Post Archive for July 2010

Parashas Eikev

This week’s parashah begins (Devarim 7:12-13): “And it shall come about as a result (eikev), if you heed these laws and take care to fulfill them, that Hashem your God shall safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. He shall love you, and bless you, and multiply you.” The word eikev also means “heel,” which is at the extreme end of the body. Thus, the Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 3:1):
Said the People of Israel to Hashem: “When will You give us reward for the mitzvos that we do?” Hashem replied: “Regarding the mitzvos that you do, it is [just] from their proceeds that you benefit now, but the reward for them I will give you [only] in the end (b’eikev).”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. The mitzvos that we do produce wondrous effects, particularly on our own souls. But, at present, we are unaware of these effects, for Hashem purposely hides them. If we knew what our mitzvos accomplish, our motivation in doing them would be to achieve these effects – that is, to serve our own interests – whereas Hashem wants our mitzvah observance to be motivated by respect for Him and fear of Him.
Thus, at present, we do mitzvos primarily out of simple obedience to Hashem, and Hashem compensates us for this obedience. The compensation we receive is what the Midrash calls the “proceeds” of the mitzvos. In the end, however, Hashem will reveal to us what we accomplished with our mitzvos, and it is this that constitutes our main reward.
The Maggid uses the concept of simple obedience to explain a perplexing Gemara about Avraham’s putting Yitzchak forward as an offering to Hashem. We know that Hashem meant only that Yitzchak be put forward, not actually sacrificed, but initially Avraham was unaware of this intent. The Gemara states (Sanhedrin 89b): “Said Hashem to Avraham: ‘Please stand up to this test, so that people will not say that the earlier ones were of no substance.’” Why would people say such a thing? And what was different about the test of the binding of Yitzchak, so that it would refute such an argument?
The Maggid explains as follows. Our Sages teach that Avraham kept all the Torah’s mitzvos even though the Torah had not yet been given; with his extraordinary wisdom, he discerned the beneficial effects produced by the actions embodied in the mitzvos. Similarly, the first nine of Avraham’s ten tests called for Avraham to perform actions he understood. Thus, regarding his mitzvah observance and his performance in the first nine tests, it could be claimed that Avraham had acted not out of a desire to serve Hashem, but rather because he knew that a good result would ensue. But the test of binding Yitzchak was of a completely different nature; Hashem was asking Avraham to do something that made absolutely no sense and appeared totally destructive. Thus, when Avraham did what Hashem asked, he clearly did so only because he felt obliged to obey Hashem. Avraham’s obedience on this occasion showed that his conduct in the previous nine tests was also motivated by a pure desire to serve Hashem. As the Torah states (Bereishis 22:12), Hashem thus had made it known that Avraham was truly a yirei Elokim – a man imbued with the fear of God.
May we aspire to emulate Avraham’s conduct, and, in this merit, be compensated for our obedience and receive our ultimate reward for what this obedience accomplishes.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeschanan

Parashas Vaeschanan reviews the Giving of the Torah. Hashem, our loving Creator, gave us the Torah as a guide to life. When we learn Torah, we must pay careful attention to what it says, even though there are some instructions that we feel we have heard many times before. We must take care to follow Hashem’s instructions exactly. Thus, earlier in the parashah, Moshe teaches (Devarim 4:2): “You must not add to the word that I have commanded you, and you must not subtract from it, to observe the commandments of Hashem your God, which I have commanded you.” The Maggid expounds on this injunction.
He explains that Hashem’s Torah is an intricate combination of many parts, like a precision watch. When assembling a precision watch, you must follow the design exactly. If you leave out a part, the watch will not work properly. And there is no advantage in being “generous” by making a part bigger than specified, or inserting extra parts. On the contrary, oversized parts or extra parts just interfere with the proper operation of the watch. The principle “more is better” applies well to a block of gold, but it does not apply at all to a precision watch.
Now, a person might think, far be it, that if he is generally observant, it is not so bad if he skips over a few mitzvos – Hashem will overlook the omission. Since there are so many mitzvos, it seems it shouldn’t matter if a few are left out. In regard this attitude, the Gemara teaches (Yerushalmi Shekalim, ch. 5): “One who says that the Holy One Blessed Be He foregoes matters, let his intestines be foregone.”
The Maggid explains the idea behind this teaching as follows. Consider a person who has many utensils. If some of them are spares, he is willing to forego holding on to them all, and lend a few to a neighbor. But if he has just one of every type for each member of his family, and they constantly use every type, he will not be openhanded. Even though he has many items, he will not forego a single one. Similarly, although the Torah has many mitzvos, Hashem is unwilling to forego a single one. Every mitzvah is essential. Hashem designed the Torah with various goals, and He built into it exactly one mitzvah to cover each goal. There are no “extra” mitzvos, and so it is no small matter if some are left out. A person who thinks otherwise is misguided. Let him reflect, our Sages say, on his own body. Let him imagine someone saying to him: “Listen, you have a few feet of intestines. I’d like to have some for a project I am working on. You can spare a couple of feet, can’t you?” Obviously this is ridiculous. If a person would forego a couple of feet of his intestines, his body’s functioning would be significantly impaired. In the same way, if Hashem would forego a few mitzvos, the Torah would no longer function as He designed it. We must follow the Torah to the letter.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Tishah B’Av

Tishah B’Av is the day when the two Batei Mikdash were destroyed, and so we set aside this day to mourn for them. The Rambam notes three other major tragedies that occurred on Tishah B’Av, making for a total of five major tragedies. The very first of these was the decree against the generation of the wilderness that they would not enter the Land of Israel. The scouts returned with a negative report, and the people cried. Hashem said (Sotah 35a): “You cried to Me for naught; I will designate for you a time of crying for all generations.”
The Maggid, in explaining Hashem’s words, identifies two types of crying. One is crying out of true distress, such as a destitute person who lacks food and proper clothing crying out to Hashem for help. The second is petulant crying, such as a rich person getting upset when he sees a neighbor overtake him in wealth, and crying to Hashem over not having received enough. Hashem welcomes the first type of crying and disdains the second. Thus, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 51:19): “The heart of a broken and downcast man, God will not despise.” It is the crying of a person who is truly downcast that Hashem does not despise. But the crying of a well-off person who gets rattled by something not to his liking, Hashem indeed despises.
The generation of the wilderness was eminently well-off. Hashem had granted them great blessing and glory. Hence, their crying was for naught – that is, it was the type of crying that does not merit any Divine reward. Therefore, Hashem designated for the Jewish People a time appropriate for crying, for all generations. He arranged that we would cry over the destruction of the Batei Mikdash – a crying for which we would earn great reward, as befits crying that comes forth out of true distress.
Hashem’s way of dealing with us can be compared to the way a rich man would deal with a son who has no interest in Torah study or business, but instead spends all his time strolling and singing. He would apprentice him to a chazzan, so that at least his talent for singing would be put to good use, rather than going for naught. Similarly, when we show a “talent” for crying, Hashem arranges for us to suffer calamity, so that this “talent” can be put to good use and yield us reward.
It follows from the Maggid’s words that a crucial step in escaping the cycle of calamity is to stamp out our tendency for crying and griping. Many people tend to get upset over minor mishaps; I must confess, with regret, that I suffer badly from this tendency, and must struggle hard to fight it. Each of us must fight this tendency, to whatever degree he or she suffers from it. In the merit of our efforts, may we be privileged to see the final redemption, when Hashem will put our suffering to an end.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Devarim

The Midrash in Eichah Rabbah Pesichasa 11 contrasts a verse in this week’s parashah with a verse in Megillas Eichah:
Had you merited, you would have encountered the verse: “And as you saw in the wilderness how Hashem your God carried you like a man carries his son, the whole way (kol ha-derech) that you traveled, until you came to this place” (Devarim 1:31). Now that you have not merited, you encounter the verse: “Not so with you, all you passers–by (ovrei derech) – [look and see whether there is suffering like the suffering that has befallen me] (Eichah 1:12).
The Maggid links this Midrash with a famous episode recorded in the Gemara (Kesuvos 66b). Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai saw the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion, a man who had been famous for his enormous wealth, gathering barley kernels from the excrement of the animals of lowly nomads. Upon witnessing this pitiful scene of abject poverty he declared: “Fortunate are you, O Israel! When you do Hashem’s will, no nation can have power over you. But when you do not do Hashem’s will, you are handed over to a lowly people – and not just to a lowly people, but to the animals of a lowly people.”
The Maggid cites a discussion of this Gemara in the Torah commentary Akeidas Yitzchak, by Rabbi Yitzchak Arama of Spain (1420-1494). Akeidas Yitzchak, Gate 84, points out that, in general, the more sophisticated a creation is, the more fragile it is. Thus, a plant is more fragile than a rock, a complex apparatus is more fragile than a simple one, and so on. When a highly sophisticated creation is marred, it becomes completely ruined. Now, the Jewish People, when they are in their proper state, represent the ultimate in sophistication. Hence, when they are marred, they suffer the ultimate in bad fortune, and become the world’s most degraded nation. Not only do the leading nations wield power over them, but also the lowliest of nations.
Thus, the outstanding prominence of the Jewish People has two facets. When Hashem exalts them, their majesty reaches heavenly heights. On the other hand, when He afflicts them,  their afflictions are without parallel anywhere in the world. These two facets have been manifested over the course of Jewish history. While we were in our land, we attained a level of majesty and splendor that was incalculably sublime and beyond all comparison. In the same way, in our current exile we suffer to an incalculably great extreme.
The Midrash reflects this pattern. In the days of the wilderness, Hashem showed us special favor: He carried us like a man carries his son the whole way that we traveled. Had we merited, we would have continued to receive such favor, and taken pride in our distinctive greatness. But now that we have not merited, the only distinction we can claim is our uniquely tragic level of degradation: “Look and see whether there is suffering like the suffering that has befallen me.” Indeed, no people has suffered as we have.
Let us strive to regain our glory. Let us plead: “Return us to You, Hashem, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mattos-Masei

Parashas Mattos recounts the Jewish People’s war of vengeance against Midian for leading them to sin. In commanding Moshe to initiate the war, Hashem told him (Bamidbar 31:1): “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites.” But when relaying the command to the Jewish People, Moshe told them (ibid. 31:3): “Arm men from among yourselves … to take vengeance for Hashem upon Midian.” This difference in phrasing raises the question of whose honor is being avenged, the Jewish People’s or Hashem’s. The Sages and classical commentators address this question from various angles. Here, we discuss one teaching on the topic, and present the Maggid’s perspective.
The Midrash relates (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:2):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “Is the vengeance not for the Jewish People’s sake? Surely it is. For the Midianites made it necessary for Me to bring the Jewish People harm [punishment for the sin].” Said Moshe: “Master of the Universe! If we were uncircumcised, or idolaters, or had repudiated Your commandments, they would not have hated us. They pursued us only because of the Torah and mitzvos that You gave us. So the vengeance is for Your sake.”
The Maggid analyzes this Midrash through a two-act parable. The first act takes place in a wine shop. A person enters the shop and asks for a certain number of bottles of an expensive wine. The merchant gathers the bottles and puts them on the counter. A moment later, a drunk wobbles up to the counter and, in his stupor, knocks all the bottles onto the floor, causing them to shatter. The merchant begins beating the drunk, but without saying whether he is doing so on his own behalf or on the customer’s behalf. The customer himself is unsure, and he debates with himself over whether the merchant is planning to bear the loss or cast the liability on him. In the end, he asks the merchant’s son to ask his father why he is beating the drunk. The lad asks the question, and the merchant exclaims: “Don’t you realize the great loss this scoundrel has caused this man?” The merchant’s answer makes it clear that he is holding the customer liable.
Similarly, Hashem had previously told Moshe, in Parashas Pinchas, to smite the Midianites. But He did not clearly indicate on whose behalf the war was going to be waged. An affont to the Torah had been committed; its precious wine had been spilled. Hashem had already exacted a certain amount of retribution from the Jewish People, in the form of a plague, in connection with this outrage. Would He bear the rest of the loss on His own, and absolve the Jewish People of further punishment, or would He make them pay the entire price? [Perhaps the Maggid is distinguishing between the sin itself and the results of the sin. In addition to the fact that the Jewish People’s conduct was inherently evil, a serious chillul Hashem also resulted. The people had paid for having done evil, but the account on the chillul Hashem had not yet been settled.] Initially, Moshe was unsure. Then Hashem told him: “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites.” Moshe then knew that Hashem was casting the entire liability on the Jewish People. He then put forward a counterargument, as the Midrash relates. What was his reasoning?
The Maggid answers with the second act of the parable. The wine merchant and the customer do not reach agreement about who should bear the loss, so they go to court. The judge asks: “Who brought the drunk into the store?” It comes out that the drunk was one of the merchant’s workers. The judge then rules: “The loss is on the merchant.” In this vein, Moshe asserts that Hashem, so to speak, is the One who caused the crass Midianites to enter the scene. They hated us only because we kept Hashem’s Torah. Hence, Moshe argues, Hashem should bear the burden of the damage they caused.