Post Archive for 2009

Parashas Vayechi

After Yaakov’s death, Yosef’s brothers said to themselves (Bereishis 50:15): “Perhaps Yosef will harbor a grudge against us, and then he will repay us all the evil we did him.” To clarify what the brothers were afraid of, the Maggid turns to a Gemara in Yoma 22b-23a: “Any Torah scholar who does not harbor a grudge and take revenge like a snake [for an affront to his honor, which is an affront to the Torah itself] is not a [true] Torah scholar.” The Gemara explains that the revenge referred to is not active retaliation; rather, it is refraining from protecting the offender from retribution carried out by others, or by Hashem. Similarly, the brothers’ fear was not that Yosef would actively launch an attack on them, but rather that he would not protect them from a threat they saw looming ahead. The brothers felt that, with Yaakov having passed away, the Egyptians’ attitude toward them was taking a negative turn. They feared that the Egyptians would move against them, and that Yosef would not take steps to save them. He would then be indirectly repaying him for the evil they did him.
The Maggid draws a parallel between this episode and a verse concerning our relationship with Hashem (Tehillim 44:10): “[We were loyal to You] even when You ignored us and disgraced us, and You did not go forth with our legions.” On occasion Hashem punishes us by witholding His providential care from us, and, so to speak, ignoring us. When He does so, He exposes us to attack from evildoers, and thus, by “standing aside,” causes us to fall to disgrace. Elsewhere, Dovid HaMelech exclaims (Tehillim 28:1): “Unto You, Hashem, I cry out – My Rock, be not deaf to me, for should You be silent toward me I would be like those who descend to the grave.” Here, Dovid notes that a halt in Divine protection automatically leads to doom, and pleads with Hashem not to consign him to this fate.
The brothers seek forgiveness from Yosef, and Yosef responds (Bereishis 50:19-20): “Fear not, for am I in place of God? And although You meant to harm me, Hashem meant it for good – in order to cause, as is clear as day, a vast people to be sustained.” The Maggid explains this response through an analogy. Suppose a bit of black ink splashes onto a white garment. If the owner tries to clean it using an amount of cleanser comparable to the amount of ink that hit the garment, the black stain will remain. But if the owner uses a large amount of cleanser, much more than the amount of offending ink, he then will be able to make the garment like new. Similarly, Yosef told the brothers that the good that sprung from their act of selling him was much greater than the bad intent they had when they committed the act. They meant harm only to him, but their act brought salvation to a vast people. This tremendous benefit totally purged the negative aspect of what they did. 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayiggash

The Torah says that when Yaakov saw the wagons Yosef sent at Pharaoh’s direction to bring him and his family to Egypt, his spirit was revived. What was it about these wagons that heartened Yaakov so much? The Midrash explains that the wagons (agalos) were a hint to the topic of eglah arufah, the last Torah topic Yaakov and Yosef learned together before Yosef was taken to Egypt. The Maggid discusses this explanation, and then offers an alternate one, relating to the actual wagons rather than what they alluded to.
The Maggid builds his second explanation on a parable. A certain Sephardic community hired an Ashekenazi Torah scholar as their community rabbi. They would have preferred as Sephardi rabbi, but they had no choice, because the Ashkenazi scholar was, among the available candidates, by far the most qualified in terms of piety, wisdom, and scholarship. They agreed to send him a coach to assist him in the move, but, due to the tension between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, they did not want him to bring his entire family. Instead, he told the teacher he should bring his wife and younger children, but leave his older children behind. Accordingly, the coach they sent him was a small one, with room only for a few people.
Now, when Pharaoh told Yosef to bring his father to Egypt, it could have been for either of two reasons. He might have been simply trying to accommodate Yosef. Or, perhaps, out of admiration for Yosef’s fine character, Pharaoh himself wanted Yosef’s father to come. Yaakov initially was not sure which was the actual reason, but the wagons provided the answer. Had Pharaoh been simply making a grudging accommodation to Yosef, he would have sent just one small wagon. But, instead, Pharaoh sent a grand caravan of wagons for Yaakov’s entire extended family, and made sure these wagons would be delivered in his name. Upon seeing this grand caravan, Yaakov knew that Pharaoh must have been impressed with Yosef’s character.  This realization is what revived Yaakov’s spirit.
The Maggid goes on to relate this idea to how Hashem will act toward us at the time of the final redemption in the end of days. The final redemption is certain to come, but the way it will come depends on circumstances. The two possible scenarios are reflected in two prophecies about the redemption. Yeshayah 66:20 describes Hashem bringing all of us back “with horses, chariots, covered wagons, and mules.” On the other hand, in Zechariah 9:9, Moshiach is described as “a humble man riding on a donkey.” These two scenarios correspond to the two possible reasons for which the redemption can be launched: either in our own merit, or for the sake of Hashem’s glory. If we Jews act on the whole in a manner that is pleasing to Hashem, devoting ourselves to Torah and mitzvos, then the redemption will come in our own merit. In this case, Hashem will redeem all of us in the grand style that Yeshayah describes. But, if, on the whole we are wayward, with only a small segment among us cleaving to Torah and mitzvos, then the redemption will be a humbler one, limited to this small segment alone.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mikeitz

This week’s parashah begins with the episode of Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh called in his wise men to interpret the dreams, but they were unable to do so satisfactorily. Yosef then was brought in, and he interpreted the dreams correctly. In Bereishis Rabbah 89:6, the Midrash relates that the wise men intepreted the dreams in a grossly erroneous way: “The seven goodly cows portend that you will beget seven daughers, while the seven sickly cows portend that you will bury seven daughters. The seven goodly stalks portend that you will conquer seven kingdoms, while the seven withered stalks portend that seven prefects will rebel against you.” Pharaoh sensed that their interpretation was wrong, and he therefore sought another one, which Yosef provided.
This Midrash prompts a glaring question: Why did the wise men offer such a far-flung interpretation, rather than the obvious interpretation of plenty and famine, which was the correct one? The Maggid explains that the wise men were accustomed to this method of interpretation, because it is the typical way that dreams are intepreted. Dreams are like prophecies, which usually reflect what will happen in the distant future. Now, various outcomes are possible, depending on circumstances. A dream, therefore, is usually only a vague hint, open to multiple meanings. Interpreters thus take an abstract approach. The situation with Pharaoh’s dreams, however, was an exception. The two dreams were of a similar nature, and appeared one right after the other. Pharaoh’s wise men, who were not really so sharp, missed this pattern. But Yosef, with his Divinely-inspired wisdom, noticed it and realized, as he told Pharaoh, that the dreams would come to fruition very soon. Hence, the dreams were not vague hints, but literal portrayals of what would come to be, and Yosef intepreted them accordingly.
Yosef then advised Pharaoh to appoint a wise and understanding man to take charge of the preparations for the approaching events. Many commentators ask: What led Yosef to offer unsolicited advice? We can ask further: Why did Pharaoh’s wise men view Yosef’s advice with favor? And why was their approval to Yosef’s credit? The Maggid explains with a parable. A certain king’s son fell gravely ill. The king called in his medical experts, who tried various sophisticated remedies, but failed to cure the boy. The king then issued a general call for aid throughout his entire kingdom. Now, there was a doctor in the royal capital who, although virtually unknown, was very sharp. He came to the palace to offer his services. He examined the boy, and saw that he could cure him with some common herbs. At the same time, he realized that if he proposed such a regimen he would be ridiculed, after the experts had failed with more sophisticated remedies. So he said to the king: “Your Majesty, your son can be cured with some simple herbs, but you will need someone with great skill to prepare them properly.” The king’s experts were pleased with this advice, for each of them figured that he would be the one chosen to prepare the herbs. Similarly, Pharaoh’s wise men offered a sophisticated interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, while Yosef offered a simple one, but he then shrewdly proposed a plan that would lead the wise men to view his approach with favor.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Chanukah – Thanking and Praising Hashem

A central theme of Chanukah is our duty to thank and praise Hashem – l’hodos ul’hallel. During Chanukah we focus on thanking and praising Hashem for the miraculous victory over our oppressors and the miracle of the menorah oil. Yet, in truth, through the ordinary operation of the world, Hashem is doing wondrous kindnesses for us all the time. We can thus take the observance of Chanukah as an opportunity to rejuvenate our enthusiasm for thanking and praising Hashem for the everyday wonders and blessings He provides us.
In Bereishis Rabbah 8:1, the Midrash teaches that man was the last to be created, and also appears last in the chorus of praise to Hashem. In support of the latter point, the Midrash cites Tehillim 148, a psalm we say every day in Pesukei D’Zimra, which describes this chorus of praise. The psalm begins with the heavenly realm: the angels, the sun, the moon, the stars, and so on. It then continues with the earthly realm: the sea and its creatures; fire, hail, snow, and wind; mountains, hills, and trees; animals, insects, and birds. Finally comes man: the nations of the world with their kings, officers, and judges; men and women, the old and the young.
The Maggid, in Ohel Yaakov, parashas Bereishis, expounds on this Midrash. He explains that man was created last because he incorporates the traits of all other creations. As the Zohar on parashas Bereishis says, man is a “miniature universe,” encompassing all the rest of creation. The Maggid then goes on to explain why man appears last in the chorus of praise.
He brings out the point through an analogy to a nobleman who goes traveling with his entire household, his family and all his servants, and spends some time in an inn. The servants dine on modest fare, and accumulate limited expenses, while the nobleman and his family dine on delicacies and accumulate enormous expenses. When the time comes to settle up with the innkeeper, the nobleman asks him for an itemized bill showing the charges for each member of his party. He then collects from the servants the modest sum charged for what they consumed, adds the large sum charged for what he and his family consumed, and pays the innkeeper on behalf of the entire group.
Man is a nobleman whose “household” comprises all the other creations of the world – which, as our Sages teach, are all servants of man (Kiddushin 82b). Now, the entire world owes Hashem praise for what He provides. Yet, except for man, the creations of the world can express only limited praise. They lack free will and the power of speech. Man, who possesses these special assets, can express more meaningful praise. Moreover, man is the master over all other creations, and is endowed with all their traits. He therefore has the duty to pay Hashem the balance of the praise He is due. Man is mentioned last in Tehillim 148 because he brings the world’s praise to Hashem to its fitting completion. When man praises Hashem with his entire being, it is if the entire world is offering Hashem the grandest praise.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav upon returning from Charan. The Midrash relates (Bereishis Rabbah 75:13):
Yaakov saw Eisav coming from a distance. He lifted his eyes upward, cried, and prayed to Hashem for mercy. Hashem heard his prayer and promised to save him from all his troubles in the merit of Yaakov, as it is written (Tehillim 20:2): “Hashem shall answer you on the day of trouble; the Name of the God of Yaakov shall raise you on high.”
The Maggid raises the following questions.
1. Why does the Midrash make a point of noting that Eisav was coming “from a distance”?
2. What information is the Midrash conveying by saying that Yaakov prayed to Hashem? Would we have thought he might do otherwise?
3. What does it mean that Yaakov will be saved in the merit of Yaakov?
The Maggid explains with a parable. In a certain village, many of the residents were stricken with various diseases, but there was no doctor in the village to care for them. The only doctor available was the local baron’s doctor in the provincial capital some distance away. Now, in the village lived a man who was a close friend of the baron. This man had been healthy, but one day he got a minor headache. It was an ailment that he could have taken care of on his own, but instead he let it go until his situation got serious. The villagers then sent a message to the baron that his friend was sick, and the baron sent the doctor. The man’s family asked him why he acted as he did, and he replied: “I know I could have originally taken care of my illness myself. But I deliberately let it go in order to get the baron to send his doctor here. Now the other sick people in the village can also be treated.”
The parallel is as follows. Yaakov’s prayer to Hashem was a plea for miraculous Divine help. Yet, he did not need an extraordinary level of Divine help for the encounter with Eisav that he was facing at the moment. He had come back from Charan with a considerable force, sufficient to overcome Eisav’s, and it would have been enough for him to ask Hashem for success in the battle within His ordinary operation of the world. Why, then, did he pray for miraculous help? The answer is that he saw Eisav coming “from a distance” – that, in the future, Eisav’s descendants would threaten to decimate his descendants. He therefore deliberately prayed for miraculous Divine providence, in order to make such miraculous providence available for his descendants. This is what the Midrash means when it says that Yaakov will be saved in the merit of Yaakov – Hashem grants us, the Nation of Yaakov, miraculous protection against the Nation of Eisav, in the merit of the special prayer of our forefather Yaakov.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s sojourn in Charan. The Midrash describes Yaakov’s thoughts and prayers to Hashem at the outset of his journey (Bereishis Rabbah 68:2):
“I shall lift my eyes toward the mountains (harim)” (Tehillim 121:1) – to my ancestors (horim), my teachers, and my counselors. “Whence will come my help?” (ibid.) – “When Eliezer went to fetch Rivkah, he took with him abundant assets and treasures, including ten camels and all of Avraham’s great bounty, a gold ring and a two gold bracelets. But I am setting out on the way without even a single ring or bracelet.” … “Shall I despair of Divine help? Far be it! I shall not despair. Rather (ibid. 121:2): ‘My help is from Hashem.’”
Yaakov was a firm believer. And, indeed, he affirms: “My help is from Hashem.” Why, then, did he even raise the possibility that all was lost?
The Maggid explains with a parable. A rich man gave his son a large sum of money to get him started in business. However, the son was unsuccessful, and he eventually grew poor. He told his father his troubles, and the father responded crossly: “I don’t owe you anything anymore. I gave you your due portion of my wealth. Now you must manage on your own, with what you have left of what I gave you.” The son knew, however, that if he ever hit rock bottom, his father would bail him out generously. After some time, a fire broke out in his neighborhood and burnt his house down. The neighbors pitied him, but he himself was overjoyed, for he knew that now his father would step in and take care of all his needs.
The parallel is as follows. Hashem uses two alternate mechanisms to care for us: natural means, within the normal operation of the world, and miraculous means. Natural means corresponds to a father giving his son an endowment to establish a business and support himself. Miraculous means corresponds to a father directly taking care of all the son’s needs. Hashem generally leaves a person to manage on natural means as long as he is able to maintain a basic subsistence that way, even if the subsistence is very meager. But once it becomes absolutely impossible for a person to subsist on natural means, Hashem intervenes with miraculous means.  
When Yaakov set out for Charan, he had reached rock bottom within the world’s natural system: He was left with no assets at all. This situation prompted him to ask rhetorically: “Shall I despair of Divine help?” But, in truth, the situation did not lead him to despair. On the contrary, he rejoiced, for he knew that now he would receive help “from Hashem” – he would now be granted a higher level of Divine help, through the mechanism of miracles.   
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

This week’s parashah recounts the birth of Yaakov and Eisav. The Torah describes Eisav as ruddy (Bereishis 25:25). The Midrash comments that Eisav was inclined to bloodshed (Bereishis Rabbah 63:8). The Maggid connects this Midrash with another Midrash about Eisav (Bereishis Rabbah 63:13). Yechezkel 35:1-15 portrays Hashem’s final revenge against Edom, the nation Eisav fathered. There it is written (Yechezkel 35:6): “‘Therefore, as I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘[I swear] that I shall turn you into blood, and blood shall pursue you. While you have hated bloodshed, blood shall pursue you.’” The Midrash asks in wonder: “Eisav hates bloodshed?” The Midrash then answers: “The blood of circumcision and the blood of sacrifices.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash using the following Gemara (Shabbos 156a):
One who is born under the sign of Mars is destined to be a shedder of blood. Said Rav Ashi: “a blood-letter, a murderous bandit, a slaughterer of livestock, or a circumciser.”
Quoting the Akeidas Yitzchak, the Maggid explains that mazel determines general tendencies, but not specific behavior patterns. Thus, although a person born under the sign of Mars will be inevitably drawn to bloodshed, this tendency can be exercised in a variety of ways. Accordingly, an inborn tendency for bloodshed does not negate a person’s free will, for he is free to choose how to channel this tendency. He can exercise it through workaday activities, such as medicinal bloodletting or slaughtering livestock. Alternatively, he can use it for an abominable purpose such as murder. Or – at  the opposite pole – he can use it for a mitzvah purpose such as circumcision. An inborn tendency for bloodshed does not force a person to commit any sin: a person can exercise this tendency and still live a perfectly righteous life.
Eisav was the firstborn. As such, he was in a position to assume the duty of performing the sacrificial service: this duty was originally the calling of the firstborn, before it was given over to the Kohanim and Leviim. Eisav was therefore born under the sign of Mars, giving him a tendency for bloodshed. He was supposed to use this tendency for performing sacrifices. But Eisav despised the sacrificial service. He was, as Rashi on Bereishis 25:32 says, repelled by its many laws, and by the severe penalties – including death in some cases – for failing to observe these laws. So Eisav sold his birthright to Yaakov, casting aside the sacrificial service. This left him to exercise his inborn tendency for bloodshed through murder. He deserved to be punished because he initially had a nobler outlet for his tendency for bloodshed – circumcision and sacrifices – but had rejected it.
This, the Maggid says, is the meaning behind the verse in Yechezkel, as the Midrash interprets it. Yechezkel declares: “‘Therefore, as I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘[I swear] that I shall turn you into blood, and blood shall pursue you. While you have hated bloodshed, blood shall pursue you.’” The phrase “I shall turn you into blood” refers to Eisav’s inborn drive for bloodshed. Eisav might try to point to this inborn drive as an excuse for his misdeeds. Hence the verse continues: “and blood shall pursue you.” Here Hashem tells Eisav that even so he will be punished. The verse then gives the reason: “you have hated bloodshed.” The Midrash explains this well by saying that this refers to the blood of circumcision and sacrifices. Eisav despised the blood of circumcision and sacrifices, and chose instead the path of murder. He thus was a sinner, and Hashem treated him accordingly.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, we read of Eliezer’s expedition to Aram Naharaim to seek a wife for Yitzchak. When Eliezer arrived there, he prayed to Hashem (Bereishis 24:12): “Hashem, God of my master Avraham, please arrange it for me today, that You will do kindness for my master Avraham.” The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 60:1) links this entreaty with the following verse (Yeshayah 50:10): “Who among you is God-fearing, heeding the voice of His servant? Even when walking in darkness, with no light to guide him, he constantly trusts in the Name of Hashem, and relies upon his God.” The Midrash states:        
Who among You is God-fearing? This refers to Eliezer. Heeding the voice of His servant – the voice of Avraham, who was the servant of Hashem. … Even when walking in darkness – when going out to bring Rivkah. … He constantly trusts in the Name of Hashem, and relies upon his God. Thus, he prayed: “Hashem, God of my master Avraham, please arrange it for me today, that You will do kindness for my master Avraham.”
The Maggid explains that Eliezer’s choice to make Avraham his master was motivated solely by his fear of Hashem and of those who serve Him. He wished to devote himself to heeding the voice of Avraham, Hashem’s noble servant. We can see Eliezer’s dedication through his attitude toward his mission. When he went on his search, he was in the dark – he did not know where to look. An ordinary servant, one who is merely doing a job to make a living, would balk at such an assignment and try to get himself out of it. But Eliezer was no ordinary servant. He was not acting out of his own interests; rather, his sole aim was to do what Avraham wished. Even when given a seemingly impossible mission, he strove with all his heart to carry it out, devising all kinds of strategies to achieve the goal. And he trusted that Hashem would arrange for him to succeed. Moreover, when he prayed to Hashem for success, what he put at the fore was Avraham’s interests, not his own – “do kindness for my master Avraham.” Eliezer’s conduct throughout the expedition showed clearly that was a loyal servant with true fear of Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah begins with angels informing Avraham that his wife Sarah will bear a son. In a later section, the parashah recounts the birth of this son, Yitzchak. This section begins with the following verse (Bereishis 21:1): “Hashem remembered Sarah as He had said, and Hashem did for Sarah as He had spoken.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 53:1):
It was not like with those who speak and do not do. Rather (Yechezkel 17:24): “I am Hashem – I have spoken and I have done.” … When did He speak? When His agent said: “At the appointed time I shall return to you at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” And He did as He said, as it is written: “Hashem did for Sarah as He had spoken.”
