Post Archive for 2010

Parashas and Haftaras Vaeira

On the Parashah
In this week’s parashah, the Torah records the lineage of Moshe and Aharon, and then concludes (Shemos 6:26-27): “These are the Aharon and Moshe to whom Hashem said, ‘Take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, with all their legions.’ They are the ones who spoke to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the Egypt; they are the Aharon and Moshe.” In this passage, the Torah first mentions Aharon before Moshe, and afterward mentions Moshe before Aharon. The Sages infer that Moshe and Aharon were equal in stature (Tosefta Kerisus 4:15). On the surface, the proof does not seem conclusive. The Maggid provides a deeper perspective through which we can understand the proof very well.
In the piece on last week’s parashah, we noted that the mission Moshe and Aharon were sent on involved two elements: (a) to go to Pharaoh and contend with him on the Jewish People’s behalf, and (b) to deploy their merit to bring about the Jewish People’s redemption. In regard to deploying merit, we might have thought that Moshe, whom the Torah later describes as “the man of God” (Devarim 33:1), had a superior position. Therefore, in discussing the taking of the Jewish People out of Egypt, in the first part of the passage, the Torah mentions Aharon before Moshe. Conversely, regarding the task of speaking to Pharaoh, we might have thought that Aharon had a superior position, since Hashem had told Moshe – in response to his concern about his speech impediment – that Aharon would be the spokesman. Therefore, in discussing the dialogue with Pharaoh, in the second part of the passage, the Torah mentions Moshe first. Taking both parts of the passage together, we conclude that Moshe and Aharon were on the same level both in regard to speaking with Pharaoh and in regard to deploying merit for the benefit of the Jewish People.
On the Haftarah
In this week’s haftarah, it is written (Yechezkel 29:3): “Thus said the Lord God, Hashem: ‘Behold, I am above you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt – the great serpent that crouches within its rivers – who has said, “My Nile is mine, and I built myself.”’” The Maggid explains this verse with a parable. A visitor entered a wealthy man’s house, and saw one of the servants. He asked him: “Who is the master of the house?” The servant replied haughtily: “I am the master of the house, and everything you see here is mine.” Just as the servant was finishing his sentence, the true master of the house entered the room and said: “I am your master. I am above you, and you are subservient to me.” Similarly, the wicked Pharaoh, in his arrogance, presented himself as a deity and proclaimed himself the supreme power. Hashem then came on the scene and said: “Behold, I am above you, O Pharaoh” – I am the Master of the Universe, and I have dominion over you.” And so Yechezkel’s prophecy, after describing Pharaoh’s downfall, continues (Yechezkel 29:6): “Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am Hashem” – initially the Egyptians were deluded into regarding Pharaoh as a deity, but in the end they will recognize Hashem as the sole God and Master of the Universe.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemos

In this week’s parashah, Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 3:10): “And now, go, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and take My people, the Children of Israel, out of Egypt.” Moshe responds (ibid. 3:11): “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” The Maggid notes that Hashem’s command is oddly phrased. The natural phrasing would be “I will send you to Pharaoh to take My people … out of Egypt,” but, instead of the word “to,” Hashem uses the word “and” – as if He were issuing two distinct orders. Moreover, the Maggid says, Moshe’s response seems repetitive. It is necessary to analyze this exchange carefully to understand what is being said.
The Maggid, in his typical way, explains the exchange through a parable. A person came across someone about to travel to Leipzig. He asked him to buy him some cloth there and pay for it out of his own pocket, to be reimbursed when he got back. The traveler declined, giving two reasons: (a) he does not know how to judge the quality of cloth, and (b) he does not have the financial wherewithal to extend credit. The one asking the favor responded that there was no need for concern on either count. Regarding the first count, he said that he has a friend in Leipzig who is an expert in cloth and can help the traveler pick out cloth of high quality. Regarding the second count, he said that he would reimburse the traveler immediately on his return, without delay.
The parallel is as follows. Hashem wanted to send someone to Pharaoh to take His people out of Egypt. He specifically chose Moshe, for the mission required someone of great merit. Had the Jews been worthy of being redeemed on their own merit, it would not have mattered whom Hashem sent; anyone could have done the job. But, in fact, they were not worthy of being redeemed on their own merit. The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 1:35, expounding on Yechezkel 16:7, states that the Jews were bare of good deeds. And in Shemos Rabbah 15:3, the Midrash says that Hashem sought merit for the Jewish People, but found none, until he came upon the merit of Moshe and Aharon. Hashem thus had to assign the mission specifically to Moshe and Aharon, so that their merit could be drawn upon to redeem the people. The way Hashem phrased His command to Moshe indeed indicates that He was giving him two distinct tasks: (a) to go to Pharaoh as His agent, and (b) to deploy his merit to redeem the Jewish People.
Hashem’s phrasing of the command stresses that He considered Moshe uniquely qualified for the mission. Thus, in expounding on the command, the Midrash states (Shemos Rabbah 3:3): “Go – the definitive form, with a heh at the end of the word (lechah), indicating thus: ‘If you do not redeem them, no one else will redeem them.’” Hashem did not use the standard term leich, which signifies simply the command “go,” but instead made a point of using the term lechah, with the added final heh. Rashi, in his comment on the phrase u’lechah lishuasah in Tehillim 80:3, discusses how the final heh in the word lechah acts to single out the person being spoken to. Hashem was telling Moshe that He had to assign him the mission of redeeming the Jews from Egypt because He did not have the option of sending someone else.
Moshe, on the other hand, argued that he was not qualified for either of the two tasks Hashem was setting before him. He declared: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” Here, Moshe was making two points. First, he claimed that he was not eminent enough to go appear before an illustrious ruler like Pharaoh. Second, he claimed that he could not deploy his merit to redeem the Jews, because he simply did not have the merit needed. Moshe, in his humility, viewed himself as having little status and merit.
Hashem replied (Shemos 3:12): “I shall be with you, and this is a sign for you that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.” Here, as in the parable, Hashem was responding point by point to Moshe’s arguments. Regarding Moshe’s argument that he was not eminent enough to go appear before Pharaoh, Hashem countered: “You need not worry, for I will be with you, and there is no doubt that you will succeed in your mission. And you have a sign that this is so: The very fact that I sent you serves you as a sign, for surely I deliberated carefully in deciding whom to send.” And regarding Moshe’s argument that he did not have enough merit to redeem the Jews, Hashem countered: “It will not require a great degree of merit for you to redeem the people, for immediately after you take them out of Egypt, they will serve Me on this mountain, and they will then be able to manage on their own merit.
PS: This Friday, 17 Teves 5771, is the Maggid’s 206th Yahrzeit. Zechuso yagen aleinu – may his merit protect us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayechi

This week’s parashah begins: “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years – and Yaakov’s days, the years of his life, were one hundred forty-seven years.” This verse contains redundant information: We know already from last week’s parashah that Yaakov was 130 years old when he arrived in Egypt, so once we are told that he died at the age of 147, we automatically know without being told that he spent 17 years in Egypt. Several commentators explain that during these last 17 years of his life Yaakov was able to “truly live” – he enjoyed a life of serenity, free from the ordeals he had suffered throughout his previous years. The Maggid elaborates on this explanation.
Our Sages say that a righteous man initially suffers afflictions, but afterward, in the end, is granted serenity (Bereishis Rabbah 66:4). Hashem, for various reasons, imposes extra suffering on the righteous during their initial years, but He later grants them extra blessing in return for the extra afflictions they suffered initially. In this vein, Iyov’s comrade Bildad tells him (Iyov 8:7): “Though your beginning was meager, your end will flourish exceedingly.” He was explaining to Iyov that just as his portion of Divine blessing was now much more meager than the norm, in the end he would receive a portion much greater than the norm. Indeed, in the final chapter of Sefer Iyov it is written (verse 42:12): “Hashem beirach es acharis Iyov mei-reishiso.” Literally translated, the verse says: “Hashem blessed Iyov’s end more than his beginning” – that is, after Iyov’s ordeal was over, Hashem granted him greater blessing than he had before. But we can also render the verse as saying: “Hashem blessed Iyov’s end on account of his beginning” – on account of the extraordinary affliction Iyov suffered during his ordeal, Hashem afterward granted him extraordinary blessing.
The life of our forefather Yaakov, the Maggid says, followed the same pattern. Initially, Yaakov endured extraordinary suffering, involving a long series of difficult ordeals: the years spent working for Lavan, the conflict with Eisav, the episode of Dinah and Shechem, Yosef’s apparent death, Shimon’s being taken prisoner, and having to send Binyamin to Egypt. In compensation, Hashem granted Yaakov extraordinary serenity at the end of his life.
The Maggid then explains how the opening verse of our parashah reflects this pattern. Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. These years were infused with extraordinary blessing, which made up for the extraordinary lack of blessing that Yaakov had faced earlier. As a result, Yaakov’s total allotment of blessing over his entire life was exactly 147 standard (for Yaakov’s spiritual level) yearly portions. He had a lifetime of exactly 147 years, in the sense of having experienced 147 years’ worth of blessing.
The Maggid goes on to say that the same pattern applies to the Jewish People as a whole, in line with the rule that the experiences of the forefathers are precursors to those of the descendants (maaseh avos siman la-banim). Over the course of history up to the present, we have endured extraordinary suffering – way beyond that seen by any other people on earth. But, in the end, Hashem will repay us with extraordinary blessing. Thus He has promised us (Yeshayah 61:7): “In place of your double portion of shame, and the disgrace they would bewail as their portion, accordingly they shall inherit a double portion in their land, and they shall attain eternal joy.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayiggash

In this week’s parashah, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and tells them to bring their father Yaakov to Egypt. He sent them with wagons for the entire family. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 94:3 notes that the wagons (agalos) alluded to the law of the axed heifer (eglah arufah), concerning a corpse found between two cities (Devarim 21). Yosef had been studying this law with his father just before he went out to seek his brothers, and ultimately was sold to traders who took him to Egypt. The Midrash relates:
Yosef said to them: “If he [Yaakov] believes you [that I am alive and in good condition], well and good. And if not, tell him: ‘At the time I left you, was it not the chapter of the axed heifer that I was studying?’” It is written (Bereishis 45:28): “And Yisrael said: ‘It is great – my son Yosef still lives!’” He was saying: “Great is the fortitude of my son Yosef, for he suffered several major hardships and still maintained his righteousness. His fortitude is greater than mine, for I sinned and said, ‘My path is hidden from Hashem.’”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. When a corpse is found between two cities, the Torah dictates that the men of the city closest to the corpse should perform the ceremony of the axed heifer. This law is not based on a presumption that the person whose body was found had been murdered by someone from the closest city. Rather, the fact that this person’s death had taken place in the proximity of that city, as opposed to somewhere else, indicates that the person had borne the Divine retribution for that city’s sins. The men of the city are therefore obliged to atone for his death through the axed heifer ceremony.
It is written (Eichah 4:20): “The breath of our nostrils, Hashem’s annointed one, was caught in their traps.” The Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbos 15:1, relates that R. Yehudah HaNasi, R. Chiya, and R. Yishmael of the house of R. Yosse were studying Megillas Eichah, and afterward R. Yehudah HaNasi injured his finger. R. Yehudah HaNasi attributed the injury to a sin on his part. R. Chiya disagreed, telling R. Yehudah HaNasi that he was suffering for the sins of the generation, and quoting the verse we just mentioned. R. Yishmael remarked: “Even if we had not been dealing with this topic, it would have been proper for us to explain the matter in this way. All the more so, seeing that we were were dealing with the topic.” R. Yehudah HaNasi and his colleagues had just been studying the principle that a righteous person can undergo suffering for the sins of others. R. Yehudah HaNasi’s study of this principle foreshadowed his serving as an example of it.
Similarly, just before Yaakov sent Yosef to the Hebron valley to search for his brothers, they had been studying the topic of the axed heifer. Afterward, when Yosef was assaulted by his brothers and sold as a slave, he understood that this course of events was in line with the topic he had been studying: Hashem had cast severe judgment upon him for the benefit of others. Years later, when he arranged for Yaakov to join him in Egypt, he wished to communicate to Yaakov that he had maintained his righteousness. He therefore sent the message: “At the time I left you, was it not the chapter of the axed heifer that I was dealing with?” He was telling Yaakov that his faith had held firm – he had always kept in mind that his suffering was a means Hashem was using to bring good to the world. Yaakov understood what Yosef was saying. He thus declared:  “Great is the fortitude of my son Yosef, for he suffered several major hardships and still maintained his righteousness. His fortitude is greater than mine, for I sinned and said, ‘My path is hidden from Hashem.’” Yaakov rated Yosef as better at handling suffering than he was; he had lamented troubles that befell him, whereas Yosef accepted all his suffering with love.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Chanukah

The Rambam describes the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah menorah as “a very precious mitzvah” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Megillah V’Chanukah 4:12). Our love of this mitzvah reflects our love of Torah, which the menorah symbolizes.
In regard to Torah study, the Gemara declares (Megillah 6b): “If a person tells you, ‘I toiled and I found,’ you can believe him.” The Maggid, in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 8:7, discusses this teaching. He notes that the statement “I toiled and I found” seems at odds with itself. To say that one toiled for something means that he exerted great effort to get hold of it, while to say that one found something typically means that he got hold of it with little effort. It would appear more fitting to say “I toiled and I attained” or “I toiled and I acquired.” Why, the Maggid asks, does the Gemara instead choose the paradoxical expression “I toiled and I found”?
The Maggid answers as follows. In truth, the acquisition of wisdom is a gift from Hashem: The mortal mind does not have the capacity to acquire any measure of wisdom without Hashem’s aid. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 2:6): “For Hashem grants wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” And to whom does Hashem grant wisdom? To a person who loves the Torah with all his heart and values wisdom more than all material things – even the most precious. When a person casts aside all worldly pleasures, and strives with diligence and exertion to attain wisdom, this shows how dear wisdom is to him. When Hashem sees this, His compassion is stirred, and He grants the person the measure of wisdom that befits his effort.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. A man loses a precious item. He goes to search for it in the place where he thinks it fell. He rummages through the dirt and the garbage heaps, straining to the point of sweating, but fails to find the item. A friend sees how hard he is straining and how pained he is, and realizes why. The friend then kindly calls out to him: “I know what you are looking for. Come with me, and I will show you where it is.” The man goes along with his friend to the place where the item is, and picks it up easily. Here, we can truly say that the man found the item—he found it where it was lying and took it with no effort at all. At the same time, the effort that he previously exerted elsewhere is what led him to make this find. Were it not for his exertion and suffering, his friend would never have thought to show him where the item was.
It is precisely the same with the acquisition of Torah wisdom. The process begins with diligent exertion in Torah study – even staying up into the night to plumb the Torah’s depths. Afterward, Hashem compassionately brings down an outpouring of Torah wisdom, which can then be found easily. It is like a prophecy, which comes upon the prophet suddenly, without any exertion. This is the meaning of the Gemara’s expression “I toiled and I found.” The toil is the underlying causal factor – the key preparatory step – in the process of attaining Torah wisdom. Once a person toils for Torah wisdom, Hashem leads him to find it.
I believe this lesson from the Maggid is particularly apt for Chanukah. As is reflected in the Al HaNissim prayer, the main goal of the Yevanim was to make us forget the Torah, and adopt their way of life. They issued onerous decrees to achieve this goal. The Chashmonaim and their followers zealously went to war to fight these decrees, and Hashem granted them a miraculous victory. On Chanukah, we recall this struggle through the Al HaNissim prayer, and we light the menorah, which represents the light of Torah. Overall, the key theme of Chanukah is love for and zealous devotion to Torah. The study of Torah is our lifeblood. We should cherish the Torah and toil over its words. If we do, Hashem will lead us to find the wisdom it holds.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeishev

In the second half of this week’s parashah, the Torah relates Yosef’s experiences in Egypt. In particular, it discusses how Potifar’s wife tried to seduce him, and describes his struggle against this challenge. The Torah states (Bereishis 29:10): “And so it was, as she spoke to Yosef day after day, that he did not listen to her, to lie beside her, to be with her.” The Torah then continues (ibid. 29:11): “And it came to pass, on a certain day, that he came into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the household was there in the house.” In Bereishis Rabbah 87:7, the Midrash presents an opinion interpreting the phrase “to do his work” as indicating that Yosef went into the house with the thought of consorting with Potifar’s wife – he was on the verge of succumbing to the temptation. At that moment, Hashem showed him a vision of his father Yaakov’s likeness. This vision cooled Yosef’s passion, and he held back from sinning.
The Maggid links this episode to the Gemara in Sukkah 52a, which teaches that a person’s evil inclination grows stronger every day, and that a person would be unable to overcome it without Divine help. He notes that the second part of this Gemara seems to be at odds with the Gemara in Berachos 33b, which says that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” The Gemara in Berachos 33b indicates that a person is expected to cope with his evil inclination without help from heaven, while the Gemara in Sukkah 52a indicates that a person cannot overcome his evil inclination without such help.
The Maggid resolves the conflict though an analogy to a sage teaching an earnest disciple. It is the way of a teacher to challenge his student. He gives him a series of written lessons to learn, each harder than the next, to gradually build up his understanding. Periodically, he decides to push the student up to a completely new level. He then gives the student a lesson that is beyond his reach, lets him struggle with it until he reaches the limit of his capabilities, and then steps in and helps him overcome the hurdle.
Similarly, Hashem augments a person’s evil inclination every day, presenting him with a new challenge. Usually these challenges are within a person’s capacity to handle, so Hashem does not extend any special help. Instead, He leaves the person to grapple with the challenge on his own, in accord with the principle that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” A righteous person musters all his strength to meet these challenges, and usually he prevails. But, on certain occasions, Hashem decides to push a person up to a completely new spiritual level. He then gives him a challenge that is beyond his reach, and lets him struggle with it. When He sees that the person is doing his utmost to meet the challenge, He steps in and extends special help – a person who strives to purify himself receives Divine aid (ba litaher, m’sayyin oso, Yoma 38b).
This is how it was with Yosef in his struggle against the advances of Potifar’s wife. Day after day she coaxed him, and, as she pressed him more and more, he fortified himself more and more. Initially, he simply avoided spending time with her; as she stepped up her advances, he avoided even looking at her. But eventually Hashem made the temptation so strong that it was beyond Yosef’s capacity to withstand it. Yosef fought with all his might, but he was on the verge of succumbing. Hashem saw that Yosef, in his righteousness, had done his utmost. He therefore stepped in and extended special help; He showed Yosef the vision of Yaakov’s likeness, thereby enabling him to overcome the temptation and prevail.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

Part I
After recording Yaakov’s meeting with Eisav, the Torah states: “And Yaakov came to Shaleim.” The Midrash interprets this statement as indicating that Yaakov emerged whole (shaleim) after his encounters with his enemies. The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 79:2):
And Yaakov came to Shaleim. “A Song of Ascents. ‘Greatly have they distressed me since my youth,’ let Yisrael now declare” (Tehillim 129:1) [with the Midrash interpreting “Yisrael” as referring to Yaakov/Yisrael personally, rather than to the Jewish People in general]. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to him: “And have they subdued you?” He said back to Him (ibid. 129:2): “Greatly have they distressed me since my youth, and also they have not subdued me.” And Yaakov came to Shaleim. “Many troubles befall a righteous one” (Tehillim 34:20) – this refers to Eisav and his chieftains, and the righteous one is Yaakov. “And from all of them, Hashem rescues him” (ibid. 34:20, end). And Yaakov came to Shaleim. “Hashem will guard your goings and comings, from now until eternity” (Tehillim 121:8). “Your comings – and Yaakov came to Shaleim.
The Maggid analyzes this Midrash by considering the verse in Tehillim 129 that follows those that the Midrash quotes: “Upon my back, plowers plowed; they extended their furrow.” The Maggid explains as follows. Hashem deliberately cast troubles upon our forefathers, leading them to pray for help and gain a wondrous deliverance, so that the forces of deliverance that He brought into the world for them would be available to benefit their descendants. In particular, Hashem “plowed” Yaakov to make him yield forth such forces of deliverance.
The Maggid brings out the point further with an analogy. Suppose a doctor abducts a person who is healthy and strong, torments him until he is bedridden, and then, exerting great effort, brings him back to full health. Does the person owe the doctor anything for healing him? Of course not, we would say. But now, let us add some more details to the story. The doctor, on first seeing the person on the street, noted through his great expertise that the person was suffering from a serious hidden ailment that would fester within him for years before finally breaking out into the open. The doctor realized that when the disease ultimately broke out, the person would be too old and weak to withstand the treatment needed to cure him. So he deliberately tormented the person to make the disease to break out early, when the person was still young, so that the medications he would give him, along with the person’s own robust bodily defenses, would produce a cure. We now would say that the person owes the doctor a double thanks: not only for the cure, but also for the torments.
Similarly, had Hashem left our forefathers in peace, refraining from action until we Jews naturally entered into a situation of distress, it would have been very hard for us to gain deliverance, due to our weak spiritual level. Hashem therefore deliberately brought the distress early and directed it at our forefathers, who were spiritually strong enough to withstand the “treatment” He would administer to bring forth the forces of deliverance. Once these forces were generated, they would, as explained above, benefit us for all generations.
This process is reflected in the verses from Tehillim 129. Yaakov declares: “Greatly have they distressed me since my youth.” Yaakov was singing praise to Hashem for hastening the distress and directing it at him; he understood that Hashem had chosen him to bear the distress because he had great spiritual vigor, like the physical vigor of a youth. The Midrash makes it clear that Yaakov was indeed praising Hashem for the distress as well as the deliverance. It reports that after Hashem asked Yaakov whether the distress had subdued him, Yaakov replied: “Greatly have they distressed me since my youth, and also they have not subdued me.” Had Yaakov sought to thank Hashem only for the deliverance, he would have replied simply: “They have not subdued me.” The fact that Yaakov mentioned the distress a second time indicates that he was praising Hashem for the distress as well. Yaakov then continues, as we noted earlier: “Upon my back, plowers plowed; they extended their furrow.” Here Yaakov is expressing his understanding that Hashem cast distress upon him for the benefit of his descendants, and he is thus proclaiming to the world the reason for his double praise. The Midrash concludes with a summary of the process: By saving Yaakov from Eisav and his chieftains, Hashem brought the Jewish People deliverance for all eternity.
Part II
In describing how Yaakov sent gifts to Eisav before his meeting with him, the Torah states (Bereishis 32:14): “He took, from what came into his hand, an offering of tribute to his brother Eisav.” What is the point behind the phrase “from what came into his hand”? The Midrash presents various interpretations, which Rashi mentions. The Maggid offers an explanation at a simple level.
The Maggid draws an analogy to the mitzvah of tithing flocks. In Vaykira 27:32-33, the Torah says that the herdsman is not supposed to select on his own which animals will be sanctified, but instead is supposed to make the animals pass under his staff, and designate every tenth one as sanctified. The Gemara elaborates on the procedure, teaching that the herdsman is to place the flock in a corral with a narrow opening, let the animals through one by one, and tap every tenth one with a paint-daubed stick to mark it as sanctified (Bechoros 58b). What is the reason for this specific method? Why can’t the herdsman select the required number of animals however he wishes, based on the size of his flock, and designate the selected animals as sanctified?
The reason is that Hashem did not want to put into the hands of the herdsman himself, with his limited human understanding, the momentous decision of which animals would be invested with the sanctity of a tithe. With voluntary offerings (nedarim and nedavos), the initiative to bring the offering comes from the herdsman, so Hashem allows him to choose which animal to bring. But the tithe is an offering that Hashem demands, and so He insists on a process that puts in His hands the choice of which animals will be brought.
Similarly, when Yaakov was preparing the gifts for Eisav, he faced the issue of which animals would be removed from his holy sphere of influence and placed in the possession of his despicable brother. He knew he could not make this momentous choice himself. So he set up an automatic selection system of some sort, along the lines of that used for tithing, and whatever animals came into his hand through this system were the ones he gave to Eisav.
