Post Archive for November 2010

Chanukah

The Rambam describes the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah menorah as “a very precious mitzvah” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Megillah V’Chanukah 4:12). Our love of this mitzvah reflects our love of Torah, which the menorah symbolizes.
In regard to Torah study, the Gemara declares (Megillah 6b): “If a person tells you, ‘I toiled and I found,’ you can believe him.” The Maggid, in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 8:7, discusses this teaching. He notes that the statement “I toiled and I found” seems at odds with itself. To say that one toiled for something means that he exerted great effort to get hold of it, while to say that one found something typically means that he got hold of it with little effort. It would appear more fitting to say “I toiled and I attained” or “I toiled and I acquired.” Why, the Maggid asks, does the Gemara instead choose the paradoxical expression “I toiled and I found”?
The Maggid answers as follows. In truth, the acquisition of wisdom is a gift from Hashem: The mortal mind does not have the capacity to acquire any measure of wisdom without Hashem’s aid. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 2:6): “For Hashem grants wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” And to whom does Hashem grant wisdom? To a person who loves the Torah with all his heart and values wisdom more than all material things – even the most precious. When a person casts aside all worldly pleasures, and strives with diligence and exertion to attain wisdom, this shows how dear wisdom is to him. When Hashem sees this, His compassion is stirred, and He grants the person the measure of wisdom that befits his effort.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. A man loses a precious item. He goes to search for it in the place where he thinks it fell. He rummages through the dirt and the garbage heaps, straining to the point of sweating, but fails to find the item. A friend sees how hard he is straining and how pained he is, and realizes why. The friend then kindly calls out to him: “I know what you are looking for. Come with me, and I will show you where it is.” The man goes along with his friend to the place where the item is, and picks it up easily. Here, we can truly say that the man found the item—he found it where it was lying and took it with no effort at all. At the same time, the effort that he previously exerted elsewhere is what led him to make this find. Were it not for his exertion and suffering, his friend would never have thought to show him where the item was.
It is precisely the same with the acquisition of Torah wisdom. The process begins with diligent exertion in Torah study – even staying up into the night to plumb the Torah’s depths. Afterward, Hashem compassionately brings down an outpouring of Torah wisdom, which can then be found easily. It is like a prophecy, which comes upon the prophet suddenly, without any exertion. This is the meaning of the Gemara’s expression “I toiled and I found.” The toil is the underlying causal factor – the key preparatory step – in the process of attaining Torah wisdom. Once a person toils for Torah wisdom, Hashem leads him to find it.
I believe this lesson from the Maggid is particularly apt for Chanukah. As is reflected in the Al HaNissim prayer, the main goal of the Yevanim was to make us forget the Torah, and adopt their way of life. They issued onerous decrees to achieve this goal. The Chashmonaim and their followers zealously went to war to fight these decrees, and Hashem granted them a miraculous victory. On Chanukah, we recall this struggle through the Al HaNissim prayer, and we light the menorah, which represents the light of Torah. Overall, the key theme of Chanukah is love for and zealous devotion to Torah. The study of Torah is our lifeblood. We should cherish the Torah and toil over its words. If we do, Hashem will lead us to find the wisdom it holds.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeishev

In the second half of this week’s parashah, the Torah relates Yosef’s experiences in Egypt. In particular, it discusses how Potifar’s wife tried to seduce him, and describes his struggle against this challenge. The Torah states (Bereishis 29:10): “And so it was, as she spoke to Yosef day after day, that he did not listen to her, to lie beside her, to be with her.” The Torah then continues (ibid. 29:11): “And it came to pass, on a certain day, that he came into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the household was there in the house.” In Bereishis Rabbah 87:7, the Midrash presents an opinion interpreting the phrase “to do his work” as indicating that Yosef went into the house with the thought of consorting with Potifar’s wife – he was on the verge of succumbing to the temptation. At that moment, Hashem showed him a vision of his father Yaakov’s likeness. This vision cooled Yosef’s passion, and he held back from sinning.
The Maggid links this episode to the Gemara in Sukkah 52a, which teaches that a person’s evil inclination grows stronger every day, and that a person would be unable to overcome it without Divine help. He notes that the second part of this Gemara seems to be at odds with the Gemara in Berachos 33b, which says that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” The Gemara in Berachos 33b indicates that a person is expected to cope with his evil inclination without help from heaven, while the Gemara in Sukkah 52a indicates that a person cannot overcome his evil inclination without such help.
The Maggid resolves the conflict though an analogy to a sage teaching an earnest disciple. It is the way of a teacher to challenge his student. He gives him a series of written lessons to learn, each harder than the next, to gradually build up his understanding. Periodically, he decides to push the student up to a completely new level. He then gives the student a lesson that is beyond his reach, lets him struggle with it until he reaches the limit of his capabilities, and then steps in and helps him overcome the hurdle.
Similarly, Hashem augments a person’s evil inclination every day, presenting him with a new challenge. Usually these challenges are within a person’s capacity to handle, so Hashem does not extend any special help. Instead, He leaves the person to grapple with the challenge on his own, in accord with the principle that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” A righteous person musters all his strength to meet these challenges, and usually he prevails. But, on certain occasions, Hashem decides to push a person up to a completely new spiritual level. He then gives him a challenge that is beyond his reach, and lets him struggle with it. When He sees that the person is doing his utmost to meet the challenge, He steps in and extends special help – a person who strives to purify himself receives Divine aid (ba litaher, m’sayyin oso, Yoma 38b).
This is how it was with Yosef in his struggle against the advances of Potifar’s wife. Day after day she coaxed him, and, as she pressed him more and more, he fortified himself more and more. Initially, he simply avoided spending time with her; as she stepped up her advances, he avoided even looking at her. But eventually Hashem made the temptation so strong that it was beyond Yosef’s capacity to withstand it. Yosef fought with all his might, but he was on the verge of succumbing. Hashem saw that Yosef, in his righteousness, had done his utmost. He therefore stepped in and extended special help; He showed Yosef the vision of Yaakov’s likeness, thereby enabling him to overcome the temptation and prevail.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

Part I
After recording Yaakov’s meeting with Eisav, the Torah states: “And Yaakov came to Shaleim.” The Midrash interprets this statement as indicating that Yaakov emerged whole (shaleim) after his encounters with his enemies. The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 79:2):
And Yaakov came to Shaleim. “A Song of Ascents. ‘Greatly have they distressed me since my youth,’ let Yisrael now declare” (Tehillim 129:1) [with the Midrash interpreting “Yisrael” as referring to Yaakov/Yisrael personally, rather than to the Jewish People in general]. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to him: “And have they subdued you?” He said back to Him (ibid. 129:2): “Greatly have they distressed me since my youth, and also they have not subdued me.” And Yaakov came to Shaleim. “Many troubles befall a righteous one” (Tehillim 34:20) – this refers to Eisav and his chieftains, and the righteous one is Yaakov. “And from all of them, Hashem rescues him” (ibid. 34:20, end). And Yaakov came to Shaleim. “Hashem will guard your goings and comings, from now until eternity” (Tehillim 121:8). “Your comings – and Yaakov came to Shaleim.
The Maggid analyzes this Midrash by considering the verse in Tehillim 129 that follows those that the Midrash quotes: “Upon my back, plowers plowed; they extended their furrow.” The Maggid explains as follows. Hashem deliberately cast troubles upon our forefathers, leading them to pray for help and gain a wondrous deliverance, so that the forces of deliverance that He brought into the world for them would be available to benefit their descendants. In particular, Hashem “plowed” Yaakov to make him yield forth such forces of deliverance.
The Maggid brings out the point further with an analogy. Suppose a doctor abducts a person who is healthy and strong, torments him until he is bedridden, and then, exerting great effort, brings him back to full health. Does the person owe the doctor anything for healing him? Of course not, we would say. But now, let us add some more details to the story. The doctor, on first seeing the person on the street, noted through his great expertise that the person was suffering from a serious hidden ailment that would fester within him for years before finally breaking out into the open. The doctor realized that when the disease ultimately broke out, the person would be too old and weak to withstand the treatment needed to cure him. So he deliberately tormented the person to make the disease to break out early, when the person was still young, so that the medications he would give him, along with the person’s own robust bodily defenses, would produce a cure. We now would say that the person owes the doctor a double thanks: not only for the cure, but also for the torments.
Similarly, had Hashem left our forefathers in peace, refraining from action until we Jews naturally entered into a situation of distress, it would have been very hard for us to gain deliverance, due to our weak spiritual level. Hashem therefore deliberately brought the distress early and directed it at our forefathers, who were spiritually strong enough to withstand the “treatment” He would administer to bring forth the forces of deliverance. Once these forces were generated, they would, as explained above, benefit us for all generations.
This process is reflected in the verses from Tehillim 129. Yaakov declares: “Greatly have they distressed me since my youth.” Yaakov was singing praise to Hashem for hastening the distress and directing it at him; he understood that Hashem had chosen him to bear the distress because he had great spiritual vigor, like the physical vigor of a youth. The Midrash makes it clear that Yaakov was indeed praising Hashem for the distress as well as the deliverance. It reports that after Hashem asked Yaakov whether the distress had subdued him, Yaakov replied: “Greatly have they distressed me since my youth, and also they have not subdued me.” Had Yaakov sought to thank Hashem only for the deliverance, he would have replied simply: “They have not subdued me.” The fact that Yaakov mentioned the distress a second time indicates that he was praising Hashem for the distress as well. Yaakov then continues, as we noted earlier: “Upon my back, plowers plowed; they extended their furrow.” Here Yaakov is expressing his understanding that Hashem cast distress upon him for the benefit of his descendants, and he is thus proclaiming to the world the reason for his double praise. The Midrash concludes with a summary of the process: By saving Yaakov from Eisav and his chieftains, Hashem brought the Jewish People deliverance for all eternity.
Part II
In describing how Yaakov sent gifts to Eisav before his meeting with him, the Torah states (Bereishis 32:14): “He took, from what came into his hand, an offering of tribute to his brother Eisav.” What is the point behind the phrase “from what came into his hand”? The Midrash presents various interpretations, which Rashi mentions. The Maggid offers an explanation at a simple level.
The Maggid draws an analogy to the mitzvah of tithing flocks. In Vaykira 27:32-33, the Torah says that the herdsman is not supposed to select on his own which animals will be sanctified, but instead is supposed to make the animals pass under his staff, and designate every tenth one as sanctified. The Gemara elaborates on the procedure, teaching that the herdsman is to place the flock in a corral with a narrow opening, let the animals through one by one, and tap every tenth one with a paint-daubed stick to mark it as sanctified (Bechoros 58b). What is the reason for this specific method? Why can’t the herdsman select the required number of animals however he wishes, based on the size of his flock, and designate the selected animals as sanctified?
The reason is that Hashem did not want to put into the hands of the herdsman himself, with his limited human understanding, the momentous decision of which animals would be invested with the sanctity of a tithe. With voluntary offerings (nedarim and nedavos), the initiative to bring the offering comes from the herdsman, so Hashem allows him to choose which animal to bring. But the tithe is an offering that Hashem demands, and so He insists on a process that puts in His hands the choice of which animals will be brought.
Similarly, when Yaakov was preparing the gifts for Eisav, he faced the issue of which animals would be removed from his holy sphere of influence and placed in the possession of his despicable brother. He knew he could not make this momentous choice himself. So he set up an automatic selection system of some sort, along the lines of that used for tithing, and whatever animals came into his hand through this system were the ones he gave to Eisav.
L’Refuas Kalonymus Kalman ben Sorah Rivka, who is undergoing surgery this week
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

This week’s parashah begins with Yaakov’s meeting with Hashem before he left for Charan. The Torah presents Yaakov’s prayer for Hashem’s support, along with Hashem’s response. Yaakov prays for Hashem to be with him, to guard him on his way, to provide him bread to eat and clothes to wear, to return him home safely, and to be a God unto him. Hashem responds (Bereishis 28:15): “Behold, I am with you, I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land – for I will not abandon you until I have done what I have spoken regarding you.” (This verse actually appears in the Torah before the verses presenting Yaakov’s request, but Bereishis Rabbah 70:4 presents an opinion stating that the prayer and the response were recorded in reverse order.)
In Bereishis Rabbah 69:6, the Midrash reports the general opinion of the Sages that Hashem granted Yaakov all his requests except for the request for sustenance (i.e., bread and clothing), and describes how the words in Hashem’s response parallel each of Yaakov’s other requests. The Midrash then reports the dissenting opinion of R. Issi, who says that Hashem granted Yaakov’s request for sustenance as well. R. Issi cites Hashem’s promise “I will not abandon you,” and interprets this promise as relating to sustenance, as it is written (Tehillim 37:25): “I was a youth, and I also have aged, and I have not seen a righteous man abandoned, and his descendants begging for bread.” The Maggid sets out to answer two questions. If Hashem did not grant Yaakov’s request for sustenance, why not? And if He did grant the request, why did He not say explicitly “I will provide you bread and clothing”?
