Post Archive for August 2011

Parashas Re’eh

This week’s parashah begins (Devarim 11:26-27): “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing – that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God, that I command you today. And the curse – if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God ….” The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 4:1):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “It is not to do you evil that I gave you blessings and curses. Rather, it is to inform you what is the proper path for you to choose and thereby receive reward. From where do we know this? From that which is written: “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.”
The Midrash is teaching us, the Maggid says, that we can tell that Hashem is acting for our good from the very fact that He presents before us the curses we will face if we disobey His instructions. The Maggid quotes another Midrash that brings out the idea explicitly. When Hashem assailed Egypt with the ten plagues, He gave Pharaoh advance warning before most of them. He issued an especially elaborate warning before the plague of hail. The Midrash remarks (Shemos Rabbah 12:1):
Thus it is written (Iyov 36:23): “Verily, in His power, God will boost. Who is like Him as a guide?”  He boosts the power of the righteous to do His will, and He shows the way to repentance. … Hashem did not wish to send the plague until He warned Pharaoh, so that he would repent.
If Hashem wished to cause suffering, He would conceal the calamities He has ready to deploy. Instead, He discloses them openly, so that people will repent and thereby avoid being struck. A verse in Tehillim reflects this idea. The psalmist Asaf declares (Tehillim 76:9): “From heaven You made judgment heard; the earth feared, and quieted.” Our Sages expound (Shabbos 88a): “First fear, and afterward quiet.” That is, Hashem’s giving notice that He is going to impose judgment is the very cause of the judgment’s eventual cancellation – if the notice is heeded, and the sinners mend their ways.
The Maggid links this idea to a message from Hashem to Yirmiyahu (23:34-36): “Any prophet or priest or member of the people who says ‘burden of Hashem,’ I shall deal with that person and his household. … Although a burden comes to a man of His word, you have inverted the word of the living God.” A prophecy of calamity, the Maggid says, has two effects. First, it prompts people to repent. Second, it “locks in” the calamity, so that if people fail to repent, the calamity will strike. Thus, the way a person relates to such a prophecy depends on his attitude toward Hashem’s directives. If a person is interested in listening to Hashem, he welcomes an ominous prophecy as an enlightening message informing him that he needs to improve his ways. Through the prophecy, Hashem boosts his power to do His will, and he appreciates this boost. If, on the other hand, a person is not interested in listening to Hashem, he regards an ominous prophecy as a burden that is going to cause him suffering. Hashem’s intent is for the ominous prophecy to lead to repentance and thereby serve as a source of blessing; a person who considers the prophecy bad is thus inverting His word.
In our day, we no longer receive prophecy, but Hashem has other means of awakening us. Misfortune is one of the key methods. Thus, earlier in the passage from Iyov quoted in the Midrash above, it is written (Iyov 36:8-12):
If they are fettered in shackles, trapped in ropes of affliction, He [thereby] informs them of their [evil] doings and their egregious sins, for these have waxed great. He opens their ears to discipline, and tells them to turn back from wrongdoing. If they listen and serve, they will finish their days in goodness and their years in pleasantness. But if they do not listen, they will pass away by the sword, and expire for lack of knowledge.
When misfortune begins to strike, we should repent before it strikes with full force. Even better, we should pay careful attention to the curses that the Torah presents, and mend our ways without having to undergo actual suffering. We should not be numb to the Torah’s words, “like a horse or a mule, devoid of understanding” (Tehillim 32:9). If we take the Torah’s blessings and curses to heart, we will reap the blessings.

