Post Archive for May 2013

Parashas Shelach

This week’s parashah describes how Moshe sent forth scouts to survey the land that Hashem had promised to give the Jewish People, and the scouts improperly concluded that the people would not be able to conquer the land. Regarding Hashem’s promise to give Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish People, a Midrash on the parashah presents the following teaching of R. Acha the Great (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:3):
It is written (Yeshayah 40:8): “Grass withers and a blossom fades, but the word of our God shall abide forever.” The message of this verse is along the lines of the following parable. A king had a beloved friend to whom he made a promise: “Go with me, and I will give you a gift.” The man went with the king, and then died. The king said to the man’s son: “Although your father died, I am not retracting my promise to give him a gift. Come and take it.” The king is Hashem, the King of Kings. And the beloved friend is Avraham, … to whom Hashem said (Bereishis 12:1), ‘Go you forth from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house,” and then promised (Bereishis 13:17): “The entire land that you see, I shall give to you.” Said Hashem to Moshe: “I promised to give the land to the forefathers, and they died. But even so, I am not retracting.” Rather, “the word of our God shall stand forever.”
The Maggid links this Midrash to a statement that Yehoshua and Caleiv made to the Jewish People after the other scouts presented their negative report. Yehoshua and Caleiv exhorted (Bamidbar 14:9): “Just do not rebel against Hashem! Do not fear the people of the land, for they are our bread. Their protection has turned away from them, Hashem is with us. Do not fear them!” The passage in Yeshayah that the Midrash quotes sheds light on what Yehoshua and Caleiv were saying.
The Maggid first elaborates on Yeshayah’s message. Yeshayah says (verses 40:6-8): “All flesh is grass, and all its goodliness is like a blossom in the field – grass withers and a blossom fades as Hashem’s spirit blows upon it (רוח ה' נשבה בו). Indeed, the nation is grass. Grass withers and a blossom fades, but the word of our God shall abide forever.” Every living thing in this world ultimately perishes, but the blessing that Hashem directed toward it continues in existence, transferring to a higher life form. Grass receives a stream of blessing from Hashem while it is fresh and moist. Ultimately the grass withers, and the blessing infused within it transfers to the animals who eat the grass. An animal also eventually dies, and then the blessing transfers to a human being. In the end, the blessing transfers from the man who first received it to a man of eminence, along the lines of Iyov’s statement (Iyov 27:17): “He [a wicked man] may prepare [a wardrobe], but a righteous man will wear it.”
The passage in Yeshayah, the Maggid notes, provides an apt analogy for this pattern. The life force that Hashem initially infuses in grass transfers later to an animal, a being of flesh, so that Hashem’s spirit then blows within the animal (rendering רוח ה' נשבה בו as “Hashem’s spirit blows within it, with “it” referring to the flesh). But within the animal as well the life force abides only for a limited span of time. And even within the community of men, the life force continues to transfer from one level to a higher one. Thus Yeshayah says that the “nation is grass” – the general population is like grass compared to the class of righteous men. In truth, as Yeshayah indicates initially, all flesh is grass compared to the righteous. Yeshayah then concludes: “Grass withers and a blossom fades, but the word of our God shall abide forever.” For the righteous, the stream of Divine blessing abides eternally, never ceasing.
The Maggid then turns to Yehoshua and Caleiv’s statement. The other scouts, speaking of the people living in the land they surveyed, declared (Bamidbar 13:31): “חזק הוא ממנו – they are mightier than us.” The scouts’ declaration can be re-rendered as “they are mighty through Him,” that is, the people’s might was not a natural might they had from birth, but rather a supernatural might that Hashem had specially infused within them. Yehoshua and Caleiv countered: “Do not be concerned over the great stream of blessing that Hashem has infused into the people of the land up to now, for Hashem granted them this stream of blessing for our benefit.” They argued that the process that was unfolding was just like the transfer of Divine blessing from a plant to an animal, and then to a group of lesser men, and finally to a group of lofty men. Speaking of the people in the land, they said: “They are our bread” – we will now take in the “nutrients” that they bear. Yehoshua and Caleiv then continued: “Their protection has turned away from them” – that is, the stream of Divine blessing has been turned away from them and is being directed toward us. When Avraham died, Hashem did not retract His blessing; His word remained eternal. He continued supplying the stream of blessing He had provided Avraham, channeling it [in part] to the Canaanites, ultimately to be redirected to us upon our entry into the land.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Behaalosecha – The Maggid on Prayer, Part 11

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaTefillah, Chapter 7 (end)
There are three reasons why our prophets and sages stressed so heavily the need to guard our speech. One reason is the ease of speech, which we have already discussed. The other two reasons are the crucial role of the faculty of speech and its great susceptibility to damage.
