Post Archive for March 2010

Pesach and Shir HaShirim

The Jewish festivals are called moadim, from a Hebrew verb meaning “to meet.” They are times for us to have a special close meeting with Hashem. The festivals are also called mikraei kodesh – holy convocations. The following piece dealing with the Jewish festivals, Jewish holiness, and love of Hashem is adapted from the Maggid’s commentary on Shir HaShirim 3:11.
The Torah states (Vayikra 23:2): “Hashem’s appointed festivals that you are to designate as holy convocations – these are My appointed festivals.” On holy days, such as Shabbos and Yom Tov, we anticipate that Hashem will grant us a special awakening to holiness. But to receive this awakening, we must prepare. The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, part III, ch. 51, teaches that Hashem draws close to a person to the same degree that the person draws close to Him. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Shir HaShirim 7:11): “I am unto my Beloved, and upon me is His desire.” That is, God’s level of yearning for us, and the degree to which He reveals to us His hidden secrets, depends upon us. The Torah exhorts us to designate the festival days as holy convocations – to make an effort, from our station on earth below, to strive toward sanctity and purity. If we do so, then these days become Hashem’s appointed festivals as well – special days on which Hashem awakens us to lofty levels of holiness. We thus see that the root of the holiness of the festival days is our own effort to enhance our level of holiness. As the Zohar puts it: “An awakening below generates an awakening above.”
Shlomo HaMelech declares further (Shir HaShirim 3:11): “Go out and see, O daughters of Zion, the king – the perfect one – in the crown with which his Creator adorned him on the day of his wedding, on the day his heart rejoiced” [the word “king” in this verse is usually read as referring to Hashem, but the Maggid reads it as referring to the Jewish People]. As our Sages state (Shir HaShirim Rabbah on the verse), the wedding day mentioned in this verse is the day of the Giving of the Torah. We can say further that the crown mentioned in this verse alludes to the lofty character traits that the Jewish People received on this day. Although these lofty traits have been compromised by our sins, their basic core remains imprinted within us. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech describes Knesses Yisrael as saying (Shir HaShirim 1:5): “I am blackened, yet beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem – [I am] like the tents of Kedar, [yet also] like the curtains of Shlomo.” In essence, we are as beautiful as Shlomo’s curtains; we look shabby only because we are soiled by sin. If we cleanse ourselves, our beauty will emerge in its full splendor.
In a similar vein, our Sages teach: “Before praying that words of Torah should enter your heart, plead for mercy that banalities should exit your heart.” Our hearts are designed to serve as vessels for storing spiritual bounty, but much of the storage space is taken up with negative influences – i.e., intellectual and emotional junk. We must clear out this junk. [Although the Maggid does not mention the point here, various sources teach that clearing out the chametz corresponds to clearing out the negative influences within us.] If we do, we then will be able to take in the Torah’s words. The Shema teaches a similar lesson. The first paragraph begins (Devarim 6:5-6): “You shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart.” The way to gain a feeling of love for Hashem is to shed all other attachments, and place the words of His Torah directly upon our hearts.

