Post Archive for October 2011

Parashas Noach

This week’s parashah describes the great flood through which Hashem destroyed the entire world except for the righteous Noach and his family, and some animals He told Noach to take with him. Near the end of the parashah, after the account of the flood, the Torah recounts that Noach planted a grapevine, got drunk from the wine he made from its grapes, and disgraced himself. The Torah begins its account of this episode as follows: “And Noach, the man of the land, started off (vayachel), and he planted a grapevine.” The Midrash, making a play on the word vayachel, remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 36:3):
Noach was profaned (nischallel), and turned mundane (chullin). How? By planting a grapevine. He did not think to plant something else, something constructive – not a fig sapling and not an olive sapling – but rather a grapevine. … On the very day he planted it, he drank and he disgraced himself.
The Maggid explains the above Midrash as criticizing Noach for ruining a golden opportunity. The Maggid links this Midrash to a Midrash about the blessing that Hashem bestowed on the seventh day (Bereishis 2:3). The Sages teach (Bereishis Rabbah 11:1, expounding on Mishlei 10:22, which I render in line with the Maggid’s interpretation):
Hashem’s blessing is what brings riches – this refers to the Sabbath day. Let it not bring along with it an increase of grief – that is, mourning.
The Maggid explains this Midrash with a parable – one his most famous ones. A man went on a trip, and on the way he met a saintly sage whom he knew had the power to give people blessings. He asked the sage to bless him. The sage replied: “May it be Hashem’s will that, when you return home, the first thing you do will develop into a thriving success.” The man decided that when he got home, he would immediately take out his money pouch and start counting and weighing his money, so that the sage’s blessing would take effect on the money and make him rich. And so, the very second he got home, he called to his wife: “Quick! Bring me the money pouch!” The man’s wife, who had no idea why he made this abrupt request, concluded that he had been stricken with a fit of insanity and refused to give him the pouch. He proceeded to yell at her, and she, in turn, proceeded to curse him. The quarrel escalated further and further, ultimately developing into a great “success” – for it was the first activity the man engaged in when he got home, and it was thus on this squabbling that the sage’s blessing took effect.
Shabbos is like the sage in the above parable – as the Zohar teaches, Hashem established Shabbos as the fount of blessing. This special power is what the Torah is referring to when it says that Hashem bestowed blessing on the seventh day. The Zohar elaborates, teaching that all blessing within the universe depends on Shabbos, both in heaven and on earth. It is the blessing which flows from Shabbos that brings forth all the good we receive during the week.
Every activity a person engages in on Shabbos is infused with a special blessing, and this blessing causes the activity to thrive during the upcoming week. Thus, Shabbos is called the “treasure of days” – all the other days of the week, so to speak, treasure and yearn for Shabbos, for it is from Shabbos that they receive their blessing. It therefore behooves every Jew, in a God-fearing spirit, to spend every moment of his Shabbos wisely. He should engage in spiritual pursuits, so that, in the upcoming week, he will achieve success in these pursuits. And he should honor Shabbos properly with fine food and drink, so that the upcoming week will bear for him a goodly measure of material sustenance. Moreover, in all our Shabbos activities, we must take extreme care to keep what we are doing completely free of anything that produces grief, for the generative power of Shabbos will boost this grief and cause it to thrive throughout the upcoming week.
With this, the Maggid turns to the Midrash about Noach’s grapevine, and explains the strong criticism leveled against Noach. After the flood, Hashem brought into the world a wondrous flow of blessing, so that the world could be fully re-established and restored to its former state. Thus, the world was poised in such a way that the first activity that Noach engaged in would be invested with an extraordinary power of growth. Noach should have taken advantage of this awesome opportunity by engaging in an activity that would contribute as constructively as possible to the restoration of the world. But, instead, he planted a grapevine, and it was on this inferior planting that the extraordinary power of growth took effect. On the very day Noach planted it, the grapevine matured and produced grapes, and Noach turned these grapes into wine, drank, and disgraced himself. It was a classic case of profanation – taking potential for lofty achievement, and wasting it on the pursuit of the mundane.