We discuss first the crucial role of the faculty of speech. Just as the intellect marks the difference between man and the animal world in regard to internal faculties, so, too, the tongue marks the difference between man and animal world in regard to external faculties. Now, the sole reason man was endowed with intellect was so that he could recognize his Creator, devote himself to serving Him, love and revere Him, and trust in Him. In the same way, the tongue – the most eminent of all organs – was meant to be used as a holy service vessel, to thank and sing praise to Hashem for extending us the great kindness of making us His ministers, as it is written (Tehillim 65:5): “Fortunate is then one whom You choose and draw near to dwell in Your courts.”
As we have already mentioned, the Gemara in Yevamos 64a teaches that Hashem yearns for the prayers of the righteous. Our main duties as ministers to Hashem – studying His Torah, praying to Him, and thanking Him – depend on the tongue. Accordingly, even without a Biblical exhortation, our intellect would lead us to conclude that we must not profane the tongue by employing it inappropriately, just as a sacred vessel must not be employed for mundane uses. In discussing the incense offered in the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash, the Torah commands us not to make a compound of the same composition for other uses, saying (Shemos 30:37): “It shall remain holy to you, for Hashem.” We should have the same attitude toward the use of the tongue.
Our holy Sages have already commented on this matter. They teach (Yoma 19b): “One who engages in idle speech violates a positive Torah commandment, for it is written (Devarim 6:7), ‘And you shall speak in them [words of Torah]’ – and not in idle words.” Now one might think that one violates this commandment merely by keeping silent, based on the reasoning that regardless of whether one speaks idly or keeps silent, either way one is not speaking in Torah. But our Sages did not see the matter this way; they regarded only idle speech as a violation of the commandment, and not mere silence. Their reasoning is based on the principle we just explained: Since our tongues are meant to be used for the sacred duty of speaking in Torah learning, it is improper to use them for idle speech.
We now discuss the care required with the faculty of speech on account of its susceptibility to damage. We all know how careful people are with delicate and expensive instruments such as a craftsman’s precision knife. A person reserves a precision knife exclusively for its intended use; he does not use it for coarse jobs such as cutting bones, for this would ruin it and make it unfit for its intended use. For this reason, it is forbidden to move tools of this type on Shabbos; they are in the category of muktzeh meichamas chisaron kis – one has no business moving them on Shabbos, since they are set aside exclusively for a non-Shabbos use. Now, seeing that we are so careful with the tools we use for worldly tasks, how can we possibly not be careful with the power of speech?
Speech is a special gift from our Creator, granted only to man, and to no other creature. Hashem meant for us to benefit from the power of speech by using it for lofty spiritual tasks. These tasks are both exquisitely delicate and supremely important. In describing the pursuits of righteous men, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 149:6): “The lofty praises of God are in their throats, and a double-edged sword (חֶרֶב פִּיפִיּוֹת) is in their hands.” When the righteous pray, their mouths (פִּיהֶם) act as the swords they use to fight their enemies. This is the special endowment Hashem granted us. Our mouths have the wondrous power to destroy all the partitions that separate us from Hashem, and to set down glorious spiritual plantings that bear fruit in the upper worlds.
How careful we must be to guard our power of speech and not damage it! R. Shimon bar Yochai declared (Talmud Yerushalmi Berachos, ch. 1, halachah 2): “If I had been at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given to the Jewish People, I would have asked Hashem to give man two mouths, one for learning Torah and one for tending to all his [worldly] needs.” He was led to make this statement because of the two features of speech we discussed above: its great loftiness and holiness, and its great susceptibility to damage through frivolous words.
Now, a person might think that the idle talk he engages in at a given time will spoil only his future prayers and Torah study, but not the Torah he has already learned. But our Sages teach otherwise. They say that every idle word that goes through a person’s mind displaces a word of Torah that he previously learned (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:21). In view of this principle, we can understand at a deeper level the teaching that the command to speak in Torah incorporates a charge not to engage in idle talk. Our Sages are saying that idle talk constitutes a violation of the command to speak in Torah because the idle words that a person speaks nullify his previous fulfillment of the command. How can a person not be careful not to lose the Torah learning he has already acquired?
Shlomo HaMelech writes (Mishlei 5:1-2): “My child, heed my wisdom, incline your ear to my [words of] understanding, so as to preserve [wise] designs, and let your lips guard wisdom.” When a person restrains his mouth from idle talk, his wisdom is preserved, but when a person opens his mouth to speak idle words, his wisdom escapes to oblivion, in the same way that a storeroom for treasures with an open door is routed. Shlomo is telling us to keep constant watch on our mouths to safeguard our knowledge and wisdom. Then the Supreme One will watch over us, sustain us, and enlighten our eyes with the light of His Torah.
This concludes the series on prayer.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Naso – The Maggid on Prayer, Part 10

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaTefillah, Chapter 6
Our Sages say that offering a prayer to Hashem is like bringing a gift to a nobleman. A gift to a nobleman must satisfy two conditions. First, the gift item itself must be honorable. Second, it must be presented in a respectable vessel. It is similar with the sacred act of offering prayer and thanks to the Sovereign of All Worlds. First, the prayer must be offered with sincere intent and a humble spirit. Second, the person praying must check and make sure that his mouth, the vessel through which he presents his prayer, is pure – that it has not been sullied, far be it, through abominable speech. The Torah exhorts us (Devarim 23:15), “Your camp shall be holy, so that He will not see a shameful thing (עֶרְוַת דָבָר) among you,” and the Sages interpret this command homiletically as a charge to avoid shamefulness in speech (עֶרְוַת דִיבּוּר) (Shabbos 23a). David HaMelech stresses his scrupulousness of speech, saying (Tehillim 17:1): “Heed my prayer, without lips of deceit.” It is unseemly to pray with a mouth that has spoken falsely. It is worse still to pray with a mouth that has spoken indecent or derogatory words.
Our holy books go to great lengths in stressing the importance of responsible speech. For example, R. Shimon ben Gamliel says (Avos 1:17): “I found nothing better for the body than silence.” Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 18:21): “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” And he says elsewhere (Koheles 5:5): “Do not allow your mouth lead your flesh to stray, and do not say before the angel that it was a mistake. Why should God be angered over your voice?” It is written (Tehillim 120:3): “What can He give you, and what added endowment can He provide you, O deceitful tongue?” And David HaMelech says elsewhere (Tehillim 34:13-15): “Who is the man who desires life, who cherishes days, to see good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking falsehood. Turn away from bad and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” And our Sages vehemently condemn derogatory speech. They say (Arachin 15b): “One who engages in derogatory speech is like a heretic.” And elsewhere they teach (Vayikra Rabbah 16:6): “Whoever engages in derogatory speech violates the five books of the Torah.” Accordingly, we briefly discuss the severity of improper speech. We begin by explaining the difference between the tongue and other organs of the body.
Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaTefillah, Chapter 7 (beginning)
There are three fundamental differences between the tongue and other organs. The first relates to how the organ should be used. With other organs, there is no global rule setting down in absolute terms how the organ is best used; it depends on the circumstances. For example, in most cases it is best to act with alacrity, but there are cases where it is best to act sluggishly. In speech, however, it is always best to be brief. Even in regard to Torah learning, the Sages say (Pesachim 3b): “A person should always teach his students in a brief manner.” All the more so is it with matters of the body; in this vein R. Shimon ben Gamliel said (Avos 1:17): ”All my days I grew up among wise men, and I found nothing better for the body than silence.” The second difference is that the other organs tire when operated for a long time and they need to rest, but the tongue works easily and is always eager to speak; a person always likes having a word on his tongue. The third difference concerns a person’s degree of control over the organ’s operation. There are seven major organs and limbs through which a person interacts with the world around him: the eyes, the ears, the nose, the hands, the feet, the tongue, and the makom ha-bris. If we reflect on these seven organs, we find that they can be divided into three categories. The first category consists of the organs over which a person has full control: the eyes, the hands, and the feet. These organs do not move and are not aroused in any way except under the person’s direction. The second category consists of the organs that operate completely involuntarily: the ears, the nose, and the makom ha-bris. The third category, the middle category, consists of the tongue. If a person keeps his mouth clamped shut and refrains from opening it even for necessities, his tongue is under his control. But if a person allows his tongue to move, it starts working almost automatically, and ends up wandering all over. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 10:19): “In an abundance of words rebellious sin will not be lacking.” Because of the grave dangers associated with the tongue, our Sages composed for us a special prayer to plead with Hashem to guard us from these dangers (immediately after the Amidah prayer): “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood.” Similarly, the holy prophets exhorted us strenuously to guard ourselves from improper speech.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Bamidbar – The Maggid on Prayer, Part 9

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaTefillah, Chapter 5 (end)
The Gemara says (Berachos 63a): “How do we know that we do not respond ‘Amein’ in the Beis HaMikdash? Because it is written (Nechemiah 9:5): ‘Rise up, bless Hashem your God, from one world to the other.’ And it is written further (ibid.): ‘Let them bless Your glorious Name, which is exalted above every blessing and praise.’” Let us explain this teaching and tie it in with what we explained about how Hashem operates through two different modes. Elsewhere the Gemara says (Shabbos 119b): “What is the meaning of ‘Amein’? Said R. Chanina, ‘E-l Melech Ne’eman (God, the trustworthy King).’” This is an apt title to give Hashem, for He constantly treats us with genuine mercy, even when we perceive His actions as wrathful.
