Post Archive for July 2011

Parashas Masei

This week’s parashah begins as follows (Bamidbar 33:1-2):
These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went out from the land of Egypt, according to their legions, under the hand of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe wrote down their goings forth according to their journeys at Hashem’s command, and these were their journeys according to their goings forth.
In the second verse, the Torah initially places “goings forth” before “journeys,” but afterward it reverses the order. The Maggid offers several explanations for this. I present one of them here.
The Maggid introduces the explanation with a parable. A man lost his wife and married a second one, bringing into this second marriage a young son from the first. His second wife was mean toward the boy. The man was aware of the situation, and he looked forward to the day when he could marry the boy off and get him away from his stepmother. Eventually the boy came of age. Some time afterward, while the man was traveling on business, he met a girl who was suitable for his son. He discussed the matter with the girl’s father, and the match was made. He returned home and told his son: “I have made a match for you with a girl from the town I just went to. Soon you will get married. And then you will be free of your stepmother’s mistreatment, except for visits once every few months.” The son counted the days until the date of the wedding, when his suffering would finally be over. Finally, the time came to go to the other town for the wedding, and the father hired a wagon to take him and his son there. The stepmother was not going. The young man boarded the wagon with great joy, and then they set out on the way.
After some time, the young man asked the driver: “My friend, how far have we traveled now from where we started?” The driver told him. The next day, the young man asked the driver the same question, and the driver answered again. The day after, the father asked the driver: “How far do we have to go now to reach our destination?” The driver stated the remaining distance. The son remarked to the father: “It is interesting that I asked the driver how far we had gone, while you asked him how far we had left to go. I wonder why we asked about the progress of the trip in different ways.” The father replied: “You have never seen your future wife or father-in-law. You have no idea what lies ahead of you. You are thinking only about getting away from your stepmother. So you asked how far we have gone. I, on the other hand, know how what a fine girl your future wife is, and what a gentleman your future father-in-law is. I am really looking forward to the wedding. So I asked how far we have left to go.”
Similarly, when the Jewish People left Egypt to go to Eretz Yisrael, they did not understand the virtues of the land. They understood only that they were leaving Egypt, the place where they had suffered horrible affliction. Therefore, in reviewing their travels, they counted upward through the succession of stations, measuring how far away from Egypt they had gone. Moshe, on the other hand, was well aware of the virtues of the land, and he therefore counted downward through the succession of stations, measuring at each stage the distance left to travel to reach it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas and Haftaras Mattos

In this week’s parashah, we read of the war the Jewish People waged against Midian – at Hashem’s command – for luring them into lowly acts of idolatry and immorality. We will develop a link between this episode and the closing passage of this week’s haftarah. The passage reads (Yirmiyah 2:1-3):
The word of Hashem came to me, saying: “Go forth and cry out in the ears of [the people of] Yerushalayim, saying, ‘Thus said Hashem, “I recall on your behalf the devotion of your youth, the love your bridal days – how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land unsown. Yisrael is holy unto Hashem, the first of His crop; all those who consume them shall be held guilty – evil shall come upon them,” – the word of Hashem.’”
The Midrash comments (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:13):
Why are the Jewish People compared to sand [in Hoshea 2:1]? If a person puts a handful of sand in a dough or a cooked dish, this addition has a marked effect – the sand blunts the teeth of anyone who eats the food. Thus it is with the Jewish People: whoever despoils them or steals from them in this world has his teeth blunted in the world to come. Thus it is written: “Yisrael is holy unto Hashem, the first of His crop; all those who consume them shall be held guilty – evil shall come upon them.” Whoever lays his hands on holy goods is subject to the penalty of death.
The Maggid explains this Midrash with a parable. A rabbi with a very wise son made a match between his son and the daughter of a certain villager – a man who was very rich, but also very unlearned. The young man spent a lot of time in the villager’s house, was exposed to the lowly ways of the villager’s family and friends, and started to turn into a degenerate. The young man’s saintly father heard what happened, and he took his son back home. The villager rushed to the rabbi and asked: “My master, why have you taken this step, to separate the young couple from each other? What fault is it of mine that your son has taken an evil path?” The rabbi replied: “Look, every since he was a little boy, my son has been exemplary in his conduct – diligently devoted to Torah and mitzvos and refined in his dealings with other people. He adopted the righteous ideals that I transmitted to him. It is only when he began spending time with you that he turned to lowly and empty pursuits. You exerted a negative influence on him, and so I hold you accountable for what happened to him.”
Similarly, when others exert a negative influence on us and cause us to fall short in fulfilling our holy duties, Hashem calls them to judgment. They may ask: “Why do You blame us for their lapses?” To this question, Hashem has a ready answer. He recalls on our behalf our formative years as a nation – the devotion of our “youth,” the love of our “bridal days,” the way we followed after Him in the wilderness, in an unsown land. He notes that when we were under His wing, we carried out our duties faithfully and wholeheartedly. He declares further: “Yisrael is holy unto Hashem, the first of His crop.” Here, Hashem is alluding to our forefather Yisrael – the Jewish People’s primary forefather, whose offspring all remained part of the Jewish People – and noting that Yisrael’s holy home is the source from which we all stem. It is in our blood to tread the path of life of holiness and devotion to Hashem. We step off this path only because of negative outside influences that lead us astray. Ultimately Hashem will exact retribution from all those who emitted such negative influences. All those who consumed us by ravaging our souls will be held guilty: evil shall come upon them – the word of Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Pinchas

The Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:3):
Just as the Holy One Blessed Be He involves Himself in the praise of the righteous, to publicize them within the world, so, too, He involves Himself with the denigration of the wicked, to publicize them within the world. He publicized Pinchas with praise, and Zimri with denigration. Regarding them both it is written (Mishlei 10:7): “The remembrance of the righteous shall be for a blessing, while the name of the wicked shall rot.”
The Torah presents, along with the laws that govern our lives, a number of stories about events in the lives of various prominent people. It describes the successes of righteous people such as Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Yosef. And it describes the downfall of wicked people such Korach and Zimri. Both the stories about the righteous and the stories about the wicked help motivate us to do good and avoid evil, and Hashem therefore saw fit to include both types of stories in the Torah. There is, however, an essential difference between the two types of stories, which is hinted at in the verse from Mishlei with which the Midrash concludes. The Maggid brings out this difference with a parable.
An aging merchant decided to take his son on a business trip, as a step toward readying him to take over his business. In preparation for the journey, the young man’s mother packed him a suitcase with clothes for various types of weather and a large quantity of delicious home-cooked food. While packing the suitcase, she remembered that her son would occasionally come down with a certain illness, and she therefore also included a vial of medicine for treating the illness in case of need. When she finished packing, she called her son over and showed him all the items in the suitcase. She described the food at length, and gave him an enthusiastic blessing that he should eat heartily and enjoy. She also pointed out the vial of medicine, and said: “I put your medicine here, if you need it.” She did not give him a blessing after showing him the medicine like the one she gave him after showing him the food, urging him to use it – she hoped he would stay healthy and be able to leave the medicine alone, rather than get sick and need to use it.
Similarly, Hashem packed the Torah with the supplies we need for our journey through life. He included stories about the successes of the righteous, in order that we savor these stories and yearn to follow in the footsteps of the people they tell about. He also included stories about the downfall of the wicked, to cure us if we fall ill and feel a desire to commit similar evil deeds. Hashem wants us to focus on the glorious tales of the righteous – to take a large helping of them, reviewing them again and again. In parallel, He hopes that we only rarely fall ill and need to take in the unfortunate tales of the wicked. The remembrance of the righteous should be for a blessing – it should enter our hearts in great measure and well up inside us. But the name of the wicked should rot – the unfortunate tales of the wicked should, so to speak, rot away out of lack of use.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Balak

In this week’s haftarah, the prophet Michah conveys the following message from Hashem to the Jewish People (Michah 6:3): “O My people, what have I done to you, and how have I wearied you? Answer Me.” We presented one of the Maggid’s thoughts on this verse in an earlier piece, on parashas Emor. Here we present another.
Hashem’s question seems puzzling, for our own experience tells us that people find it hard to perform mitzvos. Our Sages discuss this fact, saying (Eichah Rabbah Pesichasa 10): “A whole day a person engages in business without tiring, but when it comes time for him to pray, he feels tired.” People find mitzvos harder than anything else they do.
The reason people find the mitzvos so hard is they do not appreciate them and are distanced from them. A person who appreciates the mitzvos finds them easy and enjoyable. We can draw an analogy to a person carrying a load. Suppose the load is hitched to a pole over the person’s shoulder. If he positions the load far away from him, he will find the load heavy. But if he positions the load close to him, he will find it light. And if, instead of using a pole, he carries the load in a backpack strapped right onto him, he will barely feel it. Similarly, if a person is lugging mitzvos at a distance, he will find them a heavy burden, but if he attaches them to him, he will not feel any burden at all.
People tend not to appreciate mitzvos because they do not perceive purpose and benefit in them. When a person sees the purpose and benefit in a task, he will want to perform it, and will not be deterred by the difficulty it involves. For example, if a person has set out to build himself a house, he will willingly carry heavy stones and beams toward this end. Similarly, if a person feels he can make a good profit by doing business in a distant city, he will willingly endure the demands of travel. And if a person is invited to a banquet with sumptuous food, he will trek through rain or snow to get there. Conversely, if a person is given a task for which he cannot see any purpose, he feels resistance toward it, and the task becomes hard for him, even if the work involved is actually light.
Now, a pure-minded man who walks wholeheartedly with Hashem relies on Him completely for all his needs. He knows that we are Hashem’s flock; he realizes that everything belongs to Hashem, and that the only way to gain anything is through Him. He therefore gladly recites his prayers and observes the established fasts. His attitude toward prayer is like that of a person who come before a king to plead for help – his mind is riveted on what he is saying, and every word is measured. Moreover, a pure-minded man recognizes that Hashem shows him wondrous kindness. As Dovid HaMelech declares (Tehillim 113:5-6), Hashem is enthroned on high, yet He descends to peer upon the heavens and the earth. He grants all beings life and sustenance. Reflecting on Hashem’s acts of kindness, the pure-minded man is filled with awe and love, and he yearns to serve Him, knowing that there is no end to what he ought to do for Hashem in return for what He has done for him. He gladly performs Hashem’s mitzvos, finding the task easy. The more awe and love of Hashem he feels, the easier and more appealing the mitzvos become for him. On the other hand, a person who lacks the sense to recognize Hashem’s watchfulness and kindness considers the mitzvos a meaningless chore. He therefore obviously finds them hard.
Hashem’s question to the Jewish People – “How have I wearied you?” – is a rhetorical question, and Hashem continues by explaining why the Jewish People should not find the mitzvos wearisome. He says (Micah 6:4-5):
For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam before you. My people, remember, if you please, what Balak, king of Moab, plotted, and what Bilaam son of Beor answered him, [and all the events] from Shittim to Gilgal, in order to recognize Hashem’s righteous acts.
Hashem is telling us that we find the mitzvos wearisome only due to a lack of proper focus. If we would bear in mind the wondrous kindnesses He has done for us, we would serve him with enthusiasm and love.
David Zucker, Site Administrator