Post Archive for December 2010

Parashas and Haftaras Vaeira

On the Parashah
In this week’s parashah, the Torah records the lineage of Moshe and Aharon, and then concludes (Shemos 6:26-27): “These are the Aharon and Moshe to whom Hashem said, ‘Take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, with all their legions.’ They are the ones who spoke to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the Egypt; they are the Aharon and Moshe.” In this passage, the Torah first mentions Aharon before Moshe, and afterward mentions Moshe before Aharon. The Sages infer that Moshe and Aharon were equal in stature (Tosefta Kerisus 4:15). On the surface, the proof does not seem conclusive. The Maggid provides a deeper perspective through which we can understand the proof very well.
In the piece on last week’s parashah, we noted that the mission Moshe and Aharon were sent on involved two elements: (a) to go to Pharaoh and contend with him on the Jewish People’s behalf, and (b) to deploy their merit to bring about the Jewish People’s redemption. In regard to deploying merit, we might have thought that Moshe, whom the Torah later describes as “the man of God” (Devarim 33:1), had a superior position. Therefore, in discussing the taking of the Jewish People out of Egypt, in the first part of the passage, the Torah mentions Aharon before Moshe. Conversely, regarding the task of speaking to Pharaoh, we might have thought that Aharon had a superior position, since Hashem had told Moshe – in response to his concern about his speech impediment – that Aharon would be the spokesman. Therefore, in discussing the dialogue with Pharaoh, in the second part of the passage, the Torah mentions Moshe first. Taking both parts of the passage together, we conclude that Moshe and Aharon were on the same level both in regard to speaking with Pharaoh and in regard to deploying merit for the benefit of the Jewish People.
On the Haftarah
In this week’s haftarah, it is written (Yechezkel 29:3): “Thus said the Lord God, Hashem: ‘Behold, I am above you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt – the great serpent that crouches within its rivers – who has said, “My Nile is mine, and I built myself.”’” The Maggid explains this verse with a parable. A visitor entered a wealthy man’s house, and saw one of the servants. He asked him: “Who is the master of the house?” The servant replied haughtily: “I am the master of the house, and everything you see here is mine.” Just as the servant was finishing his sentence, the true master of the house entered the room and said: “I am your master. I am above you, and you are subservient to me.” Similarly, the wicked Pharaoh, in his arrogance, presented himself as a deity and proclaimed himself the supreme power. Hashem then came on the scene and said: “Behold, I am above you, O Pharaoh” – I am the Master of the Universe, and I have dominion over you.” And so Yechezkel’s prophecy, after describing Pharaoh’s downfall, continues (Yechezkel 29:6): “Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am Hashem” – initially the Egyptians were deluded into regarding Pharaoh as a deity, but in the end they will recognize Hashem as the sole God and Master of the Universe.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemos

In this week’s parashah, Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 3:10): “And now, go, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and take My people, the Children of Israel, out of Egypt.” Moshe responds (ibid. 3:11): “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” The Maggid notes that Hashem’s command is oddly phrased. The natural phrasing would be “I will send you to Pharaoh to take My people … out of Egypt,” but, instead of the word “to,” Hashem uses the word “and” – as if He were issuing two distinct orders. Moreover, the Maggid says, Moshe’s response seems repetitive. It is necessary to analyze this exchange carefully to understand what is being said.
The Maggid, in his typical way, explains the exchange through a parable. A person came across someone about to travel to Leipzig. He asked him to buy him some cloth there and pay for it out of his own pocket, to be reimbursed when he got back. The traveler declined, giving two reasons: (a) he does not know how to judge the quality of cloth, and (b) he does not have the financial wherewithal to extend credit. The one asking the favor responded that there was no need for concern on either count. Regarding the first count, he said that he has a friend in Leipzig who is an expert in cloth and can help the traveler pick out cloth of high quality. Regarding the second count, he said that he would reimburse the traveler immediately on his return, without delay.
The parallel is as follows. Hashem wanted to send someone to Pharaoh to take His people out of Egypt. He specifically chose Moshe, for the mission required someone of great merit. Had the Jews been worthy of being redeemed on their own merit, it would not have mattered whom Hashem sent; anyone could have done the job. But, in fact, they were not worthy of being redeemed on their own merit. The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 1:35, expounding on Yechezkel 16:7, states that the Jews were bare of good deeds. And in Shemos Rabbah 15:3, the Midrash says that Hashem sought merit for the Jewish People, but found none, until he came upon the merit of Moshe and Aharon. Hashem thus had to assign the mission specifically to Moshe and Aharon, so that their merit could be drawn upon to redeem the people. The way Hashem phrased His command to Moshe indeed indicates that He was giving him two distinct tasks: (a) to go to Pharaoh as His agent, and (b) to deploy his merit to redeem the Jewish People.
Hashem’s phrasing of the command stresses that He considered Moshe uniquely qualified for the mission. Thus, in expounding on the command, the Midrash states (Shemos Rabbah 3:3): “Go – the definitive form, with a heh at the end of the word (lechah), indicating thus: ‘If you do not redeem them, no one else will redeem them.’” Hashem did not use the standard term leich, which signifies simply the command “go,” but instead made a point of using the term lechah, with the added final heh. Rashi, in his comment on the phrase u’lechah lishuasah in Tehillim 80:3, discusses how the final heh in the word lechah acts to single out the person being spoken to. Hashem was telling Moshe that He had to assign him the mission of redeeming the Jews from Egypt because He did not have the option of sending someone else.
Moshe, on the other hand, argued that he was not qualified for either of the two tasks Hashem was setting before him. He declared: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” Here, Moshe was making two points. First, he claimed that he was not eminent enough to go appear before an illustrious ruler like Pharaoh. Second, he claimed that he could not deploy his merit to redeem the Jews, because he simply did not have the merit needed. Moshe, in his humility, viewed himself as having little status and merit.
Hashem replied (Shemos 3:12): “I shall be with you, and this is a sign for you that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.” Here, as in the parable, Hashem was responding point by point to Moshe’s arguments. Regarding Moshe’s argument that he was not eminent enough to go appear before Pharaoh, Hashem countered: “You need not worry, for I will be with you, and there is no doubt that you will succeed in your mission. And you have a sign that this is so: The very fact that I sent you serves you as a sign, for surely I deliberated carefully in deciding whom to send.” And regarding Moshe’s argument that he did not have enough merit to redeem the Jews, Hashem countered: “It will not require a great degree of merit for you to redeem the people, for immediately after you take them out of Egypt, they will serve Me on this mountain, and they will then be able to manage on their own merit.
PS: This Friday, 17 Teves 5771, is the Maggid’s 206th Yahrzeit. Zechuso yagen aleinu – may his merit protect us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayechi

This week’s parashah begins: “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years – and Yaakov’s days, the years of his life, were one hundred forty-seven years.” This verse contains redundant information: We know already from last week’s parashah that Yaakov was 130 years old when he arrived in Egypt, so once we are told that he died at the age of 147, we automatically know without being told that he spent 17 years in Egypt. Several commentators explain that during these last 17 years of his life Yaakov was able to “truly live” – he enjoyed a life of serenity, free from the ordeals he had suffered throughout his previous years. The Maggid elaborates on this explanation.
Our Sages say that a righteous man initially suffers afflictions, but afterward, in the end, is granted serenity (Bereishis Rabbah 66:4). Hashem, for various reasons, imposes extra suffering on the righteous during their initial years, but He later grants them extra blessing in return for the extra afflictions they suffered initially. In this vein, Iyov’s comrade Bildad tells him (Iyov 8:7): “Though your beginning was meager, your end will flourish exceedingly.” He was explaining to Iyov that just as his portion of Divine blessing was now much more meager than the norm, in the end he would receive a portion much greater than the norm. Indeed, in the final chapter of Sefer Iyov it is written (verse 42:12): “Hashem beirach es acharis Iyov mei-reishiso.” Literally translated, the verse says: “Hashem blessed Iyov’s end more than his beginning” – that is, after Iyov’s ordeal was over, Hashem granted him greater blessing than he had before. But we can also render the verse as saying: “Hashem blessed Iyov’s end on account of his beginning” – on account of the extraordinary affliction Iyov suffered during his ordeal, Hashem afterward granted him extraordinary blessing.
The life of our forefather Yaakov, the Maggid says, followed the same pattern. Initially, Yaakov endured extraordinary suffering, involving a long series of difficult ordeals: the years spent working for Lavan, the conflict with Eisav, the episode of Dinah and Shechem, Yosef’s apparent death, Shimon’s being taken prisoner, and having to send Binyamin to Egypt. In compensation, Hashem granted Yaakov extraordinary serenity at the end of his life.
The Maggid then explains how the opening verse of our parashah reflects this pattern. Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. These years were infused with extraordinary blessing, which made up for the extraordinary lack of blessing that Yaakov had faced earlier. As a result, Yaakov’s total allotment of blessing over his entire life was exactly 147 standard (for Yaakov’s spiritual level) yearly portions. He had a lifetime of exactly 147 years, in the sense of having experienced 147 years’ worth of blessing.
The Maggid goes on to say that the same pattern applies to the Jewish People as a whole, in line with the rule that the experiences of the forefathers are precursors to those of the descendants (maaseh avos siman la-banim). Over the course of history up to the present, we have endured extraordinary suffering – way beyond that seen by any other people on earth. But, in the end, Hashem will repay us with extraordinary blessing. Thus He has promised us (Yeshayah 61:7): “In place of your double portion of shame, and the disgrace they would bewail as their portion, accordingly they shall inherit a double portion in their land, and they shall attain eternal joy.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayiggash

In this week’s parashah, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and tells them to bring their father Yaakov to Egypt. He sent them with wagons for the entire family. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 94:3 notes that the wagons (agalos) alluded to the law of the axed heifer (eglah arufah), concerning a corpse found between two cities (Devarim 21). Yosef had been studying this law with his father just before he went out to seek his brothers, and ultimately was sold to traders who took him to Egypt. The Midrash relates:
Yosef said to them: “If he [Yaakov] believes you [that I am alive and in good condition], well and good. And if not, tell him: ‘At the time I left you, was it not the chapter of the axed heifer that I was studying?’” It is written (Bereishis 45:28): “And Yisrael said: ‘It is great – my son Yosef still lives!’” He was saying: “Great is the fortitude of my son Yosef, for he suffered several major hardships and still maintained his righteousness. His fortitude is greater than mine, for I sinned and said, ‘My path is hidden from Hashem.’”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. When a corpse is found between two cities, the Torah dictates that the men of the city closest to the corpse should perform the ceremony of the axed heifer. This law is not based on a presumption that the person whose body was found had been murdered by someone from the closest city. Rather, the fact that this person’s death had taken place in the proximity of that city, as opposed to somewhere else, indicates that the person had borne the Divine retribution for that city’s sins. The men of the city are therefore obliged to atone for his death through the axed heifer ceremony.
It is written (Eichah 4:20): “The breath of our nostrils, Hashem’s annointed one, was caught in their traps.” The Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbos 15:1, relates that R. Yehudah HaNasi, R. Chiya, and R. Yishmael of the house of R. Yosse were studying Megillas Eichah, and afterward R. Yehudah HaNasi injured his finger. R. Yehudah HaNasi attributed the injury to a sin on his part. R. Chiya disagreed, telling R. Yehudah HaNasi that he was suffering for the sins of the generation, and quoting the verse we just mentioned. R. Yishmael remarked: “Even if we had not been dealing with this topic, it would have been proper for us to explain the matter in this way. All the more so, seeing that we were were dealing with the topic.” R. Yehudah HaNasi and his colleagues had just been studying the principle that a righteous person can undergo suffering for the sins of others. R. Yehudah HaNasi’s study of this principle foreshadowed his serving as an example of it.
Similarly, just before Yaakov sent Yosef to the Hebron valley to search for his brothers, they had been studying the topic of the axed heifer. Afterward, when Yosef was assaulted by his brothers and sold as a slave, he understood that this course of events was in line with the topic he had been studying: Hashem had cast severe judgment upon him for the benefit of others. Years later, when he arranged for Yaakov to join him in Egypt, he wished to communicate to Yaakov that he had maintained his righteousness. He therefore sent the message: “At the time I left you, was it not the chapter of the axed heifer that I was dealing with?” He was telling Yaakov that his faith had held firm – he had always kept in mind that his suffering was a means Hashem was using to bring good to the world. Yaakov understood what Yosef was saying. He thus declared:  “Great is the fortitude of my son Yosef, for he suffered several major hardships and still maintained his righteousness. His fortitude is greater than mine, for I sinned and said, ‘My path is hidden from Hashem.’” Yaakov rated Yosef as better at handling suffering than he was; he had lamented troubles that befell him, whereas Yosef accepted all his suffering with love.
David Zucker, Site Administrator