When the Beis HaMikdash is in ruins, our blessings are diluted with apparent curses. Thus it is written (Chaggai 1:4-9): Is this the time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house is in ruins? Now, thus says Hashem, Master of Legions: ‘Consider your ways. You have sown much but bring in little, you eat without being satisfied, you drink without your thirst being quenched, you clothe yourselves but no one is warmed, and whoever earns money earns it for a purse with a hole.’ … ‘You look for much, and, behold, it comes to little, and when you bring it home, I blow upon it [with scorching winds]. Why is this?’ says the Master of Legions. ‘Because of My house which is in ruins, while you run, each man to his own house.’” But the blessings that flow forth from the Beis HaMikdash are complete, without the slightest trace of bad.
This fact is reflected in the exhortation: “Rise up, bless Hashem your God, from one world to the other.” This exhortation alludes to the principle stated in the Zohar (Bereishis 158b) that there are two worlds, one hidden and one openly observable. In the Beis HaMikdash, Hashem’s supervision of the world was openly observable. Every day, as the Mishnah teaches (Avos 5:5), ten miracles occurred in the Beis HaMikdash. Hence we did not need to respond “Amein” in the Beis HaMikdash, for we knew that the blessings generated there would surely be pure blessings, complete in every respect. But outside the Beis HaMikdash we must respond “Amein” to express the fact that Hashem is a faithful King, while pleading to Him to grant us now a blessing that is all blessing, with no admixture of curse. We pray for the fulfillment of Shlomo HaMelech’s words (Mishlei 10:22): “Hashem’s blessing brings wealth, without sorrow coming along with it.”
At present Hashem conveys His kindness to us as a mixture of blessings and curses. Our Sages therefore obligated us to recite a berachah over bad tidings as well as over good (Mishnah Berachos 9:2). The two berachos differ: in the berachah over good tidings we call Hashem “the benevolent one, who grants good,” whereas over bad tidings we call Him “the true judge.” In actuality, everything Hashem sends us, the good and the bad, is an act of love and kindness. Although we experience the good and the bad differently, finding the good sweet and the bad bitter, in both cases Hashem’s intent is the same: to benefit us. Accordingly, although outwardly we react differently toward the good and bad – we recite different berachos over them, reflecting the difference in how we experience them – the inner attitude we hold toward them in our hearts, which Hashem alone perceives, should be the same: we should accept them cheerfully, recognizing them as Divine acts of kindness. Perhaps this is the idea behind David HaMelech’s declaration: (Tehillim 101:10): “Of kindness and justice I sing; to You, Hashem, I sing praise.” We can say that the terms “kindness” and “justice” here refer to the very same act. David is saying: “When you impose a sentence on me, which You dispense as an act of kindness and I experience as an act of justice, I sing praise to You – I praise You for Your kindness and for the benevolent intent behind what You are sending me: to make me straight and upright, so that in the end You can grant me blessing.”

Shabbos Parashas Behar-Bechukosai – The Maggid on Prayer, Part 8

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaTefillah, Chapter 4 (end)
In Mishnah Berachos 4:4, it is recorded: “R. Yehoshua says, ‘One who is traveling in a dangerous place [when it is time to pray] says a short prayer. He says: “Hashem, save Your people, the remnant of Yisrael – in every time of crisis may You be attentive to their needs. Blessed are You, Hashem, who hears prayer.”’” The Gemara, in Berachos 29a, expounds: “What is a time of crisis (שעת העיבור)? R. Chisda said in the name of R. Ukva, ‘Even You are filled with anger (עברה) at them like a pregnant woman (אשה עוברה), may You be attentive to their needs.’” This teaching fits in well with what we have said about preceding prayer with reflection and repentance, and praying with a humble attitude. Let us elaborate on the meaning of the Gemara’s analogy. Regarding a woman in the process of giving birth, the Sages say (Shabbos 32a): “And why particularly in childbirth [is a woman punished for her sins]? Rava said, ‘When the ox falls down, sharpen the knife [to slaughter it] [i.e., take action at an opportune moment].’” The message behind Rava’s use of this saying is as follows. It often happens that a child misbehaves in front of his father, but his misbehavior is not severe enough to prompt the father to punish him. But later, when the child commits a misdeed that does call for punishment, the father will recall all his past misdeeds and punish him for them as well.  Similarly, when a woman is in childbirth, she comes under judgment – as manifested by labor pains – and at this time she is punished for past sins that did not call for punishment on their own. R. Yehoshua’s short prayer speaks of a time when a grave act of rebelliousness on our part has aroused Hashem’s anger and prompted Him to punish us, and in the process to judge us also for all our other outstanding offenses, in the way that a woman in childbirth is judged. We ask Hashem even then to be attentive to our needs.
Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaTefillah, Chapter 4 (end)
Our Sages describe Hashem saying (Pesachim 50a): “Not like this world is the world to come. In this world, My Name is written as Yud-Kei-Vav-Kei, but pronounced Ado-noi. In the world to come, however, it will be written Yud-Kei-Vav-Kei, and pronounced Yud-Kei-Vav‑Kei.” Let us elaborate on this teaching. Hashem employs two modes in supervising the affairs of the world. In one mode, he chastises the righteous and shows them a wrathful countenance, but it is a sign of good for them and a show of great love, as our Sages elsewhere say (Shabbos 30b): “‘Anger is better than geniality’ (Koheles 3:7). The anger that Hashem shows the righteous in this world is better than the geniality He shows the wicked in this world.’” In the other mode, Hashem deals with the righteous graciously, as David HaMelech describes (Tehillim 125:4): “Hashem has shown good to the good and to the upright of heart.” One key difference between these two modes is that the first mode involves a separation of like from like and a joining of like with unlike, while the second mode involves a joining of like with like. Under the first mode, love is accompanied by an outward show of wrath, and hatred by outward beneficence. Under the second mode, love is accompanied by outward beneficence and hatred by outward harshness. The second mode is the ideal mode, as Shlomo HaMelech says (Shir HaShirim 7:7): “How beautiful and pleasant it is, love with delights!” The two modes operate at different times. When the Beis HaMikdash is standing, we experience love with delights. When the Beis HaMikdash is destroyed, and the Divine Presence is left, so to speak, without a home, we, too, experience exile; as the Sages put it (Berachos 58b): “It should suffice for the servant to be in the same state as his master.”
Now, the name we call Hashem is determined by the mode of supervision He exercises toward us. In this world, the righteous suffer afflictions, and although love underlies these afflictions, the love is hidden – it is as Yeshayah says (verse 45:15): “Indeed, you are a God who hides.” What we observe is Hashem acting as if He hates and is incensed with us. We therefore pronounce Hashem’s Name as Ado-noi, which signifies the Attribute of Justice, but we still write it as Yud-Kei-Vav-Kei, for in truth Hashem is acting toward us with compassion and love. But in the end of days, may it come soon, we will experience love with delights, and we will therefore pronounce Hashem’s Name as it is written. In regard to this time, it is written (Yeshayah 40:1-5):
“Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak encouragingly to Yerushalayim and proclaim to her that her term has been completed:  that her iniquity has been expiated – that she has received from Hashem’s hand double for all her sins.” A voice calls out in the wilderness: “Clear a way for Hashem, make a straight path in the desert, a road for our God.” Every valley shall be raised, and every mountain and hill shall be laid low; the uneven places shall be leveled, and the mountainous areas shall be made a plain. And Hashem’s glory shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see that the mouth of Hashem has spoken.
In this final era, Hashem’s love and kindness will be apparent to all.
We can now understand well what our Sages meant when they spoke of the world to come is not being like this world. Hashem’s display of sternness toward us now is the result of the conditions of this world, and is not due to His developing a negative attitude toward us, for He maintains constant love and compassion for us at all times and under all circumstances. It is perhaps this idea that our Sages had in mind when they said (Zohar, Pinchas 130a): “But in the world to come His Name is written with a yud and pronounced with a yud, reflecting love in every respect.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator