Post Archive for February 2010

Parashas Tetzaveh

In this week’s parashah, Hashem instructs Moshe about the procedure for installing Aharon into the position of Kohen Gadol. In connection with this topic, the Maggid presents an extended discussion of different forms of devotion to mitzvos.
Aharon’s conduct as Kohen Gadol reflects the highest form of devotion to mitzvos – focusing solely on serving Hashem, without any personal interests. Another form is where we maintain personal interests, but make a point of investing them toward a mitzvah. This form can arise, for example, in the mitzvah of honoring Shabbos. We have a personal interest in enjoying delicacies, but we can invest this interest in the mitzvah of Shabbos by refraining from delicacies during the week and designating Shabbos as the day for such delights. We discussed these two forms in a previous piece. Finally, there is the scenario where we put ourselves on the line to keep mitzvos in the face of great adversity.
Hashem, in His love for us, always arranges a way for us to earn reward for mitzvos. Thus, when He sees that we are doing mitzvos by sheer rote, without proper feeling, He sends oppressors against us to interfere with our mitzvah observance. When we persist in keeping mitzvos amidst the oppression, we earn great reward. Meantime, Hashem gives our oppressors the punishment they deserve.
The Midrash discusses the ultimate fate of Eisav, the forefather of the nation of Edom, the chief oppressor of the Jewish People. (Note that Haman, the villain of the Purim episode, was from Edom.) The Midrash relates (Yalkut Shimoni II:549):
In the end of days, when Holy One Blessed Be He brings the wicked Eisav to judgment, Eisav will enwrap himself in his cloak and sit down next to Yaakov. For Ovadiah 1:4 describes Edom setting his abode among the stars, and the term “stars” refers to Yaakov: “a star has come forth from Yaakov” (Bamidbar 24:17); “look up, please, toward the heavens, and count the stars” (Bereishis 15:5, regarding Avraham’s descendants). Yaakov will say: “My brother, do not join me. … For you would impose decrees upon me to worship false gods: if I obeyed them, I would be subject to a death penalty from heaven, and if not, you would kill me.” Eisav then descended to the netherworld, and Yaakov remained [with Hashem] by himself.
The Maggid asks: What will make Eisav think he could escape Hashem’s retribution by sitting down next to Yaakov? The Maggid answers that this act represents an attempt by Eisav to be compensated with a reprieve in return for having benefitted the Jewish People, the Bnei Yaakov – by enabling the Jewish People to earn enormous reward by standing up to his harsh decrees. He will claim that he deserves “a piece of the action.” But Eisav’s claim will be denied, for his sole intent was to cause the Jewish People evil. He (like Haman) will be brought to his downfall, and we will remain to revel in our bond with Hashem.
Purim Sameach!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Terumah

In this week’s parashah, Hashem instructs Moshe about the building of the Mishkan. Hashem prefaces the detailed instructions with a general statement of purpose (Shemos 25:8): “They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst.” The Midrash comments (Shemos Rabbah 33:1):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to the People of Israel: “I sold you My Torah, and I sold Myself, so to speak, along with it.” … An analogy: A king had an only daughter. Another king married her, and set out to return home with his new wife. The king said to him: “The daughter I have given you is my only one. I cannot part with her, yet I cannot tell you not to take her, for she is your wife. So do me a favor: wherever you go, make for me a small chamber so that I may dwell with you, for I cannot simply leave her to you.” Thus said the Holy One Blessed Be He to the People of Israel: “I gave you My Torah. I cannot part with it, yet I cannot tell you not to take it. So, wherever you go, make for Me a house for Me dwell in.”
This Midrash is charming, but the Maggid points out that it seems not to add up. If Hashem felt that He could not part from the Torah, why didn’t He just keep it with Him in heaven? Why did he give it to us, and then insist on a dwelling place among us so that He could keep the Torah close to Him?
The Maggid then presents a brilliant resolution to this conundrum. He follows Rashi’s view that Hashem told Moshe to build the Mishkan after the Jewish People sinned with the golden calf, even though the Torah records the events in reverse order (in line with the principle that the Torah is not bound to chronological order). From this vantage point, he explains as follows. At the time of the revelation at Sinai, the Jewish People were purged of the primeval spiritual defilement that had entered man when Adam ate from the forbidden tree. They then recovered the elevated position that Hashem had originally intended for man to occupy: an intermediate station between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. It was on this basis that Hashem gave the Jewish People the Torah – when they received it, they were close enough to the heavenly realm that Hashem did not regard it as being too far from Him.
But when the Jewish People commited the sin of the golden calf, the primeval defilement re-entered them, and they fell from their lofty station. They had returned, as Adam had, to the soil from whence they came – that is, they descended, taking the Torah with them, to a station rooted in the earthly realm. Under this state of affairs, Hashem considered the separation between Him and His Torah unacceptable. Yet He had already given the Jewish People the Torah, and He wished to let them keep it. He therefore asked them to build Him a sanctuary in their midst. In this way, Hashem could bring the sanctity of heaven down to earth, and thereby restore the Jewish People to an intermediate position between the completely holy and the completely mundane.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mishpatim

