Post Archive for January 2010

Parashas Beshallach

This week’s parashah continues with the story of the Exodus from Egypt, recounting the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the Jewish People’s entry into the wilderness. The Torah relates that Moshe took Yosef’s bones out of Egypt, in accord with the oath Yosef’s brothers swore to him. The Midrash comments (Shemos Rabbah 20:19):
The entire People of Israel were engaged in collecting silver and gold [from the homes of the Egyptians], while Moshe was involved with Yosef’s bones. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “You are a realization of [the proverb] ‘the wise of heart takes up mitzvos’ (Mishlei 10:8).”
This Midrash, the Maggid says, is puzzling. Why does Hashem praise Moshe by means of an implied criticism of the other Jews, noting that they went to collect booty while he went to tend to Yosef’s bones? Indeed, Hashem Himself had told the Jews to collect booty from the Egyptians. Also, if Hashem wished to praise Moshe, why did He do so in such an apparently modest fashion, quoting the proverb about taking up mitzvos? Couldn’t Hashem have offer a more glowing praise?
The Maggid explains as follows. Some people perform mitzvos for their own sake, while others perform mitzvos only out of fear of incurring Hashem’s wrath. Usually we cannot tell which category a person belongs to, but in some situations we can tell clearly. One such situation is the one in which a person has a choice between two mitzvos, one which confers a fringe benefit and one which does not. If the person chooses the mitzvah with the fringe benefit, this shows that he does not recognize the value of the mitzvos in themselves; when he performs mitzvos in the course of his daily life, he does so only because he feels he has to. On the other hand, if the person performs the mitzvah without the fringe benefit, this shows that he performs mitzvos entirely for their own sake, regardless of whether they yield him an overt gain. He understands that mitzvos generate profound positive effects, and he therefore cherishes them with all his heart. He chooses the mitzvah without the fringe benefit because he has little interest in material benefits; he is totally occupied with spiritual pursuits.  Moshe’s being was suffused with such loving devotion to mitzvos. Hashem deliberately called attention to this specific trait, for it testified strikingly to Moshe’s outstanding loftiness.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo

In regard to the month of Nisan, the month during which the Exodus took place, the Torah states (Shemos 12:2): “This month shall be unto you the chief (rosh) of the months; it shall be the first (rishon) unto you of the months of the year.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 15:1):  
Hashem is called rishon (Yeshayah 44:6). Zion [referring to the Land of Israel in general and the site of the Mikdash in particular] is called rishon (Yirmiyah 17:12). Eisav is called rishon (Bereishis 25:25). Moshiach is called rishon (Yeshayah 41:27). Hashem, who is called rishon, will come and build the Beis HaMikdash, which is called rishon, will exact vengeance from Eisav, who is called rishon. And Moshiach, who is called rishon, will come in the month which is called rishon, as it is written: “This month shall be unto you the chief of the months.”
The Maggid explains that the term rishon denotes the root source from which later developments flow. In particular, the redemption from Rgypt is the root source of all other redemptions that Hashem has brought and will bring the Jewish People over the course of time, culminating with the final redemption with the coming of Moshiach. Indeed, the Midrash says here that just as the Exodus took place in Nisan, the final redemption will take place in Nisan as well.
The Maggid notes the Torah’s double language, “chief” and “first,” and explains that it reflects two merits of the month in which the Exodus took place. First, the month of Nisan is counted as the first month of the year. Second, the Nisan in which the Exodus took place is the chief among the Nisans of all time, being the root source of all redemptions in all Nisans thereafter, including the final one in the end of days.
It is in this vein that, in the blessing that concludes the Maggid section of the Pesach Haggadah, we praise Hashem for being the One “who has redeemed us, and redeemed our forefathers from Egypt.” Our own redemption is a result of the wonders Hashem wrought in redeeming our forefathers from Egypt.
The Maggid links all this to the following passage (Tehillim 44:2-5): “God, with our ears we heard, our fathers told us, of the works You performed for them in their days, the days of yore. … It is You who is my King, O God – order forth salvations for Yaakov!” We turn to Hashem as the One who built a fount of redemption into the fabric of the world in days of yore, so that redemption would be poised to spring forth in the final era. We entreat: “Hashem, since You have already set in place salvations for us, please show us mercy and order them forth now.”
I may add that this idea is put forward by Rabbeinu Yonah (on Berachos 4a) as one of the reasons behind the halachah specifying that, in our prayers, we must proceed without interruption from the blessing “Blessed are You, Hashem, who has redeemed Israel” to the Shemoneh Esrei (s’michah geulah l’tefillah). On the basis of the aid Hashem has granted us in the past, we turn to Him trustingly in prayer and ask Him to aid us now.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeira

This week’s parashah describes the first seven of the ten plagues that Hashem cast upon Egypt because of Pharaoh’s refusal, in his wickedness, to let the Jewish People go. The episode of the ten plagues prompts the Midrash to comment on the role wicked people play on the world scene (Shemos Rabbah 7:4, paraphrased):
It is like a king who had an orchard, and planted there trees that do not bear fruit as well as those that do. His servants asked him: “What do you gain from these nonfruit trees?” The king replied: “Just as I need fruit trees, I need nonfruit trees, for, without them, where would I get wood for the fires in the furnaces and the bathhouses?” … Just as praise of Hashem goes forth from Gan Eden from the mouths of the righteous, so, too, it goes forth from Gehinnom from the mouths of the wicked, for they declare: “Rightly have You judged!”
The Maggid links this Midrash to Dovid HaMelech’s contrast between the righteous and the wicked in the first chapter of Tehillim: “He [the righteous man] will be like a tree planted by brooks of water, which yields its fruit in due season, and whose leaves never wither – and everything he does will succeed. Not so are the wicked; rather, they are like the chaff that the wind drives away. And so, therefore, the wicked will not stand up in judgment.” The Midrash comments (Yalkut Shimoni II:618):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to the wicked: “I created the world with the word ‘so,’ as it is written, ‘and it was so.’ You say, ‘not so,’ as it is written, ‘it is not so with the heart of fools.’ (Mishlei 15:7). … Regarding when I said, ‘and it was so,’ you say, ‘not so.’ And regarding when I said, ‘not so,’ you say, ‘so.’ By your lives, not so! ‘And so, therefore, the wicked will not stand up in judgment.’”
The Maggid explains as follows. The righteous and the wicked each teach us a lesson, and both contribute to the manifestation of Hashem’s glory. The righteous teach us how to act: “so shall you do.” And the wicked teach us how not to act: “not so shall you do.” The righteous teach us their lesson through the splendid fruit of good deeds that they bear during their lives. The wicked, by contrast, teach us their lesson not through noble accomplishments, but rather through the retribution Hashem exacts from them. When the wicked prevent the righteous from serving Hashem and exploit them for their own gain, it is as if they are embezzling the tribute Hashem is due. But ultimately, when Hashem exacts retribution, He recoups this “loss.” The wicked are cut down and consumed in fire like the wood of nonfruit trees, or removed and cast to the wind like chaff. They then proclaim Hashem’s righteousness: “Rightly have You judged!”
Thus it was with Pharaoh. His initial stance was total denial of Hashem: “Who is Hashem, that I should heed His voice, and send the Jewish People out?” But, through the retribution Hashem exacted from Egypt, he was led to a stance of total submission to Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemos

In this week’s parashah, the Jewish People become enslaved in Egypt, and Hashem appoints Moshe to lead them out. In Hashem’s first discussion with Moshe, He says: “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their outcry on account of their taskmasters, for I have recognized their pain.” The Midrash remarks (Shemos Rabbah 3:2):
It is written (Iyov 11:11): “He recognizes men set upon falsehood, and He sees crookedness, though He acts as if He does not contemplate it.” … When the Jews were in Egypt, Hashem saw what they would ultimately do. Thus, Hashem did not say just raeesi, but rather r’oh raeesi. Said Hashem to Moshe: “You see one sight, but I see two sights. You see them receiving the Torah at Sinai, and I do as well. But I also see them commiting the sin of the golden calf … a painful act of waywardness. Yet, I still will redeem them.”
The Maggid notes that Hashem’s stance is an outright wonder. One would think that Hashem would shunt aside the sin of the calf when setting out to redeem the Jewish People, for this sin might be reason not to redeem them. But, on the contrary, Hashem holds the sin in clear view. How can we understand this?
The Maggid explains as follows. The Egyptians afflicted the Jews not only physically, but also spiritually. Thus it is written (Devarim 26:6), “And they did evil unto them, and afflicted them” – the double terminology alludes to the two forms of suffering. The influence of the decadent Egyptian culture caused the Jews spiritual damage – “They mingled with the nations and learned their ways” (Tehillim 106:35). It was the spiritual damage that prompted Hashem to redeem the Jews before the time He had previously specified (in His discussion with Avraham). The Torah tells us that the Jewish People could not tarry, and those versed in the deep levels of Torah wisdom explain that the Jews were at the 49th level of defilement, the brink of spiritual doom – had they remained in Egypt but a moment longer, they would have fallen to the 50th level of defilement, from which there is no return.
Hashem observed the Jewish People’s severe spiritual decline, and He knew that He had to step in and redeem them. Now, when we left Egypt, we were completely freed of the physical bondage, but not completely of the spiritual bondage. The evil effects of Egyptian culture lingers on. Indeed, the Torah exhorts us to fight these effects, and to firmly shun Egyptian ways (e.g. Vayikra 18:3). The evil effects are very strong, and they are what caused the Jewish People to commit the grievous sin of the golden calf. Hashem saw what they would ultimately do, and understood from this observation that, as a result of being immersed in Egyptian culture, the Jews were spiritually ravaged. Hashem’s clear view of the eventual sin thus did not lead Hashem to “hesitate” about redeeming the people, but, on the contrary, was the key factor that led Him to show us compassion and hasten the redemption.
David Zucker, Site Administrator