Post Archive for November 2011

Parashas Vayeitzei

This week’s parashah opens by describing the dream Yaakov had at the site of the Beis HaMikdash. The Torah relates that when Yaakov awoke from his dream, he declared (Bereishis 28:16-17):
Indeed, Hashem is present in this place, and I did not know. … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God – it is the gate to heaven.
In Ohel Yaakov, Bereishis, the Maggid raises two issues about this declaration. First, it is repetitious: Yaakov initially says that “Hashem is present in this place” and then he expresses the same idea again, saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God.” Second, and even more in need of examination, is the following question: Why did Yaakov speak of the place being “none other” than the House of God, as if he were trying to counter some people who were arguing otherwise? The Maggid then explains Yaakov’s words as relating to an issue that many thinkers have considered: Given that Hashem’s glory fills the entire earth (Yeshayah 6:3), how is the Beis HaMikdash Hashem’s abode more than any other place?
He brings out the idea with a parable. A person visiting his country’s royal capital city tours the streets and marketplaces to see the grand buildings there. He notices an especially magnificent fortified mansion and asks whose it is. He is told that it is the king’s palace. He enters into the outer courtyard of the palace and he sees many individual dwelling chambers there. He asks some people about these chambers, and they tell him that each one belongs to a different member of the king’s court: the king’s doctor, his advisors, his ministers, and so on. Eventually, he reaches the splendid inner chamber where the king himself lives. He asks about this chamber as well, and he is told: “This is the king’s chamber.” Baffled, he replies: “You told me before that entire mansion belongs to the king. Now you are telling me that this chamber alone belongs to him.” The people responded: “It is indeed true that the entire mansion is the king’s. At the same time, the king granted use of the outer chambers to the various members of his court, each according to his needs. But this chamber here belongs exclusively to the king. It is set aside for his use alone, and he does not allow anyone to enter it except by appointment, and those who enter must be dressed in fine clothes in his honor.”
Similarly, Hashem owns the entire world, but He grants use of most of it to us humans and to the other creations He put here. He provides each of us a domain within the world to use as he needs, while maintaining His presence in every one of these domains. He is with us even when we are defiled, as it is written (Vayikra 16:16): “Who dwells with them in the midst of their defilement” (see Yoma 57a). At the same time, He set aside a special place within the world to serve specifically as a seat for His Name – the Mikdash. Only Kohanim qualified to perform the Mikdash service could enter the main Mikdash grounds, and only under set conditions. Entry to the Holy of Holies was restricted even to the Kohen Gadol, as it is written (Vayikra 16:2-3): “He shall not come at all times into the [inner] Sanctuary, within the curtain … with this shall Aharon come into the [inner] Sanctuary ….” The Mikdash was exclusively Hashem’s domain.
When Yaakov awoke from the dream he had at the site of the Mikdash, he declared: “Indeed, Hashem is present in this place.” He then felt a need to elaborate, and he exclaimed: “How awesome is the place!” He marveled at how the place was much more awesome than any other place on earth. He then explained to himself why the place was so awesome: “This is none other than the House of God” – it was the place that Hashem had set aside for Himself alone.
In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, Chapter 4, the Maggid discusses this idea further. He says that, while we are supposed to feel fear of Hashem with all our being and at all times, there are places that call for an elevated degree of fear – Batei Knesses and Batei Midrash, which are set aside for prayer and Torah study, and the places which had been specially infused with the Divine Presence in earlier times, such as the place where the Beis HaMikdash stood. A person should not be “like a horse or a mule, devoid of understanding” (Tehillim 32:9) and treat these places casually, as if he were in his own home. If he acts this way, Hashem’s anger is directed toward him. Regarding people who do not show proper reverence for holy places, Hashem declares (Yeshayah 1:12): “When you come to appear before Me – who asked this of you, to trample my courtyards?” And He declares further (Yirmiyahu 7:11): “Has this house, upon which My Name was called, become a criminal’s den in your eyes?” Rather, a person should enter a holy place with the utmost humility, and while he is there he should continually bear in mind its great loftiness. He should imagine how he would act and feel if he were meeting with important officers – how he would humble himself, how all his limbs would tremble, and how he would be acutely aware of his state of fear. If this is how he would act and feel in the chamber of mortal governors, all the more should he be filled with fear in the house of the King of All Worlds, the Holy One Blessed Be He.
