Post Archive for March 2012

Parashas Tzav

The readings for the first three aliyos in week’s parashah present various laws concerning offerings. One section concerns the laws of the korban shelamim (peace-offering). In connection with this section, the Midrash expounds as follows (Tanchuma, Tzav 4):
It is written (Tehillim 85:9): “I indeed shall hear what the Almighty, Hashem, will speak – for He speaks peace to His people and to His devout ones.” Said the nations of the world to Bilaam: “Why did God tell the Jewish People to bring offerings and not say anything about this to us?” Bilaam replied: “The offerings are only to make peace. Those who accepted the Torah need to bring offerings. But you who originally declined the Torah, now you seek to bring offerings?” Those who accepted the Torah bring offerings, as it is written (Tehillim 29:11): “Hashem gives might to His people [with the term “might” alluding to Torah]; Hashem blesses His people with peace.” Hence it is written: “I indeed shall hear ….”
The Maggid explains this Midrash with a parable. A rich merchant had a poor brother to whom he would send a certain sum of money every year. Eventually, though, he stopped sending the money, and his poor brother fell into dire straits and heavy debt. After some years, the merchant traveled to a fair held in the city where his poor brother lived. He went to his brother’s home and told him: “Figure up how much money you need, and I will give it to you.” The poor brother figured up how much money he needed to cover his debts and marry off his daughter, and the merchant gave him the entire sum. He then said to him: “I came to take care of you now, before starting in with my business here. Tomorrow the fair will begin, and I will be occupied with my business. I ask you please to leave me alone during the fair, and not disturb me with more requests for money.” The poor brother’s heart melted like wax before a flame, for he knew that soon he would be strapped for funds again.
The next day the merchant set up his trading booth, where he sold various types of silk patches for mending expensive silk clothes. The poor brother’s wife saw how well her brother-in-law was doing, and she cajoled her husband to ask his brother for more help. The poor brother demurred, saying: “I promised my brother I would not bother him during the fair.” His wife told him to take an indirect approach – he should go to his brother’s booth and look over the merchandise along with the customers there, and while discussing the merchandise with his brother he should mention that he needs some more money. Feeling he had no choice, the poor brother did as his wife said. The merchant caught on to the ruse, and he said to his brother: “Why are you rummaging through these patches? You have no silk clothes to mend, so you have no need for patches like these.”
The parallel is along the lines of a teaching in Bamidbar Rabbah 12:12. The world stands on three legs: charitable kindness, Torah, and service to Hashem through offerings (with prayer substituting for offerings when the Beis HaMikdash is not standing). Initially, man had only a limited set of duties – the seven Noachide laws – and the world operated through charitable kindness. People extended charitable kindness to each other, and Hashem extended charitable kindness to the whole of mankind. After 26 generations, the Jewish People accepted the Torah, taking upon themselves the obligation of fulfilling the 613 mitzvos. At this point, the world was in a shaky state, like a table standing on only two legs. Afterward, the Mishkan was built and the Jewish People began to bring offerings according to a designated system, and then the world became firmly settled.
Why was the world in a shaky state when the Jewish People accepted the Torah? The Maggid explains that the acceptance of the Torah as a set of obligations created the possibility that a Jew could lapse in fulfilling his obligations. The Jews were thus in a precarious position. Offerings provided the remedy, enabling a Jew to atone for a lapse. Hashem gave us the system of offerings as a means of solidifying our relationship with Him, repairing rifts in this relationship when they occur.
The nations that consulted Bilaam thought that offerings served some other function. They therefore asked him why Hashem told the Jewish People to bring offerings but did not tell them to do so. Bilaam explained that the offerings are only to make peace – to compensate for a lapse in carrying out one’s duties. The nations that declined the Torah had no lapses to compensate for, no holes to mend. Hence they had no need to bring offerings. It is for those who accepted the Torah that the system of offerings was designed.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayikra

Sefer Vayikra focuses mainly on offerings. From the Jewish perspective, an offering is not a “gift” we give Hashem to prompt Him to grant us blessing. Hashem does not need gifts. Rather, when a Jew brings an offering, his aim is to express the idea that he is offering himself to Hashem and devoting himself to Him.
Our Sages note that, in the verses in Chapter 1 of Vayikra that describe an animal offering being placed on the altar, the Torah uses different phrasing in connection with sheep and goats than it does in connection with bulls. When discussing the procedure with a bull, the Torah says: “The Kohen shall cause it all to go up in smoke (v’hiktir) on the altar.” But when discussing the procedure with a sheep or goat, it says: “The Kohen shall bring it all (v’hikriv) and cause it to go up in smoke (v’hiktir) on the altar.” The Midrash remarks (Vayikra Rabbah 2:12): “It is written hikriv in connection with sheep and goats, but not in connection with bulls. This is so that a person should not say to himself: ‘I will go and commit improper acts, and I will then offer a bull, which has a lot of meat. I will bring it to be placed on the altar, and Hashem will have mercy on me and accept my repentance.’” In a previous d’var Torah, we presented a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on this Midrash. The basic theme is that Hashem prefers a less impressive offering brought with humility to a more impressive offering brought with a boastful attitude. We elaborate here with some further portions of the Maggid’s commentary on the Midrash.
In discussing the differences between one righteous person and another, our Sages state (Avos D’Rabbi Nassan 37:9, paraphrased): “When both are eating the same dish, the flavor each tastes is according to his deeds.” For instance, when two people are eating steaks from the same cut of meat, one of them may enjoy his steak more than the other because he put more effort into the preparation. Similarly, when two people perform the same mitzvah, one person’s mitzvah may be more pleasing to Hashem than the other’s because he put more devotion into it. Hashem actually has no need for the mitzvah act itself, just as He has no need for gifts from us. Thus, it is written (Iyov 22:3): “Is the Almighty gratified when you do right? Does He benefit when you perfect your ways?” Rather, what matters to Hashem is the devotion with which the mitzvah is done. In particular, when a person brings a sin-offering, what interests Hashem is not the offering itself, but rather the contrition that accompanies the offering and the commitment to exercise more care in the future. Hashem is pleased by a humble and devoted heart.
In Chanah’s song of thanks to Hashem on the birth of her son Shmuel, she declares (Shmuel Alef 2:7): “Hashem makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and also raises up.” We may ask why Chanah added the word “also” to the second half of this declaration. The Maggid explains the import of this added word as follows. It is Hashem’s practice to feel compassion for the lowly and elevate them, and to feel antipathy toward the lofty and lower them. Because of this Divine practice, a person might find himself constantly oscillating between poverty and wealth. While he is poor, he feels humble, so Hashem elevates him and grants him wealth. And then, while he is rich, he feels haughty, so Hashem lowers him. The cycle can continue indefinitely. The only way a person can break the cycle and stay wealthy is to maintain a dual attitude: He should appreciate and feel glad about his wealth, yet continue to view himself as lowly. Even when wealthy, we depend constantly on Hashem’s compassion, and to receive it, we have to stay humble. We must be lowly while also elevated.
The above discussion is reflected in the following verse (Yeshayah 61:10): “I shall rejoice greatly in Hashem – my soul shall jubilate in my God. For He has clothed me in the raiment of salvation and cloaked me in a robe of charity.” To bring out the connection, the Maggid introduces a parable. A pauper went traveling from city to city collecting alms. After some time, he accumulated a sizeable sum. He thought to buy himself some fine clothes to make himself look more respectable, like other workers do when they make a good sum of money. A friend of his chided him for this plan, saying: “You fool! Don’t consider yourself the same as others. With other workers, wearing fine clothes will not impair their earning ability; they can continue their work just as before. But with you it is very different. Right now, people give to you because they see you wearing rags and pity you. If you start wearing fine clothes, people won’t pity you anymore, and they won’t give you a thing.”
