Post Archive for April 2012

On Speech

This week’s Torah reading is Acharei Mos – Kedoshim in Eretz Yisrael and Tazria – Metzora elsewhere. Both readings relate to the sin of evil speech (loshon hara). In parashas Kedoshim, the Torah commands us to refrain from evil speech, saying (Vayikra 19:16): “You shall not be a talebearer among your people.” Tazria – Metzora deals with the affliction of tzaraas, of which one of the causes is loshon hara (Arachin 15b). Accordingly, this week I present a digest of the closing two chapters of the Maggid’s Sefer HaMiddos, which deal with the topic of guarding one’s speech (shemiras ha-lashon).
The main function of the tongue is to serve Hashem through Torah study and prayer. Now, when a person offers a gift of homage to a nobleman, he must make sure the gift is fitting: that the gift item itself is respectable, and that it is conveyed in a respectable vessel. Similarly, when a person offers Hashem a prayer, he must make sure that he does so with proper devotion and humility, and that the mouth that conveys his prayer is pure – not sullied by sins of speech such as vulgarity, deceit, and lashon hara. Our Sages condemn is the strongest terms those who engage in lashon hara. In Arachin 15b, the Gemara teaches that one who speaks loshon hara is like one who denies that Hashem is the master of the world. And in Vayikra Rabbah 16:6, the Midrash teaches that speaking lashon hara is tantamount to violating the entire five books of the Torah. The Maggid expounds on why the sin of lashon hara is so grave. He notes three key characteristics of speech: its importance, its rapid and free flow, and its delicateness.
Speech is of prime importance in that it is one of the two key features that distinguish man from the animals. The faculty of thought is man’s internal distinguishing feature, while the faculty of speech is his external distinguishing feature. The faculty of thought was given to man solely to enable him to recognize his Creator, to love, fear, and trust in Him, to absorb His teachings, and to carry out His will. Similarly, the faculty of speech was given to man as a sacred vessel for praising Hashem and thanking Him for all His kindnesses, the greatest of which is His giving us the privilege of serving Him. As noted above, the tongue is the instrument through which we carry out the sacred duties of Torah study and prayer. Even without an explicit command in the Torah against improper speech, we could recognize by reason alone that an instrument designed for such exalted duties should not be profaned through lowly uses. Thus, the Gemara states (Yoma 19b): “One who talks idly transgresses a positive commandment, as it is written (Devarim 6:7), ‘And you shall speak in them [words of Torah].’” The reason this is so is not simply because one who talks idly is squandering an opportunity for Torah study, for the same could be said of one who keeps silent. Rather, the transgression arises from employing the tongue, which is meant for Torah study, for an improper use.
Regarding the rapid and free flow of speech, we can note that, although a person has the power to keep silent, once he starts talking he must guard his tongue with extreme care; unless he exercises the utmost vigilance, he almost surely will slide into improper speech. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 10:19): “In a multitude of words there will be no lack of sin.” Accordingly, at the end of the Amidah prayer, we entreat: “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit.” It is so easy to commit sins of speech that we plead to Hashem to help us avoid them.
The delicateness of speech is like that of a special knife designed for precision work. If the knife is used indiscriminately, it grows blunt and less effective for its intended use. The same is so of speech, which is the instrument we use for the lofty spiritual pursuits of Torah study and prayer. Regarding devout Jews, David HaMelech writes (Tehillim 149:6): “Exaltations of God are in their throats, [like] a double-edged sword in their hands.” Our prayers are the sword with which we battle our enemies. Our mouths have a wondrous power to tear down the barriers that separate us from Hashem and generate beneficial effects in the upper worlds. But if we use our faculty of speech indiscriminately, it grows blunt and less effective. We must therefore guard our mouths carefully. We should strive to minimize the use of our mouths for mundane matters. Indeed, R. Shimon bar Yochai said that if he had been at Mount Sinai, he would have asked for two mouths, one for Torah study and prayer and one for mundane speech (Yerushalmi, Berachos, ch. 1, halachah 2). Surely we should do our utmost to avoid idle chatter, coarse talk, and loshon hara.
