Post Archive for March 2011

Parashas HaChodesh

This Shabbos, for the maftir aliyah, we read the special portion known as parashas HaChodesh, which designates Nisan as the first month of the Jewish year and presents some laws concerning Pesach: the Pesach offering, refraining from chametz, eating matzah, and observing the first and last days as Yomim Tovim. In this portion, we read about how Hashem commanded the Jews of the Exodus generation to smear the blood of the Pesach offering on the doorposts and lintels of their houses. Hashem declares (Shemos 12:12-13):
I shall traverse the land of Egypt, and I shall smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to beast …. And the blood shall be a sign for you upon the houses where you are. I shall see the blood and pass over you, and there shall not be an onslaught to wreak destruction against you when I strike within the land of Egypt.
The Maggid notes several difficulties with this statement. In two separate places, Hashem uses what seems to be extra language. First, He says “a sign for you” where seemingly it would be enough to say simply “a sign.” Second, He says “an onslaught to wreak destruction” where seemingly it would be enough to say simply “an onslaught.” Beyond these points of language, the import of the sign of blood, in itself, needs explanation. Usually a sign of blood marks a person for death. Thus, in connection with Yechezkel 9:4, the Gemara in Shabbos 56a relates that Hashem told the archangel Gavriel to mark the foreheads of the wicked with blood and those of the righteous with ink, so the destroying angels would have dominion over the wicked but not over the righteous. But, for the Jews in Egypt, it appears that the sign of blood was meant for protection, contrary to its usual function.
The Maggid explains the above difficulties as follows. Hashem, on occasion, announces an adverse decree in order to spur the Jewish People (or an individual Jew) to prayer or repentance. If the Jews respond appropriately, the adverse decree is transformed. Not only does it not lead to an adverse result, it actually leads to a positive result – through their response, the Jews come closer to Hashem and generate merit for themselves. For example, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:12, cf. Shabbos 156a–b) describes how Avraham saw an astrological sign indicating that he would not father children, and the Maggid explains that Hashem’s intent in showing him this sign was to spur him to pray that the adverse decree be cancelled, so that ultimately he would actually have a child.
Now, when Hashem declared that He was going to smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, the implication was that the Jewish firstborn were also subject to the decree. The sign of blood, on the surface, was an indication the Jewish firstborn were under threat. But the sign of blood did not mean exactly what it usually does. It was not a signal for the destroyer to carry out an actual attack against the Jews, far be it. Rather, the blood on the door frame was designed simply to make the Jews inside see that the specter of judgment was looming over them – so they would be struck with fright and repent sincerely. This is why Hashem described the sign of blood as “a sign for you” – the blood was meant as a sign for the Jews, not for the destroyer. And thus Hashem declared: “I shall see the blood and pass over you, and there shall not be an onslaught to wreak destruction against you.” There would be an onslaught, but not one that would wreak actual destruction. Rather, the onslaught would be simply one of fear, to lead the Jews to repent and thereby merit salvation.
In connection with the Pesach offering, the Midrash expounds as follows (Shemos Rabbah 15:12):
It is like a king who said to his sons: “Be advised that I am judging capital cases and will be handing down convictions. Bring me a gift, so that if you come before me on the [defendant’s] platform, I will transfer your record to someone else.” Thus said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Yisrael: “Be advised that I am dealing with capital cases. I now inform you of the means whereby I will mercifully show you pity: the blood of the Pesach offering and the blood of circumcision. And I will grant atonement for your souls. For the traversal I will be making is a harsh one.” As it is written (Shemos 12:12): “And I shall traverse the land of Egypt, [and I shall smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to beast].” And, similarly, Yisrael declared (Tehillim 9:10): “And Hashem will be a fortress for the crushed, a fortress through times of trouble.”  
