Post Archive for June 2011

Parashas Chukas

Near the end of this week’s parashah, the Torah recounts an episode of successive conquests of the city of Cheshbon and its surroundings, with the Jewish People ultimately taking control. The territory originally belonged to Moab, was conquered by the Amorite king Sichon, and afterward was conquered by the Jews. As part of its account of this episode, the Torah records a ballad about Sichon’s initial conquest of the territory from Moab. The Torah states: “Regarding this, the bards (moshlim) would say, ‘Come to Cheshbon – let it built and and established as the city of Sichon.” The Gemara expounds homiletically (Bava Basra 78a):
What does this verse teach? Moshlim refers to those who rule over (mosheil) their drives. They say, “Come and let us reckon the account (cheshbon) of the world – the cost of doing a mitzvah versus the gain, and the gain in committing a sin versus the loss.”
The Maggid asks: What is the connection between the land conquest episode that the Torah recounts and the homiletical teaching that the Gemara presents? He then provides an answer to this question.
Hashem commanded the Jewish People not to wage war with Moab to conquer their land. This command is recorded in Devarim 2:9, but had actually been conveyed earlier, and the Moabites knew about it. Hence, as the Jews approached the land of Moab on their way from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael, the Moabites felt secure that their land was safe from being seized by the Jews. But then Sichon came and conquered the Moabite city of Cheshbon and its surroundings, enabling the Jews to conquer it from him afterward.
Now, some people, on account of great physical robustness or wealth, haughtily believe they are immune to adversity, and can freely do whatever they please. Such people, as described in Tehillim 10, do not fear Divine retribution. Their attitude is bolstered by a view that an extraordinary occurrence would be needed to topple them from their position of security, and that Hashem will not disrupt nature merely to punish them.
The episode of Cheshbon refutes this outlook. This epsiode teaches that, no matter how secure a person’s situation may be, Hashem can easily undercut his position of security and bring adversity upon him to whatever degree circumstances require. If a person bears this point in mind, he will carry out a careful reckoning before each move he makes.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Korach

This week’s parashah includes an episode where the Jewish People were stricken with a plague, and Moshe told Aharon to offer incense to halt it. How did Moshe know that incense has the power to halt a plague? The Gemara reports that he learned this fact at Mount Sinai. In Shabbos 88b-89a, the Gemara discusses Moshe’s ascent to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The angels initially opposed him, arguing that a man had no right to take this holy treasure, but after some interchange, they assented and reconciled with him. The Gemara relates: “Immediately each of the angels befriended Moses and gave him something. Thus it is written (Tehillim 68:19): ‘You ascended on high, you captured a captive, you acquired gifts on account of a man’ – as recompense for their having called you ‘a man,’ you took gifts. Even the Angel of Death gave something to him, as it is written (Bamidbar 17:12-13, in our parashah): ‘He [Aharon] placed the incense and atoned for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was halted.’ If the Angel of Death had not told Moshe that incense had this power, how could he have known?”
The Maggid discusses this Gemara in his commentary on Shemos 19, which deals with the Giving of the Torah. He asks: What kind of gifts did the angels give Moses? The one gift the Gemara identifies is the Angel of Death’s gift. By analyzing this specific gift, the Maggid elucidates the nature of the rest of the angels’ gifts.
The Jewish People are meant to promote their well-being by following the Torah, but from time to time people get confused and transgress the Torah’s dictates. When a person commits such a sin, he is liable to be punished with afflictions. Hance, in His kindness, Hashem prepared ways for people to gain a cure from afflictions. The general cure is repentance. But along with this, there are many special omens through which a person can escape the incitements of the Heavenly accusers.
For example, our Sages say (Pesachim 111b): “The angel of sustenance is called Nakid (cleanliness); the angel of poverty is called Naval (filth).” Thus, by being careful about cleanliness when handling bread, one can escape from the angel of poverty. Our Sages describe many other similar special omens throughout their writings. In the same vein, an offering of the holy incense that was used in the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash has the special power to ward off a plague, for it is the nature of the angel appointed over plagues to flee from the holy incense. As a general rule, each angel is aware of his nature and powers, and recognizes the special omen before which it must flee.
These special omens are not recorded in the Torah, because those who keep the Torah scrupulously do not need special omens to escape misfortune. The Torah does indicate the special power of incense, but this is only through inference from the episode from our parashah that the Gemara cites. The Torah does not contain any explicit special prescriptions for escaping particular misfortunes. The Maggid suggests that the gifts that the angels gave Moshe were precisely these special omens.
The Maggid then sets out to explain what value these gifts had to Moshe. Given that Moshe kept the Torah scrupulously, he would never need to resort to these special omens. Of what use, then, were they to him? A hint to the answer can be found, the Maggid says, in the Gemara’s statement that the angels gave Moshe the gifts as recompense for their having called him “a man.” He brings out the point with a parable.
A certain very rich man made a match for his only daughter with a young man of extremely fine character. But before the wedding, a rumor was spread that this young man suffered from various hidden physical ailments of a serious nature. The rich man’s joy was dashed, and he was greatly pained that he had made a match for his daughter with such a sickly young man. A few days after the wedding, the groom found out about the rumor, and he proved that, on the contrary, he was perfectly healthy – so much so that he could be expected to remain free of all illness his entire life.
The bride’s father was very happy, and he made a great feast, where he and his guests drank to the point of getting tipsy. In this state of elation, the rich man said to his son-in-law: “Go through my house, look over all my choice vessels, and take whatever you like.” The groom looked the house over, and found some fine and attractive vessels filled with costly medicines. He knew it would be embarrassing to ask for these vessels, since people had suspected that he was very sick. And so he justified himself as follows: “I want to make it clear that I have no need for these medicines whatsoever. But you had made up your mind that I was sick, and were ready to bear the expense of providing medicines for me. Why should I lose out on them now? True, I don’t need them, but I can give them to others who do need them and do them a great favor.”
A similar sequence of events took place in Moses’s encounter with the angels. When Moses went up on high to grapple with the angels in the upper worlds, the angels thought it bizarre. They were moved to exclaim incredulously (Tehillim 8:5): “What is a mortal that You are mindful of him?” But afterwards they saw with their own eyes that Moshe was a man of God, a spiritual giant just like the angels on high. They then sought to appease Moshe with the gifts that they gave him. In truth he had no need for these special omens. Yet he was entitled to receive them because the angels had previously made up their minds – by calling him “a man” – that these omens were suited for him. And so he took them, in order to do a kindness by giving them to those who need them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shelach

In this week’s parashah, Yehoshua and Calev urge the Jewish People to discount the negative report of the other ten scouts, and to proceed to Eretz Yisrael with confident trust in Hashem. They conclude their speech as follows (Bamidbar 14:9): “But do not rebel against Hashem! Do not be anxious about the people of the land, for they are our bread. Their protection has departed from them, and Hashem is with us. Do not fear them!”
The phrase “our bread” appears in four Biblical verses. The verse quoted above is the first. Below are the other three.
1. Yehoshua 9:12: “This is our bread – it was hot when we took it as provisions from our houses, on the day we departed to go to you, but now, behold, it is dry and has become parched.”
2. Yeshayah 4:1: “And seven women will grasp one man on that day, saying: ‘We will eat our [own] bread and wear our [own] clothes; just let us be called by your name, and end our disgrace.’”
3. Eichah 5:9: “With our souls we bring in our bread, because of the sword of the wilderness.”
The Maggid presents a homiletical commentary that ties these four verses together.
When the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and we were dispersed among foreign nations, initially we were anguished over our great loss. We felt as if a dagger had been plunged into our bones (Tehillim 42:11). We were, as Yechezkel prophesied (verse 20:43), disgusted with ourselves over having committed the sins that led to this tragedy, and we pleaded to Hashem that Yerushalayim be restored. We lamented both the loss of our glory and the peril we suffered in exile. But now, due to our many sins, there are people among us whose attitude is like that of the Jews who were struck down during the plague of darkness in Egypt – people who are comfortable in their foreign abodes and feel they must stay to maintain their livelihood. They are largely detached from Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim, and concern themselves more with the welfare of their foreign hosts.
The Maggid brings out the point with a moving parable. Once there was a prince who misbehaved so brazenly that his father, the king, banished him from the palace to fend for himself. He wandered from place to place for awhile, and eventually settled down as servant in a villager’s home, where he carried out menial jobs for a small wage and a bit of bread. He served the villager loyally, and, in turn, the villager faithfully paid him his wages and rations, day by day. After some time, an evil rumor went out about this villager, and he was arrested and taken for trial. The prince was deeply troubled, and he decided to go to his father the king to plead with him to show mercy to the villager. The king, upon seeing his son making his appeal, burst out in bitter wailing and exclaimed: “My son! My dear son! Why are you going through this effort for this villager?” The prince answered: “Because he is supporting me – I depend on him for my sustenance.” The king responded: “Woe to you, my dear son, that you have to concern yourself with your sustenance! Just remember, if you will, the place you were banished from! Your table was decked out from one end to the other with the finest delicacies. As a prince in the royal palace, you lacked nothing. If you will now just turn your heart toward me, to mend your ways and reconcile with me, you will once again live the life of a prince. I have been saving all my treasures just for you!”
We are like the prince in this story. We pray to Hashem that the nations of the world should have a strong economy, so that a little bit will trickle down to us and enable us to live. We do not seek to return to His palace. How pathetic it is for us to act this way!
The verse from our parashah exhorts us to abandon this attitude. “Do not be anxious about the people of the land” – let us not be anxious about how the nations of the world will fare. Let us not say, “They are are bread” – let us not count on the support of others. It befits us more to plead for the restoration of the Beis HaMikdash, which is meant to be the conduit of blessing from heaven to earth. Let us therefore say, “This is our bread – it was hot when we took it as provisions from our houses” – let us recall the lechem ha-panim (showbread) of the Mikdash, which was as hot when it was taken off the table in our holy House of Hashem after a week as it was when it was first baked (Menachos 29a), and of which a small morsel was enough to make a person satiated (Yoma 29a). Let us also lament over the way we now obtain our sustenence: “With our souls we bring in our bread.” As we work to make a living, we put our souls in peril; we are constantly at risk of sinning in our dealings with others – through encroachment, theft, false declarations, faulty scales, and so on. The bread we eat is “soiled bread” (cf. Malachi 1:7); as Yechezkel 4:13 puts it: “The Children of Israel shall eat their bread defiled.” And thus let us focus our prayers on a plea to Hashem to place us under His shelter and care. We should reach out to Him and seek a bond with him, saying: “We will eat our bread and wear our clothes; just let us be called by Your name, and end our disgrace.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behaalosecha

This week’s parashah begins with a recapitulation of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah in the Mishkan. The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:1-2):
We find many places where the Holy One Blessed Be He commanded us regarding the lamps, and about kindling them with olive oil. In Shemos 27:20 it is written: “And you shall command the Children of Israel, that they shall take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for illumination, to kindle a perpetual lamp.” In Vayikra 24:4, Hashem repeats the command. And here it is written (Bamidbar 8:2): “Speak to Aharon and say to him, ‘When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.’” This is as it is written (Yeshayah 42:21): “Hashem wished, for the sake of [the Jewish People’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious.”
In Mishnah Makkos 3:16, the verse in Yeshayah is quoted as a proof of the following principle: “The Holy One Blessed Be He wished to bring merit to the Jewish People; therefore He gave Torah and mitzvos in manifold.” Along these lines, the remainder of the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 15:2 uses the verse in Yeshayah to teach that the reason Hashem commanded us to light the menorah was not because He needs the light, but because He wished to bring us merit. The Maggid develops an additional angle, building on the juxtaposition of the verse in Yeshayah with the Midrash’s initial remark about the mitzvah of the menorah being presented in the Torah many times.
He brings out the idea with an analogy. Suppose a suit is being made for a small child, with the intent that he should be able to wear it for many years. Obviously, the child will grow over time. How, then, can the same suit continue to serve him? The effect can be achieved by building into the suit a series of folds along its length and width. When the child outgrows the suit in its original form, one of the folds can be opened, and it will fit him again. And when he grows more, another fold can be opened to make the suit fit.
The written Torah that Hashem gave us, the Maggid says, was crafted in just this way. When a young boy begins learning Torah, he reads it at a simple level. As he grows older and wiser, he draws out more and more of its meaning, through critical analysis of its phrasing and the principles of Torah interpretation that Hashem passed on to us (such as the thirteen principles of interpretation recorded in the name of R. Yishmael). Indeed, the entire Oral Law is encoded in the written Torah and can, in principle, be extracted from it. The “extra language” in the Torah, such as the repetition of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah, is like the folds in the boy’s suit. Initially, we let this extra language lay as is, but as we grow in wisdom we “open up” the extra language and draw out its meaning.
In Koheles Rabbah 3:12, our Sages teach that if the Jewish People had merited and not sinned with the golden calf, Hashem would have given them only the Chumash (Five Books of Moses); the people would not have needed the Neviim and Kesuvim (Prophets and Writings). The Midrash says, on a simple level, that the Neviim and Kesuvim were given so that the Jewish People would toil in them and earn reward, while having their attention drawn away from the incitements of the evil inclination. The Maggid takes the matter a step deeper. He says that had the Jewish People not sinned with the calf, they would have been able with their pure intellect to plumb the depths of the Chumash and extract all the teachings of the Neviim and Kesuvim, along with the entire Oral Law, from the Chumash alone.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Naso

This week’s parashah discusses the laws of the nazir (Nazirite)  –  a person who commits himself for a set period to a Torah-specified regimen of abstinence, including refraining from wine. In discussing the nazir, the Torah speaks of “the vow of his nazirus” (Bamidbar 6:5). The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 10:10 remarks that the vow should depend on the nazirus, rather than the nazirus depending on the vow. The Maggid explains this cryptic remark, building on the theme (discussed in last year’s piece on this parashah) of the need for awareness and commitment in taking a vow of nazirus.
Consider, the Maggid says, a person who drinks an excess of wine at a party and falls into an uncomfortable state of grogginess, and then gets upset at what happened to him. He becomes disgusted with wine, and, out of a strong desire to distance himself from it, takes a vow of nazirus. His vow depends on the nazirus, in the sense that his desire to be in a state of nazirus – distanced from wine – is what motivated the vow. But suppose that, after a few days, he develops a craving for wine again. Now his nazirus depends on his vow – the only reason he is distancing himself from wine is because he made a vow not to partake of it. His vow is forcing him to continue with his nazirus.
The Midrash is telling us not to fall into this situation. Hashem is pleased when a person maintains a good practice willingly, but is not so pleased when a person does so because he is forced to. Before committing to a certain good practice, a person should think very carefully about whether it is something he will really want to maintain in the long run. Only if is he sure the answer is yes should he take on the practice.
In the Torah’s general discussion of vows, it is written (Bamidbar 30:3): “In accordance with all that issued from his mouth, he should do.” Homiletically, this charge can be read as conveying the following message: A person who takes a vow to follow a certain practice should make sure that, as time goes on, he will continue to do so with the generosity of spirit that accompanied the vow when it was made. Elsewhere, the Torah exhorts (Devarim 23:24): “Guard the utterance of your lips, and fulfill what you vowed to Hashem your God, and the pledge of a voluntary offering that your mouth spoke out.” We can read this verse similarly, as saying that just as the initial pledge was voluntary, so, too, its ultimate fulfillment should be carried through willingly.
Bamidbar Rabbah 22:1 lists three conditions that should be fulfilled before a person makes a vow in Hashem’s name to adopt a certain practice. One of the conditions is that the practice should be aimed at serving Hashem, and not toward some other motive. The Maggid explains that it is a dishonor to Hashem to invoke His name in a vow over a mundane matter. We can add that a vow for the sake of serving Hashem is more likely to be kept willingly than a vow for a mundane motive. When a person makes a vow for a mundane motive, he may easily have a change of heart. This point is illustrated by the Maggid’s example of a person who was prompted by a bout of severe drunkenness to take a vow of nazirus, but later regretted it. By contrast, a person who makes a vow for Hashem’s sake is more likely (albeit not certain) to be firmly committed to the practice he vowed to adopt.
David Zucker, Site Administrator