Post Archive for March 2009

Haftaras Shabbos HaGadol

The Shabbos before Pesach is called “Shabbos HaGadol,” and on this Shabbos we read a special haftarah from Sefer Malachi. In this haftarah it is written (Malachi 3:6): “For I, Hashem, have not changed – and you, the sons of Yaakov, have not perished.”
The Maggid connects this verse with the following famous Gemara (Yoma 69b, paraphrased):
Why were they [the Sages of early Second Temple times] called the “Men of the Great Assembly”? Because they restored the crown [of Divine Attributes] to its original state. Moshe had said: “The great, mighty, and awesome God.” Then Yirmiyahu saw foreigners reveling in His Temple, and omitted the word “awesome.” Daniel saw foreigners enslaving His sons, and omitted the word “mighty.” But the early Second Temple Sages said: “On the contrary! Therein lie His mighty deeds, that He suppresses His wrath. Therein lies his awesomeness: if not for the Holy One Blessed Be He’s awesomeness, how could a lone nation survive in exile among other nations?
The Maggid brings out the message of this Gemara with a parable. A man sent his son to a school in another city, and got one of the people there to take the boy in. The father promised to pay this man a set sum to cover his son’s living expenses. During the boy’s stay, he got very sick, and ate hardly anything. Eventually the father came to take his son home. The host demanded to be paid the agreed sum. The father replied: “How can you think to ask me for this amount? My son got sick, and ate almost nothing.” The host retorted: “You fool! Don’t you realize that the expenses of a sick person are twice those of a healthy one?”
The parallel is as follows. During the era of this First Temple, we were healthy and whole both physically and spiritually. At that time, Hashem bestowed on us a wondrous array of blessings, which all could clearly see. But afterward, when we went into exile in a foreign land, these overt blessings came to an end. It looked as if Hashem had turned His benevolent attention away from us. This situation led Yirmiyahu and Daniel to omit the words “awesome” and “mighty” when describing Hashem. But the Men of the Great Assembly proclaimed that Hashem’s level of guidance over our affairs had not changed at all. On the contrary, our survival among hostile foreigners represented an even more awesome display of Hashem’s might than the wondrous blessings of First Temple times.
And so it has been throughout the generations. Over the centuries, we have been under the shadow of various hostile nations, and subjected to great cruelty. Our enemies have gone to lengths to wipe us off the face of the earth. Yet we survive. There is no greater miracle than that. This is the message behind the verse in Malachi. Hashem says: “I, Hashem, have not changed.” And then He brings the proof: “You, the sons of Yaakov, have not perished.”
PS: The above idea is reflected as well in the following famous section of the Pesach Haggadah: “And this is the system that has endured for our forefathers and for us. For not only one has stood against us to annihilate us. Rather, in each and every generation, people stand against us to annihilate us – and the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayikra

Sefer Vayikra is largely devoted to the various animal and meal offerings brought in the Mishkan/Mikdash. Chapter 1 of Vayikra deals with burnt-offerings (olos). In Vayikra Rabbah 2:12, the Midrash notes that in the verses that describe an animal offering being placed on the altar, the Torah uses different phrasing in connection with sheep and goats than it does in connection with bulls. When discussing the procedure with a bull, the Torah says: “The Kohen shall cause it all to go up in smoke (v’hiktir) on the altar.” But when discussing the procedure with a sheep or goat, it says: “The Kohen shall bring it all (v’hikriv) and cause it to go up in smoke (v’hiktir) on the altar.” The Midrash remarks: “It is written hikriv in connection with sheep and goats, but not in connection with bulls. This is so that a person should not say to himself: ‘I will go and commit improper acts, and I will then offer a bull, which has a lot of meat. I will bring it to be placed on the altar, and Hashem will have mercy on me and accept my repentance.’”
The Maggid brings out the message of this Midrash with a parable. A wealthy merchant conducted business through two agents. Once, the agents were negligent in safeguarding the merchandise, and it was all stolen. The agents returned home in shame, and pleaded with the merchant to compromise with them on the sum they owed him for this loss. The merchant agreed to let them pay only a small percentage of the amount of the loss. In addition, he allowed them to make the payments in installments: three gold pieces a week for a set period. One of the agents was moderately well-off, and he decided to pay more than the agreed amount; instead of three gold pieces, he brought seven. The other agent was very poor, and one week he brought only two gold pieces. He pleaded with the merchant to accept the two gold pieces as full payment for that week, for he had strained himself greatly to obtain them. The merchant agreed. Moreover, he treated the fellow cordially, even more so than with the other agent, and the onlookers asked him why.
The merchant replied: “Even though the first fellow is paying more than twice the agreed amount, what he is paying is essentially nothing compared to the amount of the loss. The only reason I told them to pay three gold pieces a week is that so that they would be pained over the loss, and more diligent in future ventures. I figure that if they work hard enough the next time, they will make up for the loss. Now, I can see that the fellow who brought me only two gold pieces is extremely embarrassed. I am sure he will be very diligent from now on. But the fellow who brought seven gold pieces is proud of himself, as if he has done a fine job of compensating for the loss. He will not be so diligent in the future, and is likely to make the same type of careless mistake again.”
Likewise, when a person brings an offering to atone for a sin, the offering is essentially nothing compared with the damage caused by what he did. In actuality, the atonement is not brought about through the offering itself, but rather through the broken-heartedness of the person bringing the offering. A person who brings a costly bull is liable to feel that he has compensated well for his misdeed, and may therefore not take due care to avoid sinning again. But a person who can bring only a sheep or goat is embarrassed by the paltry value of his offering. As a result, he takes great care to avoid further sinning, and thereby compensates many times over for his sin.
PS: The commentators on Vayikra teach that the purpose of an offering is not to give Hashem a “payoff,” far be it, but rather to bring oneself close to Hashem. This is reflected in the Hebrew term for offering, korban – which is derived from the word karov, meaning “close.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayakhel-Pekudei

This week’s double parashah describes the building and assembly of the Mishkan. The Torah relates that after the artisans finished all the Mishkan’s parts, they brought them all to Moshe. In Shemos Rabbah 52:1, the Midrash links this act with the following verse (Tehillim 45:15, homiletically rendered): “As a work of embroidery it was brought to the king, maidens following behind, its entourage taken along.” The Midrash says that “embroidery” refers to the Mishkan, which was sown with pictures, the “king” is Moshe, and the “maidens” and the “entourage” are the Jewish People. The Maggid expounds on this Midrash at length and very movingly. Here we present a portion of his commentary.
The Maggid, in his typical way, brings out the Midrash’s message with a parable. A baron once visited one of the towns in his province. Naturally, this occasion called for the townspeople to give gifts to the baron, but the common citizens were all too poor to present a fitting gift. The mayor was the only man in town with sufficient means. He obviously planned to give the baron a gift, but he wanted all the townspeople to have a hand in the act of giving. So he commissioned the townspeople to construct an exquisite ornamental vessel, made up of many different parts. He assigned each person the task of making a part of the vessel that involved the person’s particular craft. When all the parts were finished, the mayor had the vessel put together and presented it to the baron. The baron was delighted with the vessel, and asked to see the people who made it. So the mayor brought each person to the baron, one by one, and showed the baron which part the person had made.
The parallel is as follows. Moshe headed the project of building the Mishkan, and, with Betzalel acting as his agent, he assigned each Jew a part of the project. When the various parts were ready, the people brought all of them to Moshe, who then put the Mishkan together and presented it before Hashem. In doing so, he figuratively brought the entire Jewish People – all the “maidens,” the whole “entourage” – along with him to meet Hashem, for every Jew had a hand in the work. It was as if the likeness of every Jew was incorporated into the Mishkan, like a picture embroidered into a sheet of cloth.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Sissa

This week’s parashah recounts the episode of the golden calf. Koheles Rabbah 3:21 links this episode with the following verse (Koheles 3:16): “And I also saw under the sun: In the place of judgment there is misfortune, and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.” The simple meaning of the Midrash is that the Jewish People sinned with the golden calf at the very same place where they received the Torah. But the Maggid, in his commentary on the verse in Koheles, brings out a deeper message.
The Maggid notes that, in the account of the aftermath of the golden calf episode, the Torah states (Shemos 32:25): “Moshe saw that the people were exposed, for Aharon had exposed them to disgrace among those who rise up against them.” He suggests that the idea here is that the sin of the golden calf was not just a momentary evil, but an evil that effected all future generations. The sin of the calf set a precedent, which would lead people of future generations to commit similar perverse deeds.
As an example, the Maggid cites the story of Yeravam ben Navat, the first sovereign of the Kingdom of Israel. Yeravam set up two golden calves as idols, in order to deter pilgrimages to Yerushalayim. One would think that the Jewish People would not be led astray by this tactic, but Yeravam succeeded by citing the golden calf episode at Sinai. He argued that Aharon must have had a sound reason for making the calf and declaring the next day a “festival unto Hashem.” True, the “festival” was nullified in the end, when Moshe arrived and destroyed the calf. But Yeravam claimed that after Moshe’s death it would be legitimate to erect this type of statue. Yeravam’s reasoning is evident from the fact that he did not devise some other form for his statues, but instead chose specifically the form of a calf.
The Maggid sums up the idea as follows. The Giving of the Torah is the root of all the Jewish People’s virtue and righteousness. Thus, our Sages say that when the Jews accepted the Torah at Sinai, the spiritual impurity from the primeval serpent was purged from them. In parallel, the making of the golden calf, also at Sinai, is the root of all rebelliousness toward Hashem. It is for this reason that, as our Sages say, every punishment Hashem casts upon us includes a smidgen of retribution for the sin of the golden calf (Sanhedrin 102a). And this is what the Torah means in the verse we quoted above: “Moses saw that the people were exposed, for Aaron had exposed them to disgrace among those who rise up against them.” The phrase “those who rise up against them” refers to heretics, along the lines of Tehillim 139:21, which speaks of those who rise up against Hashem. The heretics use the golden calf episode as a model for devising ways of leading us astray. As a result, the golden calf works against us as an eternal snare. Thus Shlomo HaMelech tells us: The place that is the source of all our righteousness is also the source of all our wickedness.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Megillas Esther

The first verse of Chapter 9 of Megillas Esther reads as follows:
Then, in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day of the month, when the time came for the king’s word and edict to be carried out – on the day on which the enemies of the Jews had hoped to dominate them – it was turned about, so that the Jews were the ones who dominated their enemies.
The Maggid says that here the Megillah is teaching us how we can tell just what diabolical plans Haman had in store for us. The Megillah tells us that Hashem arranged, in His kindness, for all of Haman’s evil plans to be “turned about” and redirected on him and his family. Thus, we can tell what would have happened to us, had Haman had his way, by taking note of what happened to him.
In this light, we can understand the following Gemara (Berachos 7a):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Israel: “Be aware of how charitable I was to you by never getting angry at you in the days of Bilaam. Had I gotten angry, no remnant of Israel would have been left.”
The Gemara explains that Bilaam knew the exact moment each day when Hashem gets angry, and planned to curse the Jewish People at that exact moment. However, Hashem took it upon Himself not to get angry at all over the entire period during which Bilaam was trying to curse us.
The idea behind this Gemara is precisely the same as the idea behind the verse from the Megillah. We can tell how much the wicked Bilaam hated us, and how much he wished to curse us, by reflecting on the great outpouring of blessing we received when God inverted Bilaam’s planned curses into blessings. As our Sages say (Yalkut Shimoni I:570): “From the blessings of that wicked one, you can tell what was in his heart.” From the blessings themselves, we can tell that if Hashem had allowed Himself to get angry at us and given Bilaam the opportunity to curse us, no remnant of us would have been left.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Tetzaveh

This week’s parashah deals with the process of inducting Aharon as Kohen Gadol and his sons as Kohanim, including a description of their priestly vestments and of the induction ceremony. Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 28:1): “Now, you bring near to you Aharon your brother and his sons … to minister to Me.” The Midrash reports that Moshe was disturbed at not having merited to be the one to serve as Kohen Gadol, but Hashem told him that there was no reason to be upset. The Midrash relates (Shemos Rabbah 37:4, slightly paraphrased, and following the annotations of the Radal):
It is like a king who took his close one as his wife, and over ten years of marriage she did not give birth. He said to her: “Find for me an additional wife.” He then continued: “I could take another wife without your consent, but I want her to be subservient to you.” Thus said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “I could make your brother Kohen Gadol without your consent, but I want to make you his superior.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash in the following way. In general, when Hashem decides to grant someone material or spiritual blessing, He usually conveys the blessing through intermediaries. Hashem could quite easily convey the blessing directly, but He routes the blessing through intermediaries for their benefit. Hashem’s method is to convey so much blessing that the intermediaries are filled to the brim first, and then pass on the designated recipient. The result is that the intermediaries are elevated above the ultimate recipient.
Moshe knew that the Kohen Gadol would be the conduit through which Hashem would bring blessing to the Jewish People. And Moshe wanted to be the one to serve as this conduit. Hashem told him that He was instead placing him in an even higher position. Aharon would be granted the measure of blessing needed to fill him up and then allow him to shower blessing upon the entire Jewish People. Moshe, for his part, would be first in line to receive Hashem’s blessing – and would receive his fill first, before passing on the measure of blessing designated for Aharon. Moshe was thus elevated above Aharon.
The same idea, the Maggid says, applies to Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem is the conduit through which blessing flows from heaven to earth. Hence Jerusalem has a greater measure of blessing than any other place on earth. As Dovid HaMelech writes (Tehillim 147:12-14):
Praise Hashem, O Jerusalem; laud your God, O Zion. For He has strengthened the bars of your gates; He has blessed your children in your midst. It is He Who sets peace within your borders; He sates you with the cream of the wheat.
At present, Jerusalem’s glory is hidden – may we see it come out into the open speedily and soon.
David Zucker, Site Administrator