The Maggid interprets this Midrash using the idea brought out above. Hashem tells the Jews that the traversal He will be making through Egypt will be a harsh one, meaning that it will threaten everyone dwelling there. The Midrash advances a proof of this from Shemos 12:12, which, as noted above, indicates that the decree of death to the firstborn was a general one. In response, the Jews declare: “Hashem will be a fortress for the crushed, a fortress through times of trouble.” As a result of the fear that wells up within us through the threat of calamity, Hashem will act as a fortress for us and protect us from the calamity.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemini

This week’s parashah describes the inaugural day of service in the Mishkan. Moshe Rabbeinu tells the people (Vayikra 9:6): “This act, which Hashem has commanded, do – and then Hashem’s glory will appear to you.” The Midrash elaborates (Yalkut Shimoni I:521):
Said Moshe to the People of Israel: “Remove this evil inclination from your hearts, and let all of you have a single-minded fear of God and a unified agenda to serve before the All-Present One. Just as He is the sole power in the world, so, too, let your efforts be directly solely toward Him. … If you do so, Hashem’s glory will appear to you.
In explaining this Midrash, the Maggid notes that the formation of a great assembly of Jews for a mitzvah not, in itself, enough to bring Hashem great honor. The key factor that makes the assembly an honor to Hashem is each person’s individual devotion to serving Him.
Yeshayah declares (verses 8:11-12): “For thus Hashem said to me with a strong hand, admonishing me not to follow the way of this people, saying: ‘Do not regard as a coalition everything this people calls a coalition – do not fear what they fear, and do not be staggered by it.’” A council of fools, the Maggid explains, works very differently from a council of wise men. When a group of wise men gathers to form a plan about some matter, each member of the group analyzes the issues thoroughly with his own independent intellect and experience, and then advances his opinion. A council of fools, on the other hand, is usually dominated by one member’s view, with the rest of the group simply adopting this view without bothering to think through the issues themselves. Thus, the mere size of a group behind a given position is no proof that the position is sound. The opinion of twenty thoughtful men is of much greater substance than that of a thousand simpletons. In fact, Yeshayah says, a coalition of a thousand simpletons does not even merit being called a coalition.
Similarly, when a group of Jews presents itself before Hashem, we cannot always say that the honor to Hashem is proportionate to the size of the group. We can say this only when each individual member has worked on himself thoroughly to purify himself of the evil inclination and devote his entire being to serving Hashem. As the Mishkan was about to be inaugurated, and the Jewish People anxiously awaited the appearance of the Divine Presence, Moshe exhorted them to put themselves through this process. By carrying out Hashem’s directives with a pure heart, driven solely by a desire to give Him satisfaction, the people would merit having Hashem’s glory appear to them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Tzav

This week’s parashah continues with the discussion of korbanos (offerings). Vayikra 7:12-15 deals with the thanksgiving offering. The Midrash remarks (Vayikra Rabbah 9:1):
“With the presentation of a thanksgiving offering they shall honor Me” (Tehillim 50:23). It is not written “sin-offering” or “guilt-offering,” but rather “thanksgiving offering.” Why? Because sin-offerings and guilt-offerings are brought on account of a sin, but a thankgiving offering is not brought on account of a sin.
The Midrash teaches further (Vayikra Rabbah 9:7):
In the end of days, all types of offerings will cease except for the thanksgiving offering, and all types of prayer will cease except for praises of thanks. As it is written (Yirmiyah 33:10-11): “There will again be heard … in the cities of Yehudah and the streets of Yerushalayim, … the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of grooms and the voice of brides, the sound of people saying, “Praise Hashem, Master of Legions, for Hashem is good – His kindness is eternal” – this speaks of praises of thanks – “bringing thanksgiving offerings to the house of Hashem” – this speaks of thanksgiving offerings.
The Maggid explains these Midrashim as follows. When a person brings a sin-offering or a guilt-offering, he is happy to have gained atonement for his sin, but the joy is muted. Hashem is not granting him any new blessing, but rather is simply repairing the damage the person caused through his sin and restoring him to his original state. The person would not celebrate this experience openly in the streets. In addition, if he is a faithful Jew, he would not look forward to having this experience again; he would rather not sin at all than sin and then receive atonement. Moreover, as reflected in the first Midrash, Hashem gains limited honor from sin- and guilt-offerings; He would prefer that the person not sin in the first place. When Hashem grants someone new blessing, on the other hand, this is cause for unreserved joy. The receipient can freely celebrate his success in the streets, and he would be glad to receive such a kindness again. He sings praises of thanks to Hashem, and expresses his appreciation tangibly by bringing a thanksgiving offering, which Hashem regards as a true honor to Him.
