Post Archive for April 2010

Parashas Emor

This week’s parashah includes a review of the festival cycle. The Torah begins by discussing Shabbos, Pesach, the omer offering, the counting of the omer, and the offering of two loaves on the day after the 49-day count is completed. The Torah then introduces Shavuos, albeit not by name, saying (Vayikra 23:21): “And you shall call an assembly (u’krasem) on that very day – it shall be a holy assembly unto you.” The Maggid discusses the four verses in Tanach in which the word u’krasem appears:
1. Our verse – “And you shall call an assembly on that very day.”
2. Vayikra 25:10 – “And you shall proclaim freedom throughout the land” (the yovel year).
3. Malachim Alef 18:24 – “And you shall call upon the name of your God” (Eliyahu at Mt. Carmel).
4. Yirmiyah 29:12 – “And you shall call upon Me, and you shall go and pray to Me, and I shall listen to you.”
The Maggid interprets these four verses as teaching some lessons about prayer.
Our verse teaches that we need not wait for special times of favor to pray to Hashem. Whenever we are in distress or in need, we can call out to Hashem on that very day. The second verse teaches that Hashem will answer us when we call; He will save us, so that we may proclaim ourselves free from our suffering.
The third and fourth verses state conditions we must fulfill in order to merit such speedy salvation. The first condition is that we must “call upon the name of [our] God.” That is, when we pray for salvation, it should not be out of our own personal interests, but rather out of a desire to bring Hashem joy. The Gemara in Chagiggah 5b teaches that Hashem has a special private chamber called mistarim (hiding), where He cries over our suffering. We should bear Hashem’s pain, and ask Him to save us for His own sake. The second condition is that we must “go and pray.” That is, praying to Hashem should not be a causal activity that we engage in only when we happen to be moved to do so. Rather, it should be a deliberate activity; we should designate a set place and time to gather together and plead to Hashem for help. If we fufill these two conditions, Hashem will surely answer us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Acharei Mos – Kedoshim

The Torah states (Vayikra 19:4): “Do not turn to the idols” (al tifnu el ha-elilim). The Gemara in Shabbos 149a infers from this verse that it is forbidden to look at idols. The Gemara states: “Al tifnu el – midaatchem.” Rashi explains that midaatchem means “what emerges from your mind” – that is, we must not turn our attention to things we concoct in our own minds. The Maggid draws from the Gemara an additional fundamental lesson.
The Maggid builds on an analysis of two Hebrew terms for turning: lifnos and l’hatos. He explains that l’hatos puts emphasis on turning toward a specific concern, whereas lifnos puts emphasis on turning away from what one has been involved with. When Daniel prays for Hashem’s help, he says (Daniel 9:18): “Turn (hattei) Your ear, my God, and listen.” On the other hand, in reporting Moshe’s departure from Pharaoh’s palace, the Torah says (Shemos 10:6): “And he turned (vayifen) and went out from Pharaoh’s presence.” Similarly, in discussing Hashem’s promise “I shall turn (u’fanisi) toward you and make you fruitful” (Vayikra 26:10), the Midrash explains that Hashem is saying: “I shall turn Myself away from all My endeavors to pay your reward” (Sifra, cited by Rashi).  
This point of usage sheds light on a key prophecy (Devarim 31:29): “For I shall bring them to the land that I swore to their forefathers, which flows with milk and honey, but they shall eat, and be sated, and grow fat, and they shall turn (u’fanah) to other gods, and worship them; they will provoke Me and breach My covenant.” Hashem is warning us that if we turn ourselves away from Him, shifting our attention from Torah and mitzvos to other matters, we ultimately will descend to the lowest spiritual level and enter the horrid realm of idolatry.
The Torah exhorts us not to fall into this trap. “Do not turn to the idols,” the Torah says. Midaatchem – do not turn away from (mi) what you now have your minds on (daatchem). We must not shift our focus to worldly vanities, for the end will be disaster. Instead, we must keep ourselves constantly focused on Torah, mitzvos, and our relationship with Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Tazria-Metzora

This week’s double parashah deals with tzaraas, a skin disease that would come upon a person for engaging in loshon hara (evil speech) or comitting certain other offenses (Arachin 16a lists six others – murder, false swearing, immoral relations, haughtiness, theft, and stinginess). Below I present three teachings from the Maggid relating to tzaraas and loshon hara.
1. Tzaraas is a terrifying disease, but our Sages tell us that if we are worthy, we need not fear being stricken with it. The Midrash puts the point this way (Vayikra Rabbah 15:4): “It is like a distinguished lady who enters a king’s royal chamber and sees whips hung on the wall. She is terrified, but the king assures her: ‘Do not be afraid. These are for the servants and maids, but you will dine and rejoice.’ … Thus, it is written (Tehillim 32:10): ‘Many torments are directed at the wicked, but as for he who trusts in Hashem, kindness surrounds him.’”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. Everyone sins to some degree; even the most righteous person is not free of fault. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Koheles 7:20): “There is no righteous person in the world who does [only] good and does not sin.” Hence, everyone must face affliction on occasion, to guide him to the proper path when he strays. However, the afflictions that Hashem deploys range widely in their severity. Thus, the Gemara in Arachin 16b states that the term “affliction” applies even to such minor annoyances as trying to take three coins out of one’s pocket and coming up with only two.
For a wicked person, a gentle hint is not enough. Hashem must subject him to terrible afflictions, such as tzaraas, to wake him up and make him recognize the evil of his ways. But a righteous person, who puts his trust in Hashem and is constantly aware of how Hashem lovingly watches over him, does not need a beating when he sins to alert him of his lapse. Hashem can continue granting him kindnesses, and a minor annoyance is enough to prompt him to scrutinize his ways and make the necessary improvements.
2. Shlomo HaMelech exhorts (Koheles 5:5): “Do not let your mouth bring guilt on your flesh.” The Midrash, in Devarim Rabbah 6:10, teaches that this verse concerns people who speak loshon hara. The Maggid interprets this teaching as follows. The sin of loshon hara is very severe – on a par with lying, or perhaps even worse. Hence, when a person speaks loshon hara, he is broadcasting that he is, in an overall sense, a wanton sinner; he is issuing an indictment against his “flesh,” i.e., his entire being. Shlomo is telling us to avoid bringing guilt on ourselves in this manner, by taking great care not to commit the sin of evil speech.
3. The Midrash states (Bereishis Rabbah 79:1): “‘From the whip of the tongue you shall hide’ (Iyov 5:21). Said R. Acha: ‘An evil tongue is so grievous that the one who created it made along with it a place to hide.’” This Midrash is interpreted by the commentators in various ways; the Maggid offers a novel approach. He builds on the fact that the phasing in the verse is not mi’shoht but rather b’shoht (literally, “with the whip”). Wanton loshon hara is such a grievous sin, he explains, that the very act of speaking it proves that the speaker cannot be trusted. Thus, the lashing tongue, as it puts out its evil words, automatically creates along with them a “place” where the listener can hide from them, so that they make no impression on him at all.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemini

Near the end of this week’s parashah, the Torah describes the kosher and nonkosher animals, fish, and birds. The Gemara expands on this topic at the end of the third chapter of meseches Chullin. Two of the birds included in the list of nonkosher birds are the chasidah (stork) and the anafah (heron). The Gemara states that the chasidah is named after the fact that a chasidah shows kindness (chesed) by sharing its food with other chasidos. Similarly, they say, the anafah is named after the fact that an anafah quarrels (m’anefes) with other anafos. We see from this, the Maggid says, that each animal’s most prominent trait is reflected in its name.
The Maggid builds on this principle to explain the passage in the Torah about how Adam named the various creatures. The Torah says (Bereishis 2:19-20): “Now, Hashem, God, had formed from the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the sky, and He brought them to the man, to see what he would call each one – and whatever the man was going to call each living creature, that is its name. And the man gave names to all the domesticated animals, to the birds of the sky, and to all the wild animals of the field ….” The Maggid notes that we would expect the Torah to relate that Adam gave names to all the creatures, and then to say “whatever the man called each one, that is its name,” but instead the Torah reverses the order. Why does the Torah take this odd approach?
The Maggid explains as follows. The animal kingdom encompasses a wide variety of traits, both good and bad. Hashem, in His wisdom, systematically apportioned these traits among the various animal species. Since animals have no free will, each one acts wholly in accordance with its own innate traits; no animal ever adopts the behavior pattern of a different animal. Thus, as our Sages teach (Eruvin 100b), the cat specializes in modesty, the ant in avoidance of theft, and the dove in loyalty to its mate. Man, on the other hand, possesses the entire gamut of powers and traits, and Hashem granted him the free will to choose which to exercise in each situation. Since man encompasses all the traits of the all the animals, he is familiar with all these traits and understands how each should be named. We can now see why the Torah says that “whatever the man was going to call each living creature, that is its name.” The Torah is teaching that whatever name Adam would put forward was sure to be the right one.
The Maggid uses the same idea to explain the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 17:4 that states that the angels, unlike man, could not propose suitable names for the animals. The Maggid explains that the differentiation that prevails in the animal kingdom also prevails in the celestial realm. Each angel has a specific role: some specialize in dispensing compassion, others in dispensing retribution, and so on. Hashem apportioned powers and traits among the angels according to these roles. Each angel possesses its own distinct set of powers and traits, different from that of any other angel. Thus, our Sages teach that an angel can carry out only one mission (Bereishis Rabbah 50:2) – the reason is that it only has the tools for one role. Accordingly, none of the angels could name the animals, for each angel was familiar only with its own specific traits, and had no grasp of any others. Only Adam, who possessed all the traits, knew how to give each animal its proper name.
David Zucker, Site Administrator