L’ilui nishmas R’ Shimon Feivel Shraga ben R’ Mordechai HaLevi Grossnass z”l
Passed away on Sunday 14th November 2010 – 7th Kislev 5771
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

This week’s parashah deals with two topics: the birth and development of Eisav and Yaakov, and Yitzchak’s sojourn in the Philistine city of Gerar. We present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on the second of these topics.
Yitzchak travels to Gerar because of a famine, grows very successful, and then is driven out. The Philistine king Avimelech tells him (Bereishis 26:16): “Go away from being with us, for you have grown much mightier than us.” Later, Avimelech and his men approach Yitzchak. The Torah relates (Bereishis 26:27-29):
And Yitzchak said to them: “Why have you come to me, when you hated me and drove me away from you?” They said: “We saw clearly that Hashem was with you, so we said, ‘Let there now be an oath between us, respectively – between us and you – and let us establish a pact with you.’”
The Maggid interprets this exchange as follows. In Avimelech’s prior eviction message to Yitzchak, the Hebrew phrase ki atzamta mimenu meod, meaning literally “for you have grown much mightier than us,” can be rendered as “for you have grown very mighty on our account” (reading mimenu as meaning “from us” rather than “than us”). According to the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 64:7, Avimelech was arguing that Yitzchak attained all his wealth at the Philistines’ expense. We can explain the matter as follows. Success can be classified into two types: success through the natural means of making a livelihood and success through extraordinary (e.g., miraculous) means. One basic difference between these two types is that success through natural means is typically gradual, from level to level, while success through extraordinary means typically involves a sudden jump from one extreme to the other. Another basic difference is that people tend to bear a grudge against a neighbor who achieves success by natural means, but not against one who achieves success by extraordinary means. When a neighbor achieves success through a certain trade, people tend to say: “If he weren’t doing business here, we’d be making the money he is making, for we also are skilled in this trade.” In the case of success through extraordinary means, this argument does not apply. Thus, for example, if a person has a rich uncle in a distant city who sends him a hefty sum of money every month, no one has any reason to bear a grudge against him, for he is not taking anything away from anybody.
Now, Yitzchak’s success was gradual, as the Torah states (Bereishis 26:13): “The man became great, and grew successively greater, until he was very great.” Thus, his success appeared to be of a natural sort. It is true that Yitzchak reaped an extremely bountiful crop – a hundredfold. But, still, he operated within the natural farming cycle – he did not reap, in the manner described in Yeshayah 17:11, immediately after he planted. The Philistines therefore accused him of encroaching on their territory and infringing on their livelihood. But afterward they saw that, even after Yitzchak left their territory, he continued to succeed in everything he did, while they remained at the same economic level as before, gaining nothing from his departure. They saw that Yitzchak was successful because Hashem was with him. And they realized, in retrospect, that the success Yitzchak attained while he lived among them was also a special blessing from Hashem, with no infringement against them whatsoever. Avimelech’s reply to Yitzchak’s query about why he had approached him reflects a new understanding on the Philistines’ part. In his reply, Avimelech uses a double verb: reo raeenu – we saw clearly. This double verb alludes to the fact that what the Philistines saw after Yitzchak had left them led them to see properly what had been taking place before. They recognized that Yitzchak’s success was due simply to his being “blessed of Hashem.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

The beginning of this week’s parashah records Avraham’s negotiation with the men of Cheis to acquire a burial site for Sarah. After Avraham makes his initial request, the men of Cheis answer him (Bereishis 23:6): “Hear us, my lord: You are a prince of God in our midst. Bury your dead in the best of our burial sites; no man among us will withhold his burial site from you to bury your dead.” The Midrash elaborates on what they were saying (Bereishis Rabbah 58:6): “You are a prince over us, you are a king over us, you are a God over us.” The Maggid explains that they were telling him: “You need not buy a burial site from us for money. You are a prince and a king over us, so you can take from us whatever burial site you please, even the choicest, and no one will hold you back, just as a king can freely take for his own use any field within his kingdom.”
The Maggid then elaborates on the type of honor the men of Cheis showed Avraham. They regarded Avraham as a king, and honored him on that basis. Now, it is natural for people to honor a king, but we find a hint in Havakkuk 2:16 that the honor a person receives is not always to his credit. Regarding the Babylonian king Nevuchadnetzar, Havakkuk writes: savata kalon mi-kavod. Literally this phrase means: “You are sated more with disgrace than with honor.” But since the prefix mi- can mean from or through as well as more than, we can render the verse as: “You are sated with disgrace through honor.” Thus, honor can sometimes bring disgrace. When is this so? And how can we see from what the men of Cheis said to Avraham whether the honor they gave him was to his credit or to his disgrace?