This week’s parashah is devoted mainly to civil laws. One segment deals with lending money, especially to the poor, and not taking interest. The Torah states (Shemos 22:24): “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a pursuing creditor; do not lay interest upon him.” Below are a few insights from the Maggid on this topic.
1. By lending money to a poor person, one is doing a kindness not only for that particular person, but also for the public at large. By helping the poor person get back on his feet, one eliminates the need for him to seek charity from members of the community, and thereby relieves the public at large from a burden.
2. If a person is accustomed to lend money to the poor without interest, then by working to earn money he is serving the poor along with himself. It is if he is working jointly on his own behalf and on behalf of the poor. But when a person lends money to a poor person with interest, the work the poor person does afterward serves not only the poor person himself, but also the lender, for part of the money the poor person earns will be going to pay the interest. It is as if the poor person is working in part on behalf of the lender. The Torah teaches that that poor person should be “with you” – you should see to it that you work for him, rather than making him work for you.
3. We all must bear the burden of Divine justice in the economic realm. The basic mechanism that Hashem uses to distribute this burden is the cycle of economic fortune, whereby people experience wealth and poverty in alternation. But a person who is currently well off can preempt a transition to poverty by choosing first to bear the economic component of Divine justice in an indirect way – by shouldering the responsibility of caring for the poor.
4. When a person charges interest in the usual way, as a function of the length of the time that the borrower holds onto the funds, he is automatically acting as a pursuing creditor, even if he does not approach the borrower directly to demand repayment. The constant accumulation of interest itself puts pressure on the borrower, as if he is being pursued.
5. The Midrash teaches (Shemos Rabbah 31:12): “‘One who is gracious to the poor is giving a loan to Hashem, and He will pay him his due recompense (Mishlei 19:17).’ Up to what point? ‘A borrower is a servant to the man who has lent him (Mishlei 22:7).” That is, when a person lends money to the poor, Hashem considers it like a loan to Him and takes responsibility for repayment. It is as if two parties have signed on the loan, the borrower and Hashem, and the lender can collect from either one or the other. But if the lender hounds the borrower for payment, he is showing that he is focusing his attention solely on the borrower, and neglecting to keep Hashem in mind. This attitude might prompt Hashem to step out of the picture. The Torah therefore exhorts us not to act as a “pursuing creditor” toward those to whom we have lent money. If the borrower is having trouble paying, then turn to Hashem, and He will step in and repay.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Yisro

This week’s parashah recounts the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and presents the Ten Commandments. The Fourth Commandment discusses Shabbos (Shemos 20:8-10):
Remember the Sabbath day, to sanctify it. Six days shall you labor and carry out all your work, while the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Hashem your God. You shall not carry out any work ….”
The Maggid asks: Why does the Torah preface the mitzvah of Shabbos by saying “six days shall you labor and carry out all your work,” as if Hashem is ordering us to labor and do work during the six regular days of the week? In truth, there is no halachic obligation to perform work during the weekdays. Hashem has simply given us permission to do so as we choose to meet our needs. What message, then, is the preface conveying?
The Maggid raises a further question. The Midrash reports that Hashem said to the Jewish People: (Devarim Rabbah 3:1): “You are thinking that perhaps I have given you Shabbos to do you a bad turn, but in fact I have given it to you only to do you good.” What does Hashem mean in suggesting we might think He gave us Shabbos to do us a bad turn?
The Maggid answers as follows. Resting takes two forms: resting to enable further progress, and resting for its own sake. The first stems from necessity, the second from free choice. Consider, for example, a person traveling home from a distant town. He may take periodic rest stops, but only because he has to do so to replenish his strength and prepare for the next leg of the trip. He would prefer to go straight home without stopping. Thus, he views the rest stops as a hindrance, and is anxious to get past them. But once he gets home, he rests gladly.
Now, for a person who thinks the work he does during the week is what brings him his sustenance, Shabbos as an irritating hindrance. He spends his entire Shabbos mulling over his work, and is anxious for Shabbos to be over so he can get back to it. Implicitly, he thinks that Hashem has done him a bad turn by imposing Shabbos on him. But a person who realizes that all his sustenance comes from Hashem, and that he works only because Hashem has chosen to run the world through this mechanism, takes a different attitude. He views his weekday work as a chore Hashem has given him to do, in line with how He set up the world. And so he is happy that on Shabbos Hashem releases him from this duty, and does him the great favor of granting him a day of pure delight.
Thus, in saying “six days shall you labor (taavod),” the Torah is teaching us the attitude we should take to our weekday work. We should not view it as a fulfillment of our own agenda, but rather simply as an act of servitude (avdus) that we perform at Hashem’s behest. If we take this attitude to our weekday work, then our Shabbos will be as it should be: “a Sabbath unto Hashem” – a day free of weekday worries, devoted to drawing close to Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator