Post Archive for October 2010

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Bereishis 24:1): “Now, Avraham was old, advanced in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” The Hebrew expression for “advanced in years,” ba bayamim, means literally “had come to days.” The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 59:6) remarks that Avraham had come to the days of which Shlomo HaMelech speaks in the following verse (Koheles 12:1): “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the bad days come, and the years arrive of which you will say, ‘I have no desire for them.’” In a previous post, we presented one of the Maggid’s commentaries on this teaching; here, we present another.
The days leading up to death are sometimes referred to as bad, and sometimes as good. In the verse from Koheles quoted above, they are referred to as bad. But elsewhere in Koheles, they are referred to as good (verse 7:1): “A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of birth.” And, regarding the Torah’s report that Hashem “saw all that He had done, and, behold, it was very good,” the Midrash teaches that death is included in what Hashem called “very good” (Bereishis Rabbah 9:5). How can death be both bad and good?
The Maggid explains as follows. Death has two effects: It causes a person to leave this world, and it enables a person to enter the world to come. These two effects are reflected in the different Hebrew terms for death. The term maves refers to leaving this world, while the terms geviyah and asifah refer to entering the world to come. A wicked person’s death is described using the term maves, for the only effect that occurs when a wicked person dies is that he leaves this world. His existence comes to a total end; he does not enter another realm of life. A righteous person’s death, on the other hand, is described using the terms geviyah and asifah, for the primary effect of his death is to bring him into the world to come.
Now, when a person sets out to attain something he desires, we say he is “going” to seek it, and when he actually attains it, we say he has “come upon it.” By contrast, when a person encounters something that he was not seeking and did not want, we say that “it came upon him.” The wicked, who are entranced by worldly pleasures, do not want death. Rather, death pursues them. Thus, in describing how Hashem views a wicked man, Dovid HaMelech declares (Tehillim 37:13): “The Lord laughs at him, for He sees that his day has come.” Similarly, when Dovid spoke of his wish that Hashem vanquish the wicked, he exclaimed (Tehillim 55:16): “May He incite death against them” – that is, cause death to pursue them. The righteous, on the other hand, look forward to death. They constantly await the day when they will leave this world and be able to behold more clearly the light of Hashem, the Living King. Hence, a righteous man’s death is described as “coming to days” – reaching a desired goal. Avraham’s death was described in these terms. Dovid HaMelech’s death was described in the same way (Melachim Alef 1:1, the opening verse of this week’s haftarah).
In a similar vein, it is written (Iyov 14:14): “If a man dies (yamus), will he live [anymore]? [But] I hope all the days of my life, until the time of my passing comes.” If a person’s death is in the form of maves, rather than geviyah or asifah, then he has no more life ahead of him. Iyov’s words can be read as making this point, and then speaking of those who are not in this category – to the man who looks forward, all the days of his physical life, to eternal spiritual life in the world to come.
In his last speech before his death, Dovid HaMelech declares (Divrei HaYamim Alef 29:15): “For our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope [of avoiding death].” The Midrash, discussing this verse in the context of Yaakov’s death, remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 96:2): “There is no one who hopes he will not die.” Although this remark seems to be just a minor rephrasing, there is in fact a deep message behind it. The simple meaning of the verse is that man desires to avoid death, but there is no hope of doing so. But, in fact, it is not true that all of mankind desires to avoid death. On the contrary, as we explained, the righteous look forward to death, for they view the world to come as their desired destination. Our Sages are saying that, among those who are true men, there is no one who wishes he will not die; all true men speak of death with expectant serenity.
Shlomo declares: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the bad days come, and the years arrive of which you will say, ‘I have no desire for them.’” Shlomo is telling us to focus so intently on drawing close to Hashem that we regard death not as a “bad day” that is coming toward us, but rather as a golden day that we yearn to reach.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah relates many events, one of which is the destruction of Sodom. Before destroying Sodom, Hashem told Avraham of His plans to do so. He said to Himself, so to speak (Bereishis 18:17-19): “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am going to do? But Avraham is firmly destined to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him. For it is known to Me regarding him – in order that he command his children and his household to follow him, that they observe Hashem’s way, to charity and justice, in order that Hashem may bring upon Avraham what He had spoken regarding him.” Here, we have translated the third verse according to Onkelos, who renders the phrase ki yedativ as for it is known to Me regarding him. Rashi finds this rendering problematic, noting that the verse does not flow smoothly this way – “for it is known to Me” does not seem to fit with “in order that.” Rashi therefore renders ki yedativ as for I have cherished him. The Maggid takes an alternative approach, explaining the passage in a way that makes Onkelos’s rendering very sensible.
If we think closely about the discussion between Hashem and Avraham about Sodom, a glaring question comes to mind: Why didn’t Avraham turn his attention to the men of Sodom beforehand and admonish them for their evil ways, in order to lead them to the proper path? We might argue that the men of Sodom would not have accepted his rebuke, but a Gemara passage in Shabbos 55a shows that this is no answer. The Gemara teaches that when a person sees someone acting improperly, he must admonish him, even if suspects that the offender will not accept the rebuke. Although Hashem may know for sure that the offender will not accept the rebuke, the observer cannot be certain. Thus, it would seem that Avraham ought to have been punished for not admonishing the men of Sodom. We suggest that Hashem’s statement “For it is known to Me …” is meant to show that Avraham in fact acted properly.
In Yevamos 65b, the Gemara teaches that just as it is a mitzvah to make a statement that will be listened to, so, too, it is a mitzvah not to make a statement that will not be listened to. R. Abba says that it is in fact an obligation not to do so, basing this ruling on a verse (Mishlei 9:8): “Do not rebuke the scorner, lest he come to hate you; rebuke the wise man, and he shall love you.” Now, why does do the Sages take such a strong position against making a statement that will not be listened to? And why did R. Abba quote the entire verse from Mishlei, when seemingly it would have been enough for him to quote just the first half? Furthermore, why did Shlomo HaMelech, the author of the verse, even have to tell us to “rebuke the wise man,” given that it is an explicit Torah mitzvah to rebuke our fellow men (Vayikra 19:17)?
We can answer these questions by explaining Shlomo’s statement as general advice about rebuke: To be effective in giving rebuke, and have wise men accept what you tell them, you must carefully refrain from rebuking scorners. If you rebuke scorners, they will ridicule you, and you will end up looking like a fool. Everyone will lose respect for you, and even people of wisdom will reject what you say. But if you are cautious in dispensing rebuke, you will respected, and people of wisdom will value your guidance and follow it. They will say to themselves: “Who can dare to ignore the words of this honorable man?” In short, Shlomo is saying that if you avoid rebuking scorners and making yourself a target of invective, then you will be able to rebuke the wise man effectively, and he will love you for your counsel. Thus, our Sages are quite on the mark in teaching that just as it is a mitzvah to make a statement that will be listened to, so, too, it is a mitzvah not to make a statement that will not be listened to. For the one depends on the other – only by refraining from making statements that will not be listened to will you be in a position to make statements that will be listened to.
We can now see clearly that Avraham acted properly in not offering the men of Sodom any rebuke. Had he had good reason to believe that they would hear him out respectfully, it would have been his duty to rebuke them, even if they were unlikely to accept his view. But the men of Sodom were scorners, and so, had he rebuked them, they would have ridiculed him, and his honor would have been destroyed. It was crucial for Avraham to preseve his honor, so that he would have a firm hand in keeping his children and household on the proper path. When Hashem said that “it is known to Me regarding him,” He was saying He knew that Avraham’s silence toward the men of Sodom was a carefully considered choice with a sound reason – “in order that he command his children and his household to follow him, that they observe Hashem’s way.” This point is emphasized by the fact that the verse, in expressing the notion of observing Hashem’s way, uses the past tense verb form v’shamru rather than the future tense form v’yishmeru. Because Avraham avoided rebuking the men of Sodom, he retained the level of honor necessary to guide the members of his household with a firm hand, and they therefore were constantly committed to observing Hashem’s way.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

At the beginning of this week’s parashah, Hashem tells Avraham (Bereishis 12:1-2): “Go you forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, to the land that I shall show you. And I shall make you into a great nation, and I shall bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” Rashi remarks that the added word you in the phrase “go you forth” was meant to indicate to Avraham that it was for his own benefit that he was being told to go. Now, this remark is understandable insofar as the added word you obviously needs to be explained. It is not clear, however, why Hashem would see a need to tell Avraham that the journey was for his own benefit. Surely Hashem did not have to cajole Avraham to go. Indeed, it is unthinkable that Avraham would resist doing anything Hashem told him to do.
The Maggid brings out Hashem’s purpose by analyzing another teaching. The Midrash says (Yalkut Shimoni I:62):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Avraham: “For your first test, and for your last test, I have chosen to present the test using the phrase “go you forth.” In the first test (our verse): “Go you forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house.” And in the last test (Bereishis 22:2): “Go you forth, to the land of Moriah.”
It appears that, by using the phrase “go you forth,” Hashem meant to make the test more challenging, so that Avraham’s success would be more glorious. The question is, how did the use of this phrase highten the challenge? On the surface, it would seem that letting Avraham know that his mission was designed for his benefit would actually lessen the challenge. What was Hashem trying to accomplish?
The Maggid answers this question as follows. A mitzvah has two elements: the mitzvah act itself, and the intent that goes along with it. Performing a mitzvah to perfection involves not only careful attention to all the relevant halachos, but also purity of thought – that is, carrying out the mitzvah act specifically and exclusively with the intent of serving Hashem and providing Him “nachas.” Now, with most mitzvos, even if a person did not have perfect intent, he still gets credit for a mitzvah, for, as the Zohar puts it, he carried out his Master’s command. Consider, for example, mitzvos such as putting on tzitzis and tefillin. Even though a person may perform these mitzvos with little thought, it is clear that his intent is to carry out a Divine command, since he has no other reason for doing these acts. It is all the more so with mitzvos such as giving charity and fasting on Yom Kippur, which are hard for people to do – when a person performs the mitzvah act, it is clear that he is doing so for the sake of the mitzvah.
