid says, underlies the rebuke in Yeshayah 58:5-7 regarding the Yom Kippur fast. Hashem is not interested in the physical affliction of a fast as an end in itself. Rather, the purpose of fasting is to stir us to strengthen our fear of Hashem and our dedication to Torah and mitzvos.
In summary, our pilgrimages, offerings, and fasts are off the mark if we fail to make the spiritual improvement that is their ultimate goal. But if we do make the intended improvement, then we receive reward both for the improvement itself and for all the effort we put forward – including the fasts, pilgrimages, and offerings – in the process of making it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator