Post Archive for June 2012

Parashas Chukas

This week’s parashah describes the process of burning a red heifer and using its ashes to purify people who became defiled through contact with a human corpse. According to Torah law, “contact” with a corpse includes being in a roofed structure together with a corpse. The Torah introduces this rule with the declaration (Bamidbar 19:14): “This is the law regarding a man who dies in a tent.” Our Sages, taking the word “tent” as an allusion to the tents of Torah study, remark (Berachos 63b): “The Torah abides only within a man who kills himself over it.” A common interpretation of this teaching is that a person can absorb Torah only by toiling over it “to the point of death.” The Maggid offers another interpretation, which we present below.
The Gemara teaches (Berachos 5a): “A person should always incite his good inclination against his evil inclination.” The idea here, the Maggid says, is that a person should strive to totally subdue his evil inclination and conquer it. Refraining from heeding the evil inclination’s urgings is only the initial stage. The ultimate goal is to confront the evil inclination head-on and gain complete mastery over it. For example, suppose a person decides to distance himself from worldly pleasures by not eating delicacies. He could maintain this practice of abstinence by keeping delicacies far away from him, so that his desire for them is not aroused by seeing them. But if he is a man of spiritual excellence, he will place delicacies in front of him, allow his desire to be aroused, and then deliberately disregard it. A person who has trained himself to regularly ignore overt temptation is a person who has truly conquered his evil inclination. In this connection, David HaMelech said of himself (Tehillim 109:22), “My heart is emptied out within me” – he had emptied his heart of the drive for for worldly gratification. When a person purges his evil inclination in this way, he has, so to speak, killed his animal self.
It is written (Tehillim 37:32): “The wicked one watches the righteous one and seeks that he should kill him.” The plain meaning of this verse is that the wicked one seeks to kill the righteous one, but the Maggid turns the verse around and interprets it as saying that the wicked one seeks to be killed by the righteous one. That is, although the evil inclination lies in wait to trap the righteous man, its true wish is for the righteous man to rise against it and kill it. The Sages teach (Avos 6:4): “This is the way of Torah – eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, and sleep on the ground; live a life of deprivation, and toil in the Torah.” The Maggid asks: Given that the Sages state that a person should eat bread with salt and drink water by measure, what are they adding by saying that a person should live a life of deprivation? The answer is that a person should constantly be deliberately depriving himself of worldly pleasures, in the manner we described above.
The Sages teach further (Berachos 18a-b): “The righteous, in their death, are called alive … and the wicked, during their life, are called dead.” By killing his evil inclination day after day, the righteous man achieves true life, in this world and the next. Conversely, the wicked man, by “living it up,” puts his spiritual self – his real self – to death, and he remains dead in this world and the next. Thus, the righteous man experiences the taste of death every day, but his departure from this world is imbued with spiritual vibrancy – one who is bound to Torah “mirthfully awaits the last day” (Mishlei 31:25). But it is not so with a wicked man on the day of his death; indeed, even before the day of his death he was already dead. It is written (Yechezkel 18:32): “I do not desire the death of the dead, says the Lord God, Hashem – turn [yourselves] back and live!” Hashem does not want a person to be already dead on the day of his death; rather, He wants a person to come truly alive by killing his animal self while is he is yet in his prime. Only then will the Torah abide within him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Korach

The following post was meant to go out late last week, but I was unable to post it at the time because of technical problems with the website. I am glad that, with Hashem’s help, I am now back in business.
The haftarah for parashas Korach is a section in Shmuel Alef presenting Shmuel HaNavi’s farewell address to the Jewish People (this section was chosen because Shmuel is a descendant of the sons of Korach – see Tachuma, Korach 5). The following Midrash contrasts a verse in the haftarah with a similar verse in Tehillim (Ruth Rabbah 2:11):
One verse says (Tehillim 94:14): “For Hashem shall not cast off His people, and His estate He shall not abandon.” And another verse says (Shmuel Alef 12:22). “For Hashem shall not cast off His people, on account of His great Name ….” … Said R. Aivi: “When the Jewish People are meritorious, Hashem acts on account of His people and His estate, and when they are not, He acts on account of His great Name.” The Rabbis said: “In the Land of Israel, Hashem acts on account of His people and His estate, and outside the Land of Israel, He acts on account of His great Name.”
The Maggid asks: What difference does it make whether Hashem acts on account of His people and His estate or on account of His great Name, since either way He provides our needs? He answers as follows. Our relationship with Hashem is like the relationship between a young man and his father. If the son is well-behaved, the father will habitually seat his son next to him, rejoice with him, and serve him large helpings of food with deep love. It is different, though, when the son is ill-misbehaved and causes his father aggravation. The father will continue to show his son compassion and provide him food. But he will not seat his son next to him and serve him his food directly. Instead, he will keep his son at a distance and brusquely toss him his food.
Similarly, when we were firmly settled in the Land of Israel and served Hashem faithfully, Hashem would extend us blessing directly, from His hand to ours, so to speak, like a loving father. Out of His great affection for us, as His dear children, He would provide for us with great generosity and a joyous spirit. In this vein, it is written (Devarim 28:2): “And all these blessings shall come upon you and latch on to you.” But now, because of our many sins, Hashem deals with us differently. Although He continues to provide for us, we gain our sustenance only with great difficulty, through convoluted means fraught with grief. As a prophecy of Yechezkel puts it (Yechezkel 12:19): “They shall eat their bread with anxiety.” The difficulty we experience in gaining our sustenance is a sign that Hashem is not providing for us out of sheer love for us, but rather on account of His compassionate nature and the oath He swore to our forefathers – in other words, on account of His Name.
We yearn for Hashem to look upon us favorably and care for us with ardent love. In this vein, we plead (Tehillim 67:2): “May God favor us and bless us, and make His countenance shine in our midst, Selah.” We want Hashem to give us our sustenance with a glowing and joyous face, not with an angry face. It pains us to be distanced from Hashem, exiled outside the Land of Israel, and have Hashem, so to speak, throw us our food and make us toil to find it. There is indeed a world of difference between Hashem providing for us on our account and His providing for us solely on account of His great Name. May we merit having Hashem proudly provide for us on our own account.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shelach

This week’s parashah relates the tragic episode of the scouts who were sent to survey Eretz Yisrael and came back with a negative report. Upon hearing the report, the Jewish People cried and declared that they wished to go back to Egypt. In the end, after Moshe’s prayers on behalf of the people, Hashem declared them forgiven. But right afterward, Hashem declared that the people of that generation would not enter Eretz Yisrael. The Maggid asks: Given that Hashem forgave the people, why did He take away from them the opportunity to enter Eretz Yisrael?
The Maggid answers with a parable. A lowly, uncultivated peasant had a change in fortune and became extremely rich. When his daughter reached marriageable age, two potential matches were proposed to him. One was with the son of another rich man named Lazer. This young man was boorish and errant. The other was with the son of the town rabbi, who did not have the means to offer any dowry. The man picked the rabbi’s son, but stipulated that the rabbi should at least provide his son with a fine suit for the wedding and a bracelet for the bride. The rabbi replied: “I am not able to provide these items. You are welcome to take my son as a husband for your daughter, but it will have to be without any gifts of any kind.”
The father sent back word that he was going to give his daughter to the rich man’s son. When the father’s friends heard about this decision, they urged him persistently to change his mind, and in the end he did. He went to the rabbi and said: “Let us go ahead with a match between your son and my daughter on whatever terms you say.” The rabbi replied: “I have changed my mind; I am no longer willing to make the match. Initially I thought that you had the nobility of heart to seek only a well-bred young man for your daughter, and that you respected rabbis. But afterward I saw that on account of a bracelet you decided to give your daughter to Lazer’s son, a total scoundrel. So now, even if you’d offer me all the money in the world, I wouldn’t give my son to your daughter. I see that you do not understand a Torah scholar’s great worth and magnificence. So what do you and I have to do with each other?”
Thus it was with the Jewish People. The scouts came back with their negative report, a litany of what they saw as Eretz Yisrael’s drawbacks, and the people collectively decided that they would be better off going back to Egypt. Thus, they compared Eretz Yisrael with Egypt and rated Egypt as superior. They thereby showed a total lack of appreciation for Eretz Yisrael’s sanctity and splendor; they failed to perceive the light of wisdom and holiness that shines forth from the land. They were interested only in what material bounty the land had to offer. This being so, there was nothing special for them about Eretz Yisrael – they could just as well have settled in some other land. And so, although Hashem gave the people a reprieve and did not smite them on the spot, He deemed them unsuited to live in Eretz Yisrael, and did not allow them to enter the land.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behaalosecha

This week’s parashah recounts the episode when the Jewish People, during their travels in the wilderness, clamored for meat. Hashem, in a demonstration that nothing is beyond His capability, caused a large amount of quail to descend on the Jewish People’s camp, enough to supply the entire nation amply for a full month. He then smote the people for their inappropriate demand. The Torah concludes its account of this episode as follows (Bamidbar 11:34): “He [Hashem] named that place Kivros HaTaavah (“the graves of desire”), for there they buried the people who had been craving.” The Maggid points out that, from the explanation at the end of this verse, it seems that the place should have been named Kivros HaMitavim: “the graves of the desirers.” Why instead was it named “the graves of desire”?
The Maggid answers this question via one of Shlomo HaMelech’s teachings (Koheles 8:11): “Since the sentence for an evil deed is not quickly carried out, men’s hearts are therefore fully set upon evildoing.” It is Hashem’s way to delay punishment for an evil deed in order to give man the opportunity to choose freely between good and evil. If people were punished immediately after doing wrong, no one would be so foolish as to turn to evildoing, and thereby bring havoc on himself. So there would be no free choice. Hashem therefore postpones the punishment to a time well beyond the scope of our attention, to make evildoing look like a viable option. It is this delay mechanism that allows improper desires to hold sway over us.
In the episode of the craving for meat, however, Hashem punished the people right away. Thus the Torah relates (Bamidbar 11:33): “The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when Hashem’s wrath flared against the people – and Hashem struck the people a very great blow.” The swift show of wrath crushed the people’s desire into the ground. The name Kivros HaTaavah hints at this result: When the cravers were swiftly struck down and buried, the force of desire within the remaining people was struck down and buried as well.
David Zucker, Site Administrator