Post Archive for May 2012

Parashas Naso

This week’s parashah includes Birkas Kohanim – the Priestly Blessing. The Torah passage presenting the blessing reads as follows  (Bamidbar 6:23-27):
Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: “Speak to Aharon and to his sons, saying: ‘Thus shall you bless the Children of Israel – say unto them: May Hashem bless you and watch over you. May Hashem shine His countenance on you and be gracious to you. May Hashem lift up His countenance toward you and grant you peace.’ Thus shall they place My Name upon the Children of Israel, and I shall bless them.”
The Maggid notes several puzzling points regarding the blessing. First, the phrase “say unto them” in Hashem’s preface to the blessing appears superfluous. Second, the word say in this phrase, in the Hebrew, is not in the usual imperative verb form (emor, with a segol), but rather in the primal infinitive form (amor, with a kamatz).  Third, since the goal of the blessing is to gain the congregation Hashem’s aid and favor, we would expect that the Kohanim would face Hashem and direct their words to Him: “May You bless and watch over Your people Israel. May you shine Your countenance on them ….” But instead they face the congregation and direct their words to them. How can we explain these enigmas?
The Maggid answers with a parable. A man was upset with his son because of his delinquent behavior. He eventually ended up giving his son the cold shoulder. When the boy’s clothes and shoes wore out, the father did not replace them. The boy, embittered, went to a neighbor and asked him to try to talk his father into getting him new clothes. The neighbor obliged, and he went to the father and said: “Please have pity on your son and get him new clothes and shoes – the freezing winter days are coming.” The father replied: “I plead with you to arrange for me to buy my son new clothes and shoes.” The neighbor reacted to this response with a look of bewilderment. The father then continued: “You fool! Why are you urging me to be kind to my son? Don’t you understand that I love him dearly? Don’t you realize that I want more than anything to shower him with good? I am distancing myself from him now only because his delinquent behavior forces me to, so that he will learn a lesson. If your aim is to get me to be gracious toward him, what is the point of speaking with me? Go to the boy and speak with him instead. Tell him he has to straighten himself out. Once he mends his ways, I’ll gladly give him everything he needs.”
Thus it is with us. There is no point for the Kohanim to plead with Hashem to bless us. Hashem wants to bless us; He yearns, so to speak, to send us a constant flow of bounty. It is with us that the Kohanim need to speak. They must urge us to raise our conduct to a proper level and make ourselves worthy of Hashem’s blessing. They should broadcast this message to us persistently, as indicated by Hashem’s directive “say unto them” – conveyed in the primal infinitive form, which indicates continual action [see Rashi on Shemos 20:7].
This explanation sheds light on a mysterious Gemara in Berachos 7a. The Gemara states that Hashem, so to speak, says the following prayer:
May it be so willed before Me that My compassion overcome My anger, that My mercy take precedence among My attributes, that I act toward My children with the Attribute of Mercy, and that I hold back from subjecting them to the full strictness of the law.
We can understand this “prayer” as an expression of Hashem’s “hope” that we develop the will to act righteously, and thereby enable Him to show us compassion and mercy. This idea ties in with a principle that the Gemara states elsewhere (Berachos 33b): “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Hashem is ready and able to grant us abundant blessing, but our worthiness to receive the blessing is up to us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Bamidbar

This week’s haftarah begins (Hoshea 2:1): “It will then be (v’hayah) that the number of the Children of Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured our counted. And it will then be, that instead of it being said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ it will be said to them, ‘Children of the Living God!’” The Gemara (Yoma 22b) notes an apparent contradiction between the beginning and the end of the verse: In the beginning the verse speaks of the number of the Children of Yisrael, while in the end it states that they cannot be measured or counted. The Gemara resolves the contradiction by saying that when the Jewish People are doing Hashem’s will, they cannot be counted, but when they are not doing Hashem’s will, they can be counted.
Many commentators have raised the question of how the same verse can be speaking of two different time periods. The Maggid offers the following explanation. The word v’hayah at the beginning of the versecontains a Biblical conversive vav, which converts the past tense verb hayah (it was) to future tense (it will be). This hints at something being transferred from the past to the future. The verse can thus be understood as speaking of how a deficit in one period is made up for by a great expansion in a later period. At present our fulfillment of Hashem’s will is lacking – we are, so to speak, not fully His people – and therefore Hashem restricts our population size to a limited number. But in the future we will make up for our present deficiencies in mitzvah observance by serving Hashem with extraordinarily profuse effort – we will transform ourselves into the “Children of the Living God,” sterling servants of Hashem. In response to our efforts, Hashem will make up for the small Jewish population size of the past by causing extraordinary population growth that will bring our population size to a level beyond number.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Bechukosai

In this week’s haftarah it is written (Yirmiyah 17:11): “Like a partridge summoning chicks it did not bear, so is one who amasses wealth unjustly; in the middle of his life it will leave him, and at his end he will turn into a spoiled man.” The Maggid explains this verse as follows. A partridge that broods over chicks not its own will not gain from its efforts, for ultimately the birds it is raising will leave it. Similarly, Yirmiyahu says, it is a waste of effort to try to gain wealth through theft, deceit, and other unjust means, for such ill-gotten gains will ultimately be lost. A person might think this does not matter, for he can enjoy the wealth while he has it. Yirmiyahu therefore adds that the man who has amassed wealth unjustly will turn into a spoiled man.
The Maggid brings out the idea with an analogy. It is the nature of a river, as it flows across a stretch of land, to pick up all kinds of refuse: stones, carcasses, various foul creatures, and so on. On occasion it will dump such refuse near a city or on a good plot of land, thereby causing spoilage. Yet, if the river runs through the same area constantly, the spoilage it causes will ultimately be rectified, for after dumping a pile of refuse in a certain spot, it will eventually pick the refuse up again and carry it somewhere else. It is different, however, when the river temporarily overruns its regular channels, dumps a great pile of refuse on a distant plot, and then returns to its normal course. In this case, the spoilage will be permanent, for no team of men will be able to clear away the refuse.
The parallel is as follows. It is the nature of wealth to cause a person to develop bad tendencies. It can divert him from studying Torah and performing mitzvos. And it can cause him to turn brazen and use the power of his wealth to pursue his every whim. Indeed, wealth has produced many moral casualties. Yet, just as wealth can cause a person great spiritual harm, it also can bring a person great spiritual benefit: A wealthy person can atone for his sins by using his wealth for charity, acts of kindness, building synagogues and houses of study, marrying off orphans, and so on. It is known that charity is more powerful than any Temple offering. Thus, Daniel told Nevuchadnetzar (Daniel 4:24): “Redeem your sin through charity, and your iniquities through compassion for the poor.”
But a person can achieve spiritual gains from his wealth only when he is able to retain it. He can then use his wealth to rectify his misdeeds. It is different, though, when a person acquires wealth unjustly. In this case, Yirmiyahu says, the person loses his wealth in midlife. And then he is left only with the spiritual damage his wealth brought him: evil-hearted tendencies, debased thinking, and corrupt behavior. He cannot rectify the damage through righteous giving, for all his wealth is gone. This fate is what Yirmiyahu refers to when he says that a person who amasses wealth unjustly will turn into a spoiled man: He will be irreversibly habituated to evil.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

On Giving

In last week’s piece, we discussed a situation where a relatively small amount of help can produce a tremendous benefit. This week we discuss another such situation. Parashas Behar, the Torah portion read this week in Eretz Yisrael, contains a section devoted to caring for the poor. The piece below is from the Maggid’s commentary on this section, in Ohel Yaakov, Parashas Behar.
The Midrash states (Vayikra Rabbah 34:1, end):
R. Pinchas said in the name of R. Reuvein: “When someone gives a perutah coin to a pauper, does Hashem repay him with perutos? Behold, with a perutah a person gives a pauper his life! How so? For example, if a loaf of bread costs ten perutos and the pauper has only nine, when someone comes and gives him a perutah, he is able to buy the bread, and when he eats it, he is revived. Accordingly, the Hashem says to the giver, ‘You, too, when your soul is pressing to leave your body, I will repay you.’”
The Maggid comments that Hashem’s promise to the giver seems baffling. Why does Hashem give him a blessing that is linked to a curse? Why does Hashem tell him to wait until he is on the verge of death, and then He will repay him?
The Maggid then goes on to describe how, with a deeper look, we can marvel at the way Hashem’s promise to the giver reflects eminent kindness and justice. The giver gave the pauper a single perutah. This small donation enabled the pauper to buy a loaf of bread. So Hashem credits the giver as if he had given the pauper the whole loaf. Moreover, since the bread revived the pauper, Hashem credits the giver as if he had given him added life. But, now, let us examine the situation more deeply. Exactly how much added life did the giver give the pauper by enabling him to buy the bread? How long did this bread sustain the pauper? Eight hours, maybe ten. So, at most, the giver deserves to get back ten hours of added life. But Hashem, in His great wisdom, arranges affairs so that the added ten hours have a tremendous impact.
The matter is as follows. Consider a person who is gravely ill. The family typically will ask the doctor what the prognosis is. And, based on his knowledge of the dynamics of the disease in question and the patient’s general condition, the doctor may answer: “If he makes it through the night, he will pull through and recover.” In such a case, if the family could only somehow buy ten hours of life, surely they would give everything they have for these hours, for after their loved one survives the ten hour period, he may well live on for many more years. Now, suppose this patient once gave a pauper a perutah and thereby enabled him to buy a loaf of bread and survive another ten hours. By this act, he earned himself an added ten hours of life. And Hashem, in His kindness, holds this reward in store for him until just the right moment. He pays him the added ten hours at a time when his soul is pressing to leave his body, so that these added hours make the difference between immediate death and long life.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

On Yom Kippur

This week’s Torah reading is Emor in Eretz Yisrael and Acharei Mos – Kedoshim elsewhere. Both readings have a connection with Yom Kippur: Acharei Mos describes the Yom Kippur Temple service, while Emor, in presenting the yearly festival cycle, includes a section on Yom Kippur. Accordingly, this week I present a selection from one of the Maggid’s essays on Yom Kippur (taken from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Emor).
It is written (Tehillim 57:3): “I shall call upon God, Most High – to the God who concludes matters for me.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 98:1, paraphrased): “‘I shall call upon God, Most High’ – on Rosh Hashanah. ‘To the God who concludes matters me’ – through the lots between the goats on Yom Kippur [arranging for the lot marked ‘for Hashem’ to be the one that appears in the Kohen Gadol’s right hand, as an omen for good].” The Maggid explains this Midrash through a parable.
A poor man had a son who made a good impression on a rich man. The rich man decided to make a match between his daughter and the poor man’s son. The rich man offered a large dowry and a regular stipend for the couple’s living expenses. He imposed only one condition: that the groom have a proper suit to wear at the wedding. The poor man was in a quandary, for he was so short of money that he could not afford a good suit. He was sorely pained that such a small hindrance was keeping him from such a great fortune. Clearly, if someone would give the poor man a suit for his son, he would be doing him a favor worth a thousand times more than the amount he spent.
The parallel is as follows. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one during which a Jew can acquire a large measure of holiness. He need only fulfill the Torah’s charge (Vayikra 16:30): “Make yourselves pure before Hashem.” That is, he need only prepare his heart, through sincere repentance and regret over his past misdeeds, to receive the infusion of holiness that Hashem is ready to convey to him. If a person is unable to take this elementary preliminary step, he loses the opportunity for a great gain. Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah we stand up and declare: “I shall call upon God, Most High – to the God who concludes matters for me.” We plead with Hashem to help us make the necessary start, so that He can then conclude the matter on Yom Kippur and grant us the wondrous spiritual treasure that He has in store for us.
The Maggid compares our situation during the Ten Days of Repentance to the Midrash’s description of David HaMelech’s plight after the incident with Bas-Sheva. The Midrash states (Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 764):
What was David’s plight like? We can portray it with a parable. A person with a wound on his arm went to a doctor, and the doctor told him: “I cannot treat you. The wound is extensive, and you don’t have the money to cover the cost.” The person replied: “Please, do me a favor and have mercy on me. I beg of you, take all the money I have and cover the rest of the cost from your own resources.” In this vein, David pleaded (Tehillim 51:2-3): “Show me favor, O God, in accordance with Your kindness; in Your abundant compassion erase my sins. Abundantly cleanse me of my iniquity, and purify me of my transgressions.”
David was telling Hashem: “I have made a start at cleansing myself, but I need You to finish the job.”
The final Mishnah in meseches Yoma, the tractate that deals with Yom Kippur, states: “Said R. Akiva, ‘Fortunate are you, O Yisrael. Before whom do you become purified, and who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven.’” The Maggid explains the double language in this teaching as follows. There are two key differences between a human doctor and Hashem, the Supreme Healer. First, no human doctor can heal every illness. Rather, doctors specialize in certain areas – some are eye specialists, some are heart specialists, and so on. Hashem, however, can cure every malady; in Tehillim 103:3, David HaMelech, speaking to his own soul, describes Hashem as “the Healer of all your illnesses.” Second, a human doctor demands payment for the treatment he provides, to the point where a human doctor will sometimes say, as in the parable in the Midrash above, “I cannot treat you. The wound is extensive, and you don’t have the money to cover the cost.” Hashem, however, seeks only words of contrition, as it is written (Hoshea 14:3): “Take with you words, and return to Hashem.” The double language in R. Akiva’s teaching corresponds to the above two aspects of Hashem’s care. To whom do we go to be purified? To Hashem, the Supreme Healer, who is capable of curing every malady. And who purifies us? Hashem, our loving Father, who is ready to help us as soon as we call out to Him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator