Post Archive for September 2012

Megillas Koheles

On Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos we read Megillas Koheles. We present here a commentary by the Maggid, taken from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Noach, on one of the verses in Koheles.
Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 2:12): “I then turned my attention to analyze wisdom, madness, and folly, for who is man to approach the King about what He has already done.” The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 6:1 explains this verse as an expression of regret on Shlomo’s part for having taken many wives, contrary to a Torah law. The Torah states (Devarim 17:17): “He must not take many wives (lo yarbeh lo nashim), so that his heart will not go astray.” Shlomo second-guessed this Divine decree, saying that he could take many wives while keeping his heart from going astray. At that moment, the Midrash says, the letter yud in the word yarbeh prostrated itself before Hashem and exclaimed: “Master of the Universe! Didn’t You say that no letter in the Torah will ever be nullified? But, behold, Shlomo has risen up and nullfied me. So today he has nullified one letter. Perhaps tomorrow he will nullify another, and afterward still another, continuing until he nullfies the entire Torah.” Hashem replied: “Shlomo and a thousand others like him will be nullified, but I will not nullify you in the slightest, not even the little point at your top.”
Eventually, as Melachim Alef 11:4 records, Shlomo’s wives turned his heart astray: The wives he took from foreign nations returned to idol worship, and he improperly allowed them to continue their idolatrous practices. Shlomo then expressed his regret, as described above. He was saying: “I played wise with the Torah’s words, and I convinced myself that I understood the Torah’s intent, but my way of understanding was but madness and folly. For who is man to approach the King about what He has already done – who has the right to judge what the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He, has decreed. … I tried to judge what He established, and I therefore stumbled.”
Shlomo concluded, after a careful self-appraisal, that taking many wives would not lead him astray, but nonetheless he did go astray. How could Shlomo, with his great wisdom, suffer such a fiasco? It appears from the Midrash that the explanation is as follows. Shlomo assumed that the reason the Torah states for prohibiting a king from taking many wives was the only reason for the prohibition, and then, based on his conclusion that this reason did not apply to him, gave himself license to nullify the prohibition in his case. He did not recognize that Hashem had additional, hidden reasons for imposing the prohibition. Hashem therefore deliberately arranged that Shlomo’s wives would indeed lead him astray, as punishment for tampering with the Torah’s laws. In the end, Shlomo admitted his mistake, and recognized how he had been punished for what he did.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Haazinu

In years like the present one, when there is a Shabbos between Yom Kippur and Sukkos, parashas Haazinu is read on this Shabbos, and the haftarah is the song David HaMelech composed to praise Hashem for delivering him from his enemies (Shmuel Beis 22, also appearing, with a few slight differences, as Tehillim 18). This song contains allusions to other instances of Hashem’s delivering the Jewish People from some threat. David declares (verse 18): “He saves me from my mighty foe, and from my enemies when they are stronger than me.” The Maggid notes two points about this statement that call for a closer look. First, in the Hebrew, the term used for “He saves me” is yatzileini, which is literally a future tense verb, rather than the present tense verb that we would expect. Second, in the phrase “mighty foe,” the role of the adjective “mighty” bears careful pondering, for relation to Hashem, it is meaningless to speak of a “mighty force” standing in opposition. The Maggid suggests an explanation addressing both points, interpreting David’s statement as running more deeply than it appears on the surface.
The Maggid brings out the idea with a parable. A certain wealthy man had a young son who contracted a minor illness, and he hired a doctor to treat the boy. The treatment was much more protracted and expensive than the father thought would be needed for such a minor illness, so he asked the doctor for an explanation. The doctor replied: “Your son’s initial illness was indeed minor, and it has already passed. But when I examined the boy, I saw that he has a serious latent disease that is destined to break out in his older years. If we wait for the disease to break out, we may have a hard time treating it for two reasons. First, in his older years he will not be as resilient as he is now, and it may be hard for him to undergo the treatment. Second, you might be less well-off then than you are now, and unable to bear the expenses. So I decided to give him some agents that would cause the disease to break out now, so that I could treat it easily, and free him of it for the rest of his life.
The parallel is as follows. Our forefathers were beset with various tribulations. Avraham was cast into a fiery furnace, was subjected to a famine, and was forced to wage war against mighty kings. Yitzchak, as well, suffered serious misfortunes. And Yaakov, the premier figure among the forefathers, had not a moment of rest almost his entire life. It is absurd to think that the forefathers were beset with these misfortunes as punishment for some misdeeds on their part. Rather, Hashem was paving the way for the Jewish People of the future. As our tradition teaches, “the experiences of the forefathers are a legacy for their descendants” (maaseh avos yirshu banim). Hashem foresaw that the Jewish People were destined to go into exile and suffer many calamities. But they would be too spiritually weak to bring forth the miracles needed to rescue them from these calamities. Hashem therefore, in His wisdom, brought upon the forefathers afflictions of the kind that their descendants would later suffer, just as, in the parable, the doctor brought on the latent disease before its time. The forefathers were spiritual giants who were capable of inducing Hashem to bring miraculous salvations. They thereby created a wellspring of salvation (cf. Yeshayah 12:3) that the Jewish People could tap into throughout the generations. Thus we say in the prayer right before the morning Amidah: “The Helper of our forefathers You have been in days of yore, and Shield and Savior unto their children after them in each and every generation.” When we invoke the merit of the forefathers in our prayers, we are asking Hashem to open for us the wellspring of salvation that He prepared for us in our forefathers’ days.
We can now turn to David’s statement: “He saves me from my mighty foe, and from my enemies when they are stronger than me.” David is describing the foe as “mighty” not in relation to Hashem, but in relation to us: We do not deserve being saved from the foe on the basis of our own merits, so the foe has the upper hand over us. David describes the enemies as “stronger than me.” In the Hebrew the phrase is ametzu mimeni, which can be interpreted as “strong on account of me” – our enemies’ strength is due to our lack of merits. The future tense verb yatzileini points toward Hashem’s taking action at a given point in time in order to affect a salvation for us at a later time. The next verse in the song elaborates (verse 19): “They came before me [yekadmuni, which also be read “they preceded me”] on the day designated for me, and Hashem was a support unto me.” Because of the troubles that beset our forefathers, Hashem became a support and savior – not only for them, but also for us afterward. The idea is reflected further in the verse with which the song closes (verse 51): “He is a fortress of salvation unto His king and does kindness for His anointed one, for David and his descendants, forever.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Shuvah

Yeshayah exhorts (verse 55:6), “Seek Hashem when He is to be found – call out to Him when He is near.” Our Sages interpret these words as referring to the Ten Days of Repentance (Rosh Hashanah 18a). Yeshayah continues (verse 55:7): “Let the wicked man abandon his path, and the crooked man his thoughts, and let him return to Him, and He will show him compassion.” The Maggid discusses this passage in Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, chapter 11 and Shaar HaAhavah, chapter 11. He interprets the second verse homiletically as follows: “Let the wicked man abandon his path, and the crooked man his thoughts, and he will return to Him and love Him” (reading vi’rachameihu as describing a person loving Hashem, as in Tehillim 18:2 – “I will love you, Hashem, my strength”). Through this interpretation, the Maggid offers a novel perspective on how the passage describes the process of attaining a feeling of love for Hashem.
How, the Maggid asks, can a person attain the lofty trait of love for Hashem, achieve a complete return to Him, and make himself cling to Him? From our vantage point, with our limited human intellect, the goal seems impossible to reach. But Yeshayah’s message teaches us otherwise; through this message, Hashem sheds light for us on the matter. The key is to recognize that the human soul is pure, and its innate nature is to love its Creator and cling to him, just as all things tend to gravitate toward their source. The only reason we lack a feeling of love for Hashem is because our worldly drives muddle our souls and cast darkness upon them. If we would only cast away our negative tendencies and restore our souls to their original pure state, our souls would naturally return to Hashem and cling to Him with complete love.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a person catches a bird and secures it with a tether, and later decides to return it to its natural habitat. He need not carry the bird back to the place he caught it. Rather, all he needs to do is to untie the tether, and the bird will naturally fly back home.
Similarly, if we wish to return to Hashem, we do not need any special medium to carry us to Him. All we need to do is sever the bonds of our baser worldly drives. “Let the wicked man abandon his path, and the crooked man his thoughts,” Yeshayah says. And then, as an automatic result, “he will return to Him and love Him.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Nitzavim

In this week’s parashah, Hashem announces that He has set before us life and good on the one hand, and death and bad on the other, and He tells us to choose life. The Maggid asks: Why does Hashem, when telling us what to choose, mention only life, and not life and good as He had initially? The Maggid offers a number of answers. We presented one of them in a previous parashah piece; here we present another.
Man is endowed, the Maggid notes, with a unique power that neither the lofty angels nor the lowly animals have: the power of choice. A person may think that he can choose whatever he pleases. Hashem therefore tells us that, while He presents us with a choice, in actuality we are compelled to choose the path He has chosen for us, and not whatever path we ourselves wish to choose. The Maggid brings out the idea with an analogy involving two types of visits. The first type is a person going to visit a close relative or friend whom he has not seen in many years. The host, out of his great joy over the visit, will do his utmost to honor and please his guest. He will ask: “What do you want to have for dinner? Anything you want, I’ll prepare for you.” The visitor will then naturally choose the finest delicacies and wine. The second type of visit is a person visiting an inn. The innkeeper will also ask: “What do you want to have for dinner?” But in this case the visitor cannot freely choose whatever he pleases, for he knows that whatever he chooses he will have to pay for.
It is likewise with us. Thus Shlomo HaMelech exhorts (Koheles 11:9): “Rejoice, young man, in your childhood, and let your heart cheer in the days of your youth; follow the paths of your heart and the sights of your eyes – but be aware that, for all these things, God shall call you to account.” Hashem’s exhortation to us in the parashah is along similar lines. He tells us that He sets before us life and death, life in the true sense being attachment to Torah and mitzvos, and death being detachment from Torah and mitzvos. If we opt for attachment to Torah and mitzvos, we will reap good; if we opt for detachment from Torah and mitzvos, we will reap bad. Hashem puts it in our hands to choose. But if we ponder the options carefully and thoughtfully, we will realize that, in truth, we have no choice – we are compelled to take the path of life, and cling to Torah and mitzvos.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Savo

This week’s parashah describes the blessings Hashem will grant us if we obey His Torah and the curses He will cast upon us if we do not. One of the principal curses mentioned is the curse of exile (Devarim 28:64): “And Hashem will disperse you among all the nations, from one end of the earth to the other.” This leads the Maggid to expound on the hardship of exile. He builds on the following passage (Tehillim 89:47-48): “Until when, Hashem, will You perpetually hide Yourself, will Your wrath burn like fire? I bear in mind the transience of my life….” We present the Maggid’s explanation of the second part of this passage, which he develops through an analogy.
Suppose, the Maggid says, that a craftsman takes a loan, and gives one of his tools as collateral. It is clear that if the creditor uses the tool, he will cause it wear and tear. But suppose he does not use the tool, but merely keeps it in his house. In this case, if the tool is a simple, ordinary one, the only loss the craftsman will suffer from the tool being in the creditor’s house is the loss caused by his inability to do certain types of work without the tool. However, there are some special tools that need regular maintenance. If the tool the creditor is holding onto is of this type, and the creditor does not know how to take care of it, his mere holding onto it will cause it damage.
The parallel is as follows. When we were firmly settled in our land, we were safeguarded under a regular system of maintenance. The rabbis of the public rabbinical courts served as watchmen to guard us from evildoing. The Kohanim would cleanse us from sin twice a day, through the daily public morning and afternoon offerings. In this vein, regarding Yeshayahu’s description of Yerushalayim as a city in which “justice abides” (Yeshayah 1:21), the Sages remark that no one who lived in Yerushalayim ever suffered the taint of sin, because the morning offering would atone for the sins committed the previous night, and the afternoon offering would atone for the sins committed during the day (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 786). The public offerings brought on Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and Yamim Tovim provided additional protection against the corroding effects of time, so that we remained constantly in perfect condition. But now that we are in exile, we have lost all this. We have no Holy Temple, no offerings, no Kohanim performing any of the Temple service, and no prophets. Our souls are cast in the dirt. How can we not be overcome by the evil inclination? We are no longer under safeguard; we no longer undergo regular maintenance to prevent corrosion. Without this maintenance, our souls corrode automatically with the passage of time. This idea is reflected in the psalmist’s statement: “I bear in mind the transience of my life.” Here, the Hebrew term used for “transience” is chaled, which is related to the word chaludah, meaning “rust” or “corrosion.”
In a related vein, David HaMelech writes (Tehillim 17:8-9): “Guard me as the apple of the eye, shelter me in the shadow of Your wings – from the wicked ones that have plundered me, my soul’s enemies that encompass me.” Here, David is saying the following: “Even if the wicked do not actively injure me, my soul is still acutely aware of the great harm they cause me. My soul, like that of any man, is already surrounded by enemies: the drives for various forms of pleasure and the tendency toward haughtiness. A man must fight to subdue these inner enemies. But when the wicked besiege a man from the outside, his inner enemies are aroused and press him more strongly.” It is like a general who sets out to wage war against another country, but takes with him only a small cohort of soldiers, because he knows that many residents of the other country already oppose their leadership – they are waiting to him to come so they can join forces with him. Our outside enemies need do no more than to coax our inner enemies into action – to prompt our drives to overcome our intellect – and then our downfall is almost sure to follow. We must plead with Hashem to redeem us from the exile and save us from this peril.
David Zucker, Site Administrator