Haftaras Shabbos HaGadol

The haftarah for Shabbos HaGadol ends as follows (Malachi 3:23-24): “Behold, I send you Eliyahu HaNavi before the great and awesome day of Hashem. And he shall set the fathers’ hearts upon their sons, and the sons’ hearts upon their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with utter destruction.” The Maggid offers a novel interpretation of this passage.
He develops his idea with a parable. A man advised his son-in-law to do some trading in a nearby major city. The young man hesitated. “I don’t know how it works,” he said. “I’ve never done any trading before.” The father-in-law replied: “Just watch the other merchants and do as they do.” So the young man set out on the road. After traveling a moderate distance, he stopped at an inn, and he saw a group of merchants there enjoying a fancy meal. He therefore also ordered a fancy meal, and he continued this practice throughout his trip at every inn he visited. Finally he arrived at his destination, and found he had no money left, so went back home empty-handed. He told his father-in-law what happened, and got sharply scolded: “You fool! You should have realized that you were not in the same shoes as those merchants you met at the first inn. They had already finished their business, and were celebrating their success. But you were just starting out on your business trip. It was not time for you to celebrate.”
Similarly, when a person is in his early years, he should not spend his time reveling. Rather, he should live austerely, and focus on the business of acquiring Torah knowledge. As our Sages say (Avos 6:4): “This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, and sleep on the ground; live an austere life, and toil in the Torah. If you do so, then ‘you are fortunate, and it is well with you’ (Tehillim 128:2) – you will enjoy good fortune in this world, and it will be well with you in the World to Come.” If a person devotes his prime years to Torah and mitzvos, and gains control of his evil inclination, he can then allow himself, in his later years, to partake more liberally of the enjoyments of this world.
On the other hand, if a person squanders his early years mindlessly chasing worldly pleasures, in his later years he will regret it, and will scramble to salvage his life. He is compelled to devote his last years entirely to repentance and self-affliction, shunning worldly pleasures altogether.
Unfortunately most people follow the second course, spending their early years on rejoicing that they should have saved for old age, and spending their old age trying to cram in the spiritual work that they should have done in their early years. But when Elihayu HaNavi comes, he will turn the situation around. He will set the fathers’ hearts upon their sons – instilling in the hearts of young men a drive to toil in Torah and mitzvos. And he will set the sons’ hearts upon their fathers – enabling men in their old age to rejoice as young men do today.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayikra

This week’s parashah discusses various offerings. Among them are sin-offerings, enabling a person to atone for sin. The topic of sin-offerings raises a general question: How is it possible for us to atone for sin? If, in a fit of insanity, someone takes a club and smashes his front window, he is left with a shattered window. Later he may regret what he did, but, given the laws of nature, his regret will not put the window back together again. Similarly, when a person commits a sin, he damages his soul. How does repentance undo this damage?
In Ohel Yaakov, parashas Bereishis, the Maggid discusses this question, and turns to two verses in Tehillim for the answer. The first of these is from Tehillim 51, Dovid HaMelech’s prayer for forgiveness after his sin with Batsheva. Dovid entreats (Tehillim 51:12): “Create for me a pure heart, O God, and infuse me anew with a proper spirit.” Dovid knows, explains the Maggid, that his sin corrupted his soul, but he appeals to Hashem’s power to restore his soul to its original pristine state, as if created anew. In the second verse that the Maggid quotes, Dovid declares (ibid. 25:11): “For the sake of Your Name, Hashem, pardon my sin, for it is great.” Dovid asks Hashem to restore his soul for the sake of His Name, which identifies Him as the source of all existence. Hashem, as the creator of all things, has the power to recreate a person’s soul after it has been shattered by sin.
A similar idea is reflected in a verse in this week’s haftarah (Yeshayah 43:25): “I, it is I, who wipes away your rebellious acts, for My sake, and your sins I do not recall.” This verse, too, speaks of Hashem restoring us for His sake. In his commentary on the haftarah in Kochav MiYaakov, the Maggid notes how the end of this verse points to a further aspect of Hashem’s kindness toward us: After He finishes repairing us of the damage caused by sin, He “forgets” the entire episode, and does not shame us by reminding us of the sorry state we had been in.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayakhel-Pekudei