In the end of days, we will no longer commit grave sins that call for a sin- or guilt-offering, and we will thus no longer need the bittersweet kindness of atonement. Instead, the kindnesses we receive from Hashem will all be in the form of wondrous new blessings, over which we will sing praises of thanks and bring thanksgiving offerings. We will celebrate these blessings in the streets, and thank Hashem for His eternal kindnesses – for glorious blessings which we will look forward to forever.
The above ideas, the Maggid says, are reflected in Tehillim 30. In this psalm, Dovid HaMelech speaks of being saved from distress: “Hashem, my God, I cried out to You, and You healed me. Hashem, You have raised up my soul from the netherworld; You have sustained me from descent to the pit” (verses 3-4). Here, Dovid is describing how Hashem restored him to his original state after he had been stricken. This type of salvation, however, is not the ultimate goal, but rather is just an intermediate stage. The ultimate goal is described in the final verse of the psalm (verse 13): “In order that my soul may sing to you and not be silenced. Hashem, my God, I shall thank you eternally.” In this verse, the word used for “my soul” is kavod, whose literal meaning is “honor.” We want Hashem to grant us kindnesses over which we feel honored to sing to Him and feel no need to keep silent – kindnesses that we can look forward to and thank Him for eternally.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayikra

This week’s parashah begins the Torah’s discussion of korbanos (offerings). Early in the parashah, the Torah presents the following law about burnt offerings (Vayikra 1:11): “And he shall slaughter it on the side of the altar, to the north before Hashem.” The Midrash teaches (Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu Rabbah 6; Yalkut Shimoni I:99):
On the very day that Avraham bound his son Yitzchak on the altar, the Holy One Blessed Be He established two daily offerings of sheep, one for the morning and one for the afternoon. Why did He go to such lengths? Because when the People of Israel bring the daily offering, of which it is written, “And he shall slaughter it on the side of the altar, to the north (tzafonah) before Hashem,” the Holy One Blessed Be He recalls the binding of Yitzchak [a merit for the Jewish People that continues to be held in store (tzafun) before Hashem].
The Maggid analyzes the connection between the binding of Yitzchak and the daily offering – a connection, which, on the surface, seems tenuous.
Every mitzvah involves two elements: the mitzvah act and the zeal in doing the mitzvah. For the mitzvah to be complete, both elements are required. But Hashem, in His great kindness, gives us credit for a mitzvah even when only one element is present. He accepts from us mitzvah acts done without zeal. And conversely, if a person firmly sets out to do a mitzvah but is prevented by some circumstance from carrying out the mitzvah act, Hashem gives him credit for the mitzvah as if he had actually done the mitzvah act (see Kiddushin 40a). Only when both elements are lacking are we left entirely without credit.
Now, the Gemara in Berachos 17a relates that when R. Alexandri finished the Amidah, he would say: “It is revealed and known before You that our desire is to do Your will. What holds us back? The leaven in the dough [i.e., the evil inclination] and our subjugation to foreign kingdoms.” We can interpret R. Alexandri’s prayer as referring to two distinct types of threats that operate, respectively, against the two elements of a mitzvah. The evil inclination, for the most part, works to dampen our zeal for mitzvos. If a person is a believer, his evil inclination will not lead him to an outright violation of a Torah law, such as eating on Yom Kippur or eating chametz on Pesach, but will simply cause him to regard the law as an unwelcome burden. Other threats work against the mitzvah acts themselves. From the time the second Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, we have been unable to bring offerings and perform the Temple service. Exile has prevented most Jews over the course of history from performing the agricultural mitzvos associated specifically with Eretz Yisrael. Oppression under foreign regimes has often kept us from doing certain mitzvos. In the end, with many mitzvos, we have neither credit for cherishing the mitzvah nor credit for doing the mitzvah act. The combined effect of the evil inclination and the hindrances of exile leaves us bereft of both elements. It is this combined effect that R. Alexandri was descrbing in his prayer.
Thus, two separate factors can combine to entirely rub out a mitzvah. The other side of the coin is the situation where two separate factors combine to produce a complete mitzvah. The Midrash that links the binding of Yitzchak to the daily offering provides a striking example of this situation.
With the binding of Yitzchak, Avraham displayed supreme zeal. When Hashem told him to bring Yitzchak as an offering, he took up the charge with zest and alacrity. He rose at daybreak the next day to get an early start, and, contrary to the norm for a man of his stature, he saddled his donkey himself. In the end, however, Hashem told him not to go through with the slaughter. Thus, the mitzvah act remained incomplete. Hashem therefore “saved up” Avraham’s zeal – just as a person who has a suit made will save the leftover cloth with the intent of using it, in combination with some additional cloth, in making another suit in the future. And, preparing the way for Avraham’s zeal to be put to the best possible use, Hashem decided to convey to his descendants an exceedingly lofty mitzvah – the bringing of daily offerings. The descendants, not being on the level of Avraham himself, would not have the inner spiritual resources to approach this awesome mitzvah with the proper measure of zeal. But Hashem would combine Avraham’s zeal with their act to form a complete mitzvah. As the Kohanim slaughtered the daily offering on the north side of the altar (tzafon), Hashem would draw from the reservoir of zeal He kept stored away (tzafun) from the time when Avraham bound his son Yitzchak on an altar on Mount Moriah, to make the daily offering lofty in both thought and deed.
The word lishchot, meaning to slaughter, appears exactly twice in the Bible. The first instance is Bereishis 22:10, the verse describing Avraham’s taking hold of the knife to slaughter his son. The second instance is Yechezkel 40:39, which speaks of offerings. In Bereishis 22:10, the word is spelled incompletely, without the vav, hinting that the slaughtering was not actually completed. In Yechezkel 40:39 the complete spelling is used. The mitzvah of bringing offerings in the Beis HaMikdash is regarded as having been fulfilled in the complete sense, through the combination of Avraham’s thought and the Kohanim’s act.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Pekudei

This week’s parashah begins (Shemos 38:21): “These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of testimony.” Building on the similarity between the word mishkan and the word mashkon, meaning collateral, the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 51:3 reads this verse as hinting that the Beis HaMikdash would twice be given as security. We presented one of the Maggid’s explanations of this Midrash in a previous piece; here we present another one.
The Midrash compares the opening verse of our parashah with the following verse (Nechemiah 1:7): “We have been indeed destructive (chabol chabalnu) toward You, and we have not observed the mitzvos ….” The phrase chabol chabalnu can also be read as an allusion to two security deposits, for the term chabol can be used, as in Devarim 24:6, to refer to taking a security deposit. One way of interpreting the two security deposits is to say that they correspond to the two occasions on which the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. But the Maggid notes that this interpretation is not entirely exact, for the second Beis HaMikdash was a lesser offshoot of the first Beis HaMikdash, so that the two destructions were really two phases of a single action. The Maggid therefore suggests an alternate interpretation.
Shlomo HaMelech writes (Koheles 1:9): “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done – there is nothing beneath the sun that is new.” Shlomo is telling us that what Hashem brought forth in the past is all preparation for what He will bring forth in the future; it is upon the past that the future will be built. As an analogy, suppose that someone wishes to buy a large quantity of goods, but cannot conclude the purchase right away, either because he does not have all the money or because the goods are still in production. He will then lock in the deal with a security deposit. Similarly, the various kindnesses Hashem performed for the Jewish People during their formative years served as the means of locking in the everlasting kindnesses that He will bestow on us in the end of days. In particular, the first Beis HaMikdash was a security deposit for the eternal Beis HaMikdash. Thus, during the inaugural ceremony for the first Beis HaMikdash, Shlomo declared (Melachim Alef 8:12-13): “Hashem said that He would dwell in the thick cloud. I have surely built a dwelling-house for You, the foundation for Your eternal dwelling.” Shlomo’s Mikdash was the foundation for the eternal Mikdash of the future.
The Maggid now introduces a parable. A man once borrowed a sum of money from a friend, and gave him a precious gem as security. Some time later, the lender ran short of funds, and borrowed some money from someone else, and, as security, gave him the gem. The original borrower learned what happened, and he was saddened that his gem was now in the hands of a stranger.
Similarly, Hashem gave us the first Beis HaMikdash a security deposit for the eternal Beis HaMikdash. But then we sinned grieviously, engaging in idol worship and other evil pursuits. We thereby descended into a state of spiritual poverty. As a bailout, the Beis HaMikdash was relinquished to the Babylonians, who plundered and destroyed it. In effect, we took the security deposit that Hashem had given us and, lamentably, handed it over to strangers.