Post Archive for June 2013

Parashas Pinchas

In this week’s parashah, Moshe entreats Hashem (Bamidbar 27:15): “May Hashem, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly.” The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:2):
It is a halachah that if one sees a large assembly of people [i.e., 600,000 or more Jews together – see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 224:5], one says: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, Knower of secrets.” For just as their faces differ one from the other, so, too, their mindsets differ one from the other. Each one has his own mindset. Thus it is written (Iyov 28:25, homiletically): “Fashioning spirits according to [a designated] weight” – the spirits of each and every man. Know that this is so, for Moshe entreated Hashem at the time of his death: “Master of the Universe, revealed and known before You is each one’s mindset, for Your children’s mindsets differ from each other. As I depart from them, please appoint over them a leader who can bear them, each one according to his mindset.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. The masters of hidden Torah wisdom have passed down to us the teaching that the Torah, with all its general principles and specific details, requires that the world be furnished with at least 600,000 Jews. The reason is that in order for the Torah’s splendor to be fully displayed and the scope of its laws fully exhibited, the Jewish People, collectively, must encompass all forms of knowledge and wisdom, and at least 600,000 Jews are needed for this requirement to be fulfilled. Thus, in connection with Moshe’s declaration “Did He not make you and establish you?” (Devarim 32:6), R. Meir remarked that the Jewish People is like a city encompassing all types of people, including kohanim, prophets, kings, and officers (Chullin 56b). Hashem instills in each Jew the mental capability and desire to bring out his designated portion of wisdom, making his contribution to the all-embracing collective wisdom of the Jewish People as a whole.
The berachah that the Midrash quotes is a praise to Hashem for the great discernment He exercised in this process. The dissemination of different mental capabilities to different people did not take place by happenstance – rather, Hashem arranged it in a wondrously calculated manner. The Midrash portrays this reckoning through its interpretation of the verse from Iyov: “‘fashioning spirits according to [a designated] weight’ – the spirits of each and every man.” Elsewhere the Midrash elaborates (Vayikra Rabbah 15:2): “Some acquire Scripture, some acquire Mishnah, some acquire teachings of halachic reasoning (תלמוד), some acquire homiletical teachings (הגדה), and some acquire all of these.” Another Midrash expounds in a similar vein (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3): “It is written (Melachim Alef 5:9), ‘And God gave Shlomo wisdom and a very great amount of understanding, and breadth of heart [as vast] as the sand upon the seashore.’ … He gave him wisdom commensurate with the entire Jewish People, of whom it is written (Hoshea 2:1), ‘The number of the Children of Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea.’”
And we have a clear sign of the meticulous calculation that Hashem carried out in granting each person his set portion of wisdom: the fact that each person has a unique face. Meseches Sofrim 16:3 teaches that there are four basic types of face: a face filled with awe for those who focus on Scripture, a moderate face for those who focus on Mishnah, a happy face for those who focus on תלמוד, and a cordial face for those who focus on הגדה. There are other facial variations, known to those learned in the wisdom of reading faces. Hashem fashioned each person’s face to fit the portion of wisdom he would receive, in accord with the nature of his soul.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Balak

In this week’s parashah, Bilaam declares (Bamidbar 23:23): “For there is no divination with Yaakov and no sorcery with Yisrael – now it is told to Yaakov and to Yisrael what God has wrought.” The Maggid explains this statement with a parable. A nobleman heard that someone in a distant province had invented a salve with a special power – whoever applied the salve to his body would be immune to harm from arrows and similar projectiles. Upon hearing this news, the nobleman decided to travel to see this man and get the salve. He went to great expense to make the trip, and he bought the salve at the high price that the inventor named. He had the inventor apply the salve to his body, and then he headed back home. While he was on the road he was attacked by a gang of marauders. They shot arrows at him and hit him squarely, but he remained unharmed.
When the marauders saw that the nobleman was still alive, they started to flee. He called to them gently and asked them to come over to him. When they reached him, he took out a bottle of liquor and invited them to a toast. The marauders were dumbfounded, and they asked the nobleman: “What is the meaning of this? After we attacked you, you are treating us well.” The nobleman explained: “I went to huge expense to make this trip and get myself smeared with this special salve that is supposed to protect against arrows and stones. I paid the inventor a high price for the salve. And then, as I started on my way home, I got so upset that I felt I wanted to die. I thought to myself: ‘What have I done? I just spent a fortune, and I have no idea what I got for it.’ But I couldn’t test the salve by having someone shoot at me, for I was afraid that the salve wouldn’t work and I’d be killed. So I just sat in my carriage overcome with depression. But now that you shot at me and I was unharmed, I know that I have done really well; I can now stand up to any ammunition without fear of harm. So you have done me a great favor; because of what you did I found out that it was not for naught that I spent all this money.
The parallel is as follows. The Jewish People had a tradition that they were immune from sorcery. They knew that when their forefather Yaakov lived in Lavan’s house, Lavan tried to subdue him with sorcery but did not succeed. And they were aware that this protection was supposed to have been passed down to them, but they were unsure whether it really worked. Yet they could not test its efficacy, for they did not want to put themselves in danger. But then Balak sent Bilaam to attack them with his sorcery, and it had no effect on them. Bilaam then told Balak: “See what you have done now. You meant to do them harm, but instead you did them a great favor. Now they know clearly that they really are immune against sorcery, for I cast my sorcery at them but did not harm them.” Bilaam said: “‘There is no divination with Yaakov and no sorcery with Yisrael’ – this the Jews knew from days of yore. But ‘now it is said to Yaakov and to Yisrael what God has wrought’ – now they know what wondrous protection God granted them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chukas

This week’s parashah begins with an account of the law of the red heifer, a classic example of a chok – a Torah law whose rationale is hidden from us, and which we must simply accept as a Divine edict. It is written at the beginning of the parashah (Bamidbar 19:2): “This is the law (chok) of the Torah, that Hashem commanded, saying ….” The Midrash relates (Bamibar Rabbah 19:1): “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘I have legislated a statute and issued a decree – and you are not permitted to contravene My decree.’” The Maggid offers several commentaries on this topic. We previously presented some of these commentaries; we now present another one.
The Maggid brings out the idea with a parable. A certain uncouth commoner had exceptional success in business, and became rich. Because he was so wealthy, he decided to propose a match between his daughter and the son of the local chief rabbi. He called in the matchmaker and asked him to suggest the match to the rabbi, promising the matchmaker a handsome fee if he succeeded in arranging the match. The matchmaker went to the rabbi’s house and discussed the match with him. Initially, the rabbi considered the proposal extremely far-fetched, for he never even spoke with men so lowly. But eventually the matchmaker succeeded, with his smooth tongue, in convincing the rabbi to accept the proposal. In the days following the wedding, the commoner noticed that the rabbi did not talk to him at all, and he was very surprised. He expressed his wonder to his friends: “How could such a thing happen, that the parents of a married couple become so estranged from each other that the husband’s father refuses to talk to the wife’s father?” Word got to the rabbi of what his new daughter-in-law’s father had said. He sent a messenger to the man, instructing the messenger to explain his conduct as follows: “He is looking at the situation the wrong way. He thinks that the match is appropriate from the standpoint of both sides, and he therefore is puzzled that I do not chat genially with him. In truth, it is the other way around. It is quite fitting that I do not talk with him. What could I possibly have to do with such a coarse person? He should instead be puzzled over why I agreed to the match in the first place, for this is truly something to wonder about.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem forged a bond with lowly, mortal man, and gave him His treasured Torah. A Jew may find, as he reads the Torah, that it contains laws he does not understand, and be surprised by this state of affairs. He may wonder: “Why doesn’t Hashem explain all these laws clearly, rather than leaving them as riddles?” But he is looking at the situation the wrong way. He thinks the relationship he has with Hashem is appropriate from the standpoint of both sides. He therefore is puzzled over why Hashem declines to explain the Torah’s laws in a way that enables us to understand them fully. But the truth is just the opposite. Hashem’s ways are beyond us. We should not be puzzled by the fact that He does not explain all His ways to us, but rather by the fact that He formed a relationship with us, for this is a true enigma.
Thus it is written: “This is the law (chok) of the Torah, that Hashem commanded, saying ….” It is a chok – an inscrutable mystery – that Hashem decided in the first place to transmit commands to us. What merit do we mortals have, that we should be given Hashem’s Torah, that this precious guidebook should be handed to us? We thus have no right to scrutinize Hashem’s commands and insist on reasons for them; instead, we should simply accept them.

Parashas Korach

This week’s parashah recounts Korach’s rebellion against Moshe. This rebellion was motivated by jealousy and a desire for honor. Korach was tainted with a degree of haughtiness, which led him to feel he deserved a higher position. Accordingly, I present here a selection from the Maggid’s teachings on the topic of haughtiness, taken from Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaGaavah.
The essence of haughtiness is a person’s weighing his worth on a false set of scales. He aggrandizes himself and places himself above his fellow men. Among bad traits, haughtiness occupies a unique position. All other bad traits are primarily latent; they operate only when triggered by some event. But haughtiness operates on a constant basis; a haughty person is always occupied with thoughts about his supposed special eminence. In addition, haughtiness amplifies all of a person’s other bad traits. We readily see that a haughty person’s anger is exceptionally fierce, his resentment exceptionally entrenched, his jealousy exceptionally strong, his jubilation exceptionally lively, and his brooding exceptionally morose. In short, haughtiness rules over all of a person’s physical and mental faculties; not one is free of its odious influence. Thus Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 21:4): “Haughty eyes and a proud heart are the tillage of the wicked – a sin.” A haughty person constantly seeks ways to make an impression on others, with every act and every move. He walks with marked deliberateness and acts ponderously, as if his body were made of lead. He speaks to no one except for men of eminence.
One way a person can be led to haughtiness and a feeling of self-importance is through certain gifts Hashem granted to him, in His compassion and kindness, to a greater extent than to others. Thus, a wise person takes pride in his wisdom, a strong person in his might, a rich person in his wealth, a good-looking person in his good looks, and so on. As a person reflects on his special gifts, he comes to feel that he deserves accolades, and adopts a stance of superiority toward those who are not favored with the gifts he has. He is filled with self-love – he honors and aggrandizes himself, he praises and exalts himself, and he sets his place above the stars in the heavens. His foolish attitude is a disgrace to him. He imagines that he acquired his gifts through his own power, and prides himself on his diligence and quickness. In his great foolishness, he forgets that there is a Supreme Power watching over the world and running its affairs with kindness and benevolence, and that man is but a vessel that receives blessing from above; he fails to recognize that he can lay no claim to what he has as the product of his own efforts.
Note the contrast between the way a fool lavishes himself with honor and the way a pure-hearted man lavishes his Creator with praise and thanks. The righteous man’s heart is suffused with fear, awe, and submissiveness, as befits a servant who is the beneficiary of his master’s kindness and eats at his master’s table. All day long his hope and desire are riveted on one issue: When will I be able to extend to my Master, who grants free blessings, the service I should provide Him as a recipient of His benevolence? He devotes his full soul to the task of serving Him, with love and a generous spirit. The dolt, however, does not understand. When he reflects on all his blessings, he grants his own self the recognition he should be granting his Creator, the Prime Cause of everything.
Hashem alone is worthy of grandeur and glory, for it is through Him alone that wealth and honor come. Thus, when Pharaoh turned to Yosef as a man he thought was an expert at interpreting dreams, Yosef declared (Bereishis 41:16): “It is beyond me. God will answer to bring Pharaoh peace.” And previously, in his encounter with the chief butler and the chief baker, he said (Bereishis 40:8): “Behold, unto God are interpretations.” The man of high spiritual stature is overcome with embarrassment before the King of Glory, who rules over all, and in whose hand lies the soul of every living being.
David Zucker, Site Administrator