Post Archive for May 2011

Parashas Bamidbar

This week’s parashah describes Moshe Rabbeinu’s census of the Jewish People. The Torah relates that the people “exhibited their lineage according to their families” (Bamidbar 1:8), and Rashi explains that they presented documents and witnesses attesting to their lineage. The Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni I:684 states that it was specifically on account of the Jewish People’s orderly lineage that they merited being given the Torah. The Maggid offers an explanation of the connection between the two.
He builds on a Midrash about the giving of the Torah. When Moshe assembled the Jewish People at Sinai to receive the Torah, the entire people called out together and said (Shemos 19:8): “All that Hashem has spoken, we shall do (naaseh).” The Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni I:276, expounding on this statement, describes the people as saying: “Even before being given these commands, we have fulfilled them.” The Midrash goes on, for each of the Ten Commandments, to give an example from sefer Bereishis of how that commandment was fulfilled by Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, or Yaakov’s twelve sons collectively. Thus, the Midrash is reading the future tense active plural verb naaseh as if the Jewish People had used (or meant) the past tense passive verb naasah. This interpretation seems very perplexing, but the Maggid offers an astute explanation. In truth, he says, the people said and meant naaseh – we shall do – and they were referring to the deeds of their ancestors to justify their bold confidence in declaring that they would fulfill all that Hashem had spoken.
The key is the principle that the experiences and deeds of the forefathers are an omen for and are inherited by the Jewish People of all future generations. Thus, the Midrash states that when Sarah held herself back from illicit relations with Pharaoh, she generated a merit that enabled the Jewish women under the Egyptian enslavement to hold themselves back from illicit relations (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5). Yosef’s firm resistance to the advances of Potiphar’s wife generated a similar merit for the Jewish men (ibid). Thus, expounding on Shir HaShirim 1:5, the Midrash describes Knesses Yisrael as declaring: “I am black as regards my own deeds, but I am beautiful as regards the deeds of my forefathers.” We do not give forth light on our own, but the light of our forefathers’ deeds shines upon us and is reflected in our deeds.
In general, every time a righteous Jew stands up to a test, he eases they way for those coming after him to stand up to a similar test. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 20:7): “One who walks in his integrity is a righteous man; fortunate are his sons coming after him.” Likewise, in speaking of righteous men, Dovid HaMelech declares (Tehillim 17:14): “Their portion is eternal life; You fill their bellies with Your hidden treasure. They are sated with sons, and they bequeath their abundance to their babes.” Dovid is saying that righteous men bequeath their deeds to their descendants, easing their way by paving a path that they can tread securely, and generating merit that serves them as a source of aid. This is what the Jews at Sinai had in mind when they made their bold declaration: “All that Hashem has spoken, we shall do.” Since their ancestors had already kept the Torah, they knew a path had been paved for them that would enable them to keep the Torah as well.
A clear lineage stirs a person’s soul. In one of his oratories about the Jewish People, Bilaam declared (Bamidbar 23:9): “From the top of mighty rocks I see them, and from hills I behold them.” The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 20:19 remarks that mighty rocks refers to our patriarchs and hills refers to our matriarchs. Bilaam was movingly describing the clear line of sight from the partriarchs and matriarchs to the Jewish People in the wilderness. By way of analogy, if a plain is entirely free of haze, a person standing at one end of the plain can see straight through to the other end. Similarly, a clear lineage allows each successive descendant to see all the way back to his initial roots. This majestic view instills within him a clear sense of connection with his ancestors and thus spurs him to follow their ways. Accordingly, Hashem gave the Jewish People the Torah specifically on account of their tradition of maintaining an orderly lineage. This tradition ensured that they would preserve the Torah faithfully throughout the generations.
Note: I am now adding a new feature to the site – a link to a PDF version of the divrei Torah posts. The divrei Torah may be distributed freely, with appropriate attribution, in both electronic and hard copy form. I encourage you to distribute the divrei Torah to others.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bechukosai

This week’s parashah contrasts the loving Divine care we will receive if we keep the Torah diligently with the tides of misfortune we will suffer if we neglect it. Hashem tells us: “If you walk according to My statutes, and guard My commandments and perform them … I shall walk among you – I shall be as God unto you, and you shall be a people unto Me. … But if you do not listen to Me … and you act toward Me in an happenstance way, then, I, too, shall act toward you in an happenstance way.” Hashem wants us to serve Him with constant and consistent devotion. In this connection, the Maggid quotes Shlomo HaMelech’s teaching (Mishlei 23:17): “Do not let your heart envy sinners; just keep it filled with the fear of Hashem all day long.” The Maggid then elaborates on the matter.
Any Torah-observant Jew, the Maggid says, can be called a servant of Hashem in the sense that he submits to Hashem’s will. Yet, Torah-observant Jews can be grouped into two very different types: those who are servants of Hashem in the essence of their being, and those who are servants of Hashem only in an incidental way. The Maggid describes these two types in detail.
A servant of Hashem in the essence of his being is a person who totally subordinates himself and all his faculties to the service of Hashem, on a continuous basis. He is occupied with serving Hashem at all times, day and night. He is constantly filled with fear of Hashem. He does not let up for a moment; he constantly strives to give Hashem satisfaction and actively seeks ways of doing so. Even at night he does not rest; rather, his mind is occupied with planning how he will serve Hashem. As Dovid HaMelech puts it (Tehillim 16:7): “I shall bless Hashem, who gives me counsel; even in the night my inner depths [literally, my kidneys] give me moral instruction.” When he wakes up in the morning, he rises from bed like a lion and prepares to assume his duties. As he takes upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, his face radiates awe and fear. He is always either actively performing a mitzvah, or waiting in attentive readiness for his next assignment.
A servant of Hashem in an incidental sense is not so devoted. When a mitzvah comes his way, he accepts his duty and performs it, but afterward he turns his attention away from serving Hashem, and focuses his mind on worldly matters. Such a person, despite his detachment, is still a servant of Hashem in the sense that he is committed to obeying the the Torah’s laws. He performs any mitzvah he is presented with, even when it is difficult. If, for example, he cannot obtain kosher food, he will suppress his desire to eat and endure hunger rather than taint himself by eating food that is unkosher. And if he is told to either commit one of the three cardinal sins or be killed, he will submit himself to death. But when he is not presented with any special challenge of this sort, and is not actively engaged in performing a positive mitzvah, he is not really serving Hashem – he exhibits no sign that he is bearing the yoke of service to Hashem.
Hashem relates to each of these types the same way they relate to Him. The Maggid brings out this idea with a parable. A king had the practice of giving his servants lavish gifts from time to time, such as on his birthday and other special occasions. But to his doctors he would would not give such gifts. Rather, he would show his doctors kindness only when they were in distress – for example, when they faced attack from soldiers from a neighboring province. In such situations, he would step in and rescue them. The men in the king’s inner circle asked him why he gave gifts to all his servants except the doctors. The king answered: “I reward them according to the way they serve me. When I am well, the doctors have no dealings with me, and they forget me. It is only when I am sick that they come to my service to heal me. In the same way, I aid them when they are in distress, but in normal times I show them no special favor. My other servants, on the other hand, serve me faithfully on a constant basis, and so I find it fitting to give them gifts regularly.”
Similarly, if a person acts toward Hashem in an happenstance way, then Hashem acts toward him in an happenstance way. He generally leaves the person to manage on his own with the natural order of the world. Only when the person faces grave danger does Hashem directly intervene in his life, to rescue him. But if a person is constantly focused on serving Hashem, then Hashem walks with him and is a God unto him in a closely personal way. He constantly watches over him, like a father watches over his son.
Note: Among the events of this week is the shloshim of Rav Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler, ztz”l, renowned posek in Yerushalayim – who, in addition to his vast range of other achievements, published several books in English and Hebrew based on the Maggid’s parables (under the pen-name Yisrael Pesach Sochertov). Below is a list of the English books, which are distributed by Feldheim Publishers.
The Blind Thief and Other Stories, with Moral Insights Based on the Parables of the Dubno Maggid
Run For Your Life and Other Stories, with Moral Insights Based on the Parables of the Dubno Maggid
No Taxes Please and Other Stories, with Moral Insights Based on the Parables of the Dubno Maggid
The Helpful Giant and Other Stories, with Moral Insights Based on the Parables of the Dubno Maggid
Son, Come Back, and Other Stories, with Moral Insights Based on the Parables of the Dubno Maggid
These works are collections of stories with moral insights, geared for children. There is a parallel four-volume Hebrew series entitled Mishlei Mussar Al Pi HaMaggid MiDubno.
Rav Feinhander was intensely devoted to studying and disseminating Torah. For example, in an article about his life, I saw that he typically handled 80-100 halachic queries per day, starting from the early morning, and exerted himself to great lengths to continue handling queries in his later years despite his suffering from severe illness. He was a stellar example of a true servant of Hashem in the sense described in the piece above.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behar

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Vayikra 25:23): “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine – for you are sojourners and settlers with Me.” The closing phrase of this verse is unclear, for “sojourner” and “settler” have opposite meanings: A sojourner is a temporary resident, while a settler is a permanent resident. The Maggid offers a homiletical interpretation.
Our Sages teach (Avos 4:21): “This world is like a corridor leading to the world to come. Prepare yourself in the corridor so that you may enter the banquet hall.” All the days of his life in this world, a person is like a sojourner in a foreign land, a guest who has stopped over to lodge. Thus, Dovid HaMelech prays (Tehillim 119:19): “A sojourner am I within the world; do not hide Your mitzvos from me.” Dovid is pleading for Hashem’s help in keeping the mitzvos, arguing that he is but a sojourner in this world, and the only reason he is here is to amass a stock of Torah and mitzvos that will allow him to enter the world to come. This is how it is with all of us. Hence, it behooves a person to cast aside his attachments to this world, so as to make Torah his main focus and his worldly occupation incidental.
This idea is hinted at in the verse about land sales that we quoted at the outset: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine for the land is Mine.” Hashem is telling each Jew: “Although I brought you into Eretz Yisrael, I did not mean that you should stay there forever. I brought you there to provide you an environment conducive to attaining spiritual wholeness during the limited number of days that you will dwell in this world. You should not regard your worldly dealings as a fixed occupation, as if you are settlers here working your own land.” The verse then concludes: “For the land is Mine – for you are sojourners and settlers with Me.” The verse is speaking of Hashem and the Jewish People as a pair, with one having the status of “sojourner” and the other the status of “settler.” If we act like sojourners, making our worldly occupation incidental, then we make Hashem a settler, with His Torah and mitzvos being the key fixtures of our lives. But if we act like settlers, immersing ourselves in worldly affairs, then Hashem becomes an incidental sojourner – one with whom, as the Torah puts it elsewhere (Vayikra 26:23), we deal with casually. Let us make the right choice.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Emor

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Vayikra 22:27): “When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall remain under its mother for seven days, and from the eighth day and onward it is acceptable as a fire-offering to Hashem.” The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 27:6):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to the Jewish People: “I gave over to you ten species of animals [as permitted for food] (Devarim 14:4-5): the ox, the sheep, the goat, the hart, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the pygarg, the antelope, and the mountain-sheep. The first three are domesticated, while the other seven are not. And I did not trouble you by telling you to weary yourselves on the mountains to catch the undomesticated animals to bring them as offerings before Me. Rather, I told you to bring Me domesticated animals as offerings.
The Midrash links this statement with the following verse (Michah 6:3): O My people, what have I done to you, and how have I wearied you? Answer Me.”
In regard to this Midrash, the Maggid asks a striking question: If Hashem wishes to avoid wearing us, why did He impose on us the task of overcoming our evil inclination, to struggle with powerful passions that are as staggering as death?
He answers as follows. The soul operates through intellect and speech, and is aided by the Torah and the teachings of Torah scholars. The evil inclination, on the other hand, operates through drives such as passion, jealousy, and pride, which push illusory goals that have no real substance. These drives do not have at their disposal the faculty of speech to offer arguments to persuade the person to follow them. If a person subjects their suggestions to a cold analysis, considering, for example, the costs and benefits of mitzvos and sins (Avos 2:1), the lure of these suggestions will dissipate like smoke – he will push aside all the fantasies that his drives conjured up within him, and expunge them from his heart without a trace. And then it will be very easy to do what is right.
What gives the evil inclination its power? The Maggid answers with an analogy. If a person engaged in battle is armed with a sword, he can beat his enemy. But if he lets his enemy grab his sword, he puts the enemy in control. Similarly, in the battle against the evil inclination, a person is armed with his intellect and speech. If he uses these weapons, as explained just above, he will prevail. But if he lets the evil inclination grab his weapons – if he starts talking himself into following the evil inclination’s suggestions and develops intellectual arguments in support of doing so – then he is in deep trouble. In this vein, Dovid HaMelech declares (Tehillim 36:2-5):
Sin’s word to the wicked is in my heart, that there should be no fear of God before his eyes. For it made a slick presentation before his eyes …. The words of his mouth are inquity and deceit, he has ceased to apply his wisdom to do good. As he lies in bed he devises iniquity; he has stationed himself of a path of no good, he does not disdain evil.
If a person fuels his passion to the point where the passion co-opts his faculty of speech, and proceeds to hold forth on why he should do certain evil acts, then he loses his fear of God. The evil inclination starts with a slick presentation. A wise person simply shuts his eyes to the show, and he then can easily subdue the evil inclination. But if a person lets the evil inclination take control of his mouth and fill it with inquity and deceit, he will cease to apply his wisdom to do good. Instead, he will be riveted to the path of no good.
Hashem told Kayin (Bereishis 4:7): “Sin crouches at the door, and its desire is cast upon you, but you can rule over it.” The sainted Vilna Gaon explains that the evil inclination can exercise power over a person only if he leaves it an opening. The evil inclination crouches at the door. If a person opens the door, it can come in; if he keeps the door closed, it stays out.
How do we know that Hashem does not seek to make life hard for us? The proof that there are a number of important mitzvos over which the evil inclination holds almost no sway. We feel little inner drive to violate the prohibition against eating insects, mice, and other disgusting creatures, or the laws specifying how offerings (korbanos) to be prepared. If Hashem wanted to make life hard for us, he would have instilled within us equal resistance to all mitzvos. But in fact Hashem did not, far be it, create the evil inclination in order to cause us distress. Rather, He created it simply a mechanism to prompt us to tend to our individual needs and to the needs of the world at large.
Further on in the psalm we quoted above, Dovid HaMelech writes (Tehillim 36:7): “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains; Your judgments are like the great deep. You save both man and beast, O Hashem.” This verse is quoted in the Midrash on our parashah, to make the point that just as a man is not eligible for circumcsion until his eighth day of life, so, too, an animal is not eligible as an offering until its eighth day of life. Having quoted the verse, the Midrash expounds on it further, as follows (Vayikra Rabbah 27:1): “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains. Just as the mountains are fit for planting and yield fruit, so, too, the righteous yield fruit and bring benefit to themselves and to others.” The reason the righteous bring such benefit, the Maggid says, is that they take from this world only what they need to sustain themselves, and leave the rest to others.
Fools believe that the more they indulge in worldly pleasures, the more satisfaction they will gain from life. But our Sages teach just the opposite (Avos 6:4): “This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, and sleep on the ground; live a life of deprivation, and toil in the Torah. If you do so, then ‘you are fortunate and have it good’ (Tehillim 128:2) – you will be fortunate in this world and have it good in the World to Come.” A wise person adopts this approach to the physical world and thereby easily avoids being gripped by worldly drives. Hashem does not seek to weary us. If we take the proper approach to the physical world, we can handle the evil inclination with a minimum of struggle.
David Zucker, Site Administrator