Post Archive for July 2013

Parashas Re’eh

In this week’s parashah, the Torah warns (Devarim 15:9): “Beware lest there be a villainous thought in your heart, saying: ‘The seventh year is approaching, the year of remission,’ and you look with ill will upon your destitute brother and you refuse to give to him, so that he cries out against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you.” Last year, we presented some remarks by the Maggid on this verse, taken from the compilation Ohel Yaakov of the Maggid’s Chumash commentaries. We now present some further remarks by the Maggid on this verse, taken from Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaSinah, Chapter 14.
After presenting the above warning, the Torah continues (Devarim 15:10): “You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, for it is because of this that Hashem your God blesses you in all your endeavors and in all you set your hand to.” The Maggid explains the idea with a parable. A man sold a plot of land on which there were many houses and other buildings. Among them were some rundown buildings in need of repair. But the seller left on the plot a supply of lumber sufficient to carry out all the repairs. When the buyer first bought the plot, he did not notice that some of the buildings were run down. He assumed that the seller had just gratuitously left him a pile of lumber, and he was very happy over this apparent bonus. Later, he discovered the rundown buildings, and used the lumber for the necessary repairs. Some time afterward, the seller ran into him and asked him whether he was happy with his purchase. The buyer replied: “I just recently noticed that some of the buildings were run down and about to collapse. I used the leftover wood that was sitting on the plot to fix these buildings. I’m disappointed, because I was hoping to sell this extra wood and make some money, but instead I had to use it up.” The seller replied: “I don’t understand why you’re upset. What made you think that I left you a stock of lumber just as a free gift? I knew that some of the buildings were run down, so I left you the wood you would need to fix them. If you hadn’t originally taken pleasure in the wood, naively regarding it as a free gift, you wouldn’t have been disappointed over losing it.”
The parallel is as follows. Some people are very poor, tottering like rundown buildings. In parallel, some people are endowed with extra wealth. The wealthy might assume that their extra wealth is simply a gift from Hashem, granted to them because of their good deeds, and they thus may be led to take pleasure in it. Afterward, when they discover that they have poor neighbors, and they have to give their extra wealth to sustain these downtrodden individuals, they may feel disappointed. The Torah therefore says: “Your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him.” Why not? The Torah explains: “For it is because of this that Hashem your God blesses you in all your endeavors and in all you set your hand to.” The very reason why certain people are given an exceptionally large measure of blessing is in order that they use the extra wealth to sustain the poor. There is thus no cause for disappointment over being called upon to do so.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Eikev

In this week’s parashah, Moshe Rabbeinu reviews the episode of the golden calf. He says (Devarim 9:16-17): “And I saw, and behold, you sinned against Hashem your God. You made for yourselves a molten calf; you strayed quickly from the path Hashem commanded you. And I grasped the two tablets and I threw them from my two hands, and I smashed them before your eyes.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 46:1):
Moshe saw that the Jewish People had no leg to stand on, so he joined his soul to theirs and smashed the tablets. And he said to Hashem: “They sinned, and I sinned, for I smashed the tablets. If you pardon them, pardon me also.” Thus it is written (Shemos 32:32): “So now, if You forbear their sin” – then pardon my sin as well – “and if not, blot me out now from Your book that You have written.” R. Acha said: “He did not budge from there until Hashem turned aside their sin.”
The Maggid asks two questions about this Midrash. First, for what purpose did Moshe compound the people’s sin by adding a further sin of his own? Seemingly, this act would just increase Hashem’s wrath. Second, how did he link his sin to the people’s sin, telling Hashem that if He did not pardon their sin He should not pardon his sin either? There is no comparison between Moshe’s sin and the people’s sin, which approached idolatry [although the Kuzari says that it was not literally idolatry, because the people did not worship the calf, but rather meant it as a means to connect with Hashem].
The Maggid explains Moshe’s intent as follows. Hashem swore to the forefathers to bring blessing to their descendants. He could not violate His oath. Instead, He told Moshe (Shemos 32:10): “So let Me alone now, so that My wrath may flare against them and I may consume them, and I will make you into a great nation.” In other words, Hashem was going to fulfill His oath through Moshe, His chosen one, and his descendants. Moshe therefore smashed the tablets, so that he, too, would be guilty of a serious sin. This move, so to speak, undercut Hashem’s plan.
Regarding the Jewish People’s sin with the golden calf, the Gemara in Avodah Zarah 4b teaches that the Jewish People were not on so low a level as to commit such a sin, but rather they were led to it in order to give an opening to communities who wish to repent a communal sin. Had Hashem not pardoned the sin of the golden calf, there would be no such opening. And then Moshe’s sin, which was the sin of communal leader and thus comparable to a communal sin (for the community learns from and follows its leader), also would not be amenable to repentance. Accordingly, Moshe argued well when he told Hashem: “If you pardon them, pardon me also.” For the one was indeed dependent on the other.
The Maggid brings out the point further with a parable. A king had two prominent ministers. One was appointed to safeguard the royal treasury of copper coins, while the other was appointed to safeguard the royal collection of precious gems. The first minister was negligent in his duty, and most of the treasury of copper coins was stolen. The king got angry and put the minister in jail. He then summoned the second minister and told him: “From now on, you will also be responsible for the treasury of copper coins.” The second minister, who was a close friend of the first minister, said to the king: “I cannot conceal from you, my lord, that there was also a loss of a gem from the treasury of gems. And this gem, although quite small, was worth more than the entire treasury of copper coins. And so I fear that if you punish my colleague for his negligence, you will also punish me. I therefore ask you to do me a kindness and pardon the both of us and spare us punishment.” The second minister acted wisely, for he knew that the king could not find replacements as trustworthy as he and his colleague were, and he would therefore be forced to pardon them both.
The parallel is as follows. Moshe said to Hashem: “So now, if You forbear their sin – and if not, blot me out now from Your book that You have written.” The first half of the verse is apparently cut off in the middle, but given what we said above we can explain the verse very well. Hashem had already written in the Torah: “I will make you into a great nation.” Said Moshe: “Now that I also have sinned, regardless of whether You pardon the people’s sin or not, either way You will have to blot out from Your book the statement that You will make me into a great nation. If You pardon them, then they, and not I, will become the great nation. And if You do not pardon them, You will not be able to pardon me either, and so again I will not become a great nation.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeschanan

In this week’s parashah, Moshe declares to the Jewish People (Devarim 4:7): “For who is a great nation that has a God who is close to them like Hashem, our God, whenever we call to Him.” The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 2:12):
R. Chanina bar Papa asked R. Shmuel by Nachman: “What is the meaning of the verse (Tehillim 69:14), ‘As for me, may my prayer to You, Hashem, be at a time of grace ….’?” He said: “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, while the gates of repentance are never closed.” … R. Anan said: “The gates of prayer are also never closed, as it is written, ‘like Hashem, our God, whenever we call to Him.’ And calling means praying, as it is written (Yeshayah 65:24, a verse quoted in the Aneinu prayer recited on fast days), ‘And it will be that before they call, I will answer; they will still be speaking and I will hear.’”
Thus, R. Shmuel by Nachman brings a proof from a Biblical verse that prayer is not always answered immediately, while R. Anan brings a proof from another verse that it is. The Maggid argues that both proofs are correct: Some people are answered only after a period of time, while others are answered right away. The key to the difference between the two types of people is indicated in the verse from Yeshayah that R. Anan quotes. The Maggid explains as follows. As the Gemara in Yevamos 64a teaches, Hashem yearns for our prayers. He therefore does not save a person from misfortune until he prays. But it is the way of the righteous to pray to Hashem for all their needs. They understand that there is no other way they can meet their needs, even the very simplest, aside from prayer. Common people, by contrast, rely on their own efforts, and try to meet their needs through any natural strategy they can think of. They pray to Hashem only when their own efforts have failed and they are at the end of their rope. Hashem therefore tends to help the righteous more quickly and the common people more slowly.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. In a certain town there was an expert doctor. A rich person in the town hired the doctor on a fixed basis, paying him a set salary for him to come each day to examine the members of his household. The other townspeople, on the other hand, had no dealings with the doctor unless they got sick, and then they would call the doctor to treat them and they would pay him for his efforts. The doctor, in turn, dealt with the rich man’s family differently from the way he dealt with the other townspeople. When someone from the general town population got sick, the doctor stretched out the treatment for a period of time so that he would be paid more. But when someone from the rich man’s family got sick, he tried to cure him as quickly as possible. Since the rich man was paying him on a fixed basis, he figured he might as well dispose of cases arising from the rich man’s family quickly.
Similarly, the way Hashem deals with a righteous man who constantly prays to Him differs from the way He deals with someone who is distant from Him and prays to Him only in a time of great need when his natural efforts have failed. To a person of the distant type, Hashem does not grant relief right away, for if He did, the person would fall back out of touch with Him. Instead, Hashem delays relief, so that the person will be led to pray to Him many times. On the other hand, when distress comes upon someone who turns to Hashem for his every need, Hashem responds more quickly. In this vein, David HaMelech entreats (Tehillim 86:3): “Show me grace, my Lord, for I call unto You all day long.” David is asking Hashem to save him from his current plight right away because he maintains constant contact with Him through regular prayer, and will continue to do so even after he is saved.
This is the idea underlying the verse from Yeshayah that the Midrash quotes: “And it will be that before they call, I will answer; they will still be speaking and I will hear.” Hashem generally relieves the righteous from misfortune before they are driven to desperate pleading, for He knows that after the misfortune is gone they will still be speaking to Him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Chazon

In this week’s haftarah, Yeshayah exclaims (verse 1:21): “O how has the faithful city become a harlot? She had been filled with justice, righteousness would lodge within her, but now murderers!” Yeshayah is asking: Given Yerushalayim’s position as a center of spiritual loftiness, how could the people of Yerushalayim come to sin so egregiously that their sinning caused the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash? Yeshayah then continues (verse 1:22): “Your silver has been impregnated with impurities, your strong wine mixed with water.” The Maggid interprets this verse not as a further description of the extent of Yerushalayim’s descent, but rather as an explanation of the reason for the descent – Yeshayah is saying that the people had adulterated their service of Hashem with false practices.
There are two forms of idolatry against which the Torah warns us.  One form is idolatry in the literal sense – worshipping other gods. The Torah exhorts us against this form of idolatry in the Second Commandment (Shemos 20:3): “You shall not recognize other gods in My presence.” Even if a person observes all the mitzvos, if he does so with the intent of serving a false god, he repudiates the entire Jewish faith. The other form of idolatry consists of serving God in fabricated ways that were not mandated by God Himself, but rather concocted by some misguided fantasizer. The Torah exhorts against this form of idolatry in the following verse (Bamidbar 15:39): “You shall not pursue the leanings of your heart or the sights of your eyes, after which you go astray” – our Sages say that the warning not to pursue the leanings of the heart is a warning against false religious theories and practices, while the phrase “after which you go astray” alludes to idolatrous musings (Sifrei, Bamidbar 115 on Bamidbar 15:39; Berachos 12b).
Sefer Devarim, which we begin reading this week, presents Moshe Rabbeinu’s final series of speeches to the Jewish People. A key segment in these speeches is Moshe Rabbeinu’s review of the golden calf episode. The Kuzari, in Part I, par. 97, explains that the sin of the golden calf was not an act of literal idol worship, but rather an attempt to serve Hashem in a way that He had not commanded. In Moshe’s indictment of the people for this sin, he declares (Devarim 9:7): “You acted rebelliously with Hashem (ממרים הייתם עם ה').” The Maggid notes that Moshe deliberately chose this specific phrasing rather than saying, “You rebelled against the word of Hashem (מריתם את פי ה').” Moshe was acknowledging that, in truth, the people had done what they had done for the sake of God’s great Name [i.e., they were “with Hashem”], while at the same time pointing out that they had acted rebelliously by following a course that Hashem had not commanded. The people had acted with good intent, but nonetheless they had sinned grievously.
Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 1:7): “Fear of Hashem is the origin of knowledge.” The Maggid explains this statement as saying that if a person does not rely on the Torah tradition, but instead follows his own reason alone, whatever wisdom and moral sense he has will not flourish – on the contrary, they will come to disgrace. In Mishlei 2:16-2:19, Shlomo warns us of the wiles of the alien woman, who, as Rashi explains, represents the lure of heresy. Shlomo declares (Mishlei 2:19): “All who come to her shall not return.” The Maggid explains the idea behind this statement as follows. If a person sins simply to gratify his desires, and knows he has done wrong, there is hope that he will rise from the abyss. When punishment comes upon him, he probably will realize that he is suffering because of his sins, and he will thus repent and reconcile himself with Hashem. But one who believes he is serving Hashem through his actions is beyond hope. Punishments will not cause him to abandon his ways. On the contrary, they will only spur him to greater devotion to his misguided service. This is how Yerushalayim fell so low. May we all have the wisdom to serve Hashem in the manner He prescribed.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Mattos-Masei – A Lesson From the Maggid on Pirkei Avos

It is the custom in the summer months to review a chapter of Pirkei Avos each Shabbos afternoon. This week we are reviewing the second chapter, so I decided to present one of the Maggid’s teachings, taken from Ohel Yaakov, Parashas Vayishlach, on the first Mishnah of this chapter. The Mishna states (Avos 2:1): “Be as careful with a ‘minor’ mitzvah as with a ‘major’ mitzvah, for you do not know the reward that is given on account of mitzvos.” This Mishnah prompts two questions. First, why does the Mishnah use the phrasing “reward that is given on account of mitzvos” (מתן שכרן של מצות) rather the simpler phrasing “the reward for mitzvos” (שכרן של מצות)? Second, if we do not know the reward given on account of mitzvos, what sense does it make to speak of “minor mitzos” and “major mitzvos”?
The Maggid explains the Mishnah as follows. It is written (Tehillim 62:13): “Unto You, O Lord, is kindness, when you pay a man according to his deeds” (homiletically rendering כי as when rather that for). That is, when Hashem pays a person reward for a mitzvah, He accompanies the payment with a kindness: He generously includes an added blessing beyond what the person is entitled to for doing the mitzvah. It is like the practice of merchants to give a customer who makes a purchase an added portion of what he bought, or some other bonus. But Hashem takes this practice a huge step further, often giving an extra portion that is worth many times more than the principal reward. This wondrous kindness is described in the following teaching of Bar Kappara (Bereishis Rabbah 61:4):
The added portion (תוספת) that Hashem grants is greater than the principal. Thus, among Chavah’s first two sons, Kayin was the principal [and was accompanied by a single twin sister], while Hevel, who is described as an addition – “And she gave birth further (וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת) to his brother, to Hevel” (Bereishis 4:2) – was accompanied by two twin sisters. Rachel’s principal son Yosef fathered two sons, while her added son Binyamin fathered ten. Eir was Yehudah’s principal son, while Sheilah, who is described as an addition – “She went on still further and gave birth to a son (וַתֹּסֶף עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן), and she called his name Sheilah” (ibid. 38:5) – ultimately produced ten Jewish law courts [see Divrei HaYamim Alef 4:21–22]. Iyov’s principal lifespan was only 70 years, and he received an added allotment of 140 years, as it is written (Iyov 42:16), “And Iyov lived after this 140 years.” Chizkiyahu’s principal reign was only 14 years, and he received an additional 15 years, as it is written (Yeshayah 38:5), “Behold, I add onto your days 15 years.” Yishmael was the principal [among the children of Avraham’s concubine Hagar, later called Keturah], while the added sons that Avraham fathered through Keturah – “And Avraham proceeded further (וַיֹּסֶף אַבְרָהָם) and he took a wife [after Sarah’s death], and her name was Keturah” (Bereishis 25:1) – were numerous: “And she bore him Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midian, Yishbak, and Shuah” (ibid. 25:2).
Elsewhere the Sages give another example of how Hashem adds onto the principal (Shemos Rabbah 18:5):
Initially, when Hashem set out to bring the plagues on Egypt, He announced the slaying of the firstborn at the outset, as it is written (Shemos 4:23): “Behold, I am going to slay your firstborn.” Pharaoh responded by saying (Shemos 5:2): “Who is Hashem, that I should heed His voice?” Hashem said to Himself: “If I bring on him the slaying of the firstborn at the outset, he will send the Jews out. Rather, I will first bring on him other plagues, and as an ultimate result (בעקב זאת) I will subject him to them all.” … Accordingly, Hashem is extolled (Tehillim 90:11): “Who knows the power of Your wrath?” Who knows Your modes of operation that You put into effect at the sea, as it is written (Tehillim 77:20): “In the sea was Your road, and Your path passed through the mighty waters, and Your footsteps (עקבותיך) were not known” – Who knows what effects You ultimately cause to result?
This Midrash shows how far Hashem goes beyond His original pronouncement when displaying wrath. When He grants blessing and pays reward for mitzvos, the added portion is even greater, for our Sages teach that His beneficence is greater than His vengeance (Sotah 11a; Sanhedrin 100a-b). Thus, given that – as the Midrash teaches – it is impossible to gauge the overabundant display of power that results when Hashem exacts retribution, surely it is impossible to gauge the overabundant display of benevolence that results when He pays reward.
We can now understand the Mishnah in Avos. The phrase “reward that is given on account of mitzvos” (מתן שכרן של מצות) that the Mishnah uses refers to the added blessing that Hashem provides in the wake (בעקב) of His coming to pay reward, for it is a gift (מתנה) that accompanies the principal reward. The Mishnah tells us to be as careful with a “minor” mitzvah as with a “major” mitzvah because we do not know what additional blessing Hashem grants as an adjunct to the reward for a given mitzvah. Occasionally the Torah specifies the reward for a given mitzvah, but in such cases it is specifying only the principal reward – we have no inkling of what the accompanying added blessing may be.
David Zucker, Site Administrator