Post Archive for January 2013

Parashas Yisro

The beginning of this week’s parashah recounts the meeting between Yisro and Moshe. The Torah relates (Shemos 18:8): “And Moshe told his father-in-law all that Hashem had done … for Yisrael’s sake.” The Midrash remarks (Yalkut Shimoni I:268): “That He gave Torah to His People Yisrael.” The Torah continues (Shemos 18:9): “And Yisro rejoiced over all the good that Hashem did for Yisrael.” The Midrash remarks (again Yalkut Shimoni I:268): “R. Yehoshua said: ‘The Torah is speaking of the blessing of the mann (manna). Moshe had told him: “This mann that the All-Present gave us, we can taste in it the taste of bread, the taste of meat, the taste of fish … the taste of all the delicacies of the world.” This Maggid raises two questions about these Midrashim. First, how can the term “all” be used in connection one specific act (the giving of the Torah) or one specific blessing (the mann)? Second, why were Moshe and Yisro so elated over the mann, a mere physical blessing? Why did Moshe praise the mann so profusely, dwelling on the different tastes it provided in a way that seems out of character for someone so spiritually lofty?”
The Maggid develops an answer based on a well-known teaching (Avos 6:1): “Whoever involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things ….” We need, he points out, to analyze the meaning of the phrase “many things” –  to determine what this phrase adds beyond the specific things that the teaching enumerates immediately afterward. He explains the matter as follows. Everything in this world draws its sustaining force from its root in the celestial realm. Accordingly, everything must be connected to its celestial root. The Torah operates as the conduit providing the connection between Hashem and the creations He placed in this world. It is like the ladder in Yaakov’s dream, standing on the ground and reaching up to heaven. Every creation is linked to the Torah through the mitzvos pertaining to it. The produce of the land is connected to the Torah through the agricultural mitzvos such as leket and shichichah (leaving dropped stalks and forgotten sheaves for the poor) and the like. Clothing is connected to the Torah through the mitzvah of tzitzis and the berachah we make on this mitzvah. We complete the connection between heaven and earth by performing the mitzvos, obeying the commands Hashem issued us.
When our Sages say that “whoever involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things,” the underlying idea is that the Torah is the root of all creations, and the source of all blessings. The same idea underlies the first of the two Midrashim that we quoted. Moshe was telling Yisro that Hashem gave us a gift – the Torah – that embodies all good. A similar idea underlies the second Midrash. Mann is the food of heaven. It necessarily embodies all tastes, because it is the celestial source of all nourishment.  This is why Moshe and Yisro were so elated over it.
Now, the effect of the mann depended on what the person eating it had in mind. If a person ate the mann with an a priori desire to experience the taste of a specific food – meat, for example – then the mann would reflect just that specific taste. If, however, a person ate the mann without anything particular in mind, he would taste in it all types of delicacies.  It is the same with the Torah. If a person involves himself in Torah in order to satisfy some particular desire, be it riches or honor or whatever, then he is granted the particular blessing that he wished for, but no more. But if a person involves himself in Torah purely for its own sake, without desiring to attain any material benefit, then it provides him with all the blessings in the world. This is what the Mishnah means when it says that “whoever involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things.”
In Bereishis 24:1, 27:33, and 33:11, respectively, the Torah indicates that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov were blessed with everything (בכל, מכל, כל). The Torah is saying that the forefathers, on account of their righteousness, were granted the source of all blessing.
The Maggid draws a link between the above discussion and a Gemara passage in Shabbos 30a on a different topic. At the conclusion of the account of Shlomo HaMelech’s building the Beis HaMikdash, it is written (Melachim Alef 8:66): “On the eighth day he sent the people forth, and they blessed the king, and they went back to their tents joyful and glad of heart over all the good that Hashem did for His servant David and His people Yisrael.” The Gemara expounds: “Over all the good that Hashem did for His servant David – that He pardoned him for the sin [with Batsheva].” What led the Sages interpret to the verse as referring to this matter? The Maggid explains as follows. Our Sages teach elsewhere that whenever Hashem has a special merit to bestow, He bestows it upon a meritorious person (מגלגלין זכות על ידי זכאי, see, e.g., Shabbos 32a). Thus, whenever we see someone gain a special merit, we know that the person is meritorious. Now, David was granted the merit of being the one who made the preparations for the building of the Beis HaMikdash, which is the source point on earth for all the good that Hashem dispenses, as is hinted at in the verse’s use of the phrase “all the good.” Since Hashem granted David this exceptional merit, it is evident that Hashem judged him to be an exceptionally meritorious person, and it thus follows necessarily that Hashem had cleared him of his sin.
