Post Archive for January 2011

Parashas Mishpatim

The end of this week’s parashah relates the events leading up to Moshe’s forty-day stay in heaven to receive the full Torah from Hashem, while the Jewish People encamped at Mount Sinai. It is written (Shemos 24:9-11): “Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended [Mount Sinai]. And they beheld God …. And against the eminent men of the Children of Israel, He did not send forth His hand – they gazed at God, and they ate and drank.” Here, they phrase “they ate and drank” means that they imbibed the Divine Presence at Sinai as if they were eating and drinking. The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:24):
It was like a servant snatching bites of his master’s food out of the master’s hand. These men deserved to die instantly, but the Holy One Blessed Be He did not wish to disrupt the joy of the Giving of the Torah. So, instead, Nadav and Abivu died on the day the Mishkan was dedicated [after offering a foreign fire – Vayikra 10:1-2], and the remainder of the group died along with the craving throng [who complained about the manna and clamored for more delectable food – Bamidbar 11:4-34].
The Maggid explains the Midrash as follows. Certain activities involve both pleasure and spiritual benefit. One example is partaking of delicacies on Shabbos, which we have discussed in a previous piece – this activity involves both the pleasure of enjoying the food and the spiritual benefit associated with the mitzvah of honoring Shabbos. The way Hashem judges the activity depends on the motive the person had for engaging in it. If the person is motivated by a desire to gain spiritual benefit, Hashem views the activity favorably, while if he is motivated by a desire for pleasure, Hashem views the activity neutrally or unfavorably.
Now, beholding the Divine Presence involves both pleasure and spiritual benefit. Indeed, wondrous though it may sound, beholding the Divine Presence is the greatest of all pleasures. In the upper worlds, the radiance of the Divine Presence is like nourishment; all the angels and other heavenly beings are sustained through it. At the same time, beholding the Divine Presence is the most powerful means of elevating the soul. The Jews who beheld the Divine Presence at Sinai should have focused solely on the spiritual benefit. Those elders who imbibed the Divine Presence out of pleasure committed an affront against Hashem’s honor. It was just like partaking of delicacies on Shabbos for the sake of pleasure rather than for the sake of the mitzvah. The Midrash compares these elders to a servant who snatched bites of his master’s food out of the master’s hand. The servant gained nourishment thereby, yet he committed an act of great brazenness. Similarly, the conduct of these elders was like that of the throng in the wilderness who brazenly clamored for delectable foods – the sin was of a similar character. Hence, when Hashem struck down the craving throng, He struck down these elders as well.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Yisro

This week’s parashah recounts the Giving of the Torah. In the days leading up to this crucial event, Hashem tells Moshe to convey to the Jewish People the following message (Shemos 19:5-6): “Now, if you hearken well to My voice and uphold My covenant, then you shall be unto Me a special treasure among all the nations, for the whole Earth is Mine. And you shall be (v’atem tihiyu) unto Me as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Now, the statement “You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” seems superfluous, since Hashem already told the Jewish People just before that “you shall be unto Me a special treasure among all the nations.” Also, in the phrase v’atem tihiyu, the word atem is really unecessary; Hashem could have said simply tihiyu, and the word “you” would have been implied by the grammatical conjugation. The Maggid analyzes the meaning behind Hashem’s choice of language.
He explains Hashem’s message with a parable. A certain rich man sought to remarry after his first wife died. Instead of marrying a wealthy woman, he chose one of his maidservants as a wife. He said to her: “Up to now, you were just one of the maidservants. But now you are going to be my wife, and so you will be the mistress of the house. But do not think that your position as mistress will make you thoroughly more comfortable than the others. In one major respect, your life will be harder now than it was before. When you were just a maidservant, you were responsible only for the specific task that I assigned to you. I gave each maidservant a specific task: one is responsible for taking care of the silver vessels, another is responsible for taking care of the gold vessels, and so on. It was the same with you. But now that you will be my wife, you will be responsible for overseeing the entire household. If anything is out of order anywhere in the house, I will hold you accountable.
“This being so, you might wonder: ‘What good is it, then, for me to be the mistress of the house? How will it be clear that I am his wife, and not just another hired hand?’ So let me explain how our marriage will work.
“We each will do our part to make our relationship a success. I will take it upon myself to promote your honor within the household to the utmost, as befits the mistress of the house. I will take care to treat you with graciousness, kindness, and respect. But, for your part, you must not dwell too much on this honor. Rather, you should think of yourself as a maidservant on double-duty, charged with keeping an eye on everything in the house. If you take this attitude, I will make you greatly honored. But if you let your position as mistress make you haughty, and you cast aside the responsibilities I am giving you, then the end will be bitter. Instead of being honored, you will be disgraced.”
Similarly, Hashem chose the Jewish People as His special treasure. This role encompasses two aspects. One side of the coin is the wondrous love and tremendous honor that Hashem shows us. The other side is the duty we have to uphold the Torah and keep its commandments. Our Torah study and the mitzvos we perform play a key role in bringing the world to perfection. If we are lax in fulfilling our duty, the entire world suffers – and we, like the mistress in the parable, are held accountable. Thus it is written (Amos 3:2): “You alone have I known among all the families of the earth. Therefore I shall hold you accountable for all your iniquities.”
Accordingly, before giving the Torah to the Jewish People, Hashem advised them: “If you become prideful on account of your lofty station, you will become lax in your duties. And then the love I show for you will be compromised. Therefore, you must instill within your hearts the recognition that you are becoming My servants, so that you will be on alert to carry out your duties with great zeal and diligence. Then I will continue to show you love and honor.”
This is the message of our passage. Hashem tells us: “If you hearken well (shmoa tishma) to My voice and uphold My covenant, then you shall be unto Me a special treasure among all the nations.” Hashem is saying to us: “If you truly wish to continue heeding My message on a constant basis [the double verb indicating continued action], without losing hold of it, then you will do well to keep in mind that you will thereby be a special treasure unto Me among all the nations. I will take care to raise you high and show you great honor. But you must not dwell too much on this honor. Rather, you must resolve to act as ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” Thus, the first part of Hashem’s message describes the role Hashem has designated for us, while the second part describes – as signalled by the word extra word atem – what we must do to maintain the relationship.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Beshallach

This week’s parashah recounts the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. After this wondrous deliverance, Moshe and the Jewish People sing a song of praise to Hashem. One of the lines in this song says (Shemos 15:11): “Who is like You among the gods, Hashem?” The Midrash expounds (Yalkut Shimoni I:150):
You are not like those that others call gods – which have no substance, and of whom it is written (Tehillim 115:5-7): “They have a mouth but cannot speak; they have eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear; they have a nose but cannot smell. Their hands – they cannot feel; their feet – they cannot walk. They cannot produce any sound from their throat.” But the One whose word brought the world into being is not so; rather, He said two things simultaneously in one act of speech – something no mortal man can do.
The Maggid explains this Midrash with a parable. Someone dressed up in rabbinical garb, traveled to a certain town, and presented himself as the famous Rabbi Ploni. The townspeople, for whom “Rabbi Ploni” was a well-known name, showed him great honor. Afterward, the true Rabbi Ploni got word of what happened. Although he was upset over being impersonated, still the incident gave him some satisfaction, for it was an honor to him that people were honoring someone they thought was he. Moreover, he had no quarrel with the townspeople, for the imposter looked and acted very much like him. Sometime afterward, another person came to the town also claiming to be Rabbi Ploni. This person, however, was dressed and acted like a boor. Nonetheless, the townspeople believed his claim that he was Rabbi Ploni, and honored him the same way they honored the previous imposter. Again, the true Rabbi Ploni later got word of what had happened. This time he was incensed at the townspeople: How could they have mistaken this boor for him?
The parallel is as follows. Although Hashem is displeased by idol worship, He nonetheless gets some satisfaction from it, since it reflects recognition of a power higher than man and represents an attempt to pay homage to this power. It is written (Tehillim 113:3): “From the rising of the sun until its setting, the Name of Hashem is praised.” When someone worships an idol, he is not praising Hashem directly, but he is still praising Hashem’s Name – just as, in the parable, the honor shown to the imposters reflected Rabbi Ploni’s glowing reputation. At the same time, Hashem is incensed that people could be foolish enough to mistake their idols for Him. In the passage from Tehillim that the Midrash quotes, it is not simply written “They cannot speak,” but rather it is written “They have a mouth but cannot speak” – and then, similarly, “They have eyes but cannot see,” and so on. This phrasing is not merely poetic. Rather, the psalmist is noting two distinct flaws of idols: not only they cannot speak, see, hear, or do anything, they also have physical mouths, eyes, ears, and so on – which makes them patently unlike Hashem, who has no physical form whatsoever. The difference is so stark that it is ridiculous to mistake an idol for Hashem. Thus, Moshe and the Jewish People exclaimed: “Who is like You among the gods, Hashem?” Among all those whom other call gods, there is none even remotely like Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo

This week’s parashah describes the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah stresses that the Jews left Egypt in haste. Hashem tells the Jews to eat the Korban Pesach in haste, as a sign of the haste with which they were leaving. The Torah relates that the Jews baked matzos when they left Egypt because they were unable to tarry in their departure. As a remembrance, we have a mitzvah once every year, on Pesach, to eat matzah and abstain from chametz. As the Torah states (Devarim 16:3): “You shall not eat leavened bread along with it [the Korban Pesach]; for seven days you shall eat matzos – poor bread – as an adjunct to it, for in haste you went out from the land of Egypt – so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.”
Shortly after the Jews left, as we read in next week’s parashah, the Egyptians chased after them. The Midrash describes Hashem telling the Jews that they were being chased because they left Egypt in haste, like a thief in the night (Shemos Rabbah 19:6). The Maggid asks an obvious question: Why does Hashem blame the Jews for their haste, when He Himself mandated it? The Maggid then asks further: Why do we need to recall this haste every year, by eating matzah and abstaining from chametz on Pesach? What is the great significance of the few hours the Jews saved by hurrying out of Egypt, that created an imperative for them to eat the Korban Pesach in haste, and for us to commemorate their hurrying once every year for all time?
The Maggid answers that the haste with which the Jews moved as they left Egypt was a sign of a more fundamental haste – that, due to the dismal state to which the Jews in Egypt had sunken, Hashem was led to take them out early, before they had completed their designated term of exile. Hashem intended, as He told Avraham, that the Jews spend 400 years in exile, but the Jews did not hold up. They could not bear the affliction; they clamored to be freed. Moreover, they did not muster the strength to withstand the evil spiritual influences of Egyptian culture; they could not tarry – had they remained in Egypt any longer, they would have, as the Arizal teaches, entered the 50th gate of defilement, from which there is no return. Hashem was therefore led to take them out after only 210 years. In the statement that the Midrash reports, Hashem is saying that the Egyptian had license to chase after the Jews because they did not serve their full term. And He blames the Jews for the early departure, holding them responsible for not fortifying themselves enough to endure until the end.
Because we did not serve the full term of exile in Egypt, we must make up for the lost time by suffering further exile. As our Sages say (Berachos 64a): “One who pushes the time, the time pushes him.” To make the additional exile easier to endure, Hashem broke up it into segments – a series of exiles under four different kingdoms (cf. Yalkut Shimoni II:635, with a parable of a king casting a boulder at his son by first crushing it into pebbles). Hashem told Moshe that the Jews would suffer further exile; He directed him to present His name to the Jewish People as “I Shall Be As I Shall Be” (Shemos 3:14), a name indicating that just as He will be with the Jewish People in the Egyptian exile, He will be with them in future exiles (Shemos Rabbah 3:6).
It is to implant the above concepts in our minds that Hashem told the Jews in Egypt to eat the Korban Pesach in haste, and directed us to commemorate their hurried departure from Egypt through a special observance once a year. Hashem is not calling our attention to the few hours the Jews saved by hurrying out of Egypt, but rather to His having been led to terminate the Egyptian exile early, before the Jews had served the full term. We need to bear in mind the early termination of the Egyptian exile, so that we can grasp why we are suffering exile now, and do not seek an early release again. We can hasten the final redemption by purifying ourselves, but we should not expect Hashem to hasten it for us simply to grant us relief. As Yeshayah declares (verse 28:16): “Let the believer not expect it [the final redemption] soon.” In the same vein, Shlomo HaMelech writes (Shir HaShirim 2:7): “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, …, lest you arouse or stir the love before it wishes.” The Midrash on this verse interprets as a admonition from Hashem to Jewish People not to push for the final redemption to come before its proper time.
In the end of days, we will reach the close of our term; in Yeshayah’s words, our days of mourning will be completed (Yeshayah 60:20).  Of these days, Yeshayah states (verse 52:12): “For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not proceed in a flight.” When we left Egypt, we were chased by the Egyptians, on account of having left early. In the end of days, however, since we will be leaving at the proper time, we will not need to flee from pursuers as we proceed on our way.
David Zucker, Site Administrator