Post Archive for 2011

Parashas Vayiggash

This week’s parashah opens with Yehudah’s plea to the viceroy of Egypt (whom he did not know to be his own brother Yosef) to free Binyamin and take him as a slave in Binyamin’s stead. Yehudah reviews some of the family background, including Yosef’s apparent death, and then says (Bereishis 44:30-31): “And now, when I come to your servant my father, and the lad [Binyamin] is not with us – since his [my father’s] soul is bound up with his [the lad’s] soul – it will come to pass, when he sees that the lad is not with us, that he will die, and your servants will have brought the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow down to the grave.” The Maggid asks why Yehudah includes the phrase “when he sees that the lad with not with us.” The phrase appears unnecessary, for the message seemingly would get across well enough without it: “When I come your servant my father, and the lad is not with us – since his [my father’s] soul is bound up with his [the lad’s] soul – it will come to pass that he will die.” The Maggid also asks on what grounds Yehudah argues, as suggested by the phrase “and now” at the beginning of the quoted segment, that what he had said up to that point proved conclusively that Yaakov would die if the brothers returned without Binyamin.
The Maggid explains that Yehudah was apparently seeking to pre-empt a possible counterargument that the viceroy whom he stood before might make. The viceroy might claim that the only reason Yaakov cherished Binyamin so much was because of his exemplary conduct (following in his forefathers’ footsteps), but once he heard that Binyamin had been caught stealing his silver goblet, Yaakov’s esteem for Binyamin would dissipate entirely and he would feel no sorrow over losing him. On the contrary, Yaakov, given his own saintliness, would regard Binyamin as an embarrassment. Yehudah therefore astutely presented facts that would nullify such a claim. He said (ibid. 44:20-29):
We said to my lord: “We have a father, an old man, and a young child of his old age; his brother is dead, and he alone is left from his mother, and his father loves him.” And you said to your servants: “Bring him down to me, that I may set my eye on him.” And we said to my lord: “The lad cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, he [his father] would die.” … And our father said: “Go back, buy us a little food.” And we said: “We cannot go down. If our youngest brother will be with us, then will we go down, for we may not see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.” And your servant my father said to us: “You know that my wife bore me two sons; one left me, and I said to myself, ‘Surely he has been torn to pieces,’ and I have not seen him since. And if you take this one also from me, and harm befalls him, you will bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. “
Yehudah was pointing out that Yaakov feared deeply that Binyamin would meet the same tragic end as his brother Yosef, and that from the moment Binyamin left home to go to Egypt with his brothers he was gripped with worry that Binyamin would not return. And he was telling the viceroy that, this being so, “when he sees that the lad with not with us” – the very second he sees that Binyamin is missing – Yaakov will die instantly, for he will automatically conclude that Binyamin had been killed. There would be no chance to tell Yaakov what had actually happened, and thus no chance for Yaakov’s attachment to Binyamin to be dissolved by hearing Binyamin had been found guilty of theft.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mikeitz

In this week’s parashah we read about how Yaakov’s ten oldest sons traveled to Egypt to buy food, and received tough treatment from the Egyptian viceroy – who, unknown to them, was their brother Yosef whom they had sold into slavery years before. As the sons prepared to make their second trip to Egypt, this time with the youngest brother Binyamin, Yaakov gave them the following blessing (Bereishis 43:14): “May God Almighty (Ei­-l Shadd-ai) grant you mercy before the man.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 92:1):
R. Pinchas expounded in the name of R. Hoshaia: “‘Fortunate is the man who is chastised by Y-ah’ (Tehillim 94:12). Here, Hashem’s four-letter name is not used, but rather specifically the name Y-ah. It is a like a person who is being sentenced by a judge and cries out in agony: ‘Yaah, yaah – enough (dai), enough.’ Thus said Yaakov: ‘May the One who in the future will say “enough” to affliction now say “enough” to my afflictions.’”
The Midrash remarks further (Bereishis Rabbah 92:3):
R. Yoshia ben Levi interpreted Yaakov’s statement as referring to the exiles. Yaakov said: “May God Almighty grant you mercy.” It is written (Tehillim 106:46): “He caused them to be treated with mercy by all their captors.” Yaakov continued: “Before the man.” Here, “the man” alludes to the Holy One Blessed Be He, as it is written (Shemos 15:3): “Hashem is a man of war, Hashem is His Name.”
Elsewhere in the same section, the Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 92:2):
“For this let every devout man pray at a time when [trouble] abides (eis metzo)” (Tehillim 32:6). At a time when the day has run its course (mitzui ha-yom), at a time when the judgment has run its course, at a time when the soul has run its course, at a time when the accounting has run its course. When Yaakov saw that the account had run its course, he began pouring forth supplications, saying: “May God Almighty (Ei-l Shadd-ai) grant you mercy before the man.”
The Maggid explains these Midrashim in terms of the principle that the experiences of the forefathers presage those of the Jewish People throughout history. He brings out the message with a clever parable.
A little baby boy who was being fed by a wet-nurse got sick. His parents took him to a doctor, who told them that the baby would recover readily if he would be made to vomit. He recommended that the wet-nurse take a certain vomiting-inducing drug, so that the baby would ingest the drug as he nursed and would be led to vomit as needed. The nurse realized that the drug would have a very harsh effect on her, but she willingly accepted this suffering because she wanted the baby to get well. So she started taking the drug. She got down half the prescribed dose and started feeling extremely sick. She approached the doctor and said: “I think the amount of drug I have taken so far is enough to cure the baby, and I can stop now rather than take the rest.” The doctor replied: “I am sorry, my dear lady, but you must take the full dose for the treatment to work.”
The nurse listened to the doctor and took the rest of the drug, and afterward began to nurse the baby. After he had taken in a bit of her milk, he started vomiting nonstop and lost all his strength. The doctor was quickly called in. When he arrived and saw how violently the baby was vomiting, he said: “I have to admit that I made a mistake and prescribed an excessive dose. But don’t worry – I know how to bring the baby out of this state.” He squirted a few drops of a very potent antidote into the baby’s mouth, and the baby stopped vomiting. The nurse then started to wail, and she said: “Why did I have to take all this harsh medicine and suffer so much? When I had taken half the dose, I told you it was enough. Why did I have to go through all this agony for nothing?”
The parallel is as follows. Our forefathers went through a variety of harsh experiences that they themselves, based on their own actions, did not deserve, but were brought upon them for the sake of their descendants. By going through these troubles and gaining salvation from them, they produced a reservoir of salvation which their descendants could draw from in times of need throughout all generations. Yaakov, the premier forefather (all of whose sons served as the head of a Jewish tribe) and the last among them, bore an especially trying series of misfortunes – each of which, in some form, would later befall the Jewish People later in history. Although he suffered tremendously, he accepted the suffering for the benefit of his descendants.
But when Yaakov went through the tragedy of losing Yosef, with all the fallout that ensued, his suffering became overwhelming. Knowing that whatever he went through was only a small fraction of what his descendants would go through, he thought to himself: “If my descendants go through the degree of suffering that is foreshadowed by the suffering I am going through now, surely they will not have the wherewithal to survive.” He therefore pleaded with Hashem to relieve his descendants of such suffering, and Hashem assented. Yaakov then had a claim against Hashem: “I knew that You would show pity for my descendants and refrain from bringing on them the severe suffering foreshadowed by my suffering. When, then, did You bring this suffering on me for nothing?”
We can now understand what R. Hoshaia means when he compares Yaakov to a person being sentenced by a judge and crying out in agony, “Yaah, yaah – enough (dai), enough,” and then describes him pleading: “May the One who in the future will say ‘enough’ to affliction now say ‘enough’ to my afflictions.” Yaakov is not, far be it, rebelling against afflictions. Rather, he is saying to Hashem: “Since You will ultimately say ‘enough’ to the afflictions of my descendants, You can say ‘enough’ to my afflictions now. I do not need to go through further afflictions for their sake.” The teaching of R. Yoshia ben Levi follows the same line: Yaakov is saying that since Hashem will arrange for the Jewish People to be treated with a measure of mercy while in exile, He can grant his sons a measure of mercy as they travel to Egypt. The Midrash linking Yaakov’s plea to Tehillim 32:6 is in a similar vein. Yaakov pled for mercy only after he saw that “the judgment had run its course” – that is, that the afflictions he and sons were suffering had begun to go beyond what was needed to safeguard future generations. Had this not been so, Yaakov would have willingly endured further afflictions for the sake of his descendants.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Vayeishev

This week’s haftarah from the Book of Amos closes with the following passage (Amos 3:1-8):
Hear this word that Hashem has spoken regarding you, O Children of Yisrael – regarding the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt, saying: “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will take account of you regarding all your iniquities. Do two people walk together, if they have not so planned? Does a lion roar in the forest, when it has no prey? Does a young lion give forth its voice from its den, if it has not made a catch? Does a bird fall into a trap on the ground if there is no snare? Does a trap lift off the ground without making a catch? Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble? Can evil befall a city if Hashem did not bring it about? For the Lord God will do nothing without revealing His counsel to His servants the prophets. The lion has roared – who will not fear? The Lord God, has spoken – who will not convey the prophecy?”
The Maggid notes that the various rhetorical questions that this passage presents are puzzling, but Amos’s message can be explained well through the following Midrashic commentary on the passage (Yalkut Shimoni, Nach, 540):
“Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?” We can explain this verse with a parable. A country was ridden with invading soldiers, and a certain elder there warned all its residents of the danger. All those who listened to him were saved, while all those who did not listen were killed by the invaders. Thus it is written (Yechezkel 3:17): “O son of man, I have set you as a sentinel for the House of Israel; You hear the word from My mouth and you warn them of Me.” And similarly here. Can a shofar be blown in a city – on Rosh Hashanah – and the people not tremble? If evil befalls a city, Hashem did not bring it about [homiletical rendering of the end of the verse]. Hashem does not desire the death of evildoers, as it is written (Yechezkel 18:32): “For I do not desire the death of the one who deserves to die.”
The key idea is reflected in Amos’s statement that “the Lord God will do nothing without revealing His counsel to His servants the prophets.” When a mortal man plans to cause a person harm, he hides his plan so that the person will not guard himself against them. By contrast, when Hashem plans to inflict harm on people, He discloses His plan to the prophets, in order to stir the people to repent and thereby escape the harm. The above Midrash brings out this idea. If, far be it, Hashem wished for the wicked to die, He would pass sentence on them without notice. But instead He openly informs one and all of the day He sits in judgment. As it is written (Tehillim 81:4-5): “Blow the shofar at the moon’s renewal, at the time appointed for our festival day [Rosh Hashanah]. For it is a decree unto Yisrael, a judgment [day] for the God of Yaakov.” Announcing the day of judgment is an act of love on Hashem’s part, aimed at leading the wayward to return to Him. Hashem opens the way to repentance to all sinners who wish to forsake their evil ways. He gives us the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the day of judgment and develop strategies for shielding ourselves against negative decrees. And so, Amos tells us, those who feel no fear when the shofar is blown and are not stirred to repent have only themselves to blame when misfortune befalls them. They have no cause to complain about how Hashem treated them, for Hashem mercifully gave fair warning.
With this background, the Maggid proceeds to explain Hashem’s declaration in the passage from the haftarah sentence by sentence. Hashem begins: “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will take account of you regarding all your iniquities.” Hashem is telling us that, out of His love for us, He takes account of us regarding our sins, and sends us warning of the punishment we face for them, so that we can take steps to avoid it. Hashem continues: “Do two people walk together, if they have not so planned?” If two people are on friendly terms, they will plan a joint journey and walk together. But if one person plans to destroy another person, he will hide from his intended victim to keep the victim from noticing his plan. Hashem then says: “Does a lion roar in the forest, when it has no prey? Does a young lion give forth its voice from its den, if it has not made a catch?” These rhetorical questions bring out the same idea: Before the lion catches his prey, it refrains from roaring, so that the prey it is stalking will not flee.
This initial series of rhetorical questions relates to how a mortal man acts when he plans to bring a person harm. Hashem, on the other hand, before He brings a person misfortune, calls out in full voice so that the person can save himself. The next series of rhetorical questions develops this idea. Hashem says: “Does a bird fall into a trap on the ground if there is no snare?” He is saying that misfortune will not hover over a person to entrap him unless the person harbors within his soul a snare – that is, a sin. As the Gemara says (Shabbos 55a): “No affliction comes upon a person unless he is guilty of some sin.” Hashem continues: “Does a trap lift off the ground without making a catch?” This rhetorical question reflects the other side of the coin – that, without repentance, no sin is passed over without some punishment. If the trap of sin is set off, it surely will catch the evildoer. We therefore have no reason to regard prophecies of retribution with askance, for we could have figured out on our own that our sins will lead to our being punished, for Hashem is a God of absolute justice. It is out of His great compassion that He sends us such prophecies to warn us in advance, so that we may repent and save ourselves. Hashem then continues further: “Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble? If evil befalls a city, Hashem did not bring it about.” If we disregard the shofar blast that Hashem sends as a warning, and we fail to repent, the misfortune we ultimately suffer is not Hashem’s doing, but our own. Hashem then says: “For the Lord God will do nothing without revealing His counsel to His servants the prophets.” Hashem announces the impending punishment to give us a chance to repent, and if misfortune strikes, we ourselves are at fault. It is just as in the Midrash’s parable about the people in the invader-ridden country who were warned by one of the elders. If we disregard Hashem’s danger warning, we will be smitten. But if we heed the warning, we will be safe.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah recounts Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav. Upon returning to Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov sent messengers to Eisav to inform him of his return. The messengers came back to Yaakov with a report that Eisav was heading toward him with a legion of four hundred men. Yaakov was struck with fear, and he prayed to Hashem to save him. He also sent Eisav a series of gifts to appease him. Ultimately the two brothers met, and Yaakov bowed down before Eisav seven times. The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 75:2):
In connection with this episode, R. Yehudah bar Siemon expounded on the following verse (Mishlei 25:26): “Like a muddied spring and a ruined fountain, so is the righteous one who bows before the wicked.” Said R. Yehudah bar Siemon: “Just a spring cannot become muddied and a fountain cannot be ruined, so, too, a righteous man cannot bow before a wicked one. And like a muddied spring and a ruined fountain, so is the righteous one who causes himself to bow before the wicked. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘He [Eisav] was going his own way, and you sent messengers to tell him, “Thus said your servant Yaakov ….”’”
The Maggid raises two questions about this teaching. First, it seems self-contradictory. R. Yehudah bar Siemon initially says: “Just a spring cannot become muddied and a fountain cannot be ruined, so, too, a righteous man cannot bow before a wicked one. “ He is saying it cannot happen. But then he says: “And like a muddied spring and a ruined fountain, so is the righteous one who causes himself to bow before the wicked.” How can we understand this curious reversal? Second, regarding the verse from Mishlei itself, what is the meaning of the simile of the muddied spring and ruined fountain?
The Maggid then answers as follows. Yeshayah declares (verse 12:3): “And you shall joyfully draw water from the springs of salvation.” Yeshayah is saying that Divine salvation is like a spring. Just as someone who needs water can procure it easily from a flowing spring, so, too, someone who needs Divine salvation can procure it easily through prayer. As it is written (Yeshayah 56:1): “My salvation is near in coming.” And similarly (Tehillim 85:10): “Indeed, His salvation is near to those who fear Him.” When we pray, we are not – far be it – trying to get Hashem to “change His mind” and grant us something He was not originally planning to provide us. Rather, we are tapping into the spring of salvation that He makes available to us for our taking by coming near to Him. As indicated in Tehillim 33:22, the extent of the blessing we receive from Hashem is determined by the extent to which we turn to Him and put our hope and trust in Him.
Now, a spring will continue to gush forth so long as the earth surrounding it is solid. But if the surrounding earth is soft and weak, it will cave in and stop up the spring with mud. Similarly, if a person’s faith in Hashem is solid, and he relies with firm and vibrant conviction on Hashem’s protection, then his spring of salvation will flow with vigor. But if a person’s faith is shaky and weak, and he is in constant fear that misfortune will sprout in some area of his life, his fears muck up his spring of salvation and cause its flow to cease.
Thus, R. Yehudah bar Siemon first says: “Just a spring cannot become muddied and a fountain cannot be ruined, so, too, a righteous man cannot bow before a wicked one.” Just as in the natural order of the world, a flowing spring does not suddenly become muddied, so, too, in the normal order of the world, a righteous man is not suddenly led to bow before a wicked one. R. Yehudah bar Siemon then says: “And like a muddied spring and a ruined fountain, so is the righteous one who causes himself to bow before the wicked.” In both the case of the spring and the case of the righteous man, a downturn is induced by an abnormal weakening in the foundations. R. Yehudah bar Siemon speaks of a righteous man who causes himself to bow before the wicked – the righteous man brings degradation on his own self by straying from the path of faith and trust in Hashem and allowing fear of the wicked to enter his heart. Yaakov strayed in this way – he was afraid of Eisav and was thereby led to engage in diplomacy with him by sending messengers. Hashem rebuked him for this action, saying: “Eisav was going his own way, and you sent messengers to him. You committed a misstep.”
In describing Yaakov’s reaction to the report of Eisav’s approach with a massive legion, the Torah says that “Yaakov was very frightened, and he was distressed” (Bereishis 32:8). We can interpret this statement in line with the discussion above. Yaakov understood that by sending the messengers, he himself had created the situation that prompted his fright. He therefore was distressed over what he had done, deeply regretting his misguided move.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

This week’s parashah opens by describing the dream Yaakov had at the site of the Beis HaMikdash. The Torah relates that when Yaakov awoke from his dream, he declared (Bereishis 28:16-17):
Indeed, Hashem is present in this place, and I did not know. … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God – it is the gate to heaven.
In Ohel Yaakov, Bereishis, the Maggid raises two issues about this declaration. First, it is repetitious: Yaakov initially says that “Hashem is present in this place” and then he expresses the same idea again, saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God.” Second, and even more in need of examination, is the following question: Why did Yaakov speak of the place being “none other” than the House of God, as if he were trying to counter some people who were arguing otherwise? The Maggid then explains Yaakov’s words as relating to an issue that many thinkers have considered: Given that Hashem’s glory fills the entire earth (Yeshayah 6:3), how is the Beis HaMikdash Hashem’s abode more than any other place?
He brings out the idea with a parable. A person visiting his country’s royal capital city tours the streets and marketplaces to see the grand buildings there. He notices an especially magnificent fortified mansion and asks whose it is. He is told that it is the king’s palace. He enters into the outer courtyard of the palace and he sees many individual dwelling chambers there. He asks some people about these chambers, and they tell him that each one belongs to a different member of the king’s court: the king’s doctor, his advisors, his ministers, and so on. Eventually, he reaches the splendid inner chamber where the king himself lives. He asks about this chamber as well, and he is told: “This is the king’s chamber.” Baffled, he replies: “You told me before that entire mansion belongs to the king. Now you are telling me that this chamber alone belongs to him.” The people responded: “It is indeed true that the entire mansion is the king’s. At the same time, the king granted use of the outer chambers to the various members of his court, each according to his needs. But this chamber here belongs exclusively to the king. It is set aside for his use alone, and he does not allow anyone to enter it except by appointment, and those who enter must be dressed in fine clothes in his honor.”
Similarly, Hashem owns the entire world, but He grants use of most of it to us humans and to the other creations He put here. He provides each of us a domain within the world to use as he needs, while maintaining His presence in every one of these domains. He is with us even when we are defiled, as it is written (Vayikra 16:16): “Who dwells with them in the midst of their defilement” (see Yoma 57a). At the same time, He set aside a special place within the world to serve specifically as a seat for His Name – the Mikdash. Only Kohanim qualified to perform the Mikdash service could enter the main Mikdash grounds, and only under set conditions. Entry to the Holy of Holies was restricted even to the Kohen Gadol, as it is written (Vayikra 16:2-3): “He shall not come at all times into the [inner] Sanctuary, within the curtain … with this shall Aharon come into the [inner] Sanctuary ….” The Mikdash was exclusively Hashem’s domain.
When Yaakov awoke from the dream he had at the site of the Mikdash, he declared: “Indeed, Hashem is present in this place.” He then felt a need to elaborate, and he exclaimed: “How awesome is the place!” He marveled at how the place was much more awesome than any other place on earth. He then explained to himself why the place was so awesome: “This is none other than the House of God” – it was the place that Hashem had set aside for Himself alone.
In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, Chapter 4, the Maggid discusses this idea further. He says that, while we are supposed to feel fear of Hashem with all our being and at all times, there are places that call for an elevated degree of fear – Batei Knesses and Batei Midrash, which are set aside for prayer and Torah study, and the places which had been specially infused with the Divine Presence in earlier times, such as the place where the Beis HaMikdash stood. A person should not be “like a horse or a mule, devoid of understanding” (Tehillim 32:9) and treat these places casually, as if he were in his own home. If he acts this way, Hashem’s anger is directed toward him. Regarding people who do not show proper reverence for holy places, Hashem declares (Yeshayah 1:12): “When you come to appear before Me – who asked this of you, to trample my courtyards?” And He declares further (Yirmiyahu 7:11): “Has this house, upon which My Name was called, become a criminal’s den in your eyes?” Rather, a person should enter a holy place with the utmost humility, and while he is there he should continually bear in mind its great loftiness. He should imagine how he would act and feel if he were meeting with important officers – how he would humble himself, how all his limbs would tremble, and how he would be acutely aware of his state of fear. If this is how he would act and feel in the chamber of mortal governors, all the more should he be filled with fear in the house of the King of All Worlds, the Holy One Blessed Be He.
L’ilui nishmas R’ Shimon Feivel Shraga ben R’ Mordechai HaLevi Grossnass z”l
Passed away on Sunday 14th November 2010 – 7th Kislev 5771
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

This week’s parashah deals with two topics: the birth and development of Eisav and Yaakov, and Yitzchak’s sojourn in the Philistine city of Gerar. We present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on the second of these topics.
Yitzchak travels to Gerar because of a famine, grows very successful, and then is driven out. The Philistine king Avimelech tells him (Bereishis 26:16): “Go away from being with us, for you have grown much mightier than us.” Later, Avimelech and his men approach Yitzchak. The Torah relates (Bereishis 26:27-29):
And Yitzchak said to them: “Why have you come to me, when you hated me and drove me away from you?” They said: “We saw clearly that Hashem was with you, so we said, ‘Let there now be an oath between us, respectively – between us and you – and let us establish a pact with you.’”
The Maggid interprets this exchange as follows. In Avimelech’s prior eviction message to Yitzchak, the Hebrew phrase ki atzamta mimenu meod, meaning literally “for you have grown much mightier than us,” can be rendered as “for you have grown very mighty on our account” (reading mimenu as meaning “from us” rather than “than us”). According to the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 64:7, Avimelech was arguing that Yitzchak attained all his wealth at the Philistines’ expense. We can explain the matter as follows. Success can be classified into two types: success through the natural means of making a livelihood and success through extraordinary (e.g., miraculous) means. One basic difference between these two types is that success through natural means is typically gradual, from level to level, while success through extraordinary means typically involves a sudden jump from one extreme to the other. Another basic difference is that people tend to bear a grudge against a neighbor who achieves success by natural means, but not against one who achieves success by extraordinary means. When a neighbor achieves success through a certain trade, people tend to say: “If he weren’t doing business here, we’d be making the money he is making, for we also are skilled in this trade.” In the case of success through extraordinary means, this argument does not apply. Thus, for example, if a person has a rich uncle in a distant city who sends him a hefty sum of money every month, no one has any reason to bear a grudge against him, for he is not taking anything away from anybody.
Now, Yitzchak’s success was gradual, as the Torah states (Bereishis 26:13): “The man became great, and grew successively greater, until he was very great.” Thus, his success appeared to be of a natural sort. It is true that Yitzchak reaped an extremely bountiful crop – a hundredfold. But, still, he operated within the natural farming cycle – he did not reap, in the manner described in Yeshayah 17:11, immediately after he planted. The Philistines therefore accused him of encroaching on their territory and infringing on their livelihood. But afterward they saw that, even after Yitzchak left their territory, he continued to succeed in everything he did, while they remained at the same economic level as before, gaining nothing from his departure. They saw that Yitzchak was successful because Hashem was with him. And they realized, in retrospect, that the success Yitzchak attained while he lived among them was also a special blessing from Hashem, with no infringement against them whatsoever. Avimelech’s reply to Yitzchak’s query about why he had approached him reflects a new understanding on the Philistines’ part. In his reply, Avimelech uses a double verb: reo raeenu – we saw clearly. This double verb alludes to the fact that what the Philistines saw after Yitzchak had left them led them to see properly what had been taking place before. They recognized that Yitzchak’s success was due simply to his being “blessed of Hashem.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

The beginning of this week’s parashah records Avraham’s negotiation with the men of Cheis to acquire a burial site for Sarah. After Avraham makes his initial request, the men of Cheis answer him (Bereishis 23:6): “Hear us, my lord: You are a prince of God in our midst. Bury your dead in the best of our burial sites; no man among us will withhold his burial site from you to bury your dead.” The Midrash elaborates on what they were saying (Bereishis Rabbah 58:6): “You are a prince over us, you are a king over us, you are a God over us.” The Maggid explains that they were telling him: “You need not buy a burial site from us for money. You are a prince and a king over us, so you can take from us whatever burial site you please, even the choicest, and no one will hold you back, just as a king can freely take for his own use any field within his kingdom.”
The Maggid then elaborates on the type of honor the men of Cheis showed Avraham. They regarded Avraham as a king, and honored him on that basis. Now, it is natural for people to honor a king, but we find a hint in Havakkuk 2:16 that the honor a person receives is not always to his credit. Regarding the Babylonian king Nevuchadnetzar, Havakkuk writes: savata kalon mi-kavod. Literally this phrase means: “You are sated more with disgrace than with honor.” But since the prefix mi- can mean from or through as well as more than, we can render the verse as: “You are sated with disgrace through honor.” Thus, honor can sometimes bring disgrace. When is this so? And how can we see from what the men of Cheis said to Avraham whether the honor they gave him was to his credit or to his disgrace?
When we speak of honor, we usually mean honor that a person receives out of respect for his wisdom, sterling character, and good-heartednesss toward others. But, as we know well, sometimes a person is shown honor for the completely opposite reason: He is a hooligan, a man who constantly browbeats others, and people show him honor to appease him and keep him from harming them. This honor is not out of respect, but out of fear. Now, in the case of a truly noble man, the more honor he receives, the more it shows how great he is. By contrast, in the case of the hooligan, the more honor he receives, the more it shows how contemptible he is. This is how it was with Nevuchadnetzar. He was a despicable tyrant who brought great suffering to his entire vast kingdom. He received great honor, but it brought him only disgrace, for it was honor out of fear.
The same idea is reflected in one of Shlomo HaMelech’s teachings (Mishlei 3:35): “The wise will inherit honor, while fools collect disgrace.” The wise, on account of their nobility of character, are truly worthy of honor – for them, honor is like an inheritance, that they receive by right. Moreover, as reflected in the future tense phrasing “will inherit,” they constantly receive more and more honor, as their noble character is further and further publicized. But when people honor a lowly fool, the honor turns into disgrace.
The men of Cheis told Avraham: “You are a king over us, so you can take for yourself the best of our burial sites, for the entire land is yours.” But they took care not to create the impression that they viewed him as a hooligan who came to take land from them by force. They described him as a “prince of God” – a saintly man who was truly worthy of honor.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

The end of this week’s parashah relates the episode where Hashem asked Avraham to bring his son Yitzchak before Him as an offering. Avraham bound Yitzchak to the altar, took hold of a knife to slaughter him, and then was stopped by an angel at the last moment. The angel, speaking for Hashem, said (Bereishis 22:12): “Do not stretch forth your hand toward the lad, and do not do anything to him. For now I know that you are God-fearing, since you have not withheld your son, you only one, from Me.” Later, the angel called to Avraham a second time, saying (Bereishis 22:16-18):
“By Myself I swear,” says Hashem, “that, because you performed this deed, and did not withhold your son, your only one, I shall surely bless you, and make your offspring abundant like the stars of the heavens, and like the sand on the seashore, and your offspring shall inherit the gate of their enemies. And through your offspring all the nations of the world will be blessed,, because you heeded My voice.”
The Maggid asks two questions about this second statement. First, why is the phrase “from Me,” which appears in the angel’s first statement, absent from this second one? Second, what precisely was the angel’s intent in recounting Avraham’s act again?
The Maggid answers these questions as follows. Yitzchak was dear to Hashem; He did not want him to be lost to the world. At the same time, He wanted Avraham to pass the awesome test of bringing his only son as an offering. He was therefore compelled to allow Yitzchak to be taken to be slaughtered. In the end, though, Hashem had the great satisfaction of seeing both wishes fulfilled: Avraham passed the test, and Yitzchak remained alive.
How did this result come about? The answer lies in the Gemara’s teaching in Kiddushin 40a that if a person thought about doing a mitzvah, but was prevented from doing so by some outside interference, it is considered as if he did the mitzvah. The Maggid explains that this rule applies only under certain conditions. It does not apply to a mere passing thought of doing a mitzvah, nor to someone who grudgingly undertook a mitzvah. Rather, it applies only to a person who has firmly made up his mindto do a certain mitzvah, has taken steps toward doing it, and yearns with all his heart to carry it out, but is prevented from completing the mitzvah by some circumstance beyond his control.
Thus, had Avraham taken a grudging attitude as he set out to fulfill the Hashem’s directive to bring Yitzchak as an offering, the only way he could have gotten credit for passing the test would be if he carried out the actual slaughter, and then Yitzchak would have been lost to the world. In fact, however, Avraham took up the charge with great zest and alacrity, yearning to give Hashem satisfaction by doing what He had asked. He rose at daybreak to start early. After preparing the knife, the fire, and the wood, he jubilantly set out on his journey; his attitude was like that of a father escorting his son to the wedding canopy. He proceeded on his way with eager anticipation. Upon reaching Mount Moriah, he diligently arranged the wood and the fire, and bound his beloved son on the altar. With supreme joy, he took hold of the knife to perform the slaughter. He had shown the firmest possible commitment to carrying out Hashem’s word. Through this show of commitment, he passed the test – the actual slaughter was unnecessary.
Hashem therefore called out to him: “Enough! Do not stretch forth your hand toward the lad! I am satisfied with what you have done. Now I know that you are God-fearing. Your wholeheartedness has been manifested with supreme clarity; you have passed the test. It is not necessary anymore for you to actually carry through with the slaughter. There is no reason to take your gentle only son away from the world. Let him live, and continue to serve Me.” As the Midrash relates, He told him (Bereishis Rabbah 56:8): “You fulfilled My word and put him up, now take him down.” The actions Avraham had already performed, coupled with the devotion and purity of heart with which he performed them, constituted a complete fulfillment of Hashem’s word, and hence Hashem told Avraham to take Yitzchak down from the altar.
The intent of the angel’s second statement is to bring out more fully what Avraham had accomplished. Hashem tells Avraham: “Because you performed this act, and did not withhold your son, your only one, I shall surely bless you (bareich avarechechah).” Hashem omits the phrase “from Me” because here He is not speaking of Avraham’s not having withheld Yitzchak from Him, but rather of Avraham’s not having withheld Yitzchak from the world. Through his great devotion, Avraham passed the test perfectly while obviating the need for Yitzchak to be killed. On account of this double achievement, Hashem promised Avraham a double reward, as reflected in the double verb bareich avarechechah.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

This week’s parashah begins the Torah’s account of Avraham Avinu’s career as a servant of Hashem. At the “Covenant Between the Parts,” related in Bereishis Chapter 15, Hashem promises Avraham that his descendants would become a great nation and would inherit the Land of Israel. After reporting some further interchange between Hashem and Avraham, the Torah relates (Bereishis 15:12): “A deep sleep came over Avram, and the terror of a great darkness descended upon him.” The Maggid points out that this is puzzling, for sleep and terror usually do not go hand in hand. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 44:17 explains that Avraham saw during this sleep a vision of what would come upon his descendants over the course of history, and this vision struck him with terror. The Maggid offers a similar explanation, but taking a different direction from the one the Midrash takes.
During the initial stages of Jewish history, the people had prophets living among them, who would rebuke them for their sins. In times of trouble, the prophets would lead the people to repent, and Hashem would grant them relief. But now we no longer have prophets to tell us where we stand and prompt us to repent, and so we go about our lives in a mental fog, as the psalmist Asaf describes (Tehillim 74:9): “For we have not seen the signs of our destiny; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none in our midst who knows what lies in the end.” It is as if we are in a deep sleep. The suffering of exile presses upon us, yet we are not stirred to repent.
It is this spiritual slumber that is presaged in Avraham’s deep sleep. He was standing in Hashem’s Presence and listening to Hashem speak to him, and, then, while Hashem was still speaking, he fell asleep. Avraham was then struck with terror – over the very fact that he fell asleep while Hashem was speaking to him. He realized that this sleep was a sign of what would come upon his descendants, in line with the rule that the experiences of the forefathers are a omen for the descendants (maaseh avos siman la-banim). And He saw clearly what the sign meant: that while Hashem was calling out to us, we would fall asleep – and, as Hashem continued calling, we would continue sleeping.
The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 44:17 remarks that slumber brings degneration, for when a person is slumbering, he neither learns Torah nor does any useful work. The Midrash notes also that Rav listed three types of slumber: ordinary sleep, prophetic trance, and a comatose-like sleep. The Midrash describes this latter form of slumber in terms of the following verse (Shmuel Alef 26:12): “And no one saw, and no one knew, and no one awakened, for a deep sleep from Hashem had fallen upon them.” The Midrash then goes on to mention a fourth type of sleep – the sleep of insanity, which is linked to another passage (Yeshayah 29:9-10): “They were utterly blinded. They were drunk, but not from wine; they staggered, but not from liquor. For Hashem cast upon them a spirit of deep sleep, and He closed your eyes.”
Hashem, as Shlomo HaMelech teaches, is knocking at our door, crying out (Shir HaShirim 5:2): “Open up for Me!” But we pay no attention. We are so sunken in our slumber – a slumber that resembles a comatose-like sleep or a drunken stupor – that we are oblivious to Hashem’s call. Avraham prophetically beheld this state of affairs, and the sight of it struck him with utter terror.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Noach

This week’s parashah describes the great flood through which Hashem destroyed the entire world except for the righteous Noach and his family, and some animals He told Noach to take with him. Near the end of the parashah, after the account of the flood, the Torah recounts that Noach planted a grapevine, got drunk from the wine he made from its grapes, and disgraced himself. The Torah begins its account of this episode as follows: “And Noach, the man of the land, started off (vayachel), and he planted a grapevine.” The Midrash, making a play on the word vayachel, remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 36:3):
Noach was profaned (nischallel), and turned mundane (chullin). How? By planting a grapevine. He did not think to plant something else, something constructive – not a fig sapling and not an olive sapling – but rather a grapevine. … On the very day he planted it, he drank and he disgraced himself.
The Maggid explains the above Midrash as criticizing Noach for ruining a golden opportunity. The Maggid links this Midrash to a Midrash about the blessing that Hashem bestowed on the seventh day (Bereishis 2:3). The Sages teach (Bereishis Rabbah 11:1, expounding on Mishlei 10:22, which I render in line with the Maggid’s interpretation):
Hashem’s blessing is what brings riches – this refers to the Sabbath day. Let it not bring along with it an increase of grief – that is, mourning.
The Maggid explains this Midrash with a parable – one his most famous ones. A man went on a trip, and on the way he met a saintly sage whom he knew had the power to give people blessings. He asked the sage to bless him. The sage replied: “May it be Hashem’s will that, when you return home, the first thing you do will develop into a thriving success.” The man decided that when he got home, he would immediately take out his money pouch and start counting and weighing his money, so that the sage’s blessing would take effect on the money and make him rich. And so, the very second he got home, he called to his wife: “Quick! Bring me the money pouch!” The man’s wife, who had no idea why he made this abrupt request, concluded that he had been stricken with a fit of insanity and refused to give him the pouch. He proceeded to yell at her, and she, in turn, proceeded to curse him. The quarrel escalated further and further, ultimately developing into a great “success” – for it was the first activity the man engaged in when he got home, and it was thus on this squabbling that the sage’s blessing took effect.
Shabbos is like the sage in the above parable – as the Zohar teaches, Hashem established Shabbos as the fount of blessing. This special power is what the Torah is referring to when it says that Hashem bestowed blessing on the seventh day. The Zohar elaborates, teaching that all blessing within the universe depends on Shabbos, both in heaven and on earth. It is the blessing which flows from Shabbos that brings forth all the good we receive during the week.
Every activity a person engages in on Shabbos is infused with a special blessing, and this blessing causes the activity to thrive during the upcoming week. Thus, Shabbos is called the “treasure of days” – all the other days of the week, so to speak, treasure and yearn for Shabbos, for it is from Shabbos that they receive their blessing. It therefore behooves every Jew, in a God-fearing spirit, to spend every moment of his Shabbos wisely. He should engage in spiritual pursuits, so that, in the upcoming week, he will achieve success in these pursuits. And he should honor Shabbos properly with fine food and drink, so that the upcoming week will bear for him a goodly measure of material sustenance. Moreover, in all our Shabbos activities, we must take extreme care to keep what we are doing completely free of anything that produces grief, for the generative power of Shabbos will boost this grief and cause it to thrive throughout the upcoming week.
With this, the Maggid turns to the Midrash about Noach’s grapevine, and explains the strong criticism leveled against Noach. After the flood, Hashem brought into the world a wondrous flow of blessing, so that the world could be fully re-established and restored to its former state. Thus, the world was poised in such a way that the first activity that Noach engaged in would be invested with an extraordinary power of growth. Noach should have taken advantage of this awesome opportunity by engaging in an activity that would contribute as constructively as possible to the restoration of the world. But, instead, he planted a grapevine, and it was on this inferior planting that the extraordinary power of growth took effect. On the very day Noach planted it, the grapevine matured and produced grapes, and Noach turned these grapes into wine, drank, and disgraced himself. It was a classic case of profanation – taking potential for lofty achievement, and wasting it on the pursuit of the mundane.