Improper speech not only diminishes a person’s subsequent capacity for Torah learning, but even displaces the Torah learning that he previously accumulated. Thus the Sages teach (Shir HaShirim Rabbah on Shir HaShirim  1:3): “Every frivolous word that a person speaks displaces from him correspondingly a word of Torah that he previously learned.” This principle sheds added light on the teaching we mentioned earlier, that a person who speaks idly transgresses the commandment “and you shall speak in them” – we can say that idle talk, in displacing a person’s learning, nullifies his previous fulfillment of this commandment.
In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 5:1-2): “My son, listen to my wisdom and incline your ear to my understanding teachings. To keep hold of wise strategies and let you lips guard knowledge.” One who restrains his mouth from idle talk keeps hold of his wisdom, while one who speaks indiscriminately lets his wisdom leave him. We must therefore keep close watch on what we say. May Hashem help us do so, and thereby enable us to behold the light of His Torah.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Machar Chodesh

This Shabbos is erev Rosh Chodesh, and we therefore read the special “machar chodesh” haftarah. The haftarah begins (Shmuel Alef 20:18-22):
And Yonasan said to him [David]: “Tomorrow is the New Moon, and you will be asked about, for your place will be empty. Stay [in the field] for three days, and then go far down and go to … the marker stone. I will shoot three arrows toward that direction, as if I were shooting at a target (l’shalach li l’matarah). Behold, I will then send the lad, [saying]: ‘Go find the arrows.’ If I say to the lad, ‘Behold, the arrows are this side of you,” then you take the arrows and come, for all is well with you. But if I say this to the young man – ‘Behold, the arrows are beyond you’ – then go, for Hashem has sent you away [my father (Shaul) seeks to kill you].”
On the third day, Yonasan shoots the arrows and tells his attendant: “Behold, the arrows are beyond you.” Yonasan and David then have a parting meeting before David flees. For years I wondered why Yonasan used the signal of the arrows rather than simply telling David how he should proceed, given that the two of them were ultimately going to meet. The Maggid offers two answers to this question. Both involve homiletical readings of the phrase l’shalach li l’matarah.
The first answer is that Yonasan, due to his great righteousness and his sensitivity regarding evil speech, sought to avoid saying outright that Shaul was planning to kill David. He therefore used the signal of the arrows in lieu of a verbal report. He deliberately used three arrows, to hint that evil speech harms three people: the speaker, the listener, and the one who is being spoken about. And we can read the phrase l’shalach li l’matarah as expressing Yonasan’s hope that, just as a target acts as a barrier, the signal of the arrows should serve him as a shield, protecting him from liability for evil speech.
The second answer is that Yonasan used the mechanism of the arrows to elicit from Hashem a sign as to whether or not He had decreed that David should have to flee. A threat from Shaul would not be conclusive, for it is Hashem’s word, and not the word of any man, that determines how events will unfold. Here we can read the phrase l’shalach li l’matarah as expressing Yonasan’s hope that the arrows would aid him in achieving his goal of learning what Hashem had decreed regarding David [the word matarah can be rendered either as target or as goal]. This answer is in line how Rashi comments on Yonasan’s instructions to David. Yonasan says: “If I say to the lad, ‘Behold, the arrows are this side of you,” then you take the arrows and come, for all is well with you.” Rashi comments: “You need not fear. All is well with you. The Holy One Blessed Be He wishes for you to stay here without fear, even though my father expressed evil plans.” Yonasan continues: “But if I say this to the young man – ‘Behold, the arrows are beyond you’ – then go, for Hashem has sent you away.” Rashi comments: “The Holy One Blessed Be He wants you to flee and escape.” Now, had Yonasan meant the arrows as simply a device for conveying a message to David, surely he would tailor his message to match Shaul’s sentiments: If Shaul had expressed evil plans, Yonasan would tell his attendant that the arrows were beyond him, and if not, he would tell him that the arrows were further in. But since Yonasan indicated that the sign of the arrows might run counter to what Shaul had said, we can see that Yonasan was using the arrows not as a mere communication device, but as a means of determining how Hashem wanted David to proceed.
The above explanation fits well with the sequence of events when Yonasan shot the arrows. Yonasan told his attendant that he should run to bring the arrows. Obviously if the attendant started running at the same time as Yonasan shot the arrows, there would be no way that the attendant would get beyond the arrows, for no man can run faster than an arrow flies. Yonasan therefore first told his attendant to run, and afterward he shot the arrows (ibid. 20:36). That is, Yonasan gave the attendant got a head start on the arrows, thereby creating the possibility that he might get beyond where the arrows landed. In this way, Yonasan set up a mechanism for Hashem to indicate what He wanted David to do.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

On the Aftermath of Exile

Parashas Shemini recounts the events of the day the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was inaugurated. Correspondingly, one of the Midrashim on parashas Shemini discusses the era of the third Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in the end of days, which is also the topic of the haftarah for the eighth day of Pesach outside of Eretz Yisrael. The Midrash, as the Maggid explains it, also sheds light on the aftermath of the Exodus from Egypt. The Midrash reads as follows (Vayikra Rabbah 11:2):
“With all forms of wisdom she built her house” (Mishlei 9:1) – this refers to the [third] Beis HaMikdash …. “She hewed out its seven pillars” (ibid., end) – these are the seven years of Gog. … All these seven years, the handles of swords, spears, and knives will be used for firewood. As it is written (Yechezkel 39:9): “Then the inhabitants of the cities of Yisrael will go out and kindle fires and fuel them with weapons, with shields and bucklers, with bows and with arrows, with clubs and with spears – they will fuel fires with them for seven years.” These seven years are the preliminary feast of the righteous before the future era, as indicated by the saying: “Those who dine at the pre-wedding feast will dine at the wedding feast.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. When we were in Egypt, we lived in a state of deprivation. We did not receive the standard measure of bounty that Hashem usually allots. Hashem made up for this deficit later, when we entered the Land of Israel. Just before we entered the land, Hashem told us that He would grant us “large and goodly cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of good that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, and vineyards and olive-trees that you did not plant,” and He cautioned us to take care that these blessings not lead us to forget Him (Devarim 6:10-12). The word of caution was vitally necessary here, since the blessing was an unconditional grant that Hashem was conveying irrespective of how we would behave. Hashem was giving us an abundance of bounty which we did not have to work for at all or earn in any way, and which had no strings attached, as restitution for the bounty He withheld from us during our stay in Egypt. Similarly, at the time of the final redemption, Hashem will convey to us all the bounty He withheld from us during our time in exile. The Midrash above relates to this payment of restitution.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a traveler buys various food items at an inn. He can then ask the innkeeper to let him use a stove and some pots, and the innkeeper will surely oblige. But if he buys food from one inn and then goes to the inn next door and asks the innkeeper there for the use of a stove and some pots, the innkeeper will baldly turn him away, saying: “Go to where you bought this food, and use their stove and pots.” The parallel is as follows. At each given point in time, Hashem provides food to the world, and makes available the means for cooking the food, such as, for example, trees of the forest that can be used for firewood. Now, at the time of the final redemption, Hashem will give us extra bounty, as restitution for bounty He withheld from us previously. It stands to reason that the fuel for cooking the extra food not come from the trees standing at that time, but rather from wood that is available from before, and, indeed, thus the Midrash teaches. The seven years of Gog constitute the preliminary stage of payment of the reward stored away for the righteous, and during these seven years the firewood will come from wood already at hand – the handles of swords, spears, and knives.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Pesach – Shir HaShirim

During Pesach, we read Shir HaShirim, the song that portrays the bond between Hashem and the Jewish People. Verse 3:6 describes the nations of the world observing the Jewish People in the wilderness, on their way from Egypt to the Land of Israel, and exclaiming: “Who is this rising up from the wilderness like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, and with all the compounds of the perfume merchant?” The Midrash elaborates (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 890):
When the People of Israel were in the wilderness, they were enveloped with clouds of glory and a pillar of fire. The nations of the world exclaimed in shock: “Who are these [people], whose every move is accompanied by fire? ‘Who is this rising up from the wilderness like a column of smoke?’” The Holy One Blessed Be He replied: “‘[They are] perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, [and with all the compounds of the perfume merchant].’ They have firm posts on which to support themselves – they have the merit of their forefathers.” [The Midrash goes on to link the myrrh, the frankincense, and the perfume merchant’s compounds to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, respectively.]
The Maggid explains this Midrash using an analogy to different types of business ventures. A conservative venture yields a low return, but presents little risk of major loss. A bold venture can yield fabulous gain but also presents serious risk of major loss. Most people do not have the wherewithal to engage in high-stakes ventures. But such a venture is feasible for a rich man whose father is also rich. If the venture succeeds, he will make a great fortune. And if the venture fails, and he loses everything, he can go back home to his rich father.
Now, as indicated in last week’s piece, the Jewish People’s acceptance of the Torah was like embarking on a high-stakes venture. The Maggid elaborates on this theme in his commentary on the Midrash above. By accepting the Torah, the Jewish People formed a bond with Hashem and committed themselves to fulfilling 613 commandments. These commandments gave them the potential to soar to the heavens. Indeed, even before receiving these commandments, the Jewish People rose in stature simply by promising to accept them, with the words “we shall do and we shall listen” (Shemos 24:7). Hashem wrought miracles for them in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds because He knew that they were headed toward accepting the Torah. Likewise, Hashem granted them clouds of glory, a miraculous well, and manna before they accepted the Torah, because He knew they were going to accept it. And when they did, they rose in stature even more.
But this loftiness came with a risk. As Shlomo HaMelech put it (Koheles 1:18): “With increased wisdom comes increased turmoil.” And we see that Hashem meted out strict justice to the Jewish People for very slight transgressions, such as complaining (see Bamidbar Chapter 11) and the like. This strictness was due to the closeness to Hashem that they had achieved. Indeed, it is written that Hashem’s “environs are very stormy” (Tehillim 50:3), and our Sages infer from this statement that Hashem is exacting with the righteous to a hairsbreadth (Bava Kamma 50a, based on the similarity between the word nisarah, meaning “stormy” and the word saarah, meaning “hair”). In several instances, Hashem poured out His wrath against the Jewish People with a vigor unheard of among other nations.
When other nations saw the great wrath that the Jews incurred by violating the Torah, they criticized them: “How did they have the nerve to take on a venture with such high stakes?” This is what the Midrash means when it describes the other nations exclaiming: “Who are these people, whose every move is accompanied by fire?” These onlookers were pointing out that, just as the Jewish People had the potential to soar swiftly upward by fulfilling the mitzvos, they had the potential to plummet swiftly downward by neglecting them. The onlookers contended that the Jewish People had no justification for risking themselves by accepting so many commandments. To this, Hashem replied: “Do not be taken aback by the Jewish People’s willingness to accept the Torah, for they have firm posts to support themselves on.”
The Jewish People are just like the investor with a rich father in our analogy, for they are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. After the sin of the golden calf and after the sin of the spies, the Jewish People suffered a great fall in fortune. Yet they were not wiped out entirely, for they took refuge in the shelter of their forefathers. Indeed, when Moshe pled for the people after the sin of the golden calf, he invoked the merit of the forefathers (Shemos 32:13). This merit enabled them to recover when they fell.
Chag Kasher V’Sameach!
David Zucker, Site Administrator