Post Archive for September 2009

Parashas Haazinu / Haftaras Shuvah

In this week’s parashah, Moshe delivers a final rebuke to the Jewish People. In the course of this rebuke, he declares, speaking in Hashem’s name (Devarim 32:21): “They have provoked Me with a non-god, angered Me with their vanities. Hence I shall provoke them with a non-people – with a vile nation I shall anger them.” In the introduction to Sefer HaMiddos, the Maggid interprets this verse with a homiletical reading of “a non-god” as “no God.” He notes that there are two types of mitzvos. One type consists of decrees from God, which would not have been formulated by man on his own. The other type consists of common-sense rules of conduct, of a kind which man has formulated on his own. This latter category includes the duty to avoid murder, lying, and stealing, to show compassion for others, to act modestly and temperately, and so on.
When God tells us that we have provoked Him with “no God” and angered Him with “vanities,” He is telling us that we have provoked Him by violating the natural standards of human behavior – the rules we ought to follow us even without His intervention – and committing inane acts unbecoming of a human being. As punishment, measure for measure, God provokes against us a non-people – a rabble lacking basic human decency.
In the haftarah, Hoshea tells us (verse 14:2): “Return, O Israel, up to (ad) Hashem, Your God.” The Maggid explains that the choice of the term ad (rather than, for example, el) bears the message that the process of repentance is a progression from the bottom up. We must begin by striving to make ourselves into menschen, committing ourselves to correct any failings in the area of basic human decency. Only after initiating a proper effort to address such basics can we turn our attention to the special laws Hashem legislated for us to make us a holy people.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Rosh Hashanah

In Rosh Hashanah 32b, the Gemara notes that we do not say Hallel on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Gemara describes the angels asking Hashem why the Jewish People do not sing praise to Him on these yomim tovim. Hashem answers: “Is it possible, when the King is sitting on the throne of judgment, … for the Jewish People to sing praise?” The Maggid discusses the thinking behind the angels’ question and Hashem’s answer.
To explain the angels’ position, the Maggid quotes the teaching (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah) that when a person appears before a mortal judge, he comes dressed in black clothes and disheveled, but when we appear before Hashem on Rosh Hashanah, we come in dressed in white and well groomed. The Maggid interprets this teaching in terms of a key difference between the way a mortal judges and the way Hashem judges. When a person appears before a mortal judge, he cannot be sure of the outcome, even if his case is strong, for a mortal judge is swayed by subjective factors. If the judge likes the person before him, he will issue a favorable judgment; if he dislikes him, he will issue a harsh judgment. Hashem’s judgment, by contrast, is completely just – in His righteousness, He gives us exactly what we deserve. Thus, when we appear before Hashem, the outcome is entirely in our own hands. If we repent, set out to rectify our misdeeds, and make ourselves worthy, we can be certain that Hashem will issue us a favorable verdict.
Hashem’s judging us in this way, the Maggid says, surely calls for our appreciation. Certainly we should honor Him, and the holy day of Rosh Hashanah, by seeing to it that our appearance is respectable. Beyond that, courtesy would dictate that we should even offer a song of praise to Him to express our thanks. This is the argument behind the angels’ position.
Yet we do not say Hallel on Rosh Hashanah. Why not? Because we are filled with grief over our debt of sin. Out of respect for Hashem and His holy day, we do not display our grief openly, and we appear before Him dressed in white and well groomed. But we still feel the grief in our hearts. Hashem is aware of how we feel, and so He does not expect us to sing Him a song of praise. Hashem agrees with the angels that, in principle, He rightfully deserves the praise. But He does not require it of us, for He knows that, in our state of grief, it is not possible for us to sing. At the same time, however, it behooves us to recognize the goodness Hashem shows us in the way He judges us.
K’sivah v’chasimah tovah!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashios Nitzavim – Vayeilech

In parashas Netzavim, the Torah says (Devarim 30:15-19): “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. … Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” The Maggid notes that the Torah does not say “choose life and good,” but rather simply “choose life.” He explains that the Torah is telling us to be cautious about praying for material benefits: we should pray simply for life, rather than approaching Hashem with a detailed list of requests. We should not pray long and hard for worldly endowments such as wealth and honor, because these endowments may not be truly good for us. Praying simply for life is a safe strategy, for life itself is always to our benefit.
When praying for material blessing, the Maggid suggests that we frame our requests broadly. Further, as the siddur puts it, we should ask Hashem to “fulfill our requests for good.” That is, we should ask Hashem to give us the things we are requesting only if He finds them truly appropriate for us and to our benefit. This is one of the lessons the Torah is teaching us in the passage we quoted. We should choose life, but with respect to good we should leave the choice in the hands of the One Who truly knows and can discern.
On the other hand, when praying for spiritual endowments, we can pour out our hearts without restraint, for spiritual endowments are always beneficial. The Torah tells us which character traits and modes of behavior are good and which are bad, and we can freely pray to Hashem to help us attain the good. In this vein, Dovid HaMelech entreats (Tehillim 25:4): “O Hashem, let me know Your ways; teach me Your paths.” Indeed, most of the entreaties in Tehillim are for spiritual aid.
Yirmiyahu teaches (Eichah 3:25): “Hashem is good to those who hope in Him, to the soul that seeks Him.” When a person asks for material blessings, Hashem will sometimes – exercising His supreme capacity to determine what is truly good – deny the request. But when a person wholeheartedly seeks to draw close to Hashem, and asks Hashem for tools that will help him do so, Hashem will always grant the request.
During the Ten Days of Repentance, we pray: “Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life – for Your sake, O Living God.” In a homiletical reading of this plea, latter-day baalei mussar such as Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim) teach that when we ask Hashem for life, we should be asking Him to grant us a life that is “for Your sake” – a life centered around seeking Hashem and serving Him. The Maggid tells us that if we approach Hashem with this stance, He will respond with boundless favor.
David Zucker, Site Administrator