This week’s double parashah deals with the building of the Mishkan and the manufacture of the vessels and vestments associated with it. In concluding the account of this effort, the Torah relates (Shemos 39:43): “And Moshe saw the entire work, and, behold, they had done it [exactly] as Hashem had commanded – thus they had done. And Moshe blessed them.” The Midrash elaborates (Sifra, Shemini 15):
How did He bless them? He said: “May the Divine Presence settle upon the work of your hands.” … [As it is written (Tehillim 90:17, homiletically):] “May the sublimity of our Master, our God, come down upon us. May our handiwork establish this for us; may our handiwork establish it.”
In explaining this Midrash, the Maggid turns our attention to an earlier verse (Shemos 39:32): “All the work of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, was completed, and the Children of Israel had done all that Hashem commanded Moshe, so did they do.” The Maggid notes that the Torah could have said that “the Children of Israel had done all that Hashem commanded,” or that “the Children of Israel had done all that Moshe ordered.” Why did Torah use the specific phrasing that it did – “the Children of Israel had done all that Hashem commanded Moshe”?
The Maggid explains as follows. When Hashem discussed the Mishkan with Moshe, He did not just list its specifications – He also pointed out the deep spiritual secrets behind them. Afterward, though, when Moshe conveyed Hashem’s instructions to Betzalel and his team of artisans, he presented only the specifications. Betzalel and his team, however, discerned the deep secrets as well, and carried out the work with this knowledge in mind. The Torah is alluding to this point when it reports that “the Children of Israel did all that Hashem commanded Moshe.” Moshe himself recognized that the work had been done with knowledge of the deep secrets behind it, and thus the Torah testifies: “And Moses saw the entire work, and, behold, they had done it [exactly] as Hashem had commanded.”
Now, when Hashem told Moshe to build the Mishkan, the angels protested (Tanchuma, Terumah 9): “Master of the Universe! Why are You leaving behind the heavenly realm and descending to the earthly realm? ‘O Hashem, our Master! How mighty is Your Name throughout the world, You Who has set Your glory within the heavens!’ (Tehillim 8:2). This is what upholds Your honor: to abide in the heavens.” The angels, the Maggid explains, understood that the practical mitzvos associated with the Mishkan’s daily operation related only to man, and not to them. But they argued that it was still more fitting for the Mishkan to be situated in heaven, among them, on the grounds that they appreciated the deep secrets behind it, while man lacked the capacity to grasp them. However, Betzalel and his team neutralized this argument when they built the Mishkan with the spiritual secrets in mind. Moshe recognized that the Jewish People had won out over the angels, and he therefore blessed them: “May the sublimity of our Master, our God, come down upon us. May our handiwork establish this for us; may our handiwork establish it.” Moshe was saying: in the merit of the lofty spiritual level we attained through the handiwork of building the Mishkan, may we have the privilege of having the Divine Presence come down upon us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Sissa / Haftaras Parah

We present here a piece that relates both to this week’s Torah portion and to this week’s special haftarah, haftaras Parah.
The Torah portion relates the episode of the golden calf. The Kuzari (part I, par. 97) explains that the Jews did not set up the calf as an idol to worship instead of Hashem, but rather as a means of connecting with Hashem – a replacement for Moshe, whom they thought had died. Still, the making of the calf was a grievous sin, for it was a form of service that Hashem had not mandated, and it closely resembled idolatry. We can say that Jewish People meant well, but the evil inclination distorted their judgment. Thus, the Midrash comments (Shemos Rabbah 41:7, end):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “Now, when they have the evil inclination within them, they engage in idolatry, but in the end of days I will uproot the evil inclination from within them and give them a heart of flesh.” Thus it is written (Yechezkel 36:26, from the haftarah): “I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give them a heart of flesh.”
The Maggid asks: What is the scope of this spiritual repair?
The Maggid answers with an analogy to a doctor who is called in to restore someone to health. If the person is already dead when the doctor comes, then of course there is no hope. But if the person is still alive, though he may be gravely ill, he can yet be cured. Similarly, if a person is overtaken by the evil inclination and totally sunken in false ways, his heart cannot be restored. But if a person retains an element of true spirituality, Hashem will ultimately bring him to a state of spiritual vigor, free of the scourge of the evil inclination.
What is the key sign that a person is still spiritually alive? The sign is that, at some level, he realizes he is spiritually sick and seeks to be cured. A person who is totally enslaved by the evil inclination does not even seek release from it. On the contrary, he is brainwashed to the point where he enjoys being controlled by the evil inclination. Thus it was with the assembled throng that went along with the Jewish People in the wilderness (Bamidbar 11:3): the throng “craved a craving.” They welcomed the pull of desire; they even pined for it. The Jewish People, on the other hand, wished to be free of the evil inclination. This wish, the Maggid says, is the reason why the Jewish People accepted the Torah so readily, without worrying about how hard it would be to observe its laws. They knew that the Torah was the only ticket to freedom from the evil inclination, and they therefore grabbed it right away. If we cling to the Torah, and keep the evil inclination from overtaking us, in due time Hashem will uproot the evil inclination from us, and give us a heart of flesh.
David Zucker, Site Administrator