Post Archive for September 2013

Parashas Bereishis

The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 1:3 discusses when Hashem created the angels. R. Yochanan says it was on the second day, while R. Chanina says it was on the fifth day. The Midrash then continues:
Either way, it is agreed that they were not created on the first day – so that we should not say, “The angel Michael pulled at the south of the firmament, and the angel Gabriel at the north, with the Holy One Blessed Be He securing it at the middle. Rather (Yeshayah 44:24): “I am Hashem, who has made everything; I have stretched out the heavens by Myself, and firmly formed the earth of My own accord (מֵאִיתִּי, the read text). The written text is מי אתי (who is with Me?): Who collaborated with Me in the creation of the world?
Another matter: It is written (Tehillim 86:10): “For You are great, and perform wonders.” In our mortal world, a king is praised within his kingdom, and his ministers are praised along with him, for they share with him the burden of running the kingdom. But with the Holy One Blessed Be He it is not so. Rather, He alone created the world, He alone is praised within the world, and He alone takes pride in the world.” Thus, it is written further (ibid.): “For You, alone, are God” – You alone created the world.
The Torah warns us (Shemos 22:19): “One who brings offerings to subordinate powers shall be destroyed – [worship] only Hashem alone!” Ramban and other commentators say that the term “subordinate powers” in this verse includes the ministers Hashem emplaced within Heaven, through whom His bounty is conveyed from Him to us. Our tradition teaches that the Kingdom of Heaven is structured like an earthly kingdom. Just as an earthly king sets up a hierarchy of ministers to govern his kingdom, so, too, Hashem has set up a hierarchy of ministers whose job it is to pass down the various forms of bounty Hashem grants us. This legion of ministers is made up of the angels, and, below them, the stars and planets.
The wise men of ancient times knew which ministers deal with which forms of bounty. In addition, they knew how to induce these ministers to send forth the bounty they hold: by making an image representing the relevant minister, and then bowing to it, or bringing offerings before it, or pouring forth libations before it. Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, discusses this matter at length. In the verse we just quoted, the Torah is warning us not to engage in such conduct. We must not, far be it, seek aid from these celestial ministers. Moreover, we must not honor them, only Hashem alone.
Now, we might wonder why Hashem does not want us to honor these lofty beings. After all, a mortal king expects his subjects to honor his ministers. The Midrash teaches us, though, that there is a key difference. A mortal king needs his ministers to help him govern his kingdom. Without ministers, he could not govern even one small town. Thus, the ministers deserve honor and praise, each according to his level. But Hashem needs no help, far be it, in running the world. Therefore, it is out of place to show His ministers any honor.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Megillas Koheles

On Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos, we read Megillas Koheles, so I present here an essay from the Maggid’s commentary on this megillah. Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 7:2): “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for this is the end of all man, and the living person should take it to heart.” The Maggid interprets this statement as a lesson about assessing the value of material bounty.
There is a common saying: “No one is wiser than a man of experience.” The message here is that it is easier to discover the true nature of something through direct experience and examination than through analysis and contemplation. Suppose, for example, someone wants to tell whether a certain dish has been salted. If he attempts to analyze this question through the laws of physics and chemistry, he will wear himself out and possibly also come to the wrong conclusion. But if he just tastes a bit of the dish, he will immediately find the right answer.
The same idea applies to assessing the value of material bounty. A poor person, who has never had such bounty, will find it hard to figure out solely by contemplation whether such bounty is good or bad. But a rich person, who has such bounty, can easily come to see that it is vain. Thus, if a poor person wants to determine, as easily as a rich man can, whether worldly pleasures have any substance, it seems he can do no better than to go to a house of feasting. He can put on nice clothes, go to the party, eat plenty of fine food, and drink plenty of fine wine or liquor. Then, when the party is over, he will see that he has gained nothing – he is just as bereft as before. From this result, he can extrapolate to all worldly pleasures, for they are all the same. When a person wants to assess the quality of a barrel of wine, he tastes a sample of it, and from this sample he can evaluate the entire barrel. Similarly, by experiencing a sample of worldly pleasures, one can evaluate them all.
This strategy is the obvious way to use personal experience to assess the worth of worldly pleasures. But Shlomo, in his great wisdom, points us to a better method. He tells us that it is better to go a house of mourning than to a house of feasting. We can bring out the idea behind this teaching with an analogy. Suppose a king has decreed that a certain man be stripped of all his possessions. The king’s officers can carry out this decree in two ways. They can take away all the man’s possessions and leave him in his home with nothing. Alternatively, they can leave the man’s possessions where they are and exile him to a distant province from which he cannot return. The second method is more reliable than the first. If the officers leave the man in his home after cleaning it out, he might not really be left bereft, for he might have hidden possessions the officers did not find. But if they send him into exile, they are sure to carry out the decree in full.   
Similarly, if a person goes to a house of feasting, he will find only a small selection of worldly pleasures. He thus may still be left in doubt – he might think there are other worldly pleasures that do provide real substance and genuine satisfaction. But if he goes to a house of mourning, he will no longer have any doubt. He will recognize that death is the end of every man, and that when a man’s life comes to an end, all his worldly pleasures come to an end as well.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Yom Kippur