Here, Hashem expresses pride that He keeps His word. This is odd. Even a mortal man is expected to keep his word, and he is held in contempt if he fails to do so. What is the point, then, in Hashem’s declaring that He fulfills His word?
The point, the Maggid says, is that it is logically impossible for Hashem’s word to go unfulfilled. With Hashem, speech and action are not separate processes. Rather, when Hashem declares that something should come to be, the declaration itself makes it come to be. When the Torah states that “Hashem remembered Sarah as He had said,” it is indicating that at the very moment Hashem promised Sarah a child, He set in motion the process leading to this outcome.
Hashem accomplishes everything with a word alone. In fact, the usual rule is that the effect of Hashem’s word becomes manifest immediately. This rule does not apply, however, when a human limitation stands in the way, for Hashem prefers to minimize His tampering with human limitations. The case of Sarah’s bearing a child illustrates this point. When Hashem promised Sarah a child, His word enabled her to have a child, but she did not have the child immediately. Rather, the angel said: “At the appointed time I shall return to you at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah’s child came into being gradually, through the natural human processes of conception and pregnancy. At the appointed time, the child was born.
The Maggid links this idea to a teaching in Bereishis Rabbah 70:6 that the word v’hayah (and it shall be) signifies good tidings. The word v’hayah is a past tense verb converted to future tense by the Biblical conversive vav. The Maggid explains that this type of construction is used in discussing an occurrence that could be viewed as belonging to the past, but actually will occur only in the future. Prophecies of future blessings begin with the word v’hayah to teach a deep lesson: that from Hashem’s standpoint, the blessings could already have been delivered, and the only reason He puts them off to the future is a limitation from our side—we are not yet fit to receive them.
May we soon be worthy to receive all the blessings Hashem has waiting for us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

At the Bris Bein HaBesarim (Covenant Between the Parts), Hashem tells Avraham (then called Avram) that he will inherit the land. Avraham asks: “Through what will I know that I will inherit it?” Hashem tells Avraham to bring various animals and birds, and Avraham does so, and then cuts the animals into pieces. (Bereishis Rabbah 44:14 states that the animals symbolized offerings.) Afterward, Hashem puts Avraham into a deep sleep, and tells him that his descendants will be enslaved and oppressed in a land not their own [Egypt], and will then leave with great wealth.
The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 44:14 explains that Avraham did not mean to challenge Hashem, far be it; rather, he wanted to know in what merit he would inherit the land. We are thus led to wonder why Hashem announced to Avraham, apparently as a punishment, about the bitter enslavement in Egypt. The Maggid gives two explanations.
1. The first explanation is that the announcement was not a punishment at all, but rather an answer to Avraham’s question. The Maggid draws a analogy to a doctor being asked by a patient what treatment he plans to administer as a cure, with the patient’s intent being simply to understand what will be taking place. If the doctor informs the patient that he will be giving him unpleasant medicines, he is just telling the patient what he wanted to know. Similarly, Avraham was asking Hashem what means He would use to settle his descendants in the land, and when Hashem informed him of the enslavement in Egypt, he was simply telling Avraham what he asked for. Just as plowing and planting is a preparatory step toward harvesting a crop, the enslavement was a preparatory step toward inheriting the land.
2. The second explanation is that the announcement was indeed a punishment of sorts, but it was designed to achieve the goal Avraham was seeking. Ramban explains that Avraham was led to ask his question out of worry that some later sin on his part would nullify the promise. The pain Hashem caused Avraham by telling him of the enslavement was meant to pre-empt Avraham’s worry. The Maggid notes that hearing about impending oppression causes a person distress similar to that caused actually beholding or experiencing the oppresion. By suffering the distress caused by Hashem’s announcement, Avraham was paying in advance for any sin he might later commit that could nullify the promise. By exacting this advance payment, Hashem obviated any possible need for Him to nullify the promise, and thereby locked in the promise with certainty.
David Zucker, Site Administrator