Post Archive for November 2009

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