Post Archive for September 2011

The Days of Repentance

It is written (Yeshayah 32:9-10): “O complacent women, arise and hear my voice! O self-assured daughters, pay heed to what I say. Days upon years will the secure women tremble.” In Ohel Yaakov, parashas Nitzavim, the Maggid interprets this passage homiletically as conveying a message about the rigors of the days of repentance.
The Maggid speaks of three methods by which we can be purged of our sins. The first method is by going through Gehinnom after death. This method is unfathomably harsh. The second method is by being punished by a Beis Din. The third method is by a purging process that the sinner effectuates himself, by bitterly lamenting his evil deeds and taking steps on his own to atone for them through fasting and similar afflictions, prayer, charity, and Torah study. When a person acts on his own to avenge the affront to Hashem’s honor that his sins caused, Hashem is pleased. As the Gemara in Berachos 7a says: “One self-reproach in a person’s heart is better than many lashes.” The days of repentance are thus very precious, for they have the special power to purge a person of all types of sins, for which he would otherwise have to suffer harsh punishment in Gehinnom. By observing these days, a person can rectify his sins quickly and much more easily. We should be filled with joy to have this opportunity. Indeed, the faithful and strong-hearted, who serve Hashem with love and accept affliction gladly, rejoice over these days as if they had found a great treasure – they immerse themselves in the prayers and forget about their skipped meals and lost sleep. Many people, however, take the opposite attitude, viewing the days of repentance as a burden. Going to shul for selichos seems a chore; the long services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seem tiresome. The Maggid interprets the verse we quoted at the outset as advice to those who take this attitude – to those who yearn to sit in complacent comfort and who balk at any strain.
He brings out the idea with a parable. In a certain city, there lived a great genius who constantly came out with new inventions, the likes of which no one had ever seen. He made a living selling these inventions, and he did well, for people were eager to grab his marvelous wares. But one man never bought any of his inventions; while he was rich enough to afford them easily, he was very miserly, and regarded the inventions a waste of money. After a time, the inventor came out with something especially wondrous: a small cake made of ingredients so filling that a single serving would meet a person’s food needs or ten days or more. He went to the marketplace with a basket of these cakes to offer for sale. The miser passed by, and the inventor called out to him and said: “Come, my friend, buy some of these cakes.” The miser replied: “You know I’m not interested in frittering away my money on your foolish inventions.” The inventor responded: “On the contrary, this product is meant for people like you. Someone who spends freely feels no need to economize by buying a food like this; he’ll figure that if he feels hungry tomorrow morning, he’ll buy some fresh bread. But with you, your great tightfistedness demands that you buy my new super-filling cakes.”
Similarly, with people who crave ease and are loath to submit to any strain, this very aversion demands that they submit to the rigors of the days of repentance. They should cherish these days dearly and embrace them eagerly, for through the strain they undergo during these few days, they can gain peace and comfort for the entire rest of the year (and avoid much greater suffering that they would otherwise have to endure, including a possibly lengthy period of suffering in Gehinnom after death). As our opening verse states: “Days upon years will the secure women tremble.” The period from the end of Elul to Yom Kippur has a special power through which a few days of trembling can meet our quota of trembling for an entire year. Let us take advantage of this opportunity.
K’sivah V’Chasimah Tovah!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Nitzavim – Vayeilech

In this week’s parashah, Hashem tells us that if we repent and return to Him, He will bless us. The Maggid expounds at length on this theme. For presentation here, I have selected from his discussion two related ideas.
The ten days of repentance include two special haftaros of repentance: the haftarah read on the afternoon of Tzom Gedaliah (as well as on other fast days) and the haftarah of Shabbos Shuvah. The first of these, from sefer Yeshayah, opens as follows (Yeshayah 55:6-7):
Seek Hashem when He can be found; call upon Him when He is near. Let the wicked man abandon his way and the crooked man his thoughts. Let him return to Hashem and He will show him mercy – to our God, for He is abundantly forgiving.
Elsewhere, Yeshayah declares in Hashem’s Name (Yeshayah 50:2): “Why is it that I have come and there is no one present? That I have called out and there is no one who answers? Is My hand too limited to bring redemption? Do I lack the power to save? Behold, through My admonishment I dry the sea; I make the rivers into a desert.” Thus, Hashem laments that He is ready to extend aid, but no one comes to ask Him for it. On the other hand, we often feel that when we pray to Hashem, He does not answer. As Dovid HaMelech puts it (Tehillim 22:3): “O My God! I call out by day, but You do not answer – and by night, but there is no respite for me.” How can we explain this apparent paradox?
The Maggid offers an answer based on the following passage (Yirmiyah 15:5-6): “For who will show pity on you, O Yerushalayim? … You abandoned Me, says Hashem – you have gone behind.” He explains this passage as follows. When a person wants to make a request of another person, the first thing he must do is present himself before the other person. If he places himself behind the other person, turns his back to him, and starts speaking into empty space, he obviously cannot expect the other person to answer, even if he goes on speaking day and night. Similarly, if we want Hashem to answer us, we must direct ourselves toward Him. But, instead, we often detach ourselves from Him and go our own way – we cast Hashem behind our backs (Melachim Aleph 14:9). Even when we recite our prayers, our minds are on our own agenda. The first step in prayer is, in Amos’s words (Amos 4:13): “Prepare to meet your God, O Yisrael.” Hashem is nearby, waiting for us to approach Him. If we truly direct ourselves toward Him, He is ready to fulfill our requests. If we return to Him, He is ready to bless us.
The Maggid presents a similar idea regarding the atonement process of Yom Kippur. Hashem gave us Yom Kippur as a means for purifying our souls from the corroding effects of sin. Yet we find that we go through Yom Kippur year after year, and remain corroded. Why? The Midrash speaks of this phenomenon, saying (Eichah Rabbah Pesichasa 11):
Had you merited, you would have encountered the verse (Vayikra 15:30): “For on this day He shall atone for you to purify you.” Now that you have not merited, you encounter the verse (Eichah 1:9): “Her filth was on her hems. She did not pay regard to her end.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. A doctor may have effective medicine for a patient’s illness, but if the patient continues eating unhealthy foods and engaging in other unhealthy habits, the medicine will not work. Similarly, in order for the spiritual cure of Yom Kippur to take effect, we must first prepare by shaking off bad behavior patterns. If we do not do so – if we do not pay regard to the sorry shape we were in when the past year came to its end – then Yom Kippur will not help, and the filth will remain. But if we prepare properly, Yom Kippur will do its work, and we will be purified.
Taking the Maggid’s discussion a step further, I will suggest an added link between the above two ideas. The verse about Yom Kippur that the Midrash quotes concludes by saying: “Before Hashem, you shall be purified.” We can read the verse as saying that if we shake off our negative thought and behavior patterns, let go of the agendas we have set for ourselves, and place ourselves before Hashem – directing ourselves toward Him – then we will be purified.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Savo