In respectful memory of Elazar ben Yaakov Dov Levy, the father of two good friends of mine, who passed away last week shortly before Shabbos after a lifetime of devotion to Torah and mitzvos.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Beshallach

This week’s parashah describes the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and records the song that the Jewish People sang afterward to praise Hashem for this miraculous salvation. They proclaimed (Shemos 15:2): “This is my God, and I will glorify Him.” Expounding on this statement, the Gemara says (Shabbos 133b): “‘And I will glorify Him (ואנוהו)’ – be like Him. Just as He is gracious and compassionate, so you, too, be gracious and compassionate.” Rashi explains: “We interpret ואנוהו as אני והוא – I and He. I will make myself like Him, clinging to His ways.” This teaching calls for examination, for the way the Sages interpret the word ואנוהו seems far removed from its plain meaning. In Ohel Yaakov, parashas Vayishlach, the Maggid presents an explanation.
Dovid HaMelech charges his son Shlomo (Divrei HaYamim Alef 28:9): “Know the God of your father.” Our early traditional sources explain that Dovid is speaking of intellectual knowledge of God, of contemplation so as to comprehend and recognize Hashem’s Divine nature and His oneness. Now, it is impossible for any man to grasp Hashem’s Divine nature in its fundamental essence, for it is deeper than anything man can conceive. Rather, the only sense in which we can grasp Hashem’s Divine nature is in terms of His actions and attributes, as He has revealed them to us. As Shir HaYichud (Fifth Day) puts it: “We neither found Him nor knew Him; only through His deeds did we perceive Him.” In truth, all the descriptive terms that the prophets uses in conjunction with Hashem are merely borrowed terms – analogies to the attributes displayed by His creations. Rambam brings out this point in Moreh Nevuchim (part 1, ch. 53 and elsewhere). R. Yehudah HaLevi, in the beginning of part 2 of the Kuzari, also discusses the matter. He says, for example, that we call Hashem “compassionate” to refer His helping the needy in a manner analogous to how we help a needy person when we are stirred by our feelings of compassion. This way of understanding Hashem is limited, but it is the only way we have. When the Torah tells us to “cling to Him” (Devarim 10:20): it is telling us to cling to His ways. It is thus our duty, as Jews, to emulate His ways in every respect the Tanach describes. By emulating Hashem’s ways, we absorb them – to the extent possible – into our souls, and thus become able to grasp their nature. This is the way we gain an understanding of Hashem.
The point can be brought out further with an analogy. Suppose we meet a blind person who never in his life has had the power of sight. If we tell him that light is good, he will have no idea what we are talking about. Similarly, if he asks someone to describe his coat and the person replies by saying what color it is – black, or red, or green, or whatever – he will have no better grasp of what the coat is like; since he has never seen any colors, he cannot project an image of the color into his mind. Understanding Hashem poses a similar problem. Hashem has commanded us Jews to instill within our hearts a firm awareness of His oneness, His Divine nature, and His lofty and glorious traits. But there is no way for us to gain such awareness, if we have no grasp of the nature and value of Hashem’s traits. We therefore must adopt with the utmost resoluteness all the traits that the Tanach ascribes to Hashem, so that we can understand their nature, the effects they produce, their uprightness, and their pleasantness. And then, when we recite Hashem’s praises using the expressions the Tanach sets forth, it will be easy for us to bring into our minds through these praises a conceptualization of Hashem’s oneness and His Divine power as we have come to know them. We can now understand well the Gemara we quoted above: “‘And I will glorify Him’ – be like Him. Just as He is gracious and compassionate, so you, too, be gracious and compassionate.” We seek to glorify Hashem with all appropriate forms of praise. But how can we glorify Him truly? Our Sages give us the answer: We must emulate His ways. Once we have internalized His ways to the fullest extent possible, we will gain an understanding and appreciation of them, and we will then be fit to give Him true praise.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo

In this week’s parashah we read about the last three plagues and the Jewish People’s release from Egypt. In regard to the final plague, the smiting of the firstborn, Moshe announces (Shemos 11:4-5): “Thus says Hashem, ‘About midnight I shall go out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die ….’” Later, Moshe announces to the Jewish People in Hashem’s Name (Shemos 12:12): “And I shall pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and I shall smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to beast, and upon all the gods of Egypt I shall execute judgments, I am Hashem.” The Pesach Haggadah, in a famous passage, elaborates:
And I shall pass through the land of Egypt on that night – I, and not an angel. And I shall smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt – I, and not a seraph. And upon all the gods of Egypt I shall execute judgments – I, and not an agent. I am Hashem – I am the one, and no other.
The Haggadah is stressing that the plague of the firstborn came about through direct action by Hashem. The Maggid notes that this step on Hashem’s part is unusual, for He does not ordinarily bring about calamity by direct action. We are thus faced with a question: Why was the plague of the firstborn different?
The Maggid answers as follows. Fundamentally, Hashem is the sole ruler of the world; there is no rulership aside from His. As Hashem declares (Yeshayah 45:6): “From the place of the sun’s rising to the place of its setting, there is none beside Me; I am Hashem, and there is none else.” The very existence of the world, our Sages teach, is the result of Hashem’s diminishing His presence to make room for it. In particular, any eminence or ascendancy that any man possesses is merely an allocation from Hashem of a portion of His own eminence toward the end of maintaining the world’s existence. As David HaMelech declares (Divrei HaYamim Alef 29:14): “For who am I, and what is my people, that we should muster the wherewithal to donate in this manner? For everything is from You, and from Your hand we have given to You.” This idea is reflected in blessing recited upon seeing a Jewish king (Berachos 58a, Siddur): “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who has granted a share of His honor to those who fear Him.”
Similarly, the eminence of the firstborn derives from Hashem’s eminence. Now, when any entity comes into the vicinity of its source, it is naturally drawn toward the source. For example, when a small flame is brought near a large fire, it automatically dies out, for the large fire absorbs into itself the energy of the small flame. In precisely the same way, when Hashem passed through Egypt and displayed His great glory, the firstborn automatically died out on the spot—their glory was instantly absorbed by Hashem’s glory. This is what the Haggadah is saying: It was because Hashem Himself passed through Egypt, and not an angel, a seraph, or some other agent, that the firstborn perished in this miraculous way.
We now have an answer to the question we raised above. It was not any action, per se, on Hashem’s part that caused the firstborn to die. Rather, the revelation of Hashem’s presence in itself, without any further action, is what caused their death. The firstborn were specifically the ones who perished, because their eminence was built into them from birth. Pharaoh’s ministers did not perish, for their eminence was acquired. Regarding them, Moshe told Pharaoh (Shemos 11:8): “And all these servants of yours will come down to me and bow down to me.” Although the revelation of Hashem’s presence did not cause the ministers to die, it did cause them to lose their eminence and bow down to Moshe along with the commoners. Overall, the revelation of Hashem’s presence caused all eminence among the Egyptians to evaporate.
A similar phenomenon will take place, on a much larger scale, in the end of days. Hashem will display His glory openly before the eyes of all men, and His sovereignty and dominion will prevail throughout the entire world. Men will see the truth of Hashem’s declaration that “there is none beside Me.” In this vein, Zechariah exhorts (verse 2:17): “Be silent, all flesh, before Hashem, for He is stirring from His holy abode.” Hashem will stir Himself to establish His sovereignty and dominion, and then all mortal rulers will be deposed from their high positions. Hashem alone will rule, in heaven and on earth. Hashem will be one, and His Name will be one.