Parashas Eikev

In this week’s parashah, Moshe reviews the sin of the golden calf. The Midrash relates (Devarim Rabbah 3:15):
Moshe restored Hashem’s favor toward the Jewish People. What did he do? He ascended to Hashem in an angry manner. … When Hashem beheld Moshe’s angry demeanor, He said to him: “We have here two faces showing anger toward them, Mine and yours.” And right afterward (Shemos 33:11): “And Hashem spoke to Moshe face to face, as a man speaks with his fellow.”
The Maggid notes how baffling this Midrash is, and sheds light on it with a parable. A king gave one of his servants a silver goblet as a present. The servant discovered that it was imitation silver. He did not have the nerve to tell the king outright that the silver was fake, so he concocted a clever scheme to convey the message. He told the king: “I don’t want to take this goblet from you for free. Rather, let me buy it from you for full price.” The king named a price, and the servant brought him a number of gold coins corresponding to the named sum. Among these coins, the servant included one counterfeit. The king spotted it and said: “This coin is fake.” The servant replied: “By my life, Your Majesty, this coin is just like the goblet.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem occasionally shows us anger, but He is never really angry at us. Thus, in regard to the statement in Eichah 2:5 that “Hashem was like an enemy,” the Midrash in Eichah Rabbah 1:3 remarks that it is not written that Hashem was an enemy, but only that he was “like” an enemy – He acted like He an enemy, but He was not really an enemy. The episode of the golden calf was one of the occasions that led Hashem to show an angry face toward us. Moshe saw the angry face and realized that it was just an outward show of anger, but he did not have the nerve to tell Hashem so directly. Instead, he approached Hashem with an angry face of his own. If Hashem would point out that Moshe’s anger was feigned, he could respond that his face was like Hashem’s face. And, indeed, Hashem ultimately acknowledged what was taking place, saying: “We have here two faces showing anger against them, Mine and yours.”
The Midrash then goes on to say that immediately afterward Hashem spoke to Moshe face to face, as a man speaks with his fellow. The intent here, according to the Maggid, is that Hashem and Moshe dropped the act and spoke the way they actually felt. In connection with the Torah’s statement about Hashem speaking with Moshe face to face, the Gemara relates (Berachos 63b):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “In the same way as I showed you a face, so, too, you show the Jewish People a face, and return the Tent of Meeting to its place [Moshe having moved it after the sin of the calf].”
The Maggid, in line with his explanation above, presents an interpretation of this Gemara differing from the usual one. In the Maggid’s reading, Hashem is telling Moshe the following: “In the same way as I just showed you a face of anger, but was not actually angry, so, you, too, make sure that you do not actually get angry at the people, but just show them a face of anger in order to strike fear in their hearts and lead them to repent. And when they do, return the Tent of Meeting to its place.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeschanan

This week’s parashah includes, among other topics, a review of the events surrounding the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. At that time, the Jewish People heard Hashem’s voice, and they were overwhelmed. Moshe relates (Devarim 5:21-26):
They [the Jewish tribal leaders and elders] said: “… You approach and listen to all that Hashem, our God, shall say, and you tell us all that Hashem, our God, shall speak to you, and we shall listen and we shall do.” And Hashem heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and Hashem said to me, “I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they spoke to you – they did well in all that they spoke. Would that they have this heart to fear Me and to observe all My commandments all the days, so that it will be well with them and their children, forever.”
The Maggid analyzes this passage. He begins by noting two questions. First, what did Hashem mean when He said that the Jewish People “did well in all that they spoke,” and, in particular, what is the import of the word “all” here? Second, why did Hashem, in expressing His “hope” that the Jewish People would always fear Him, use the phrasing “this heart to fear Me” rather than saying simply “the heart to fear Me”? The Maggid then explains the passage in a way that answers these questions.
There are two prerequisites, the Maggid says, for a person to get on the right path. First, he has to have a teacher to tell him what the right path is. Second, he has to have the desire to heed the teacher’s instructions. A teacher who merely conveys information to his student without instilling within him a desire to listen will not get him on the right path. Thus, a teacher must have two qualities in order to succeed. First, he must be wise and knowledgeble. Second, he must have a captivating personality, radiating holiness and God-fearingness, so that his students will eagerly accept his words and live by them unswervingly forever.
A teacher can convey information about how to act through an intermediary or a written message. But he can instill a desire to listen only by speaking to the student directly. It is therefore essential that the teacher meet with the student face-to-face at least at the start. A single face-to-face meeting may make a strong enough impression on the student to instill within him a permanent desire to follow his teacher’s instructions. In such a case, further communication between the teacher and the student can be conducted via messages conveyed either though an intermediary or written notes. After an initial meeting, a student may promise his teacher to heed all messages he receives from him from then on. Such a promise will obviously please the teacher. On the other hand, the teacher cannot be certain that the student will keep his promise.
With this background, the Maggid turns to the passage from the parashah. The Jewish People had had a “face-to-face” encounter with Hashem and were overwhelmed by it. They asked Moshe, from that point on, to act as intermediary between Hashem and them, conveying Hashem’s instructions to them. And they promised to heed these instructions, saying: “We shall listen and we shall do.” Hashem reacted to their statement to Moshe by saying: “They did well in all that they spoke.” In using the word “all,” Hashem was referring to the Jewish People’s having spoken both about obtaining Hashem’s instructions and about their desire to obey them. Hashem then continued, saying: “Would that they have this heart to fear Me and to observe all My commandments all the days, so that it will be well with them and their children, forever.” Here, Hashem is expressing His “hope” that the Jewish People will keep their promise: that they will maintain the resolve they just expressed – “this heart” – to observe His commandments even when conveyed through an intermediary.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Devarim – Chazon

In this week’s haftarah, Hashem exhorts us (Yeshayah 1:15): “Cleanse yourselves, purify yourselves – remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease turning to evil.” The Maggid links this verse to the following passage in Megillas Eichah (verses 3:39-40):
Why should a living man lament, a stalwart man over his sins? Let us search and examine our ways, and return to Hashem.
He presents an analogy to bring out the message that Yeshayah and Yirmiyah are conveying. A person who makes his living through a good occupation can handle a loss due to an incidental misfortune; he can take steps to avoid the specific circumstances that led to this misfortune, and continue securely in his business. By contrast, a person who makes his living through a bad occupation should not worry about individual losses; instead, he should abandon his occupation entirely and find a better one. The same idea applies on the moral plane. If a person is on the path of good, but occasionally falls into sin, he should lament these sins and take steps to avoid them. But if a person is on the path of evil, it is pointless for him to lament specific sins; instead, he should search and examine his ways, and move to the path of good.
Dovid HaMelech declares (Tehillim 14:7, 53:7): “Would that Yisrael’s salvation come forth from Zion! When Hashem returns the captivity of His people, Yaakov shall jubilate and Yisrael shall rejoice.” Homiletically, we can interpret this declaration as saying that if Hashem would release us from the bondage of the evil inclination and set us upon a well-paved path toward an honorable livelihood and a life of sanctity, we would jubilate and rejoice. But, before Hashem extends His help, we have to take the first step by forming within our hearts a desire to abandon evil.
The Midrash relates (Vayikra Rabbah 3:3):
It is written (Yeshayah 55:7): “Let the wicked man abandon his way, and the crooked man his thoughts.” Rav Bibi son of Abaye said: “How should a person confess on erev Yom Kippur? He should say, ‘I acknowledge that, in all the evil I did before You, I was positioned on the path of evil. And I shall no longer commit deeds like all these.’”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. We can often trace a wide variety of sins to an underlying evil character trait embedded in a person’s soul. For example, if a person’s heart is stricken with a lust for money, he will be led to rob, steal, use false weights, encroach on other people’s businesses, and commit other similar misdeeds. When a person is caught up in a pattern of sinning of this sort, it will not help for him to repent specific sins on an individual basis. Before he manages to correct one type of misdeed, he will start committing other types. Time will come to an end, but his sins will not. Instead, he must search and examine his ways to identify the evil character trait that lies at the root of his sinning, and then eradicate it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator