Post Archive for April 2011

Parashas Kedoshim

In this week’s parashah it is written (Vayikra 19:18): “You shall love your fellow man as yourself – I am Hashem.” In Shabbos 31a, the Gemara relates a famous story about a gentile who says he would covert to the Jewish faith if the entire Torah were explained to him while he stood on one foot. Shammai rebuffed him, viewing his request as disrepectful to the Torah, but Hillel accepted him, saying: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah – the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” The Maggid sets out to analyze what Hillel meant when he said that the entire Torah is encapsulated in the mitzvah to love your fellow man as yourself.
The Maggid begins with a Gemara in Makkos 23b-24a that also discusses encapsulation of the mitzvos. Moshe gave us 613 mitzvos, Dovid HaMelech encapsulated them in eleven directives, Yeshayah HaNavi in six, Michah HaNavi in three, Yeshayah (a second time) in two, and Chabakkuk in one. The Maggid focuses on Michah’s encapsulation. Michah teaches (verse 6:8): “He has told you – man – what is good, and what Hashem requires of you: only to do justice, love kindness, and walk modestly with your God.” The Maggid analyzes the significance of the word “man,” which, on the surface, seems superfluous. He explains as follows. We cannot fully appreciate the rationale behind the Torah’s laws, for Hashem’s wisdom is far beyond our grasp. But we can understand at a basic level the mitzvos concerning the relationship between a person and his fellow man, and we can see that they are just and right. When someone is in a situation where one of these mitzvos comes into play, the best way for him to see the beauty of the mitzvah is to put himself in the other man’s shoes. For example, a poor man who finds a lost item of great value may feel aversion toward the duty to return the item to its owner, but if he puts himself in the owner’s shoes, he will see that what the Torah is telling him to do is right. The same applies to someone who is approached by a stranger who needs a place to stay. If we want to know what is good, Michah says, we should “ask” the man we are dealing with, and he will tell us. In this way, we can gain a good appreciation of the mitzvos between man and his fellow.
Now, the Torah includes two mitzvos calling upon us to show love: The Torah tells us to love Hashem, and it tells us to love our fellow man. These two mitzvos form the foundation of the entire Torah. The mitzvah to love Hashem is the foundation of the mitzvos between man and Hashem, while the mitzvah to love our fellow man is the foundation of the mitzvos between man and his fellow. In regard to loving Hashem, the Torah tells us to love Hashem with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might (Devarim 6:5, first paragraph of the Shema). It is hard for a mortal man to reach this goal, but it is our duty to work toward it. How? The Gemara points the way (Berachos 17a):
A pearl of wisdom regularly heard from R. Meir’s mouth: “Study with all your heart and all your soul, to know My ways and keep watch at My Torah’s doors. Safeguard My Torah in your heart, and let the fear of Me be before your eyes. Guard your mouth from all sin, and purify and sanctify yourself from all wrongdoing and iniquity, and I shall be with you everywhere.”
R. Meir is telling us that if we strive to attain all that is within our ability, Hashem will enable us to gain hold as well on what is beyond our ability (“I will be with you everywhere”). In particular, while it is hard for most people to develop an intense love of Hashem through a direct approach, we can merit Hashem’s help in reaching this goal by doing our utmost to fulfill the mitzvos between man and his fellow – which are within our ability to grasp. Thus, in presenting the mitzvah of loving your fellow man as yourself, the Torah aptly concludes with the postscript “I am Hashem.” The Torah is hinting that if a person loves his fellow man as himself, he will ultimately gain a vibrant awareness of Hashem and develop intense love for Him. [By observing the mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself, a person sheds the self-interest that clouds his thinking, and thereby becomes better able to perceive Hashem’s presence.] Conversely, if a person is oblivious to his fellow man, he ultimately becomes oblivious to Hashem. In this vein, Shemos Rabbah 1:8 states that because Pharaoh “did not know Yosef” (Shemos 1:8), he ultimately came to say, “I do not know Hashem” (Shemos 5:2). Love of others and love and Hashem are linked.
We can now see what Hillel meant when he said that the entire Torah is encapsulated in the mitzvah to love your fellow man as yourself. If a person puts his whole heart into this mitzvah, and deeply attaches himself to the mitzvos between man and his fellow, he will come to love Hashem with all his heart, and will then also become deeply attached to the mitzvos between man and Hashem. Thus, diligently observing the mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself leads a person to diligently observe the entire Torah.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shir HaShirim

On Pesach we read Shir HaShirim, which describes the bond of love between Hashem and the Jewish People – a bond that was formed at the time of the Exodus. I present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on Shir HaShirim.
Shlomo HaMelech writes (Shir HaShirim 7:7): “How beautiful and how pleasant you are, O love laden with delights!” The aim of this verse, the Maggid says, is to point out how the love between Hashem and the Jewish People differs from the typical love relationship between two people. Typically, when one person shows love for another, the loved one does not take delight in this love in and of itself. Rather, he or she values the love only on account of the kindnesses the lover does for him or her because of it. If the loved one knows that the lover does not plan to do him or her any special favors, he or she will not feel any real joy from the love. For example, if a man has a servant who loves him wholeheartedly, but is lazy and sloppy in his work, the servant’s love will be worthless to him.
The love between Hashem and His people Yisrael is of the opposite sort. Our Father in Heaven values our love for Him even if no good deeds result from it. Indeed, when the Torah says (Devarim 6:5), “You shall love Hashem your God,” the Torah is telling us that love of Hashem is in itself a mitzvah. And likewise, the love that Hashem shows for us is sweet and pleasing to us independent of any specific benefit. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech writes (Shir HaShirim 1:2), “Your love is more pleasing than wine,” with the term “wine” representing all worldly blessings. Similarly, Dovid HaMelech declares (Tehillim 63:4): “For Your kindnesses are better than life.” Asaph also expresses this idea, stating (ibid. 73:28): “But as for me, God’s closeness is my good.” Hashem’s devoted love for us is in itself a source of joy.
Tehillim 4 includes a brief discussion of those who do not adopt this lofty attitude. Dovid HaMelech describes such people as saying (ibid. 4:7): “Who will show us good?” These people are not satisfied with Hashem’s love in and of itself. Instead, they hanker to see concrete benefit from this love. Dovid concludes by declaring that he is of a different mind (ibid. 4:8, homiletically): “You brought joy to my heart at the time their grain and wine became abundant.” Dovid is saying: “My chief joy is Your love and Your greatness. Hence, when You grant bounty to others, this, too, heightens my joy and exultation.”
This is the idea behind our verse: “How beautiful and how pleasant you are, O love laden with delights!” The message is that the love in itself is a great delight. The point is brought out even more sharply in the earlier verse that we quoted just above (Shir HaShirim 1:2): “Your love is more pleasing than wine.” If a person takes delight in love someone shows him only because of the benefits the lover provides, then it does not matter whether the lover provides these benefits directly or through an emissary. But if the person takes delight mainly in the love itself, then he or she feels special pleasure when the lover gives a gift directly, for this shows how great the love is. Knesses Yisrael declares that a show of love from Hashem is worth more than any worldly blessing. Indeed, this is the intelligentattitude toward benefits Hashem provides. Only a fool delights in the benefits alone. A man of true wisdom, while he values the benefits, delights more in the love that Hashem shows in providing them.
Chag Kasher V’Sameach!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Acharei Mos

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Vayikra 18:4-5): “According to My ordinances you shall do, and My statutes you shall observe, to follow them – I am Hashem, your God. And You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which man shall do and by which he shall live – I am Hashem.” Rashi notes that the Torah makes a point of linking both the term “do” and the term “observe” with each of the terms “ordinances” and “statutes.” The Maggid expounds on this link, taking a Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 3:10 as a starting point.
In chapter 9 of sefer Devarim, Moshe presents some points that the Jewish People must keep in mind as they enter Eretz Yisrael. The chapter begins with the words, “Listen, O Yisrael.” The Midrash remarks:
Why did Moshe see fit to preface his words with “Listen, O Yisrael”? The Rabbis say: “It is like a king who betrothed a lady with two pearls, and later discovered that she lost one of them. He told her: ‘You lost one pearl; safeguard the other.’ Similarly, the Holy One Blessed Be He betrothed the Jewish People with ‘we shall do and we shall listen.’ But when they made the golden calf, they lost the ‘we shall do.’ Moshe told them: ‘You lost the “we shall do” – safeguard the “we shall listen.”’ Thus – ‘Listen, O Yisrael.’”
The Maggid, in analyzing this Midrash, explains the difference between “we shall do” and “we shall listen.” If a servant is told by his master to perform a certain job, he will listen to his master regardless of whether the job will yield him personal benefit. He has to obey because he is under his master’s dominion. And thus he will tell his master: “I will listen to what you said.” But if a doctor prescribes for his patient a certain treatment, the patient will respond: “I will do as you said.” His decision to undergo the treatment is not aimed at satisfying the doctor. Rather, he is acting out of self-interest; had he known beforehand of the treatment’s beneficial effects, he would have adopted it on his own.
Now, when the Jewish People gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they were purged of the defilement that the primeval serpent had injected into man (Yevamos 103b), and were thus purified to the point where they all reached the level of prophecy. Thus, the Torah states (Devarim 5:4): “Face to face did Hashem speak with you on the mountain.” Because of their lofty level, they perceived the inner workings of the soul and grasped intellectually the rationale behind the entire Torah.
It is in this vein that we say in the Dayeinu poem in the Haggadah: “If He had brought us near [to Him] at Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would have been enough for us.” The Jews at Sinai did not need to actually receive the Torah, for they already grasped on their own all its laws and their beneficial effects. They understood that if a person disregards these laws, he is cutting himself off from life. Hence, when they affirmed that they would follow the Torah, they said: “We shall do and we shall listen.” They first said “we shall do,” reflecting, as in the example of the patient above, their understanding that doing what the Torah says would benefit them. But afterward they added “we shall listen,” to stress that although they saw the benefits of the Torah’s laws, their Torah observance would not be driven by self-interest, but rather by a pure desire to fulfill Hashem’s will.
After the sin of the golden calf, the primeval defilement re-entered them, and their minds became muddled. They no longer perceived the inner workings of the soul, and thus lost their grasp of the beneficial effects of the Torah’s laws. Indeed, some of the Torah’s laws now seemed burdensome. Moshe therefore told them: “You lost the ‘we shall do’ – safeguard the ‘we shall listen.’” We lost the understanding to accept the Torah due to our own appreciation of its benefits. Still, Moshe told us, we should at least follow the Torah in the way that a servant obeys the orders of his master.
We now return to the passage from our parashah. The passage speaks of “ordinances” (mishpatim) and “statutes” (chukim). The term “statutes” refers to directives whose rationale we do not understand; regarding these directives, it is more natural to speak of “listening” rather than “doing.” By constrast, “ordinances” are directives whose rationale we can clearly see; regarding them it is natural to speak of “doing.” Accordingly, the first verse of our passage pairs the ordinances with the exhortation “you shall do” and the statutes with the exhortation “you shall observe.” But then the second verse links both the term “do” and the term “observe” with the terms “ordinances” and “statutes” together. Here, the Torah is teaching us the proper attitude toward mitzvos. On the one hand, regarding the ordinances, even though we understand their rationale, it is incumbent on us to see to it that our compliance is driven not by self-interest, but rather by a desire to obey Hashem’s command. On the other hand, regarding the statues, even though we do not understand their rationale, it is incumbent upon us to believe that they are indeed intended for our benefit.
The above idea is reflected in the way the Torah tells us, at the end of chapter 6 of sefer Devarim, to answer the wise son’s question about the mitzvos. The wise son asks (Devarim 6:20): “What are the testimonies, and statutes, and ordinances, that Hashem your God has commanded you?” In answering him, we should begin (ibid. 6:21): “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand.” We should continue relating the events associated with the Exodus and the subsequent entry into Eretz Yisrael. We should then say (ibid. 6:24-25):
Hashem commanded us to do according to all of these statutes, to fear Hashem our God, for our good, all the days, to give us life, as this very day. And it will be a merit for us if we observe to do this entire commandment before Hashem our God, as He commanded us.
The primary intent of the statutes, the intent mentioned first, is that we should fear Hashem our God. But then the Torah tells us also to recognize that the statutes are “for our good … to give us life.” Conversely, regarding the “commandment” – referring to the directives in the Torah whose rationale and benefits we can see (as Rashi explains in his commentary on Bereishis 26:5) – the Torah stresses that it will be a merit for us to follow them simply because “He commanded us.” We should realize that all mitzvos are for our benefit, but, at the same time, when we perform them, we should view them not as a means of achieving personal gain, but rather as a means of showing our devotion to Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Metzora

This week’s parashah includes a segment about tzaraas lesions that erupt on the walls of a house. The Torah states (Vayikra 14:34): “When you come to the land of Canaan, that I am giving you as a possession, and I cast [lit. and I give] a tzaraas lesion on a house within the land of your possession ….” The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 17:6 picks up on the phrasing “I give a tzaraas lesion” – the language seems to suggest that Hashem is giving a person something good by casting a tzaraas lesion on his house. This prompts the Midrash to ask: “Is this good news?” The Midrash goes on to answer that in the process of tearing down the houses with such lesions, the Jews would find treasures hidden away by the Canaanites, which obviously is good news. The Maggid, however, gives a different explanation of how a tzaraas lesion on a house can be viewed as good news.
The unusual phenomenon of tzaraas lesions erupting on houses is a sign, the Maggid says, of the special relationship between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel, which was at full strength in the era when the Beis HaMikdash was standing. At that time, the Land was just like one of our own limbs. When a Jewish soul suffered damage through the scourge of sin, a lesion immediately erupted on the walls of his house. It was as if the Land felt our infirmity and the pain of our souls.
The Maggid brings out the point further with a parable. A man’s hand dried up like wood and lost sensation. The doctors did what they could to bind the hand up and brace it. They then told him how to monitor his condition: “If a little sensation returns to your hand, you will know that the treatment is working very well and your hand will recover its former strength.” After some time, someone struck this person on his hand and he felt severe pain. He was very happy about this. Indeed, the more pain he felt, the happier he got, for the pain was a sign that his hand was coming back to life. Similarly, the eruption of a tzaraas lesion is a sign of the vibrant natural tie between the Land and us, like the tie between the body and the soul. Hence, when the Torah tells us about these lesions, it is indeed bringing good news.
The Maggid discusses how a verse from Tehillim reflects the same idea. It is written (Tehillim 87:5): “Regarding Zion it is said, ‘This one and that one were born within it, and He, the Most High One, maintains it thus.’” This verse describes the people of Zion not simply as having been “born there,” but as having been “born within it.” Zion and its natives are strongly bound to one another. The tie between them is like that between a fetus and its mother, or between the soul and the body. What happens to one is felt by the other. The verse concludes: “And He, the Most High One, maintains it thus.” Extending the Maggid’s commentary, we can say that while the tie between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel is not as strong as in days of yore, Hashem still makes sure that some degree of relationship is maintained. The Land falters when we falter, and is elevated when we elevate ourselves.
David Zucker, Site Administrator