When we speak of honor, we usually mean honor that a person receives out of respect for his wisdom, sterling character, and good-heartednesss toward others. But, as we know well, sometimes a person is shown honor for the completely opposite reason: He is a hooligan, a man who constantly browbeats others, and people show him honor to appease him and keep him from harming them. This honor is not out of respect, but out of fear. Now, in the case of a truly noble man, the more honor he receives, the more it shows how great he is. By contrast, in the case of the hooligan, the more honor he receives, the more it shows how contemptible he is. This is how it was with Nevuchadnetzar. He was a despicable tyrant who brought great suffering to his entire vast kingdom. He received great honor, but it brought him only disgrace, for it was honor out of fear.
The same idea is reflected in one of Shlomo HaMelech’s teachings (Mishlei 3:35): “The wise will inherit honor, while fools collect disgrace.” The wise, on account of their nobility of character, are truly worthy of honor – for them, honor is like an inheritance, that they receive by right. Moreover, as reflected in the future tense phrasing “will inherit,” they constantly receive more and more honor, as their noble character is further and further publicized. But when people honor a lowly fool, the honor turns into disgrace.
The men of Cheis told Avraham: “You are a king over us, so you can take for yourself the best of our burial sites, for the entire land is yours.” But they took care not to create the impression that they viewed him as a hooligan who came to take land from them by force. They described him as a “prince of God” – a saintly man who was truly worthy of honor.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

The end of this week’s parashah relates the episode where Hashem asked Avraham to bring his son Yitzchak before Him as an offering. Avraham bound Yitzchak to the altar, took hold of a knife to slaughter him, and then was stopped by an angel at the last moment. The angel, speaking for Hashem, said (Bereishis 22:12): “Do not stretch forth your hand toward the lad, and do not do anything to him. For now I know that you are God-fearing, since you have not withheld your son, you only one, from Me.” Later, the angel called to Avraham a second time, saying (Bereishis 22:16-18):
“By Myself I swear,” says Hashem, “that, because you performed this deed, and did not withhold your son, your only one, I shall surely bless you, and make your offspring abundant like the stars of the heavens, and like the sand on the seashore, and your offspring shall inherit the gate of their enemies. And through your offspring all the nations of the world will be blessed,, because you heeded My voice.”
The Maggid asks two questions about this second statement. First, why is the phrase “from Me,” which appears in the angel’s first statement, absent from this second one? Second, what precisely was the angel’s intent in recounting Avraham’s act again?
The Maggid answers these questions as follows. Yitzchak was dear to Hashem; He did not want him to be lost to the world. At the same time, He wanted Avraham to pass the awesome test of bringing his only son as an offering. He was therefore compelled to allow Yitzchak to be taken to be slaughtered. In the end, though, Hashem had the great satisfaction of seeing both wishes fulfilled: Avraham passed the test, and Yitzchak remained alive.
How did this result come about? The answer lies in the Gemara’s teaching in Kiddushin 40a that if a person thought about doing a mitzvah, but was prevented from doing so by some outside interference, it is considered as if he did the mitzvah. The Maggid explains that this rule applies only under certain conditions. It does not apply to a mere passing thought of doing a mitzvah, nor to someone who grudgingly undertook a mitzvah. Rather, it applies only to a person who has firmly made up his mindto do a certain mitzvah, has taken steps toward doing it, and yearns with all his heart to carry it out, but is prevented from completing the mitzvah by some circumstance beyond his control.
Thus, had Avraham taken a grudging attitude as he set out to fulfill the Hashem’s directive to bring Yitzchak as an offering, the only way he could have gotten credit for passing the test would be if he carried out the actual slaughter, and then Yitzchak would have been lost to the world. In fact, however, Avraham took up the charge with great zest and alacrity, yearning to give Hashem satisfaction by doing what He had asked. He rose at daybreak to start early. After preparing the knife, the fire, and the wood, he jubilantly set out on his journey; his attitude was like that of a father escorting his son to the wedding canopy. He proceeded on his way with eager anticipation. Upon reaching Mount Moriah, he diligently arranged the wood and the fire, and bound his beloved son on the altar. With supreme joy, he took hold of the knife to perform the slaughter. He had shown the firmest possible commitment to carrying out Hashem’s word. Through this show of commitment, he passed the test – the actual slaughter was unnecessary.
Hashem therefore called out to him: “Enough! Do not stretch forth your hand toward the lad! I am satisfied with what you have done. Now I know that you are God-fearing. Your wholeheartedness has been manifested with supreme clarity; you have passed the test. It is not necessary anymore for you to actually carry through with the slaughter. There is no reason to take your gentle only son away from the world. Let him live, and continue to serve Me.” As the Midrash relates, He told him (Bereishis Rabbah 56:8): “You fulfilled My word and put him up, now take him down.” The actions Avraham had already performed, coupled with the devotion and purity of heart with which he performed them, constituted a complete fulfillment of Hashem’s word, and hence Hashem told Avraham to take Yitzchak down from the altar.
The intent of the angel’s second statement is to bring out more fully what Avraham had accomplished. Hashem tells Avraham: “Because you performed this act, and did not withhold your son, your only one, I shall surely bless you (bareich avarechechah).” Hashem omits the phrase “from Me” because here He is not speaking of Avraham’s not having withheld Yitzchak from Him, but rather of Avraham’s not having withheld Yitzchak from the world. Through his great devotion, Avraham passed the test perfectly while obviating the need for Yitzchak to be killed. On account of this double achievement, Hashem promised Avraham a double reward, as reflected in the double verb bareich avarechechah.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

This week’s parashah begins the Torah’s account of Avraham Avinu’s career as a servant of Hashem. At the “Covenant Between the Parts,” related in Bereishis Chapter 15, Hashem promises Avraham that his descendants would become a great nation and would inherit the Land of Israel. After reporting some further interchange between Hashem and Avraham, the Torah relates (Bereishis 15:12): “A deep sleep came over Avram, and the terror of a great darkness descended upon him.” The Maggid points out that this is puzzling, for sleep and terror usually do not go hand in hand. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 44:17 explains that Avraham saw during this sleep a vision of what would come upon his descendants over the course of history, and this vision struck him with terror. The Maggid offers a similar explanation, but taking a different direction from the one the Midrash takes.
During the initial stages of Jewish history, the people had prophets living among them, who would rebuke them for their sins. In times of trouble, the prophets would lead the people to repent, and Hashem would grant them relief. But now we no longer have prophets to tell us where we stand and prompt us to repent, and so we go about our lives in a mental fog, as the psalmist Asaf describes (Tehillim 74:9): “For we have not seen the signs of our destiny; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none in our midst who knows what lies in the end.” It is as if we are in a deep sleep. The suffering of exile presses upon us, yet we are not stirred to repent.
It is this spiritual slumber that is presaged in Avraham’s deep sleep. He was standing in Hashem’s Presence and listening to Hashem speak to him, and, then, while Hashem was still speaking, he fell asleep. Avraham was then struck with terror – over the very fact that he fell asleep while Hashem was speaking to him. He realized that this sleep was a sign of what would come upon his descendants, in line with the rule that the experiences of the forefathers are a omen for the descendants (maaseh avos siman la-banim). And He saw clearly what the sign meant: that while Hashem was calling out to us, we would fall asleep – and, as Hashem continued calling, we would continue sleeping.
The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 44:17 remarks that slumber brings degneration, for when a person is slumbering, he neither learns Torah nor does any useful work. The Midrash notes also that Rav listed three types of slumber: ordinary sleep, prophetic trance, and a comatose-like sleep. The Midrash describes this latter form of slumber in terms of the following verse (Shmuel Alef 26:12): “And no one saw, and no one knew, and no one awakened, for a deep sleep from Hashem had fallen upon them.” The Midrash then goes on to mention a fourth type of sleep – the sleep of insanity, which is linked to another passage (Yeshayah 29:9-10): “They were utterly blinded. They were drunk, but not from wine; they staggered, but not from liquor. For Hashem cast upon them a spirit of deep sleep, and He closed your eyes.”
Hashem, as Shlomo HaMelech teaches, is knocking at our door, crying out (Shir HaShirim 5:2): “Open up for Me!” But we pay no attention. We are so sunken in our slumber – a slumber that resembles a comatose-like sleep or a drunken stupor – that we are oblivious to Hashem’s call. Avraham prophetically beheld this state of affairs, and the sight of it struck him with utter terror.
David Zucker, Site Administrator