Post Archive for September 2010

Parashas Bereishis

After describing what Hashem brought forth on the sixth and final day of creation, the Torah states (Bereishis 1:31): “And God saw all that He had done, and, behold, it was very good.” The Midrash teaches (Bereishis Rabbah 9:8):
R. Huna said: “‘Behold, it was very good’ signifies the Attribute of Benevolence. ‘And, behold, it was very good” signifies the Attribute of Affliction.” But can we really call the Attribute of Affliction very good? Yes, for through it man attains life in the world to come. Thus Shlomo declares (Mishlei 6:23): “The path to life is paved with chastisement.” Go forth and observe what path leads a person to life in the world to come – it is through the Attribute of Affliction.
The Midrash explains clearly why the Attribute of Affliction is good, but it does not explicitly indicate why this attribute is referred to as “very good.” The Maggid sets out to shed light on this point.
He begins by noting two other striking points about the Torah’s statement. The first is the word all in the phrase “and God saw all that He had done.” This word seems superfluous; it could have been written: “And God saw what He had done.” The second is the very presence of a verse stressing that what Hashem created is good. In truth, the world Hashem created is replete with manifest blessing: health, tranquility, wealth, honor, and so on. On the other hand, the world also includes some elements that appear to us to be bad. It is the existence of these elements that generated a need for our verse to be written; the Torah is teaching us that even they are good. Indeed, it is a great kindness on Hashem’s part that He introduced affliction into the world, for, had He not done so, man’s awe of Hashem would not reach the proper level. Our vulnerability to loss and suffering makes us more vigilant in obeying Hashem’s word, thereby solidifying our hold on the blessings Hashem grants us.
In referring to afflictions as “very good,” the Maggid says, the Midrash is not asserting that afflictions are good. Indeed, afflictions cannot justifiably be called “good,” for they actually are, in themselves, bad. Rather, the Midrash is conveying a different message. A simple analogy brings out the point. There are certain condiments that on their own are harsh or unpleasant; examples are salt, pepper, and horseradish. No one would eat these things by themselves. Rather, they are used to enhance other foods. A piece of meat or fish is good in itself, but, just as is, it is not very good. It is the added condiment that makes the food very good.
This is how it is with afflictions and other hazards. In themselves, they are unpleasant. But they enhance the good world that Hashem created, making it very good. For without them, as explained above, we would not have a firm hold on the blessings we receive. We can see a hint to this idea in the verse itself, if we read it closely. The verse says that Hashem viewed all that He had done as very good—the term used is “done” (asah) rather than “created” (bara). Now, the term “done” can be read as “produced.” We can thus intepret the verse as saying not that everything Hashem created is good in its own right, but rather that everything Hashem created – including afflictions – produces good.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Megillas Koheles

On Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos we read Megillas Koheles. This book aims to hammer into us a basic lesson: Worldly pursuits lack substance; only spiritual pursuits bring true satisfaction. The following selection from the Maggid’s commentary on Koheles brings out one aspect of this lesson.
Shlomo HaMelech writes (Koheles 2:2): “Of merriment, I said, “[It is] mingled,” and of joy, “What is this doing?” The Midrash expounds (Koheles Rabbah 2:2):
Of merriment, I said, “It is mingled.” Said R. Abba bar Kahana: “How mingled is the merriment the Gentiles engage in within their circuses and theaters!” And of joy, “What is this doing?” – “What would a Torah scholar be doing entering these places?”
The Maggid asks: In regard to avoiding Gentile entertainments, why does the Midrash single out Torah scholars from among all other Jews?
The Maggid explains as follows. Ultimately all forms of comedy and amusement are ephemeral and empty. Yet sometimes a person needs such entertainment. As our Sages say (Avos 4:3): “There is nothing that does not have its place.” The Rambam teaches, in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Deios, that a person should always strive for the middle path. Hence, if a person falls into sadness due to some untoward event, the necessary cure is to bring himself to a state of extreme joy through jokes. In this way, he will return to the middle path. This is the excuse for going to theaters and taverns: People go because they have become seized with sorrow, and they need some cheerful diversion to bring them relief.
Such a solution, however, is fitting only for simple people, who have no other way of relieving their sorrow. A Torah scholar is different. The holy Torah is Hashem’s source of joy, and it brings joy as well to the hearts of men. As Dovid HaMelech says (Tehillim 19:9): “The directives of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart.” Why, then, should a Torah scholar seek relief from sorrow elsewhere? This is what the Midrash is saying. Shlomo declares that merriment is a mixed pursuit. It is laudable on occasion, as a way of bringing joy to the melancholy. Hence circuses and theaters play a useful role. But a Torah scholar has no business entering these places, for he has a better way to relieve his sorrow.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Yom Kippur

The Torah concludes its account of the Yom Kippur service with the following words (Vaykira 16:34): “And this shall be unto you an eternal decree (chok olam), to bring atonement to the Children of Israel for all their sins, once a year.” The Maggid expounds on the description of Yom Kippur as a chok olam that operates “once a year.”
He quotes a statement of Dovid HaMelech that also uses the term chok (Tehillim 2:7-8): “I shall tell of Hashem’s decree (chok) – He said to me, ‘You are My son, this day I have begotten you. Ask of Me, and I shall grant you nations as an inheritance, and the ends of the earth as your estate.’” The Maggid explains this statement in terms of differing perspectives on the way Hashem dispenses blessing.
To the average observer, it makes sense when Hashem blesses a righteous person and baffling when He blesses a wicked person. But the recipients themselves hold a different view. A wicked person, with his warped outlook, considers himself righteous and thus feels he deserves the blessing he receives. A righteous person, on the other hand, in his humility, considers himself undeserving of blessing. He therefore regards the blessing Hashem grants him as a chok – a Divine decree which no man can understand. This was the attitude Dovid HaMelech took toward the greatness Hashem granted him, and he therefore spoke of it using the term chok.
A similar pattern is seen, the Maggid says, in regard to sin and atonement. When a wicked person sins, even very grieviously, he views the matter lightly. He feels he deserves only a minimal punishment. At the same time, he considers the strictures of Yom Kippur extremely onerous. He thus feels that, by observing Yom Kippur, he has more than paid the price for his misdeeds, and therefore most certainly deserves to be forgiven. A righteous person takes precisely the opposite attitude. He regards any sin he commits, even a slight lapse, as a major offense for which he deserves to be punished severely. He is prepared to accept – as just – any punishment Hashem might bring on him. Furthermore, he views the strictures of Yom Kippur as very modest. He is therefore amazed that Yom Kippur, a single day of mild affliction, purges the sins of an entire year. He would not believe it possible, had Hashem not laid it down in the Torah as a decree.
When a wicked person is in the process of committing a sin, his attitude toward sin and atonement can easily lead him to believe that he has nothing to fear – that Yom Kippur will erase the sin he is now committing. Our Sages teach, however, that when a person deliberately sins under the presumption that Yom Kippur will bring atonement for this sin, Yom Kippur will not bring atonement for it (Yoma 85b). The proper attitude to take during the course of the year, as a person goes about his affairs, is to focus on acting uprightly without even thinking about Yom Kippur’s power to wipe away sin – for this power is, in truth, beyond the natural order of the world. Yom Kippur’s power is granted to us by a special Divine decree which we are meant to rely on only once a year – on the day of Yom Kippur itself.
Gmar chasimah tovah!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Rosh Hashanah and Parashas Haazinu

The central theme of Rosh Hashanah is expressing our recognition of Hashem as Sovereign, and of His continual monitoring and supervision of the entire universe. A verse in parashas Haazinu reflects the same theme. The Torah states (Devarim 32:39): “See, now, that I, I, am He, and there is no power alongside Me: I put to death and I bring to life, I have struck down and I shall heal, and there is no rescuer from My hand.”
The Maggid ties this verse in with an episode related in the Gemara (Berachos 58a). R. Shila gave someone lashes for immoral conduct, and the offender reported R. Shila to the gentile government. The gentile overlord summoned R. Shila for an explanation, which he gave. While the overlord was considering how to treat the offender, R. Shila recited a verse (Divrei HaYamim Alef 29:11): “Yours, Hashem, is the greatness, the might, and the splendor, the triumph and the glory – indeed, all that is in heaven and earth; Yours, Hashem, is the kingdom, and You are supreme over all.” The official asked R. Shila what he meant, and R. Shila said he was giving a praise: “Blessed is the Merciful One who has made the earthly kingdom like the heavenly kingdom, has invested you with dominion, and made you lovers of justice.” The overlord thereupon handed R. Shila a staff and told him he could act as judge. Afterward, the offender threatened R. Shila’s life (see the Gemara for details), so R. Shila beat him with the staff and killed him.
The praise R. Shila expressed, the Maggid says, had a double meaning. On the surface, it was a praise of the government. On a deeper level, though, it was a praise of Hashem.
The Maggid explains as follows. The role of earthly rulers is to promote Hashem’s rulership on earth. In this vein, David HaMelech declares: “Your kingdom is a kingdom extending to all worlds, and your dominion abides throughout all generations.” Every kingdom that exists within the worlds of the universe is but a branch of the Kingdom of Heaven; these kingdoms are all just tools that Hashem uses to impose His dominion upon the universe. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 21:1): “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem – wherever He wishes, he directs it.” This principle is what R. Shila had in mind when he declared that the earthly kingdom is like the heavenly kingdom: Hashem arranges for the earthly kingdom to serve the goals of His heavenly kingdom. And, indeed, Hashem arranged that the gentile overlord would have a hand in bringing about the wicked offender’s death.
This is what the Torah means when it says: “I, I, am He.” Hashem is saying: “I rule within heaven, and I exercise dominion upon earth. Everything that takes place on earth is by My decree, and there is no circumventing My will – there is no rescuer from My hand.”
Yeshayah says in Hashem’s Name (verses 48:12-13): “Listen to Me, O Yaakov, and Yisrael, as he was called by Me: I am He – I am the first, and I am also the last. [Cf. Yeshayah 44:6, one of the malchuyos verses in the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amidah.] Furthermore, My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand measured out the heavens. I call to them, that they should stand together.” In the end of days, Hashem will make evident to all that no action of any man over the course of history contravened His will. The heaven and earth will stand together, in testimony that every event in both realms was part of Hashem’s master plan.
May we gain the merit soon to see this day, when – in the words of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah – “all beings infused with a living spirit shall declare: ‘Hashem, the God of Israel, is King, and His sovereignty rules over all.’”
K’sivah v’chasimah tovah l’chol b’nei Am Yisrael!  
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Nitzavim