At the end of the last volume of the collection Ohel Yaakov of the Maggid’s teachings related to the weekly parshios, the compiler of the collection, Rav Avraham Beirush Flamm, appended a series of essays on the Yamim Noraim. Rav Flamm states that he composed these essays himself, while incorporating parables and teachings of the Maggid that he did not have the chance to include in Ohel Yaakov itself. Below I present one selection from these essays, based on a parable that I surmise is the Maggid’s, although it is not explicitly identified as such.
The parable concerns a man who had a son who was a chronic drunk. The father would constantly find his son wallowing in the streets and the garbage heaps. Whenever he found him in this state, he would carry him home, remove his filthy clothes, dress him in clean clothes, and lay him down in bed so that he could sleep off the effect of the alcohol. But when the son woke up and gained a bit of alertness, he would immediately run back to the bar and start drinking again. The father was overcome with anguish, and worried constantly over what to do with his son. An astute acquaintance told him: “The way you are dealing with your son, you are getting nowhere. After you drag him home, you change his clothes and put him in bed. And when he wakes up, he finds no trace of the disgusting state he was in. So instead, when you take him home, you should put in bed with his filthy clothes, and then when he wakes up he will see how filthy and disgusting he is. And then he will be loath to put himself in such a state again.”
The parallel is as follows. Throughout the year, the evil inclination puts us in a stupor and keeps after us constantly so that we cannot get sober. We wallow in the dirt, going from one sin to another. The evil inclination does not give us even a brief moment to arouse ourselves and reflect on our sorry state. On Yom Kippur, however, the evil inclination loses its power. We can then open our eyes and see how we have become soiled with ugly and abominable deeds, just like a drunk covered with filth. And then we are struck with terror, and our hearts are stirred to repentance.
G’mar chasimah tovah!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Haazinu

In this week’s parashah, Moshe says to the Jewish People (Devarim 32:18): “You ignored the Rock that gave birth to you (צוּר יְלָדְךָ תֶּשִׁי), and forgot God who brought you forth.”  In Sifrei 319, the Sages expound homiletically: “Every time I seek to do good for you, you weaken (אתם מתישים) My power. The Sages then give two examples of how the Jewish People’s misbehavior prevented Hashem from granting them good. In a similar vein, Malachi 2:17 speaks of the Jewish People’s wearying Hashem with their words, referring to wicked speech.
The Maggid links these teachings to the following Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 10:9):
[It is written (Bereishis 2:2): “And He desisted on the seventh day from all His work that He had done.] “His work.” Said R. Berechya in the name of R. Siemon: “Not with toil and not with exertion did the Holy One Blessed Be He create His world, and yet it is written ‘from all His work.’ It is a wonder! Rather, the intent is to speak of retribution against the wicked who destroy the world that was created entirely with toil and exertion.”
This Midrash is puzzling on two counts. First, why did R. Berechya have to tell us that Hashem created the world without toil or exertion? We already have a verse that tells us this (Tehillim 33:6): “Through Hashem’s word the heavens were made.” Second, R. Berechya seemingly contradicts himself by saying at the end that the world was created with toil and exertion.
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. The degree of toil in an action is always measured with reference to two factors: (1) the one who is doing the action and (2) the result that ensues from the action. Consider first the person doing the action. To a peasant, a toilsome task is an activity such as bricklaying or carrying heavy burdens, whereas to a rich man a toilsome task is an activity such as sitting and writing a letter. Now consider the ensuing result. A person feels wearisomeness in his work primarily when he is not successful. When he is successful, the burden feels negligible. Thus, Yaakov worked seven years to gain Rachel’s hand in marriage, and the Torah says that “they were in his eyes like a few days on account of his love for her” (Bereishis 29:20). As another example, suppose a person makes an arduous trip in the winter, without finding any place to eat or drink on the way. If he is successful in his trip, he will think nothing of the hardships he endured. But if the trip turns out to be for naught, he will find the hardships very wearying.
Now, to R. Berechya it was clear that, because of Hashem’s power, He had no need to put forth toil or exertion to create the world – He did it through his word alone. R. Berechya therefore wonders why the Torah refers to the creation of the world with the term “work.” He answers that the intent is to speak of retribution against the wicked who destroy the world that was created entirely with toil and exertion. The wicked interfere with the world’s producing the positive results that Hashem meant it to produce. They thus make the creation of the world seem wearisome, so to speak, to Him. We can understand in this way the Sifrei’s statement that the Jewish People’s misbehavior “weakens” Hashem – He finds the misbehavior wearying, for it prevents Him from doing the good that He sought to do. Thus the Sages teach elsewhere (Eichah Rabbah 1:33): “Whenever the People of Yisrael do the All-Present’s will, they add power to the mighty One above, as it is written (Tehillim 60:14, homiletically): ‘in God we will make might.’ And when the People of Yisrael do not do the All-Present’s will, they, so to speak, weaken the power of the Great One above, as it is written: צוּר יְלָדְךָ תֶּשִׁי.”