L’Refuas Kalonymus Kalman ben Sorah Rivka, who is undergoing surgery this week
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

This week’s parashah begins with Yaakov’s meeting with Hashem before he left for Charan. The Torah presents Yaakov’s prayer for Hashem’s support, along with Hashem’s response. Yaakov prays for Hashem to be with him, to guard him on his way, to provide him bread to eat and clothes to wear, to return him home safely, and to be a God unto him. Hashem responds (Bereishis 28:15): “Behold, I am with you, I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land – for I will not abandon you until I have done what I have spoken regarding you.” (This verse actually appears in the Torah before the verses presenting Yaakov’s request, but Bereishis Rabbah 70:4 presents an opinion stating that the prayer and the response were recorded in reverse order.)
In Bereishis Rabbah 69:6, the Midrash reports the general opinion of the Sages that Hashem granted Yaakov all his requests except for the request for sustenance (i.e., bread and clothing), and describes how the words in Hashem’s response parallel each of Yaakov’s other requests. The Midrash then reports the dissenting opinion of R. Issi, who says that Hashem granted Yaakov’s request for sustenance as well. R. Issi cites Hashem’s promise “I will not abandon you,” and interprets this promise as relating to sustenance, as it is written (Tehillim 37:25): “I was a youth, and I also have aged, and I have not seen a righteous man abandoned, and his descendants begging for bread.” The Maggid sets out to answer two questions. If Hashem did not grant Yaakov’s request for sustenance, why not? And if He did grant the request, why did He not say explicitly “I will provide you bread and clothing”?
The Maggid analyzes the Midrash as follows. Hashem employs two methods of providing a person sustenance. The first method is through direct support, by miraculous means, as if the person were a child sitting at his father’s table. The second method is through an endowment, whereby the person receives the means to procure his support “on his own” through natural effort. Initially, Avraham was supported through miraculous means. Later, in his old age, Hashem blessed him with “everything,” handing over to him the mechanism for generating blessing through natural effort, and enabling him, so to speak, to procure his sustenance on his own. Avraham passed this mechanism on to Yitzchak, and Yitzchak passed it on to Yaakov. But when Yaakov had to flee to Charan to escape Eisav, it was no longer appropriate for him to be “on his own” – rather, he would be under Hashem’s direct support, as Avraham had been previously. Thus, just before Yaakov departed, Yitzchak blessed him: “May He grant you the blessing of Avraham” – the blessing of direct Divine support. The Midrash reports that Rivkah gave Yaakov a similar blessing, and that Hashem bolstered it (Bereishis Rabbah 75:8):
His mother Rivkah also gave him a parallel blessing. … Thus she said to him (Tehillim 91:11): “He will charge his angels over you, to protect you in all your ways.” When she blessed him with these words, a Divine spirit continued (ibid. 91:15): “He will call upon Me and I will answer him. I am with him in distress. I will release him and bring him honor.”
To clarify and complete his analysis, the Maggid presents a simple parable, which explains both views in the Midrash in a single stroke. A man was sending his son on a trip to a distant town. He prepared for his son all the things he would need during the trip: clothes, utensils, and so on. He also set aside a pouch of money to give his son, to cover his travel expenses. Suddenly, he found out that the road his son would be taking was riddled with bandits. So he decided to go along with his son himself, to protect him from the threats looming on the road. As the two of them got into the wagon, the son asked his father: “Where is the pouch of money you set aside for me? You should give it to me, so I’ll be able to pay all my expenses during this trip.” The father replied: “Now that I am going along with you, you don’t need any money for your expenses anymore. Whenever any expense comes up during the trip, you can just ask me to cover it, and I’ll give you the money on the spot.”
Similarly, when Yaakov fled to Charan, Hashem decided to “go along” with him, to protect him from the threats that the trip would pose. Hence, it was fitting for Yaakov to be supported directly by Hashem, rather than “supporting himself” through a Divine endowment. Rivkah’s blessing to Yaakov, “He will charge his angels over you, to protect you in all your ways,” was meant to activate this direct Divine support. Hashem concurred, saying: “He will call upon Me and I will answer him. I am with him in distress. I will release him and bring him honor.” Therefore there was no need for Hashem to give Yaakov any endowment. Rather, whenever Yaakov had a need, he could just call upon Hashem, and Hashem would answer him – for Hashem would be right with him all time. Thus Hashem promised him: “Behold, I am with you, I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land – for I will not abandon you until I have done what I have spoken regarding you.”
We can now explain the position of the Sages who asserted that Hashem did not grant Yaakov’s request for sustenance, by saying that there was no need to do so, since Hashem would now be caring for Yaakov directly. Similarly, taking R. Issi’s view, we can say that Hashem’s promise to keep Yaakov under His constant watch in itself included a promise to provide him sustenance, so that the request was indeed granted. Either way we look at it, the bottom line is that Hashem certainly made sure that all Yaakov’s needs were met.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

In this week’s parashah, Yitzchak gives Yaakov the following blessing (Bereishis 27:28): “And may God (Elokim) give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fatness of the earth, and abundant grain and wine.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 63:3): “‘May God give you’—this refers to blessings. ‘And may God give you’—this refers to the means of preserving them (k’vishan).” The Midrash then presents a homiletical rendering of the opening phrase of this blessing: “And may He [God] grant you Elokusa.” Finally, the Midrash analyzes the rest of the blessing, presenting three sets of parallels. We focus here on the second set, which runs as follows: dew refers to Zion (Tehillim 133:3), the fatness of the earth refers to korbanos (Tehillim 66:15), grain refers to first fruits, and wine refers to libations.
The Maggid begins his explanation of this Midrash with a parable. Once there was a very wealthy man who owned many fields and businesses. He had several sons. When he neared the end of his life, he pondered how he would dispose of his assets. He decided he would give all his assets to one of his sons, who would be responsible for managing the fields and the businesses and for supporting his brothers from the profits. He called in his sons, told them the plan, and asked which of them wanted to be the one to manage the assets. Most of them backed away from the lead role; they were afraid to take on such a heavy responsibility, and preferred to be among those who would be supported by the lead brother. But one son, who was wiser than the others, agreed to accept the role. Afterward, his friends asked him why he took on this heavy burden. He explained: “I will benefit from this role in two ways. First, I will have available to me all the tools needed for every possible type of work. Second, my father will teach me how to use all these tools, and also how to do business, and I will thus acquire a priceless treasure of wisdom.”
The Maggid then presents the parallel. It is written (Mishlei 4:2): “For I have given you good counsel (lekach, literally acquisition) – Do not forsake My Torah.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 33:1):
Do not abandon the possession that I gave you. Sometimes a person purchases an item which has gold but not silver. And sometimes a person purchases an item that has silver but not gold. But the possession that I have given you has silver … and it has gold …. Sometimes a person buys a tract that has fields but not vineyards. And sometimes a person buys a tract that has vineyards but not fields. But this possession has both fields and vineyards.
This Midrash is teaching that Torah and mitzvos constitute the source of all blessing in the world, and that one who acquires the Torah automatically acquires all other blessings. When we came forward and said “we shall do and we shall listen,” Hashem gave us this priceless treasure as our special possession.
He then brought us to the Land of Israel, the place most suited to Torah and mitzvos. And He set aside a special place to serve as the fount of Torah. This place is Zion, as it is written (Yeshayah 2:3): “For from Zion shall go forth Torah.” In this special place, Zion, He set up His sanctuary, the Beis HaMikdash – which, as our Sages teach, is aligned with His celestial sanctuary (Tanchuma, Vayakhel 7). In the Beis HaMikdash, the table was set with special showbread, the holy menorah was lit, and korbanos and ketores were brought each day. These acts of service were designed to channel blessing from heaven to earth. Further, Hashem chose the kohanim, the pride of the Jewish People – saintly men of pure heart – as the ministers in charge of the Temple service. Hashem thus set up an exquisitely organized system for channeling His bounty to us, and then from us to the rest of the world.
At Sinai, Hashem informed us of our special role, declaring (Shemos 19:5-6): “You shall be unto Me a special treasure among all the nations, for the whole Earth is Mine. And you shall be unto Me as a kingdom of ministers (mamleches kohanim)and a holy nation.” Just as the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, serve as ministers on our behalf, conveying Hashem’s bounty to us, so, too, we as a nation serve as ministers on behalf of the world at large, conveying Hashem’s bounty to all mankind.
Dovid HaMelech writes (Tehillim 147:12-19):
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 establishes peace within your borders; He sates you with the cream of the wheat. … He relates His word to Yaakov, His edicts and statutes to Yisrael.
This passage describes how Hashem appointed us the bearers of the Torah, a position which places upon us the duty to bring to light the Torah’s wisdom and involve ourselves in the Temple service [ideally through actual performance, and now, for the time being, through studying the relevant laws]. By carrying out this duty, we bring the world the Divine bounty it needs to continue in existence.
In the same vein, Dovid HaMelech writes elsewhere (Tehillim 111:5-6):
He has provided sustenance to those who fear Him; He remembers His covenant for the sake of the entire world. The power of His deeds He related to His people, to give them the estate of the nations.
This passage portrays the system we described above. Hashem provides sustenance to those who fear Him – to the Jewish People, who are dedicated to serving Him. Through this special nation, He conveys His bounty to the entire world, in fulfillment of His covenant to mankind. He has related to the Jewish People the power behind His deeds – the Torah, the tool of His craft (kli umanuso, cf. Bereishis Rabbah 1:1), which He uses in carrying out everything He does. He has given us the estate of the nations, the Land of Israel, the place most suited to Torah and mitzvos. He has thus put us in a position where we can generate the maximum blessing, for the benefit of all mankind.
The Jewish People’s special role, as described above, is the key reason why Hashem arranged for Yaakov to receive the blessing that Yitzchak had been poised to give: “And may God give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fatness of the earth, and abundant grain and wine.” It was not solely, or even primarily, for his own benefit that Yaakov was given this blessing. Rather, Hashem directed the blessing to Yaakov because He wished to put him in charge of the mechanism that brings bounty into the world, and make him a trustee of that bounty on behalf of all of mankind. In order for Yaakov to fulfill this role, he needed to be invested with great wisdom and a deep understanding of God, Torah, and the Temple service. When the Midrash says that the opening word “and” in the phrase “And may God give you” refers to the means of preserving the blessings God grants (k’vishan), it is referring to this wisdom and understanding – the hidden secrets underlying the system though which Hashem channels bounty into the world. (The word k’vishan can be read as a term that connotes “bottling up,” which alludes to both preserving and hiding. Thus, in Berachos 10a, the Gemara uses the term kivshei d’Rachmana to refer to Hashem’s hidden secrets.) Along with the blessings, Yaakov is granted Elokusa – knowledge of God. In addition, he is granted Zion, the seat of Torah, and is trained to be and then installed as the director of the Temple service, with its korbonos, first fruits, and libations. Yitzchak’s blessing to Yaakov was thus tailored to include everything Yaakov needed to fulfill the special role for which he was designated. 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Bereishis 24:1): “Now, Avraham was old, advanced in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” The Hebrew expression for “advanced in years,” ba bayamim, means literally “had come to days.” The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 59:6) remarks that Avraham had come to the days of which Shlomo HaMelech speaks in the following verse (Koheles 12:1): “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the bad days come, and the years arrive of which you will say, ‘I have no desire for them.’” In a previous post, we presented one of the Maggid’s commentaries on this teaching; here, we present another.
The days leading up to death are sometimes referred to as bad, and sometimes as good. In the verse from Koheles quoted above, they are referred to as bad. But elsewhere in Koheles, they are referred to as good (verse 7:1): “A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of birth.” And, regarding the Torah’s report that Hashem “saw all that He had done, and, behold, it was very good,” the Midrash teaches that death is included in what Hashem called “very good” (Bereishis Rabbah 9:5). How can death be both bad and good?
The Maggid explains as follows. Death has two effects: It causes a person to leave this world, and it enables a person to enter the world to come. These two effects are reflected in the different Hebrew terms for death. The term maves refers to leaving this world, while the terms geviyah and asifah refer to entering the world to come. A wicked person’s death is described using the term maves, for the only effect that occurs when a wicked person dies is that he leaves this world. His existence comes to a total end; he does not enter another realm of life. A righteous person’s death, on the other hand, is described using the terms geviyah and asifah, for the primary effect of his death is to bring him into the world to come.
Now, when a person sets out to attain something he desires, we say he is “going” to seek it, and when he actually attains it, we say he has “come upon it.” By contrast, when a person encounters something that he was not seeking and did not want, we say that “it came upon him.” The wicked, who are entranced by worldly pleasures, do not want death. Rather, death pursues them. Thus, in describing how Hashem views a wicked man, Dovid HaMelech declares (Tehillim 37:13): “The Lord laughs at him, for He sees that his day has come.” Similarly, when Dovid spoke of his wish that Hashem vanquish the wicked, he exclaimed (Tehillim 55:16): “May He incite death against them” – that is, cause death to pursue them. The righteous, on the other hand, look forward to death. They constantly await the day when they will leave this world and be able to behold more clearly the light of Hashem, the Living King. Hence, a righteous man’s death is described as “coming to days” – reaching a desired goal. Avraham’s death was described in these terms. Dovid HaMelech’s death was described in the same way (Melachim Alef 1:1, the opening verse of this week’s haftarah).
In a similar vein, it is written (Iyov 14:14): “If a man dies (yamus), will he live [anymore]? [But] I hope all the days of my life, until the time of my passing comes.” If a person’s death is in the form of maves, rather than geviyah or asifah, then he has no more life ahead of him. Iyov’s words can be read as making this point, and then speaking of those who are not in this category – to the man who looks forward, all the days of his physical life, to eternal spiritual life in the world to come.
In his last speech before his death, Dovid HaMelech declares (Divrei HaYamim Alef 29:15): “For our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope [of avoiding death].” The Midrash, discussing this verse in the context of Yaakov’s death, remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 96:2): “There is no one who hopes he will not die.” Although this remark seems to be just a minor rephrasing, there is in fact a deep message behind it. The simple meaning of the verse is that man desires to avoid death, but there is no hope of doing so. But, in fact, it is not true that all of mankind desires to avoid death. On the contrary, as we explained, the righteous look forward to death, for they view the world to come as their desired destination. Our Sages are saying that, among those who are true men, there is no one who wishes he will not die; all true men speak of death with expectant serenity.
Shlomo declares: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the bad days come, and the years arrive of which you will say, ‘I have no desire for them.’” Shlomo is telling us to focus so intently on drawing close to Hashem that we regard death not as a “bad day” that is coming toward us, but rather as a golden day that we yearn to reach.
David Zucker, Site Administrator