Parashas Vaeira

This week’s parashah presents the first seven of the ten plagues, the second of which is the plague of frogs. The Torah relates (Shemos 8:2): “Aharon stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs ascended (ותעל הצפרדע) and covered the land of Egypt.” Here the Torah uses the singular noun הצפרדע to denote a group of frogs. This type of usage is standard in Hebrew, but here the Midrash interprets the singular noun הצפרדע as conveying a special message (Tanchuma, Vaeira 14): “R. Akiva says, ‘It was a single frog, and the Egyptians hit it [repeatedly] and it spouted forth many frogs.” In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaAhavah, chapter 4, the Maggid adopts this teaching as a metaphor to convey a lesson about the futility of pursuing worldly gains.
In Avos 2:7, the Sages say: “One who increases his assets increases his worry.” And in Koheles Rabbah 3:12 they say: “No person leaves the world with [even] half his desires satisfied. If a person has one hundred, he wants to make it two hundred. And if a person has two hundred, he wants to make it four hundred.” The message is that since a person cannot acquire every possible worldly possession, the quest for worldly possessions cannot lead to satisfaction. Just as when the Egyptians hit the frog it produced more frogs, so, too, when a person fulfills one worldly wish, more worldly wishes are generated. The more worldly success a person gains, the more he is caught up in anguish and toil, and the process continues until the person ravages his soul.
The Maggid traces how the burden of worldly assets develops over the course of a person’s life. When a person is a small child, all he wishes for is food. As he gets older, more wishes surface. When he gets married, he has to work to support himself and his wife, and in his continual striving for a higher standard of living, he has to work continually harder. At certain point, he feels a wish to buy his own house. Once he buys a house, he wishes to furnish it in a way that suits him, and this leads him to expend more effort making money to invest in his house. Over time, he acquires more and more wealth and possessions, which require more and more of his attention. When his holdings reach a certain magnitude, he has to hire servants to help manage them, which means that he now also has to take care of the needs of these servants. He is now engulfed in worries. Every day, a new worry crops up: A servant gets sick, or one of the animals in his herds gets sick, or he loses something, or something breaks, or his servants start stealing (“The more servants, the more theft” – Avos 2:7) or they slack off on the job, or he suffers some other loss. The more worldly assets a person has, the heavier the yoke is upon him, and the less peace of mind and happiness he feels. The only way out of this cycle is to decide firmly to limit one’s assets to the minimum necessary to meet one’s genuine needs.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemos

This week’s parashah ends with Moshe crying out to Hashem over the Jewish People’s harshened slavery (Shemos 5:22-23): “My Lord, why have You done evil to this people, why have you sent me? From the day I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he did evil to this people – You surely did not rescue them.” Hashem replies (ibid. 6:1): “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will evict them from his land.” The Midrash relates (Shemos Rabbah 5:23): “[Hashem said to Moshe:] ‘The wars against Pharaoh you will see, but you will not see the wars against the thirty-one Canaanite kings, against whom your disciple Yehoshua will take vengeance.’ From this we learn that at this point Moshe took upon himself the judgment that he would not enter the Land of Israel.”
The Maggid notes two puzzling aspects of this Midrash. First, the phrasing “Moshe took upon himself the judgment” is peculiar; we would expect the Midrash to say “Hashem imposed the judgment on Moshe.” Second, the Midrash appears at odds with another Midrash that discusses why Moshe did not enter Eretz Yisrael. In Devarim Rabbah 2:9, the Midrash says that Moshe died and was buried in the wilderness in order that, when the dead are resurrected in the end of days, he could lead the Jews who died in the wilderness to Eretz Yisrael.
This second Midrash draws an analogy to a person who dropped some copper coins all over the place in a dark area. He decided that if he would ask someone to shine him a light so that he could gather these coins, no one would pay attention. So he took a gold coin from his pocket, tossed it on the ground, and exclaimed: “Please shine me a light – I dropped a gold coin here!” Someone shone him a light, and he picked up the gold coin and, in the process, collected the scattered copper coins as well. Similarly, Hashem arranged for Moshe to be buried in the wilderness so that the rest of the wilderness generation would be gathered in along with him. According to this Midrash, Moshe’s death and burial in the wilderness was not due to any fault on his part, in apparent contradiction to the Midrash we quoted initially.
The Maggid goes on to quote another Midrash about the issue of whether Moshe would enter Eretz Yisrael (Devarim Rabbah 7:10):
[Hashem said to Moshe:] “You want to hold the rope at both ends. If you want your request ‘please let me pass over’ [into Eretz Yisrael, Devarim 3:25] to be fulfilled, then cancel your request ‘please forgive’ [the Jewish People, Bamidbar 14:19], and if you want your request ‘please forgive’ to be fulfilled, then cancel your request ‘please let me pass over.’” When Moshe heard this, he said: “Master of the Universe! Let Moshe die and a hundred like him, and let not one of them suffer injury, even to a fingernail.”
This Midrash is mysterious. The Maggid explains it follows. Hashem foresaw that the wilderness generation would need to have some righteous man buried in the wilderness with them so that at the end of days his merit would enable them to come back to life and enter Eretz Yisrael, as in the analogy of the coins that the Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 2:9 presents. But it remained for Him to choose which righteous man to give this role. Hashem saw that Moshe was a faithful shepherd to the Jewish People, always standing in the breach before Him on their behalf. Moshe exerted himself strenuously for them after the sin of the golden calf, after the sin of the scouts, and on other occasions when the Jewish People strayed. Yet he still found room to argue that his love for the Jews of the wilderness generation was not great enough to warrant his being buried with them, and to request that he instead be sent into Eretz Yisrael. When Moshe presented this request, Hashem responded by telling Moshe that he was trying to hold the rope at both ends. Hashem was pointing out to Moshe that since he stepped forward on behalf of the wilderness generation to ask Him to “please forgive,” it was evident that he was devoted to them, and was therefore well suited to be buried with them.
The real clincher, though, was Moshe’s complaint about the harshened slavery in Egypt: “My Lord, why have You done evil to this people ….” Here, Moshe spoke sharply toward Hashem, something that no other prophet dared to do. The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 5:22 relates that when Moshe entered his complaint about the harshened slavery, the Attribute of Justice was poised to strike him, but since Hashem saw that it was on account of the Jewish People that Moshe complained as he did, the Attribute of Justice did not strike. Moshe’s bold action showed his great love for the Jewish People.
With this background, the Maggid presents a striking explanation of the statement in the first Midrash we quoted, that Moshe “took upon himself the judgment that he would not enter the Land of Israel.” He brings out the idea with a parable. Two paupers came to a certain city, a young lad and an older man. The two got into an argument, and the older man struck the lad and injured him. The lad took the older man to court, and the judge asked the older man: “Why did you hit this lad?” The older man replied: “Your Honor, I am this lad’s uncle, his closest relative. His father died, and I have raised him. The lad was misbehaving, so I struck him to teach him not to act that way.” The lad countered: “What this man said is a lie. He is no relative of mine; he is a stranger. We met just a few days ago at the inn. He came with me into this city, and then he gave me a fierce beating for no reason. I ask you please, Your Honor, to grant me compensation for what he did to me.” The judge fined the older man a certain sum and ordered him to use the money to get the lad some good clothes. He said: “If the lad is telling the truth, that you are not his relative, then you deserve to be fined to compensate him. And if you are telling the truth, that you are his uncle and guardian, it befits you to get the lad proper clothes.”
Similarly, Moshe’s sharp speech locked in his ultimate burial in the wilderness, for whichever way his conduct is viewed, burial in the wilderness is a fitting outcome. If his sharp speech constituted a sin, he deserved to be buried in the wilderness as punishment. And if it was not a sin, because it was prompted by his supreme love for the Jewish People, this love also made it fitting for him to be buried with the wilderness generation for their benefit.
David Zucker, Site Administrator