The verse from Yeshayah points to the dual attitude that a person must take, as explained above. The first part of the verse uses the Divine Name Hashem, representing the Attribute of Compassion, while the second part of the verse uses the Divine Name Elokim (God), representing the Attribute of Justice. On the one hand, a person must “rejoice greatly in Hashem,” feeling joy over the blessings the Ribbono Shel Olam gives him through His Attribute of Compassion. On the other hand, he must also “jubilate in Elokim,” maintaining an awareness of Hashem’s Attribute of Justice and along with it a sense of humility. Yeshayah speaks of Hashem’s clothing us in “a raiment of salvation” and cloaking us in “a robe of charity” to hint at how Hashem seeks to imbue us with a proper sense of humility. Just as the pauper’s tattered clothes leads people to pity him and help him, so, too, an attitude of humility leads Hashem to show us compassion and bless us.
The Gemara in Berachos 34b relates a story in which R. Yochanan ben Zakai’s son fell ill, and R. Yochanan ben Zakai asked R. Chanina ben Dosa to pray for the lad’s recovery. R. Yochanan ben Zakai’s wife asked him why he sought R. Chanina’s prayers rather than relying on his own prayers. He answered: “Because he is like the king’s servant, while I am like the king’s minister.” The expression the Gemara uses for “like” is the double expression domeh k’ – an odd expression, since the prefix k’ would have been enough. The Maggid interprets the double expression as relating to how the person being spoken of viewed himself. R. Yochanan ben Zakai sought R. Chanina ben Dosa’s prayer because he knew that R. Chanina was humbler. Humility plays a critical role in the effectiveness of prayer. As David HaMelech writes (Tehillim 51:19): “A broken and humbled heart, O God, You will not despise.” Similarly, in expounding on Michah’s statement that Hashem pardons iniquity and overlooks transgression “for the remnant of His estate” (Michah 7:18), the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah 17a-b states that Hashem forgives those who regard themselves as “leftovers.” In the same vein, the Torah associates the term hikriv specifically with the one who offers a sheep or goat, and not with the one who offers a bull, to stress the role of humility in drawing close to Hashem and gaining His support.

Parashas Parah

This week, the final Torah reading consists of a special selection describing the parah adumah (red heifer) procedure, where a completely red and unblemished heifer that never bore a yoke is slaughtered and burned, and the ashes are used for purifying people who became defiled through contact with a human corpse. The description of the procedure is introduced with the following preface (Bamidbar 19:2): “This is the statute (chukas) of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded.” The parah adumah procedure is the classic example of a chok – a Torah law whose rationale is hidden from us, and which we must simply accept as a Divine edict. Regarding this procedure, the Midrash describes Hashem declaring (Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 989; cf. Bamidbar Rabbah 19:1): “I have legislated a statute and issued a decree, and you are not permitted to harbor reservations about it.”
In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar Avodas HaElokim, chapter 1, the Maggid elaborates on this idea. In Vayikra 26:3, Hashem declares that if we follow His statutes, we will thrive. The Maggid says that we should regard all of the mitzvos as statutes to be followed simply because Hashem ordered us to do so, without regard to the beneficial effects that we may see in them. Thus, the Mishnah in Berachos 33b rules that if a prayer leader says “Your mercies extend to the bird’s nest,” we silence him. The reason we do so, according to one opinion in the Gemara, is that the prayer leader’s words suggest that Hashem gave us the mitzvah of shiluach ha-kein (sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks) out of His compassion for the birds, whereas the mitzvos should be regarded as pure Divine decrees designed to refine those obey them. This is true even of Torah’s civil laws – for example, the Torah prohibits stealing not to protect the would-be victim (Hashem could do this in other ways), but rather to prevent the would-be thief from damaging his soul.
Our subservience to Hashem is most clearly shown when we perform a mitzvah without knowing the reason behind it. When we perform a mitzvah whose reason we understand, it could always be that we are doing so not out of a desire to fulfill Hashem’s word, but rather out of our own affinity for the mitzvah act. But when we perform a mitzvah whose reason is hidden from us, it is clear that we are doing so simply out of a desire to follow Hashem’s directives.
The Maggid teaches further that we must perform all the mitzvos exactly as handed down to us, without subjecting them to our own judgment and taking the liberty to make additions, omissions, or changes. At the end of its account of creation, the Torah declares (Bereishis 1:31): “And God saw all that He had done, and, behold, it was very good.” The Midrash remarks (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 16; cf. Bereishis Rabbah 9:10): “‘Good’ – this is the angel of life. “‘Very’ – this is the angel of death.” The Maggid interprets this Midrash as saying that any attempt to introduce improvements to the mitzvos is bound to produce a bad result. A person who tries to tinker with the mitzvos is like a craftsman’s toddler son who tries to tinker with his father’s work – some damage is sure to ensue.
In Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8, the Midrash says that the red heifer atones for the sin of the golden calf. In a number of places in his commentaries, the Maggid explains, following the Kuzari, that the calf was not made for idolatrous purposes. Rather, the Jewish People panicked when Moshe did not return from Mount Sinai when they expected, and they rushed to develop an alternative mechanism for connecting with Hashem. The people had engaged in tinkering, introducing a new form of worship that Hashem did not mandate. The remedy for this error was the law of the red heifer – a law that calls for us simply to follow Hashem’s word, without any understanding of the reason behind it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Sissa

When Moshe came down from Mount Sinai and saw how the Jewish People had sinned with the golden calf, he broke the Tablets of the Law that Hashem had given him. Later, Hashem told him (Shemos 34:1): “Carve for yourself two stone tables like the first ones, and I shall write upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.” The Midrash comments (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 397):
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was asked why the first tablets were the handiwork of Hashem but the second tablets were the handiwork of man. He replied: “I will explain this to you with a parable. A king took a wife, and he himself supplied the paper for the marriage contract. He gave the woman a crown and took her into his home. Later, he saw her jesting with one of his servants. He got angry with her and divorced her. Her marriage agent approached him and said: ‘Don’t you know where you took her from? She grew up among servants, and that is why she is close with them.’ The king responded: ‘What do you want from me? That I reconcile with her? Bring me some paper and I will write her a new marriage contract.’ Similarly, when the Jewish People sinned with the golden calf, Moshe said to Hashem: ‘Don’t You know where you took them out from? A place of idolatry.’ Hashem responded: ‘What do you want from Me? That I reconcile with them? Bring me some tablets of your own, and I will put my writing on them.’”
The Maggid explains this Midrash with a parable of his own. A certain merchant was accustomed to do all his business through an agent. Initially, he had an agent who was very trustworthy, but this agent died, so he had to hire another one. The only candidate available was a man who was efficient but dishonest. For lack of choice, the merchant hired this man, saying to himself: “Even though this fellow will steal a considerable sum from me, I will still gain some profit from his efforts.” When the time came to draw up the contract between them, the merchant told the man: “Go get a contract written according to the terms we discussed, bring it to me, and afterward I will sign it.” The man asked in surprise: “Why are you treating me differently from your first agent? I understand that when you hired him, you wrote the contract yourself.” The merchant replied: “The difference is this. With my first agent, I knew that his efforts would be entirely on my behalf. I therefore felt that I should write the contract myself. But with you, I know that you will first pocket for yourself a sizable percentage of what you collect, and afterward hand over to me what is left over after you have taken what you consider a satisfactory amount. So I figured we should work it the same way with the writing of the contract: You first get the contract written up, and afterward I will sign it.”
The parallel is as follows. At the revelation at Sinai, the Jewish People were purged of the primeval defilement and thus stripped of the evil inclination. They were still in this pure-hearted state when Moshe went up to the mountain to receive the first set of tablets. Accordingly, it was certain that the Jewish People’s Torah study and mitzvah observance would be entirely for Hashem’s sake, without any personal motives. Hashem therefore provided the tablets Himself. But through the sin of the golden calf, the evil inclination was infused within the Jewish People once again, and their hearts were no longer pure. Their Torah study and mitzvah observance would no longer be entirely for Hashem’s sake; rather, initially they would learn Torah and perform mitzvos for their own benefit, and only afterward would they reach spiritual maturity and engage in these activities for Hashem’s sake (mitoch shelo lishmah yavou lishmah). Therefore, with the second tablets, Hashem told Moshe: “First bring me some tablets of your own, and afterward I will put my writing on them.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Zachor and Megillas Esther

In his commentary on Megillas Esther, the Maggid discusses a Midrash that links a verse in the Megillah with a verse in the haftarah for parashas Zachor. The Midrash states (Esther Rabbah 4:9, slightly paraphrased):
Royalty was given to Esther through the same type of statement with which it was taken from her forebear. Shmuel said to her forebear Shaul HaMelech (Shmuel Alef 15:28): “Hashem has torn the kingship of Israel away from you today, and has given it to your fellow man who is better than you (l’reiacha hatov mimcha). In regard to Vashti’s being replaced, ultimately by Esther, it is written (Esther 1:19): “Let the king give her royal estate to her fellow woman who is better than she (lirusah hatovah mimenah).”
The Maggid uses this Midrash to bring out a key insight regarding Vashti’s dethroning and eventual execution. This episode, on close examination, seems perplexing. If a man has a wife who is truly bad, and causes him constant consternation, then he no choice but to divorce her. It is different, though, when a wife commits a momentary and minor offense against her husband, but he still wishes to divorce her, because he wants a totally perfect marriage. In this case, common sense dictates that the husband consider carefully whether he will be able to find a better wife than his current one. Maybe the new wife will be the same as or worse than the old one.
Now Vashti’s offense against her husband Achasheveirosh was a momentary, relatively minor one: She refused to obey a summons from him to appear before him and his entourage, a refusal that could be viewed leniently since the summons – issued while Achasheveirosh was drunk – was accompanied by the outrageous demand that she present herself in an indecorous state (Esther Rabbah 3:13). We thus may wonder how Achasheveirosh could know definitively that his new wife would be better than his old one.
The Midrash answers this question through a comparison with how kingship of the Jewish People was taken from Shaul and given to David. In a moment of weakness, Shaul acceded to the people’s request to save some of the Amalekites’ livestock for sacrifices rather than destroying all the Amalekites’ property as Hashem had commanded. While this was a clear violation of Hashem’s word, it was not such an egregious offense, for it was not committed out of wickedness. How, then, could Hashem tear the kingship away from Shaul for this offense? True, Hashem is exacting with the righteous to a hairsbreadth (Bava Kamma 50a). Still, given that man has free will, how could it be clear beyond doubt that Shaul’s successor would be better than he? How could it be certain that he would never commit a similar act of disobedience?
The answer is that Hashem knew that Shaul’s successor would learn a lesson from Shaul’s severe punishment. The new king would perforce refrain from committing a similar offense, in order to avoid receiving a similar punishment. Thus, Shaul was told that the kingship will be given l’reiacha hatov mimcha – to your fellow man who is better on account of you [rendering mimcha as meaning from you instead of than you]. Even if the successor is comparable in character to you, still he will learn the necessary lesson from what happened to you. Likewise, Achasheveirosh was sure that his new wife would be better than his former wife Vashti, as a result of seeing the punishment that Vashti received. The new wife would learn the necessary lesson from what happened to Vashti and thereby would avoid committing the same offense.
David Zucker, Site Administrator