Haftaras Nitzavim is the last of the seven haftaros of consolation following Tishah B’Av, the day of mourning over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. It speaks lyrically about the final redemption. One passage in the haftarah discusses how Hashem has set watchmen over Jerusalem. I present here the Maggid’s moving commentary on this passage.
Yeshayah 33:7 states: “Their herald screams out, and the emissaries of peace cry bitterly.” The Gemara in Chaggigah 5b interprets this verse homiletically as referring to how the angels cry over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and the Jewish People’s plight in exile. Other teachings also describe the angels’ crying. The Maggid raises a question about this crying. If Hashem grants requests of angels when they cry, then He should have redeemed us long ago. On the other hand, if He does not grant requests voiced by angels, then their crying seems to have no purpose. What does the angels’ crying actually accomplish?
In truth, the redemption will come only through our own crying and pleading. Thus Yirmiyahu declares (verse 31:8): “With weeping they shall come and with supplications I shall lead them.” When we pray, we show Hashem our submission to Him and our broken-heartedness over our plight. As we explained in last week’s piece, an intermediary cannot properly convey these feelings on our behalf. We must convey them ourselves.
What, then, is the role of the angels’ crying? The answer can be seen, the Maggid says, through a teaching of the Arizal. In Avos 6:2, our Sages say that each and every day a heavenly voice issues forth from Sinai and indicts us for our laxity in Torah study, proclaiming: “Woe to man on account of the disgrace of the Torah.” The Arizal says that the purpose of this proclamation is to jolt us into an awareness of what a grave sin it is to be lax in Torah study, and to spur us on to be more diligent. Similarly, the Maggid says, the angels’ crying over our plight is directed not toward Hashem, but toward us. Their crying is meant to prod us to keep crying until we are redeemed.
Thus, in this week’s haftarah, it is written (Yeshayah 62:6-7): “Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen on vigil continually all day and all night – they shall not quiet. Do not fall silent, you who raise remembrance before Hashem. Give Him no peace until He establishes Jerusalem and makes her praised within the world.” The angels are the watchmen. Their crying serves as a constant vigil, to ensure that we do not fall silent – that we give Hashem no peace until He redeems us and restores Jerusalem to its former glory.
The Gemara in Chaggigah 5b relates further that Hashem Himself also cries over our plight, and we can understand His crying to have the same purpose as that of the angels. directed toward us. Thus, it is written (Yirmiyah 25:5): “Hashem roars from above.” The word “from” indicates that Hashem’s voice is directed toward us – to stir us to turn to Him with a plea for redemption.
The Gemara in Yoma 86b states: “Great is repentance, for on account of a single person who repents, the entire world is forgiven.” On the surface, this teaching is bewildering. But we can understand it, the Maggid says, in terms of the idea presented above. The angels are always ready to cry over our plight, but the initiative above must be must be triggered by some initiative from below. The repentance of a single person, though, is enough to set the process in motion. As this lone repenant fervently seeks to draw close to Hashem, and cries over the dishonor Hashem bears and the degradation His people suffer, the angels are prompted to start crying. If the rest of us are paying attention, we will detect their cries, and we ourselves will be led to plead with Hashem to forgive us and redeem us. And if we persist, we will indeed be forgiven and redeemed.
L’ilui nishmas Yitzchak Dov Ber ben Yosef, my dear uncle Irwin Zucker, who passed away on the 16th of Elul.
David Zucker, Site Administrator