The Torah contains two passages called tochachah (admonition), with a litany of curses that will befall us if we do not obey Hashem’s will. One of these passages appears in parashas Bechukosai, while the second, a much longer one, appears in this week’s parashah. The Midrash teaches (Devarim Rabbah 4:1):
A question in halachah: Is it permitted to split the reading of the tochachah into multiple segments? Thus the Sages taught: “We do not interrupt the reading of the curses.” … Said R. Chiya bar Gamda: “For it is written (Mishlei 3:11), ‘The chastisement of Hashem, my child, do not disdain, and do not abhor (al takutz) His rebuke.’ Do not break up the litany of admonitions into separate ‘thorns’ (kotzim). Rather, one person should read them all.”
The final accepted halachah is that (1) it is forbidden to split up the tochachah in parashas Bechukosai (where Moshe was speaking in Hashem’s Name), and (2) it is technically permitted to split up the tochachah in this week’s parashah (where Moshe was speaking in his own name) but customary not to do so (Megillah 31b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 428:6). The Maggid elaborates on why we refrain from splitting up the tochachah.
He brings out the idea with a striking parable. A young boy fell ill to the point of being bedridden, and his father called in a doctor to treat him. The doctor examined the boy, and stated that he would have to prescribe medications to make the boy vomit. The father told the doctor to be cautious, because the boy had a very delicate constitution and could not withstand powerful medicines. The doctor replied: “Yes, I saw that he is a delicate boy the moment I set eyes on him. But still, we have to do what we have to do in order to cure him, and he must be made to vomit at least ten times.” The father said: “Even so, try to minimize the medicine as much as you can.” The doctor responded: “As I just told you, I realize that your son has a delicate nature. I will take care not to overload him. Now, bring me a pen and paper, and I’ll write down a list of the medications I wish to prescribe.” The doctor proceeded to fill the page, top to bottom and side to side, with a long and varied list of medications. The father, seeing the list, pleaded with the doctor: “Please hold back – my son can’t take all this!” The doctor replied: “Just wait, you’ll see that I’m making it easy for him with this fearsome-looking prescription. He won’t be overloaded at all.”
The father, having no choice, sent his errand boy to the drug store to get the medicine. The errand boy returned with several large bundles of medications. The father was extremely distressed. The doctor took the bundles of medications and asked to have a table for preparing them set up next to the boy’s bed. He began chopping up various herbs and grinding various other materials. Fumes began to waft through the room, and the foul smell nauseated the boy: He vomited twice. The doctor continued chopping and grinding on and on, the smell grew fouler and fouler, and the boy vomited more and more. Eventually he vomited for the tenth time. The doctor then announced: “All right, we can pack up the medicine now, we’re finished.” And then he said to the father: “See, my dear friend, it is just as I told you. Had I planned to actually administer medication, I wouldn’t have needed to write out such a long list. One or two spoonfuls would have been enough. But I saw that your son was too delicate to withstand any medicine at all. So I had to write out a long list of medications, and make a big deal out of chopping and grinding them, so that the process of preparing the medications by itself would effect the cure.”
So it is with us. If Hashem intended, far be it, to put us through calamities of the type listed in the tochachah in order to cure us of our spiritual ills, surely just a few of these calamities would have been enough to achieve the goal. Why, then, does the Torah present such a long list (98 curses in the tochachah of this week’s parashah)? The reason is that Hashem, in His love and compassion for us, sized up our constitution and concluded that we could not bear the dose of affliction needed to cure us, and He therefore sought to present us with a list of curses so fearsome that merely reading it would do the job. We can now understand very well why we do not split the reading of the tochachah into multiple segments. When the long list of curses is read in a series of short segments, it makes little impression on us. Reading the list of curses all in one shot heightens the impact it has on us, and makes it a more effective means of purifying our hearts.

Haftaras Ki Seitzei

In this week’s haftarah, it is written (Yeshayah 54:4): “Do not be afraid, for you shall not be shamed. Do not feel humiliated, for you shall not be disgraced. For you shall forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you shall remember no longer.” The Maggid discusses this verse in connection with a Gemara in Berachos 32b.
The Gemara expounds on Yeshayah 49:14-15 (in haftaras Eikev), interpreting these two verses as a dialogue between Hashem and the Jewish People. Hashem tells the Jewish People: “Can I possibly forget the offerings that you brought before Me in the wilderness?” The Jewish People reply that His having not forgotten these offerings leads them to conclude that He has also not forgotten the sin of the golden calf. Hashem replies that He has forgotten this sin (i.e., He directs His attention away from it). The Jewish People then say His having forgotten this sin leads them to conclude that He has forgotten their acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. Hashem replies that this merit He has not forgotten.
The Maggid explains this Gemara as follows. Sometimes a person’s conduct is not virtuous enough to be rated highly on an absolute scale, but can still be rated favorably in comparison with his past conduct. For example, when Achav delayed his first meal of the day as an act of repentance, and ate three hours later than usual, he was viewed as having fasted (Melachim Aleph 21:27-29, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:36). Based on this principle, on occasion Hashem purposely recalls our past misdeeds, in order to justify a favorable judgment. In this vein, it is written (Hoshea 7:1-2, homiletically): “When I set out to heal Yisrael, the iniquity of Ephraim was revealed, along with the evils of Samaria …. Let them not say in their hearts that I raised the memory of all their evil deeds; rather, their misconduct brought them [into view].” (The word savavum in the verse, which in context means “surrounded them” [i.e., surrounded the Jewish People] can be read as meaning “brought them” [i.e., brought their evil deeds into view].) Hashem was saying that the Jewish People’s misconduct at that time created a need for Him to recall more serious evils that they committed in the past, in order to show them mercy.
In the dialogue recorded in the Gemara, the Jewish People were worried when they heard Hashem speak of their righteousness in the days of the wilderness. They feared that they might (again) reach a state where they could be rated favorably only in comparison with their past conduct, and they reasoned that if Hashem would recall only their past merits they would have no hope. They would be indicted for neglecting the Torah they had previously accepted. In order for them to be rated favorably in comparison with the past, Hashem would have to recall not only the Jewish People’s acceptance of the Torah and their good deeds in the wilderness, but also the sin of the golden calf. Hashem replied that He had forgotten the sin of the calf but still recalled the acceptance of the Torah; He was telling them that He knew they were approaching the level where they could be rated highly on an absolute scale, without reference to the misdeeds they committed in the past.
In the same vein, Yeshayah declares elsewhere (verses 29:22-23): “Therefore, thus said Hashem, who redeemed Avraham, to the House of Yaakov: ‘Yaakov will now not be ashamed, and his face now will not pale, when he sees his children, My handiwork [evident] within them, sanctifying My name – indeed, they will sanctify the Holy One of Yaakov and show awe for the God of Yisrael.’” When Yeshayah speaks of Hashem’s handiwork being “[evident] within them,” he is saying that the Jewish People will be imbued with such Godliness that they can be judged as eminent in an absolute sense, just observing them as they are. There will be no need to recall their previous lowliness – and they therefore will suffer no shame. Yeshayah’s prophecy in this week’s haftarah is along the same lines: “Do not be afraid, for you shall not be shamed. Do not feel humiliated, for you shall not be disgraced. For you shall forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you shall remember no longer.” The time will come when we will no longer suffer the humiliation of having our past disgrace called to memory, for we will reach the level where we can judged as eminent based solely on our current state.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shoftim

The Torah exhorts (Devarim 16:20): “Justice, justice, shall you pursue, so that you shall live and possess the land that Hashem, your God, is giving you.” The Maggid, expounding on this verse, links it to a verse about unjust gains (Yirmiyah 17:11): “Like a partridge chirping to summon chicks it did not bear, so is one who amasses wealth unjustly; in the middle of his life it will leave him, and at his end he will turn into a spoiled man.” The Maggid asks why Yirmiyahu chose to speak about the unsoundness and fragility of unjust gains using the analogy about the partridge, as opposed to other possible analogies, such as to a stillborn or a spider web. He asks further why Yirmiyahu notes only the partridge’s chirping to summon the chicks, without mentioning its other efforts in caring for them: sitting on them to warm and protect them, feeding them, and so on. He answers as follows. Chirping is the partridge’s most prominent activity; indeed, the Hebrew word for partridge is korei – a “caller.” A typical bird, such as a hen, which raises chicks that are its own, need not chirp so much to summon its brood. The chicks are naturally drawn toward their mother. The partridge, however, which raises chicks it did not bear, must chirp persistently to get them to come. The chicks regard the partridge as a stranger, to which they have no ties, and they therefore tend to stray from it. Similarly, if a person gains assets unjustly, so that they are not truly his, he has to struggle constantly to keep hold of them – and ultimately they will leave him. But if a person gains assets justly, he need not put forth exaggerated effort to keep hold of them; since they are truly his, they will naturally remain with him.
In general, misfortunes that cause a loss of money or other assets affect only those assets that a person gained by unjust means. Justly gained assets are immune. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech writes (Mishlei 10:22): “Hashem’s blessing is what brings riches; it adds no grief with it.” Assets that are gained justly, so that they may be called “Hashem’s blessing,” bring only satisfaction, without a trace of grief. The Gemara in Berachos 20a brings out the same idea, describing Yosef as demonstrating the principle that “one whose eye does not generate a desire to feed on what is not his, the evil eye has no power over him.”
Speaking of the end of days, Yeshayah states that people “will build houses and inhabit them, plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (verse 65:21). He then continues (verses 65:22-23): “They will not build and have another inhabit; they will not plant and have another eat. For the lifetime of My people will be as the lifetime of the tree, and My chosen ones will wear out their handiwork. They will not toil in vain or produce to reap confoundedness. For they are progeny that are blessed by Hashem, and their descendants will be with them.” The Maggid explains that there two reasons that a house which a person builds may be inhabited by someone else: either the house outlives its builder, or it is stolen from him. Yeshayah is ruling out both of these possibilities, saying that the builder’s lifetime will match his house’s, and that the builder will not be confounded by having his house wrested from him. Yeshayah then explains why: The people will be “blessed by Hashem” – with hands clean of theft – and therefore their assets will be immune to loss.
In this vein, the Torah tells us that if we pursue justice, we will live and possess the land that Hashem, our God, gave us. As the Torah puts it elsewhere (Shemos 34:24), no one will covet our land – our hold on it will be firm.
David Zucker, Site Administrator