Post Archive for January 2012

Parashas Bo

In this week’s parashah, Hashem tells us to designate the month of Nisan, the month in which the redemption from Egypt took place, as the first month of the year (Shemos 12:2): “This month shall be unto you the chief of the months; it shall be the first unto you of the months of the year.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 15:12):
The redemption was for Me and for you: I, so to speak, was redeemed along with you. As it is written (Shmuel Beis 7:23): “Who is like Your people, like Yisrael, a unique people within the world – for whom God went forth to redeem for Himself as a people, gaining Himself renown, and performing for you great works and awesome acts for your land, before Your people whom You redeemed for Yourself from Egypt, [subduing] nations and their gods.” [The verse includes the phrases “for Himself” and “for Yourself” as well as the phrase “for you.”] Designate this month for Me and for you, because I see the blood of the Pesach offering and bring you atonement. … And let your joy be complete, even the one who is poor. A perfectly whole male lamb or kid, within its first year (Shemos 12:5) – A lamb or kid, because it was said (Bereishis 22:8), “God will seek out for Himself the lamb or kid for the burnt offering, my son.” Perfectly whole, for sake of the Name of Hashem, of whom is written (Devarim 32:4): “The Rock – perfect is His work.”
In discussing this Midrash, the Maggid begins by examining the directive that our joy should be complete, even the one who is poor. We find that Hashem consistently tells us to see to it that when we celebrate times of joy, we attend to the poor and make sure they also can rejoice. Thus, after assembling the Jewish People on Rosh Hashanah to teach them Torah, Ezra and Nechemiah told them to rejoice, and to send portions to those who lack (Nechemiah 8:10). Similarly, the laws of celebrating Purim include an obligation to give gifts to the poor. Likewise, in connection with the declaration the Torah tells a person to make in regard to the handling of tithes, in which a person is suppose to affirm that “I acted according to everything You commanded me,” the Sages teach that the intent of this affirmation is to say that “I rejoiced in the bounty You granted me, and I also distributed the proper tithes to make others rejoice” (see Yerushalmi, Maaser Sheini 5). The Maggid asks: Why is it crucial, in times of joy, to make sure the poor also rejoice?
He answers as follows. When someone is downcast because of misfortune, seeing a successful and happy man does not bring him joy. On the contrary, it makes him feel worse. Imagine a man who is starving for bread watching someone else eat his fill of fine delicacies. Not only does the sight not quiet his hunger, it magnifies it many times over. The same pattern appears in the emotional realm. When a rich man celebrates without providing for the needy, he creates a mixed situation: At the same time that his festivities bring him joy, they bring his less fortunate neighbors pain. The outcome is the very opposite of “perfectly whole,” and is contrary to what Hashem desires. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech writes (Mishlei 10:22): “Hashem’s blessing is what brings wealth. Let it not bring along with it an increase of grief.” As a person rejoices in the wealth Hashem granted him, he must take care not to bring grief to the poor. Thus the Midrash tells us that we should make our joy complete, extending even to the one who is poor, and then concludes by saying that our offering should be perfectly whole, for the sake of the Name of Hashem, whose works are perfect.
The Maggid then turns to the Midrash’s opening segment. Hashem says: “The redemption is for Me and for you: I, so to speak, was redeemed along with you.” The Maggid analyzes the connection between this statement and the Midrash’s later statement, discussed just above, that we should make our joy complete, including even the one who is poor. Apparently the Midrash is saying that it is because the redemption is for Hashem and for us that we should provide for the poor. What does one have to do with the other? The Maggid explains as follows. The main reason Hashem redeemed us from Egypt was for the sake of His great Name, for He Himself, so to speak, was in exile along with us. Thus, Hashem told Yaakov (Bereishis 46:4): “I shall go down with you to Egypt.” Our hope for the final redemption is founded on the same notion. Hashem tells us (Yeshayah 48:11): “For My sake, for My sake, I shall do it, for how can [My Name] be profaned? And I shall not yield My honor to another.”
Various Midrashim teach that the Jewish People in Egypt did not deserve in their own right to be redeemed. In Shemos Rabbah 1:35, for example, the Sages teach that the Jewish People were bereft of good deeds, as hinted at in Yechezkel’s words (verse 16:7): “You were naked and bare.” Since Hashem granted us salvation from the Egyptian exile as a pure gift, it stands to reason that our rejoicing over this salvation should include every member of our people on an equal basis.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. A group of paupers was going together door to door seeking money to live on. They had with them some simple wares of the kind poor people typically sell: tzitzis, mezuzahs, and the like. Sometimes the person they approached was generous, and would give them a sum of money as a gift. And sometimes the person was not so generous, and would just buy a bit of what they had to sell. We can note one key difference between these two situations. If the person they approached had bought their wares, even if he handed over the money to just one of them, they would divide the money according to what each was due on account of the merchandise he had sold. But if the person gave them money as a gift, they would divide the money equally, for regarding a gift they were all on the same footing.
Similarly, if the Jewish People had attained redemption through the merit of their own good deeds, each Jew would have been entitled to rejoice in proportion to the contribution he made to the redemption. But, in fact, the redemption was not on our account. Hashem subdued the Egyptians for His own sake – to restore His honor, which had been impugned. He was, so to speak, redeeming Himself from exile. In the process, He redeemed the Jews as well, as a pure act of generosity. Hence all the Jews were on the same footing, and it would thus only be right for them to rejoice equally. Since the redemption was for the sake of the Name of Hashem, whose works are perfectly whole, it behooves us to take care – for the sake of Hashem’s Name – that our rejoicing is perfectly whole, encompassing all members of the community. The rejoicing that will take place at the time of the final redemption will also be for the sake of Hashem’s Name, and thus, in the same way, will extend to all segments of the Jewish population. Thus it is written (Yirmiyah 31:12): “Then the maiden will rejoice with dance, and the young men and the elders together.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeira

This week’s parashah presents the first seven of the ten plagues that Hashem brought upon Egypt. In telling Moshe to warn Pharaoh about the initial plague of blood, Hashem said (Shemos 7:14-18):
Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning … and say to him: “Hashem, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, ‘Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness,’ and, behold, you have not listened up to now (ad coh). Thus (coh) says Hashem: ‘Through this you shall know that I am Hashem – behold, with the staff that is in my hand I shall strike the waters that are in the river, and they shall turn into blood. And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul, and the Egyptians shall be repelled from drinking water from the river.’”
Commenting on this passage, the Maggid analyzes the difference between the expression “Thus says Hashem” that appears here and the expression “This is the word that Hashem commanded” that appears in Bamidbar 30:2. The Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, Torah, Sec. 784 notes that other prophets, just like Moshe, conveyed prophecies using the expression “Thus says Hashem,” but only Moshe conveyed prophecies using the expression “This is the word that Hashem commanded.” Both expressions serve to introduce a directive to perform or refrain from some action. The Maggid explains the difference between the two expressions as follows. The expression “Thus says Hashem” prefaces a substantive description of the nature and consequences of the action in question. By way of analogy, suppose Reuven wants to get Shimon to do something, but Shimon has no obligation to comply with what Reuven says. Shimon will first insist on knowing what the action entails, and Reuven will tell him: “Thus-and-so.” The expression “This is the word,” on the other hand, characterizes the directive as a order which must be obeyed no matter what it entails.
The fact that Moshe alone used the expression “This is the word,” whereas all other prophets used only the expression “Thus says Hashem,” reflects Moshe’s unique status as the premier prophet. Through the revelation at Sinai, Moshe was authenticated among the Jewish People as a consummately trustworthy agent of communication from Hashem to them – an agent whose reliability is beyond all doubt. Hence, whenever Moshe told the people what Hashem had said to him, the people accepted the message unquestioningly. Moshe could say “This is the word that Hashem commanded,” and the people would be prepared to accept the command without any analysis of its content. The messages of other prophets were not accorded this blanket acceptance; rather, the people first examined whether the message comported with the Torah tradition handed down from Sinai, and if they identified any conflict, they would reject the message. The person who related the message would be declared a false prophet, and would be put to death as the Torah prescribes (Devarim 13:2-6). Accordingly, all other prophets aside from Moshe introduced their prophecies with the expression “Thus says Hashem,” an expression that puts emphasis on the content of the message, because the people had to analyze the content to determine whether the message was reliable.
With this background, the Maggid turns to the statement Hashem told Moshe to make to Pharaoh. The statement begins: “Hashem, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, ‘Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness.’” The fact that Hashem, the Master of the Universe, had issued this order should have been enough for Pharaoh to comply with fearful alacrity. But Pharaoh refused, saying (Shemos 5:2): “Who is Hashem, that I should heed His voice to send out Yisrael? I do not know Hashem, and I will not send Yisrael out!” Pharaoh’s words suggested that once he came to “know” Hashem and was firmly convinced of His existence, He would obey Hashem’s orders. In response, Hashem told Moshe to show Pharaoh a miracle – converting his staff to a snake and then converting it back again. Hashem’s intent was that these supernatural effects would make Pharaoh convinced of His existence and thus prepared to accept His orders regardless of their content. But, even after being shown the miracle, Pharaoh maintained a hard heart and refused to listen to what Moshe and Aharon told him in Hashem’s Name. From that point on, it became necessary to spell out to Pharaoh the consequences he would suffer if he failed to obey Hashem’s command to release the Jewish People – he had to be warned of the fearsome plagues Hashem would cast upon him for his disobedience. A simple statement that Hashem had ordered him to do something was not enough.
Accordingly, the quote from Hashem continues: “Behold, you have not listened “ad coh.” Hashem was saying: “I see that you will not listen until you receive a message of the type prefaced by coh – a substantive description of the consequences of refusing to comply.” And Hashem told Moshe to follow up with a detailed message of precisely this form: “Thus (coh) says Hashem: ‘Through this you shall know that I am Hashem – behold, with the staff that is in my hand I shall strike the waters that are in the river, and they shall turn into blood. And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul, and the Egyptians shall be repelled from drinking water from the river.’”
In his Yerios HaOhel footnote on the Maggid’s commentary here, Rav Flamm expands on the concept of accepting Hashem’s decree for the simple reason that Hashem decreed it. He notes that the Jewish People’s pledge at Sinai – “we will do and we will listen” – was along these lines: When presented with the Torah, they were prepared to comply first and receive explanations later. Rav Flamm also calls attention to the Midrashic teaching (Bereishis Rabbah 39:9) that when Hashem gives a righteous person a mission, He initially conceals the details of what the mission entails and only afterward discloses them. A righteous person is prepared to accept Hashem’s decrees without knowing in advance exactly what they entail. Similarly, in one of the discussions between Moshe and Pharaoh about the Jewish People’s journey to the wilderness to serve Hashem, Moshe said (Shemos 10:26): “We will not know in what way we will serve Hashem until we arrive there.” An essential element of the Jewish People’s mode of serving Hashem is not knowing exactly what they will be called upon to do until the time comes for them to do it.
As we go through life, we face situations that may lead us to wonder: “What exactly is it that Hashem is asking from me now?” (I personally have found myself thinking this way many times ….) We must strive to press ahead with the missions Hashem gives us, even when we do not know exactly where they will lead to, and maintain faith in Hashem’s plans.

Parashas Shemos

In the opening segment of this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Shemos 1:6-12):
And Yosef died, and all his brothers, and that entire generation. And the Children of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and grew very, very mighty, and the land was filled with them. And a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef. And he said to his people: “Behold, the people of the Children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, so that it may be, if war occurs, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and go up from the land.” Thus, they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pisom and Raamses. And just as they afflicted them, thus did they multiply and thus did they spread, and they became disgusted because of the Children of Israel.
The Maggid comments as follows. Our Sages teach that the Jewish People’s enslavement in Egypt did not begin until all of Yaakov’s sons had died. Thus, Yosef’s death triggered the onset of the enslavement. Now, the enslavement was put into effect by the new king who arose over Egypt, as indicated at the end the above passage. But before the enslavement was put into effect, Hashem caused the Jewish People to grow extremely numerous.
Hashem brought about this great population increase for a specific purpose. Our Sages teach that the exile and enslavement in Egypt caused the Jewish People to degenerate. As David HaMelech writes (Tehillim 106:35): “And the mingled among the nations, and learned their ways.” Similarly, the statement that “the Egyptians did us evil” (Devarim 26:6) can be interpreted a meaning “the Egyptians made us evil.” Hashem saw in advance that this degeneration would take place, and that the Jewish People would lose their spiritual wholeness. He therefore arranged for them to become extremely numerous, so that there would be enough virtues among all of them together to make up one upright and spiritually whole man. And as the enslavement continued, Hashem maintained this state of affairs. In this vein, the Torah says: “And just as they afflicted them, thus did they multiply and thus did they spread.” The added afflictions that the Egyptians imposed on the Jewish People caused further degeneration, and to compensate Hashem made the Jewish People grow ever more numerous.
Note: Today, the 17th of Teves, marks the Maggid’s 207th Yahrzeit.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Vayechi

This week’s haftarah records David HaMelech’s last words before his death, including a final charge to his son and successor Shlomo. One of these charges runs as follows (Melachim Alef 2:7): “And be gracious to the sons of Barzilai the Gileadite, and let them be among those who eat at your table, for they drew close to me when I fled your brother Avshalom.” With this charge, David was seeking to repay the sons of Barzilai for the favorable reception they extended him. Why, then, asks the Maggid, does David frame the matter in terms of “being gracious” when apparently he was merely telling Shlomo to return the favor that the sons of Barzilai had done for him?
The key to understanding David’s intent, the Maggid explains, is the phrasing he chose in describing what the sons of Barzilai had done: David did not say that they had drawn him close, but rather that they drew close to him. The difference between the two phrasings can be explained as follows. A person who draws close to a great man gains honor thereby, but the great man himself gains much more honor – the fact that someone else sought a connection with him demonstrates his greatness. Now, through that reception that the sons of Barzilai gave David, they extended him two benefits. First, they gave him food and drink, and supplied him with his other needs. Second, in the way they acted toward him, they demonstrated that they did not view him as an ordinary person, but still regarded him as the king. The proof was that they drew themselves close to him, thereby showing him special honor. David’s choice of words in describing their actions stresses this point.
David did not regard the food and drink that the sons of Barzilai gave him as a notable kindness, for it is basic human decency to provide food and drink to a person in need, even if the person is lowly. But he did regard as a notable kindness their maintaining allegiance to him as king. He therefore commanded his Shlomo to reciprocate and show them special graciousness and honor, going beyond simple compensation for their hospitality.
Specifically, David told Shlomo that they should be “among those who eat at your table.” Here again we have a careful choice of phrasing: “eat at your table” rather than “eat from your table.” Had David said that they should eat “from your table,” the message would have been that Shlomo should provide them food, which would have been really no more than simple compensation. But instead he said that they should eat “at your table” – that they should be made part of the esteemed inner circle of men who dine with the king himself. In granting this special honor, Shlomo would be extending them a considerable kindness. True, the sons of Barzilai had previously honored David, but the honor that David told Shlomo to show them went go well beyond the honor they showed him. In the reception the sons of Barzilai gave David, they did not really grant him added honor – they simply took care to show him the honor he was rightfully due as king, rather than rebelling against him or impugning his position as others were doing. By contrast, they would now be receiving a great boost of honor – originally they were ordinary citizens, and now they would become members of the king’s inner circle. Such a boost of honor is truly an act of graciousness.
David Zucker, Site Administrator