Post Archive for April 2009

Parashas Acharei Mos Kedoshim

Our relationship with the Land of Israel depends on how we act while living there. Thus, in this week’s parashah, the Torah exhorts us not to defile the land with the immoral behavior that the Canaanites engaged in, lest the land spew us out. Last week’s parashah provides another example. There, the Torah describes the phenomenon of leprous growths on houses, the likes of which has never been seen in any other land. In his commentary on Eichah 5:1-2, the Maggid explains that this phenomenon results from the connection between the land and us. When we become sick with sin, the land – so to speak – becomes sick as well.
In his commentary on Eichah 1:7, the Maggid elaborates on our relationship with the land. He notes that a person may focus his life in the land on either material or spiritual pursuits, and he discusses the result in each of these cases. One who focuses on material pursuits suffers two types of loss. First, his immersion in material enjoyments corrodes his soul. In addition, the pleasure he derives from these enjoyments is fleeting; as he grows used to them, their sweetness fades. By contrast, for one who focuses on spiritual pursuits, the Land of Israel provides enhanced well-being and lasting satisfaction. For the spiritually-oriented man, the land’s special holiness promotes his efforts toward spiritual refinement. He thus strides and uplifts himself level by level to true contentment. And while perfecting his soul, he constantly feels the land’s beauty and charm.
This pattern, the Maggid says, is reflected in the declaration a person makes before the Kohen when bringing his first fruits to the Mikdash (Devarim 26:3): “I declare today to Hashem your God that I have come to the land that Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us.” Here the speaker is saying: “I am living the life that makes the land’s special charm as sweet to me as if I had just come today.” The sweetness lasts forever, never fading. In the same vein, the Torah states shortly afterwards (Devarim 26:11): “And you shall rejoice in all the good.” If we cherish the Land of Israel specifically for its special spiritual qualities, the pleasure we derive from it will never diminish in any way – our joy will always be complete.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Tazria Metzora

This week’s double parashah deals with tzaraas, a skin disease that Hashem would bring upon a person for evil speech (loshon hara) and other social offenses (including murder, false swearing, haughtiness, theft, and stinginess – see Arachin 16a). A person afflicted with tzaraas is called a metzora. The Midrash, in Tanchuma, Metzora 2, interprets the word metzora as a contraction of the phrase motzi ra – one who brings forth evil. This Midrash focuses specifically on the slanderer (motzi shem ra), but it is possible to extend the idea to other evildoers. Thus, in Vayikra Rabbah 16:1, the Midrash connects our parashah with the following passage (Mishlei 6:16–19):
Hashem hates these six, while the seventh is an abomination to His soul: Haughty eyes, a false tongue, hands that spill innocent blood, a heart that cultivates iniquitous thoughts, feet that rush to do evil, a false witness who spouts lies, and one who stirs up strife among brothers.
The Midrash explains that the above tendencies are archetypes of a hateful stance toward others, and for behavior of this sort a person is stricken with tzaraas
In regard to a metzora, the Torah states (Vayikra 13:46): “He shall dwell in isolation; outside the camp is his [fitting] dwelling-place.” The Maggid expounds on this verse in the course of a discussion of envy in his commentary on Koheles 9:2. He notes that the end of the verse contains seemingly superfluous language – it would appear enough to say: “He shall dwell in isolation outside the camp.” The Maggid explains the added language as indicating the reason for sending the metzora into isolation. He brings out the point with a simple allegory. A child was sitting among other people, and he felt hostile toward them. He cried and pleaded with his father: “Get these people to go away, so I can sit here by myself. I hate them, and I cannot stand sitting with them.” The father replied: “If this is how you feel, it is better for you to go away and sit in an isolated spot than to make everyone else go away because of you.” Similarly, the Torah tells us to send a metzora outside the camp because that is the dwelling-place that befits him – for he hates other people and cannot stand to see them do well.
As a rule, the Maggid says, a person who envies and hates others spends his entire life in a state of agitation. Within his heart he harbors pain and evil thoughts; he is upset when Hashem grants blessing to others without casting upon them any affliction. In this way, he creates new troubles that did not previously exist. This is why a metzora is called a motzi ra – one who brings forth evil. The disease tzaraas itself mirrors the metzora’s behavior. The metzora, through his vexation over other peoples’ blessings, creates a curse from a blessing. Correspondingly, Hashem creates a lesion from the person’s healthy flesh. In the Torah’s words (Vayikra 13:2): “v’hayah b’or bisaro l’nega tzaraas.” Building on the prefix lamed in the word l’nega, the Maggid interprets the Torah as saying that a part of the skin of the flesh comes to be a lesion of tzoraas – on its own, without any external assault. Just as the metzora’s behavior transforms good into bad, Hashem transforms a part of his flesh into a mass of disease.  
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemini

This week’s parashah recounts the events of the day the Mishkan was inaugurated. Among these events is the tragic death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu for offering a “foreign fire.” We are faced with a glaring question: Why did Hashem mar one of the most glorious days in history with such an extreme show of wrath?
The Maggid answers with an incisive parable. A baron of a certain province had a splendid town built within his province. He then hired a renowned medical expert to serve as the town doctor. On the day the doctor arrived, the townspeople honored him with a grand welcoming ceremony. They then began to look for a sick person to bring to the doctor so they could see him apply his skill. A person stepped up with a complaint of severe headache, and he was brought forward. The rest of the people envied this fellow for the privilege of being the first to be treated by the new town doctor, who would certainly exert himself to the utmost to provide the man a complete cure. The doctor took the man to his office and adminstered extensive treatment, involving much effort and a variety of costly medications. But a few days later, the patient died, and the incident generated a great scandal in town.
The baron approached the doctor and asked: “Tell me, what was the story with this patient? His illness seemed to be minor. And if indeed he was mortally ill beyond cure, why did you make a such a fool of yourself – and of me as well – by spending so much effort and expense on him?” The doctor replied: “As an expert, I knew right away that this patient was going to die. But I also saw how excited the townspeople were over my arrival. And I began to worry that they would rely on my skill, and not take care to look after themselves properly. I felt they would adopt reckless eating habits, trusting that if they got sick I would cure them. So I decided to jolt them with a mock show of utter failure. I figured this would lead them to be vigilant in guarding their health.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem gave the Jewish People the Torah and made them into His people. He then provided them with the Mishkan, as a mechanism for providing them a wondrous cure for their spiritual ills. A person who, by lapse, committed a sin would be able to rectify the situation by bringing an offering. Through the offering, with the aid of the Kohen who carried out the service associated with it, the person would gain a cure. But with this wondrous healing mechanism came the risk that the Jewish People would not guard themselves properly from sin. Hashem therefore jolted the people by instantly striking Nadav and Avihu dead, for a seemingly minor infraction, rather than delaying or lessening the punishment. In this way, Hashem intended to instill fear in the hearts of the Jewish People and make them vigilant about avoiding sin.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shir HaShirim

Shir HaShirim, couched as a tale of courtship, is an account of the special relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People. The exodus from Egypt is the event that brought forth the Jewish People as a nation – a people bound to Hashem – and for this reason we read Shir HaShirim on Pesach. In Shir HaShirim 1:4, the Jewish People entreat Hashem: “Draw me along and I shall run after you.” The Maggid notes that this request seems self-contradictory. When someone is being drawn along, this indicates that he does not want to go, and must be led by force. But when someone is running after another, this indicates that he wants to meet up with the one he is pursuing. The Maggid explains the request with a clever parable.
A man’s wife died, and he remarried. His son from his first marriage was destitute. The man wanted to provide for his son regularly, but his new wife kept him from doing so. He asked some rabbis for advice. They told him to send his son a signed promissory note stating that he still owes him a certain sum as wedding money. This move would prevent his wife from refusing to let him give his son money. But the ploy did not work: When the son came to his father’s house with the note in hand to collect the money, his stepmother chased him away. “You forged this note,” she bellowed, and the son gave up and left.
After some time, the man ran into his son while traveling, and he asked him why he did not come to collect the money. The son replied: “What can I do? Your wife hollers at me and chases me away.” The father responded: “Let me tell you what to do. Send a rabbinical court officer to summon me to court, and I will then be forced to pay you the money.” The son demurred, saying: “Is this a proper thing to do, for a son to coerce his father to pay him a sum of money by hauling him into court? What will people say?” The father explained: “Don’t be foolish. I am not telling you to actually haul me into court. We are only going to stage a scene to make it look to my wife as if you are forcing me to pay. So send the court officer as I told you. Then, the moment I leave the house, I will come running after you—willingly, without any coercion. For my true desire is to help you, and I would do so right away if my wife weren’t holding me back.”
The parallel is as follows. We are Hashem’s people, and our souls emanate from the Divine Spirit above. Our souls constantly yearn to cleave to Hashem and to serve Him wholeheartedly – the Divine emanation within us is drawn toward the source from which it came. But the evil inclination – the “yeast in the dough,” as our Sages call it (Berachos 17a) – holds us back from improving our ways. Hence we entreat Hashem to pull us along—that is, to compel our evil inclination to acquiesce to the life of serving Him. Once the evil inclination is subdued, we will naturally run after Hashem, for our souls yearn dearly to cleave to Him.
Chag Kasher V’Sameach!
David Zucker, Site Administrator