With certain mitzvos, however, the situation is different. A prime example is the mitzvah of honoring Shabbos with delights. This mitzvah involves a worldly benefit in addition to the spiritual elevation, for partaking of delicacies gives a person physical pleasure. Hence, when a person eats his special Shabbos meal, it is not self-evident that he is doing so for the sake of the mitzvah of honoring Shabbos – it could be that he is doing so simply to enjoy good food. In the case of this mitzvah, therefore, the intent is critical.
Overall, the harder the mitzvah act is to do, the easier it is to do it with pure intent, and, conversely, the easier the mitzvah act is to do, the harder it is to do it with pure intent. Now, when Hashem told Avraham to leave his home to dwell in a foreign land, He was giving him something that is naturally very hard to do. Thus, had Hashem presented this instruction as a flat order, it would have been easy for Avraham to act with pure intent. Therefore, in His wisdom, Hashem told Avraham that the journey was for his own benefit, in order to heighten the test. Hashem elaborated on the matter, saying: “I shall make you into a great nation, and I shall bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” Rashi expands further, relating that Hashem told Avraham: “Here, you will not be privileged to have children, but there you will.” Hashem’s glorious description of the grandeur and fulfillment that Avraham would enjoy in his new land made it a great challenge indeed for him to undertake the journey with the sole intent of doing Hashem’s bidding. The Torah tells us, however, that Avraham went forth “as Hashem had told him.” In so stating, the Torah is testifying that Avraham met the challenge.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Noach

This week’s parashah describes how Hashem destroyed the world through a flood due to man’s wickedness, sparing only the righteous Noach and his family. Hashem tells Noach (Bereishis 6:13): “The end of flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become filled with villainy on their account, and I hereby am going to wipe them off the earth.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 31:4-5):
It is written (Iyov 35:9): “Among the multitude of victims, they raised a shriek; among the strong-armed legions of oppressors, they cried out.” Both the victims and the oppressors were screaming, for they were attacking each other. The oppressors attacked through robbery, while the victims attacked through abusive words. Ultimately their sentence was sealed – because they were mired in thievery, they were wiped off the earth.
“The end (keitz) of all flesh has come before Me.” The time had come for them to be cut down (l’hikatzeitz); the time had come for them to be destroyed; the indictment against them had come forth. Why were they treated so severely? “For the earth has become filled with villainy on their account.”
In regard to the first part of this Midrash, we can easily see, given the repetition in the verse from Iyov, what led our Sages to intepret the verse as saying that both the victims and the oppressors were screaming. Yet there remains a difficulty, for the Midrash seems to suggest that everyone, victims as well as oppressors, was equally culpable for their behavior. Moreover, the second part of the Midrash is puzzling. What led the Sages to interpret keitz as an allusion to l’hikatzeitz? And what indictment is the Midrash speaking about?
The Maggid answers as follows. The reasons behind the laws of interpersonal relations are generally very clear. Still, a person’s evil inclination can cloud his perception, leading him to wrong someone else without recognizing the evil nature of his act. But if he himself, at a later time, suffers the same wrong, he will see keenly how vile such conduct is. And if, shortly afterward, he commits this wrong again, his guilt is magnified sevenfold, for he has already thought intensely about this type of conduct and registered it as vile.
The Gemara teaches that, while the people of the generation of the flood committed many abominations, it was the sin of theft that sealed their fate (Sanhedrin 108a). Hashem told Noach: “The earth has become filled with villainy.” Theft was rampant – so much so that each person alternated between being a theft victim and a thief. The Midrash, in quoting the verse from Iyov, portrays this state of affairs. When the verse speaks of “multitudes of victims” and “legions of oppressors,” it is describing a situation of rampant oppression. Moreover, the verse indicates that the same people who raised a shriek were those who cried out – the victims turned around and oppressed those who had previously oppressed them. Thus, indeed, everyone was equally culpable. And when the Midrash speaks of the indictment against the generation of the flood, it means the indictment the people issued against themselves.
Thus, Hashem had no need to carry out any process of judgment to decide what sentence to mete out to them, for the people had already passed judgment on themselves. Hashem hinted to Noach that the outcome was inevitable when He said to him that “the end (keitz) of all flesh has come before Me.” As the Midrash says, the time had come for them to be cut down (l’hikatzeitz) – without any “deliberation.” The word keitz has the connotation of katzeh, meaning a limit. There was no need for any “deliberation” over the conduct of the generation of the flood, for the matter had reached the end of the line.
David Zucker, Site Administrator