Post Archive for August 2010

Parashas Ki Savo

This week’s parashah begins with mitzvah of bringing first fruits (bikkurim). When a person brings the first fruits, he is supposed to recite a standard text, which the Torah presents, that recounts how Hashem delivered the Jewish People from Egypt and brought them to the Land of Israel. The text includes the following statement (Devarim 26:7): “And we cried out to Hashem, the God of our fathers, and Hashem heard our voice ….” The Maggid cites a comment in the Midrash stating that the phrase “our voice” refers to groaning and sighing (I was unable to locate the exact source), and he analyzes what this comment is meant to add.
The Maggid explains as follows. Consider a person who seeks something from the king. If he believes he is entitled to what he seeks, he will go through the standard channels, relying on the ministers to convey his claim to the king. But if he is hoping for a show of mercy, then he will want to approach the king himself. Crying before some minister would not serve his purpose; while the minister would duly convey the request, he would not cry on his behalf. Only if the petitioner appeared before the king personally would the king see him crying for help. The Midrash is telling us that Hashem did not deal with the Jewish People through any intermediary, but rather He listened directly to their voice, and heard their deparate groans and sighs.
In this vein, Daniel pleads (Daniel 9:18): “Incline Your ear, my God, and listen; open Your eyes and see our desolations … for not on account of our righteousness do we pour out our supplications before you, but on account of Your great mercy.” Since Daniel seeks a show of mercy, he asks Hashem to listen to his plea directly.
Similarly, Asaph, one of Korach’s sons, pleads (Tehillim 77:2-3): “I direct my voice to God as I cry out; I direct my voice to God, that He pay heed to me. On my day of distress I sought my Lord. My wound streams through the night without cease; my soul refuses to be consoled.” Again, we find a direct appeal to Hashem. In addition, we see how a person in distress keeps pleading without stop. A person who wishes to complain about some injustice will not necessarily push hard to get the matter resolved. But a person who is surrounded by enemies who seek to destroy him will cry out to Hashem right away, and he will not let up until he is saved.
A direct appeal to Hashem for mercy, out of a sense of distress, is the approach we take in the selichos prayers and during the ten days of repentence. Thus, we say in the selichos prayers: “Not on account of our piety not on account of our deeds have we come before You; like the bereft and the destitute we knock on Your door. We knock on Your door, O Merciful and Gracious One – please do not turn us away from Your presence empty-handed. From Your presence, our King, do not turn us away empty-handed, for You hear prayer.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Seitzei

One of the many topics in this week’s parashah is that of the wayward son – a youth whose deliquency creates a need to put him to death, before he ravages his soul completely. The lad’s parents are to take him to the town elders and declare (Devarim 21:20): “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not listen to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” The Maggid poses two questions. First, given the parents’ statement that their son is wayward and rebellious, what does it add to say that he does not listen? Second, given the statement that the lad is wayward, rebellious, and does not listen, what does it add to say that he is a glutton and a drunkard? After all, it is not for these specific misdeeds that the youth is to be put to death. What is the point, then, of mentioning them?
The Maggid answers as follows. Parents have two basic duties: to care for their child’s physical needs, and to promote their child’s spiritual growth through appropriate guidance and discipline. When a child depends on his parents for his physical needs, the parents can exert moral control – the child will not get his physical needs met unless he listens. He may occasionally disobey, but on the whole he must do as he is told. But when a child strikes out on his own, stealing to finance a life of gluttony and drinking, the parents have no hold over him. Thus, the Maggid explains, the parents’ declaration is to be understood as follows: “Our son will surely grow wayward and rebellious toward Hashem. For he does not listen to us, yet he has become a glutton and a drunkard. He manages on his own; we have lost our hold on him.”
The Maggid then uses this idea to shed light on the following passage (Yirmiyah 5:23-25):
This people has a wayward and rebellious heart; they turned aside and left. They did not say within their hearts, “Let us fear Hashem our God, Who provides rain … in its proper season ….“ Your inquities have brought this about, and your sins have kept bounty from you.
When Yirmiyahu says “your iniquities have brought this about,” what does the word “this” refer to? It apparently does not refer to Divine punishment, for the preceding verses do not mention any. Rather, the Maggid says, Yirmiyahu is referring to the people’s lack of fear of Hashem. If we reflect on this indifference to Hashem, we realize that it is a real enigma. We could perhaps understand that the people, out of sheer spiritual emptiness, might not be awed by Hashem’s greatness. But why do they not, at least, fear Hashem out of concern that He might withold rain and leave them without sustenance? The Maggid answers by saying that the people are trying to manage on their own power; instead of relying on Hashem to provide for them, they seek to meet their needs by stealing and other illicit means. They therefore refuse to submit to Hashem’s discipline. They have cut themselves off from Hashem.
The Torah states (Vayikra 25:17): “You shall not cheat one another, and you shall fear your God.” If we refrain from cheating others, we will instill the fear of Hashem in our hearts.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shoftim

This week’s parashah discusses the appointment of a king. In the times of Shmuel HaNavi, the elders of the Jewish People approached him and said (Shmuel Alef 8:5): “Appoint for us a king to judge us, like all the nations.” Shmuel consulted with Hashem about whether to do so, for he was concerned that the circumstances were not right. Hashem told him to do as the people asked, but to warn them first of the perogatives the king would have, to conscript soldiers and workers, and to levy taxes. Shmuel delivered the warning, implicitly suggesting that the people withdraw their request. The people at large (particularly the younger members) responded (Shmuel Alef 8:20): “No! There shall be a king over us, and we will be like the other nations; our king will judge us, and go forth before us, and fight our wars.” The Gemara remarks (Sanhedrin 20b) that the elders spoke appropriately, while the young people spoke inappropriately. The Maggid explains that both groups had the same general intent, but the elders expressed the matter more wisely.
The Maggid notes that a Jewish king serves two roles. One role is to promote Torah values and observance. The second is to lead the people in battle against their enemies. Now, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Shir HaShirim 6:3): “I am unto my Beloved and my Beloved is unto me.” The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim, part 3, ch. 51) explains this verse as teaching that the way Hashem relates to us is determined by the way we relate to Him. The Maggid draws a link between this principle and the concept of a Jewish king. When our fear of Hashem is weak, then we need a king to serve as an agent for promoting Hashem’s will, through both exhortation and a system of enforcement. In parallel, when we are faced with enemies, Hashem uses the king as a agent to wage war for us. When our fear of Hashem is strong, on the other hand, we do not need a king to prod us to keep the Torah, and, correspondingly, Hashem does not “need” to resort to a king to save us – He Himself steps in and saves us directly.
In Shmuel’s time, the Jewish People’s fear of Hashem was too weak for them to maintain their faith and observance without the aid of agent, and, accordingly, they were not worthy of having Hashem fight their battles for them directly, without resort to an agent. Thus, when the younger people asked for a king to serve as both a judge and a military leader, they in fact spoke correctly. Still, the way the elders framed the request for a king was more appropriate, for they focused on the primary issue: the need for a king to keep the people on the Torah path.
The Maggid goes on to say that, in the end of days, our hearts will be purified so thoroughly that our fear of Hashem will be firm, and we will no longer need a mortal king. Instead, Hashem will reign over us directly. He, Himself, will give us moral counsel and fight our battles. About this era it is written (Yeshayah 33:22): “For Hashem is our Judge; Hashem is our Lawgiver. Hashem is our King – He shall save us.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Re’eh

In this week’s parashah, the Torah teaches that animal (and other) offerings can be brought only in the Mishkan/Mikdash, but allows us to slaughter animals for mundane consumption. The Torah states (Devarim 12:20): “In full accord with your heart’s desire you may eat meat.” On the surface, this verse appears to allow us to feast on meat without restraint, which seems an odd position for the Torah to take. The Maggid, analyzing the verse more closely, shows that in fact its message is just the opposite.
The Maggid homes in on the phrase b’chol avas, which I rendered above as “in full accord.” Noting that the prefix on the word chol is a beis rather than a chaf, the Maggid says that the phrase should be read not as “to the full extent of your heart’s desire” but rather “whenever your heart desires.” The Torah is telling us, says the Maggid, that we should not make a habit of partaking of delicacies such as meat; rather, we should partake of such delicacies only when our hearts are struck with desire – that is, when we feel an unsually strong desire. If we limit our indulgence in delicacies, then the occasions when we do partake will bring us real enjoyment. But if we indulge all the time, then eventually the delicacies lose their charm. We take them for granted, viewing them as an essential part of normal, everyday life.
A person who seeks to satiate himself with material bounty is never satiated. Once he gets used to a given level of bounty, he begins chasing the next higher level. As our Sages put it (Koheles Rabbah 3:12): “No person leaves the world with [even] half his desires satisfied. If a person has one hundred, he wants to make it two hundred. And if a person has two hundred, he wants to make it four hundred.”
The Maggid elaborates on this cycle in Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar Ha-Ahavah, ch. 4. He links it to the following verse (Tehillim 101:5): “One with raised eyes and an expansive heart, him I cannot bear.” A person with an expansive drive raises his eyes, so to speak, to see what lies ahead on the road of material delight. As he looks ahead from where he currently stands, he feels that if he can reach the last station his eyes can see, he will have “made it.” But once he reaches that station, he finds it unimpressive, for he keeps looking ahead, and sees an even more dazzling station in the distance. If a person is driven to keep striding onward until he sees no better delights ahead, he is on a never-ending trek.
The Torah prescribes a balanced approach to material indulgence. Hashem knows that (except for the extremely pious) a regimen of strict asceticism is not appropriate for us. He therefore allows us to indulge occasionally, when we feel an unusually strong desire. At the same time, He warns us not to let the pursuit of material delight play an ongoing pivotal role in our everyday lives, for to do so is to strive in vain.
David Zucker, Site Administrator