The Maggid analyzes the Midrash as follows. Hashem employs two methods of providing a person sustenance. The first method is through direct support, by miraculous means, as if the person were a child sitting at his father’s table. The second method is through an endowment, whereby the person receives the means to procure his support “on his own” through natural effort. Initially, Avraham was supported through miraculous means. Later, in his old age, Hashem blessed him with “everything,” handing over to him the mechanism for generating blessing through natural effort, and enabling him, so to speak, to procure his sustenance on his own. Avraham passed this mechanism on to Yitzchak, and Yitzchak passed it on to Yaakov. But when Yaakov had to flee to Charan to escape Eisav, it was no longer appropriate for him to be “on his own” – rather, he would be under Hashem’s direct support, as Avraham had been previously. Thus, just before Yaakov departed, Yitzchak blessed him: “May He grant you the blessing of Avraham” – the blessing of direct Divine support. The Midrash reports that Rivkah gave Yaakov a similar blessing, and that Hashem bolstered it (Bereishis Rabbah 75:8):
His mother Rivkah also gave him a parallel blessing. … Thus she said to him (Tehillim 91:11): “He will charge his angels over you, to protect you in all your ways.” When she blessed him with these words, a Divine spirit continued (ibid. 91:15): “He will call upon Me and I will answer him. I am with him in distress. I will release him and bring him honor.”
To clarify and complete his analysis, the Maggid presents a simple parable, which explains both views in the Midrash in a single stroke. A man was sending his son on a trip to a distant town. He prepared for his son all the things he would need during the trip: clothes, utensils, and so on. He also set aside a pouch of money to give his son, to cover his travel expenses. Suddenly, he found out that the road his son would be taking was riddled with bandits. So he decided to go along with his son himself, to protect him from the threats looming on the road. As the two of them got into the wagon, the son asked his father: “Where is the pouch of money you set aside for me? You should give it to me, so I’ll be able to pay all my expenses during this trip.” The father replied: “Now that I am going along with you, you don’t need any money for your expenses anymore. Whenever any expense comes up during the trip, you can just ask me to cover it, and I’ll give you the money on the spot.”
Similarly, when Yaakov fled to Charan, Hashem decided to “go along” with him, to protect him from the threats that the trip would pose. Hence, it was fitting for Yaakov to be supported directly by Hashem, rather than “supporting himself” through a Divine endowment. Rivkah’s blessing to Yaakov, “He will charge his angels over you, to protect you in all your ways,” was meant to activate this direct Divine support. Hashem concurred, saying: “He will call upon Me and I will answer him. I am with him in distress. I will release him and bring him honor.” Therefore there was no need for Hashem to give Yaakov any endowment. Rather, whenever Yaakov had a need, he could just call upon Hashem, and Hashem would answer him – for Hashem would be right with him all time. Thus Hashem promised him: “Behold, I am with you, I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land – for I will not abandon you until I have done what I have spoken regarding you.”
We can now explain the position of the Sages who asserted that Hashem did not grant Yaakov’s request for sustenance, by saying that there was no need to do so, since Hashem would now be caring for Yaakov directly. Similarly, taking R. Issi’s view, we can say that Hashem’s promise to keep Yaakov under His constant watch in itself included a promise to provide him sustenance, so that the request was indeed granted. Either way we look at it, the bottom line is that Hashem certainly made sure that all Yaakov’s needs were met.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

In this week’s parashah, Yitzchak gives Yaakov the following blessing (Bereishis 27:28): “And may God (Elokim) give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fatness of the earth, and abundant grain and wine.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 63:3): “‘May God give you’—this refers to blessings. ‘And may God give you’—this refers to the means of preserving them (k’vishan).” The Midrash then presents a homiletical rendering of the opening phrase of this blessing: “And may He [God] grant you Elokusa.” Finally, the Midrash analyzes the rest of the blessing, presenting three sets of parallels. We focus here on the second set, which runs as follows: dew refers to Zion (Tehillim 133:3), the fatness of the earth refers to korbanos (Tehillim 66:15), grain refers to first fruits, and wine refers to libations.
The Maggid begins his explanation of this Midrash with a parable. Once there was a very wealthy man who owned many fields and businesses. He had several sons. When he neared the end of his life, he pondered how he would dispose of his assets. He decided he would give all his assets to one of his sons, who would be responsible for managing the fields and the businesses and for supporting his brothers from the profits. He called in his sons, told them the plan, and asked which of them wanted to be the one to manage the assets. Most of them backed away from the lead role; they were afraid to take on such a heavy responsibility, and preferred to be among those who would be supported by the lead brother. But one son, who was wiser than the others, agreed to accept the role. Afterward, his friends asked him why he took on this heavy burden. He explained: “I will benefit from this role in two ways. First, I will have available to me all the tools needed for every possible type of work. Second, my father will teach me how to use all these tools, and also how to do business, and I will thus acquire a priceless treasure of wisdom.”
The Maggid then presents the parallel. It is written (Mishlei 4:2): “For I have given you good counsel (lekach, literally acquisition) – Do not forsake My Torah.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 33:1):
Do not abandon the possession that I gave you. Sometimes a person purchases an item which has gold but not silver. And sometimes a person purchases an item that has silver but not gold. But the possession that I have given you has silver … and it has gold …. Sometimes a person buys a tract that has fields but not vineyards. And sometimes a person buys a tract that has vineyards but not fields. But this possession has both fields and vineyards.
This Midrash is teaching that Torah and mitzvos constitute the source of all blessing in the world, and that one who acquires the Torah automatically acquires all other blessings. When we came forward and said “we shall do and we shall listen,” Hashem gave us this priceless treasure as our special possession.
He then brought us to the Land of Israel, the place most suited to Torah and mitzvos. And He set aside a special place to serve as the fount of Torah. This place is Zion, as it is written (Yeshayah 2:3): “For from Zion shall go forth Torah.” In this special place, Zion, He set up His sanctuary, the Beis HaMikdash – which, as our Sages teach, is aligned with His celestial sanctuary (Tanchuma, Vayakhel 7). In the Beis HaMikdash, the table was set with special showbread, the holy menorah was lit, and korbanos and ketores were brought each day. These acts of service were designed to channel blessing from heaven to earth. Further, Hashem chose the kohanim, the pride of the Jewish People – saintly men of pure heart – as the ministers in charge of the Temple service. Hashem thus set up an exquisitely organized system for channeling His bounty to us, and then from us to the rest of the world.
At Sinai, Hashem informed us of our special role, declaring (Shemos 19:5-6): “You shall be unto Me a special treasure among all the nations, for the whole Earth is Mine. And you shall be unto Me as a kingdom of ministers (mamleches kohanim)and a holy nation.” Just as the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, serve as ministers on our behalf, conveying Hashem’s bounty to us, so, too, we as a nation serve as ministers on behalf of the world at large, conveying Hashem’s bounty to all mankind.
Dovid HaMelech writes (Tehillim 147:12-19):
Praise Hashem, O Jerusalem; laud your God, O Zion. For He has strengthened the bars of your gates; He has blessed your children in your midst. It is He Who establishes peace within your borders; He sates you with the cream of the wheat. … He relates His word to Yaakov, His edicts and statutes to Yisrael.
This passage describes how Hashem appointed us the bearers of the Torah, a position which places upon us the duty to bring to light the Torah’s wisdom and involve ourselves in the Temple service [ideally through actual performance, and now, for the time being, through studying the relevant laws]. By carrying out this duty, we bring the world the Divine bounty it needs to continue in existence.
In the same vein, Dovid HaMelech writes elsewhere (Tehillim 111:5-6):
He has provided sustenance to those who fear Him; He remembers His covenant for the sake of the entire world. The power of His deeds He related to His people, to give them the estate of the nations.
This passage portrays the system we described above. Hashem provides sustenance to those who fear Him – to the Jewish People, who are dedicated to serving Him. Through this special nation, He conveys His bounty to the entire world, in fulfillment of His covenant to mankind. He has related to the Jewish People the power behind His deeds – the Torah, the tool of His craft (kli umanuso, cf. Bereishis Rabbah 1:1), which He uses in carrying out everything He does. He has given us the estate of the nations, the Land of Israel, the place most suited to Torah and mitzvos. He has thus put us in a position where we can generate the maximum blessing, for the benefit of all mankind.
The Jewish People’s special role, as described above, is the key reason why Hashem arranged for Yaakov to receive the blessing that Yitzchak had been poised to give: “And may God give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fatness of the earth, and abundant grain and wine.” It was not solely, or even primarily, for his own benefit that Yaakov was given this blessing. Rather, Hashem directed the blessing to Yaakov because He wished to put him in charge of the mechanism that brings bounty into the world, and make him a trustee of that bounty on behalf of all of mankind. In order for Yaakov to fulfill this role, he needed to be invested with great wisdom and a deep understanding of God, Torah, and the Temple service. When the Midrash says that the opening word “and” in the phrase “And may God give you” refers to the means of preserving the blessings God grants (k’vishan), it is referring to this wisdom and understanding – the hidden secrets underlying the system though which Hashem channels bounty into the world. (The word k’vishan can be read as a term that connotes “bottling up,” which alludes to both preserving and hiding. Thus, in Berachos 10a, the Gemara uses the term kivshei d’Rachmana to refer to Hashem’s hidden secrets.) Along with the blessings, Yaakov is granted Elokusa – knowledge of God. In addition, he is granted Zion, the seat of Torah, and is trained to be and then installed as the director of the Temple service, with its korbonos, first fruits, and libations. Yitzchak’s blessing to Yaakov was thus tailored to include everything Yaakov needed to fulfill the special role for which he was designated. 
David Zucker, Site Administrator