Parashas Bereishis

In parashas Bereishis, the Torah relates (Bereishis 2:19-20):
Now, Hashem, God, had formed from the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the sky, and He brought them to the man, to see what he would call each one – and whatever the man was going to call each living creature, that is its name. And the man gave names to all the domesticated animals, to the birds of the sky, and to all the wild animals of the field.
The order of presentation here is odd. The Torah first says that whatever the man was going to call each living creature, that is its name,” and then relates that Adam gave names to all the creatures. It would have been more natural for the Torah first to relate that Adam gave names to all the creatures, and then to say “whatever the man called each one, that is its name.” Why does the Torah present the facts in reverse?
The Maggid explains as follows. The animal kingdom encompasses a wide variety of traits, both good and bad. Hashem, in His wisdom, systematically apportioned these traits among the various animal species. Since animals have no free will, each one acts wholly in accordance with its own innate traits; no animal ever adopts the behavior pattern of a different animal. Thus, as our Sages teach, the cat specializes in modesty, the ant in aversion to theft, and the dove in loyalty to its mate. Man, on the other hand, possesses the entire gamut of powers and traits. Hashem granted man the free will to choose which to exercise in each situation, and man is ultimately judged according to his choices.
Now, our also Sages teach that each animal’s most prominent trait is reflected in its name. They tell us, for example, that the stork is named chasidah because a stork shows kindness (chesed) to other storks by sharing its food with them. Similarly, they say, the heron is named anafah because a heron quarrels (m’anefes) with other herons. Since man encompasses all the traits of the all the animals, he is familiar with all these traits and understands how each should be named. We can now see why the Torah says that “whatever the man was going to call each living creature, that is its name” – whatever name Adam would put forward was sure to be the right one.
The Midrash teaches (Bereishis Rabbah 17:4):
When the Holy One Blessed Be He came to create man, He consulted with the angels, saying: “Let us make man.” They replied: “This man, what is his nature?” Hashem told them: “His wisdom is greater than yours.” He brought before them the domesticated animals, the wild animals, and the birds, and asked: “What is the name of each of these?” And they did not know. He then brought these creatures before Adam and asked: “What is the name of each of these?” Adam replied: “That one is an ox, that one is a donkey, that one is a horse, that one is a camel ….”
At first glance it seems puzzling that Adam knew the names while the angels did not. But, given the idea we just explained, we can see why this was so. Indeed, same differentiation that prevails in the animal kingdom also prevails in the celestial realm. Each angel has a specific role: Some specialize in dispensing compassion, others in dispensing retribution, and so on. Hashem apportioned powers and traits among the angels according to these roles. Each angel possesses its own distinct set of powers and traits, different from that of any other angel. Thus, our Sages teach that an angel can carry out only one mission –for it only has the tools for one role. Accordingly, none of the angels could name the animals, for each angel was familiar only with its own specific traits, and had no grasp of any others. Only Adam, who possessed all the traits, knew how to give each animal its proper name.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Megillas Koheles

On Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos, we read Megillas Koheles, Shlomo HaMelech’s guide to a proper outlook on life. In Koheles 1:18 he writes: “For with great wisdom comes great torment, and one who increases his knowledge increases his grief.” This statement indicates that a wise person suffers more than a fool does over certain mishaps of life, particularly over misdeeds. The Maggid explains Shlomo’s statement as reflecting the fact that Hashem holds a wise person to a high standard, as the Gemara in Bava Kamma 50a teaches. It is written (Tehillim 50:3): “His [Hashem’s] environs are very stormy (nisarah meod).” The Gemara derives from this verse the principle that Hashem is exacting with the righteous to a hairsbreadth (k’chut hasaarah). In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, chapter 12, the Maggid elaborates on this principle.
The Maggid begins by presenting a classic illustration of the principle: the death penalty that Hashem meted out to Nadav and Avihu for offering in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) a “foreign fire” that Hashem had not commanded. Their father Aharon was astonished at the swift and severe punishment they received for this misstep. Moshe explained to him (Vayikra 10:3): “It was of this that Hashem spoke, saying, ‘Through My close ones I shall be sanctified, and I shall be honored before the entire people.’” Hashem expects a commoner to guard His honor by not rebelling against His commands. He expects more, however, of His close ones; He invests them with the duty to sanctify Him by acting with the utmost scrupulousness. Nadav and Avihu’s great loftiness made them liable to the strictest punishment.
The Maggid then expands on discuss why Hashem is so exacting with the righteous. He presents three reasons for this mode of operation.
First, a person who is endowed with wisdom and has drawn close to Hashem is expected to have a solid grasp of the rules of proper conduct. As the Midrash puts it (Tanchuma, Vayikra 6), a king gets much angrier when a member of the palace household commits an infraction than when a visitor from the city commits the same infraction, for the palace household member should know better. Since a member of the palace household constantly beholds the glory of the king within the palace, he is expected to know how to act, whereas such knowledge is not expected of a visitor. The same idea applies to the way Hashem relates to a righteous person, who dwells in His environs.
Second, a small flaw in a righteous person causes much more damage to the Jewish People as a whole than a similar small flaw in an average person. The Maggid draws an analogy to the human body. The body comprises a variety of organs, including some of minor importance and some of major importance. Some organs can be injured or even lost without significant effect on a person’s functioning. But other organs, such as the eyes, are so central that an injury to them causes a grave impairment. Similarly, the Jewish People comprises a variety of people, including commoners and great saints. If a commoner sins, the sin does not cause such a great desecration of Hashem’s Name, and thus does not cause significant damage to the Jewish People as a whole. But if a great saint sins, major damage to the entire Jewish People results, for the people all regard the great saint as setting an example of how to act. If a great saint commits a misdeed, the rest of the people will copy it, and a major desecration to Hashem’s Name ensues. Thus, in Yoma 86a, R. Yochanan says it would be a desecration to Hashem’s Name for him to walk four cubits without speaking words of Torah and wearing tefillin, while Rav says it would be a desecration of Hashem’s Name for him to buy meat from the butcher and not pay immediately. The Mishnah in Avos 4:13 states that an inadvertent misinterpretation of Torah law is considered like a deliberate sin. In a similar vein, we can say that an inadvertent sin committed by a righteous person is as severe as a deliberate sin, for when a righteous person inadvertently does an improper deed, he gives others the impression that it is alright to engage in such behavior, and thus leads them to do so deliberately.
Third, a small flaw in a righteous person damages the person himself much more than a similar small flaw in an average person. On a physical level, a tough person suffers significant harm only when he is dealt a heavy blow, but a delicate person suffers serious harm even from a minor blow. Similarly, on a spiritual level, a coarse person’s soul suffers significant damage only when he commits a major sin, but a lofty person’s soul suffers serious damage even from a minor sin. As another analogy, consider bright white garments as compared with garments of a duller color. A few black spots would hardly be noticed on a duller garment, but seriously damage the appearance of a bright white garment. Thus, a person wearing a bright white garment must be much more careful to avoid stains than a person wearing a duller garment. In the same way, a righteous person must be very careful to avoid a even minor sin.
An additional perspective on Hashem’s exacting treatment of the righteous is reflected in another verse in Koheles (verse 7:3): “Anger is better than geniality.” The Gemara comments (Shabbos 30b): “The anger that the Holy One Blessed Be He shows the righteous in this world is better than the geniality that the Holy One Blessed Be He shows the wicked in this world.” The Maggid, in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 1:5, explains this teaching as follows. If Hashem shows a person favor for avoiding gross indecencies, it is because He regards him as a lowly person for whom avoiding such indecencies is a major achievement. And if He subjects a person to an outpour of wrath for a slight infraction, it is because He regards him as a righteous person who is capable of spiritual greatness.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Yom Kippur

The Gemara in Berachos 37b says: “In the place where the repentant stand, the completely righteous cannot stand.” In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar Ha-Ahavah, chapter 13, the Maggid expounds on this teaching. He links it to a charge from Yeshayah (verse 31:6): “Turn back regarding the way you have deeply strayed, O Children of Israel.” The Hebrew word that I have rendered cautiously as “regarding the way” is la’asher, and the Maggid notes that it is an odd choice. We would have expected to see the word mei’asher, meaning “from the way,” but instead we find the world la’asher, literally meaning “to the way.” Rashi renders la’asher as “to the one from whom,” and reads it as referring to Hashem. The Maggid, however, takes a completely different approach. It almost seems, he says, that Yeshayah is suggesting that a person should turn back, far be it, to his sinful ways. In resolving this apparent conundrum, the Maggid brings out a profound message.
He develops the point with an analogy. A rich nobleman had a faithful servant who served him conscientiously for several years. In the same city, one of the wealthiest and most prominent merchants lost his business and all his assets, and subsequently put himself up for hire as a servant. The nobleman, upon hearing about the matter, hired this former merchant, and even paid him double what he paid his other servant. He explained his decision as follows: “My other servant is a loyal worker, and he desires with his whole heart to fulfill his duties properly. Still, there is a big difference between the work of a servant, even one who carries out his duties perfectly, and that of a man who works for himself. A servant, who is obligated to work for his master, finds his work a heavy undertaking and does not exert himself to do more than is expected of him. A man who works for himself, on the other hand, plunges into his work with relish; his desire for gain spurs him on, and he exerts himself to extremes, skimping on food and sleep to press on toward his goal. A man who has worked his entire life as a servant has no concept of this type of exertion. But a man who has worked for himself knows it well, and, if he later takes a position as a servant, he understands what he has to do to truly fulfill his master’s wishes. Moreover, a servant who has always worked for someone else simply does what he is told, without any strategizing, but a servant who once worked for himself knows what it means to mull over turn a situation day and night to develop a strategy that will yield maximum gain, and he puts this experience to use for his master’s benefit.
Similarly, someone who has served Hashem all his life, although his soul is pure and his intent is sincere, has no concept of the effort exerted by a wicked man who seeks to gratify his own desires. The wicked man who is wedded to pleasure or honor is in constant turmoil in his quest for further gratification. As is written in the Yom Kippur haftarah (Yeshayah 57:20-21): “The wicked are like the raging sea that cannot rest, and whose waters churn up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace, said my God, ‘for the wicked.’” And so, when a wicked man reverses course and decides from now on to serve Hashem with all his heart, he puts forth a wondrous effort. For he understands how far he must go; he realizes that he has not fulfilled his obligation to Hashem until he serves Him with the same zeal with which he previously served his selfish wishes. If he is told he must learn Torah a whole night long, he recalls the many nights he spent awake engaged in card games and other frivolous pursuits, without proper meals and sleep, and he sets himself to the task. This level of devotion is what Yeshayah is calling for in the charge we quoted at the outset: “Turn back to serve Hashem with the same depth with which you previously strayed.” If a wayward man heeds this charge, he can reach spiritual heights that a person who has served Hashem his whole life cannot imagine. This is what the Gemara means when it says that “in the place where the repentant stand, the completely righteous cannot stand.”
Yet, even someone who has served Hashem his whole life can gain a sense of the repentant man’s zeal – by looking out into the world and observing the extremes people go to for the sake of worldly gains. As the Rambam says (in his introduction to Mishnayos Zeraim), the physical world is kept running by the efforts of crazy people. If we take note of the tremendous exertion and zeal of these crazy people – how they literally put their entire guts into their work – we all can see how far we must go in serving Hashem. Let us all strive to serve Hashem with full devotion, each to the very best of his ability. If we do, we will be worthy of being called “people who love Hashem.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator