Post Archive for October 2013

Parashas Toldos

We present two short selections from the Maggid’s commentary on this week’s parashah.
1. The Torah relates (Bereishis 25:28): “Yitzchak loved Eisav, for [his] catch was in his mouth, while Rivkah held an abiding love for Yaakov.” The Maggid asks: How did it happen with this saintly couple that the father focused his love on one son while the mother focused her love on the other? He then explains the matter as follows. Yitzchak grew up in a home of firm righteousness, established by his saintly parents Avraham and Sarah. In this home, only the absolute truth was spoken, and he himself continued in this path of perfect honesty. Thus, when Eisav approached him, as the Midrash relates (Bereishis Rabbah 63:10), to ask him how to tithe salt and straw, he was awestruck, and he thought to himself: “This young man will surely be extraordinarily meticulous with mitzvos.” Rivkah, on the other hand, grew up with the conniving Lavan, and so she was intimately familiar with deceit and hypocrisy. From this perspective, she recognized that Eisav was trying to dupe Yitzchak with a façade of piety. As the Midrash teaches (ibid.), in a homiletical interpretation of the phrase “catch was in his mouth,” Yitzchak loved Eisav because Eisav trapped him with his mouth. But Rivkah, who knew that Eisav was a faker, focused all her love on Yaakov.
2. In his older years, Yitzchak calls Eisav and tells him to catch game for him and make him delicacies to eat, so that “my soul may bless you before I die” (Bereishis 27:4). Rivkah overhears Yitzchak’s words, approaches Yaakov, and tells him (ibid. 27:6-10):
Behold, I heard your father speaking to your brother Eisav, saying, “Bring me some game and make me delicacies to eat, and I will bless you in the presence of Hashem before my death.” So now, my son, heed my voice regarding what I am commanding you. Go, now, to the flock and fetch me from there two choice kid goats, and I will make them into delicacies for your father, the way he likes. And bring this to your father and let him eat, so that he may bless you before his death.
The Maggid raises two questions. First, why did Rivkah preface her charge to Yaakov with a narrative about what she heard Yitzchak tell Eisav? Seemingly, she had no real need to include this preface; she could have simply issued him the charge. Second, why did Yitzchak ask Eisav for the delicacies in the first place? Could he not have just blessed him, without the delicacies? The Maggid then proceeds to answer these questions.
He takes up the second question first. There are certain actions that a person performs because he has an inner desire to do so. And then there are actions that a person decides he needs to carry out, but has no inner desire for, and thus pose a need for him to concoct an external impetus. For example, if a person is healthy, he has a natural desire to eat, but if he is sick, he needs to generate a desire to eat through some stimulant such as a shot of liquor. Thus it was with Yitzchak. He had decided he should bless Eisav, because he was the firstborn. But he felt no desire to do so, for he knew that Eisav was unworthy. He therefore told Eisav to bring him delicacies to eat, in order to arouse within himself a desire to bless him.
The Maggid then turns to the first question. He explains that the aim of Rivkah’s preface was to boost Yaakov’s morale, so that he would not hesitate to do what she told him. She explained to him that Yitzchak had resorted to delicacies as an external stimulant because he did not really want to bless Eisav. This being so, she argued, Yaakov should resolutely heed her charge to step in and take the blessing.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

This week’s parashah begins by recounting Avraham’s negotiations with the Bnei Cheis (Hittites) to procure a burial site for Sarah. The Bnei Cheis tell Avraham (Bereishis 23:6): “Hear us, my lord: You are a prince of God in our midst. Bury your dead in the best of our burial sites; no man among us will withhold his burial site from you to bury your dead.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 59:5):
It is written (Tehillim 45:3): “You are splendid beyond men; charm is poured upon your lips, therefore God has blessed you for eternity.” You are splendid in the heavenly realm, as it is written (Yeshayah 33:7): “Behold, the angels scream forth outside [as Avraham bound Yitzchak to the altar, pleading with Hashem that Yitzchak be spared – Bereishis Rabbah 56:7].” And you are splendid in the earthly realm, as it is written: “You are prince of God in our midst.” Therefore God has blessed you for eternity, as it is written (Bereishis 24:1):  “And Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.”
The honor due to an eminent man is dictated by how lofty his character is in an absolute sense, and not merely by how much greater he is than his local peers. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech writes (Mishlei 12:8): “In accordance with his intellect is a man praised.” For example, consider a world-class Torah scholar, who from his early years served as the Rabbi of a major city with a large Jewish population, and then, in his later years, moved to a small town. Suppose now that someone visited this town and asked about this scholar, and was told that the scholar is the Rabbi of the town, and one of its most eminent citizens. Such an answer, although intended as a praise, actually detracts considerably from the honor that the scholar deserves. A proper answer would be: “This man is a world-class Torah scholar. He was the Rabbi and leader of a large Jewish community teeming with learned men, but he has now retired from this position and moved to our town.”
This is precisely the description the Bnei Cheis gave Avraham when they called him “a prince of God in our midst.” They were not praising him merely for having a loftier character and a stronger record of good deeds than they themselves did. Rather, they were saying that he was so tremendously lofty that he would stand out as a leading figure even in community of the most eminent men. He was “a prince of God,” who happened to be, at the moment, “in our midst.”
The Midrash attaches to Avraham the description “splendid beyond men.” The Hebrew term used here for “splendid,” the doubled adjective יפיפית, can be read as meaning “more splendid than splendid,” just as ירקרק denotes a deep green and אדמדם a deep red, “redder than red.” Avraham’s splendor was on a completely different plane from that of all other men. He was splendid even according to the standards of the heavenly realm. And his extraordinary splendor was recognizable in the earthly realm; as the Bnei Cheis beheld it, they were moved to call him “a prince of God in our midst.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

In this week’s parashah, among many events, we read about the destruction of Sodom. The Torah relates that Hashem told Avraham about His plan to destroy Sodom. The Torah then records Avraham’s response (Bereishis 18:23–25):
Will You yet wipe out the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city – will You yet wipe it out, and not show the place favor, for the sake of the fifty righteous men within it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to put to death the righteous along with the wicked, so that the righteous will be treated like the wicked. Far be it from You: Shall the Judge of the entire world not do justice?
Analyzing Avraham’s words, the Maggid notes a glaring point: Initially, Avraham’s appeal focused exclusively on the righteous men of Sodom – he argued only against wiping out the righteous along with the wicked. But right afterward he urged that the entire city be spared on account of the righteous men, even though they might be few. Various commentators have discussed this point. The Maggid suggests the following explanation. The Gemara relates (Taanis 21b):
Once a plague broke out in Sura, but it did not effect the area where Rav lived. People thought the area was spared on account of Rav’s many merits, but they then saw in a dream that the matter was too small to invoke Rav’s many merits; rather, it was on account of the merit of a certain man who used to lend people a shovel and spade for burials.
The commentators ask: What was wrong with people thinking that their being spared from the plague was due to Rav’s merits, that it was necessary for a dream to come to set them straight? Keser Yehonasan (R. Yosansan Eibeschitz) provides a beautiful explanation. He says that there is only one reason why the wicked people in a given area are spared on account of the merits of the righteous people who live there – the potential, once the destroying angel has been sent to attack the wicked, that the angel will also set his hand on the righteous, for the destroying angel generally does not distinguish between the wicked and the righteous. If the righteous men of the area are perfectly righteous, however, the destroying angel cannot touch them; even if hordes of wicked men are stricken all around them, they would remain unscathed. In such a case, there is no cause for sparing the wicked for the sake of the righteous. Thus, when the people of Sura attributed their salvation to the merits of Rav, they were actually undervaluing his righteousness. Rav’s merits were so great that he would have been spared even if the area had been stricken. The residents of the area were therefore shown in a dream that their being spared was not due to Rav’s merits, but rather to those of the man who lent the shovel and spade. 
Now, had there been righteous men in Sodom, surely they would not have been perfectly righteous – they could not have maintained such a lofty level in such a debauched environment. Thus, there could be no guarantee that they would be spared, unless the entire city were spared. This fact explains the way Avraham presented his request: As reflected in his initial words, his goal was to arrange for the righteous men to be spared, but he realized that it would be impossible to spare them without sparing the entire city. He therefore asked Hashem to spare the entire city; otherwise, the destroying angel would smite the righteous and the wicked alike, making it appear that, far be it, that the Judge of the entire world does not do justice.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

In Tehillim 45, an ode to the Jewish king and his queen, it is written (verse 8): “You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows.” The Midrash interprets this verse as referring to Avraham. The Midrash teaches (Bereishis Rabbah 39:6):
When Avraham arose before Hashem to plead for mercy for the men of Sodom, he said: “Far be it from You to such a thing, to put to death the righteous along with the wicked, so that the righteous should be treated like the wicked.” He argued: “You swore not to bring a flood upon the world, but now You are going to cleverly sidestep this oath? Instead of bringing a flood of water, You are going to bring a flood of fire? If this is what You do, you will not be truly keeping Your oath.” He said further: “The Judge of the entire world will not do justice?” He argued: “If You want there to be a world, You cannot impose strict justice. And if You want to impose strict justice, there will not be a world. You are trying to hold onto both ends of the rope – You want both a world and strict justice. Pick one of them. If You don’t compromise a little on imposing justice, the world won’t be able to stand.” Said Hashem to Avraham: “‘You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows.’ Who are your ‘fellows’? The ten generations from Noach down to you. I did not speak with any of them – only with you.”
The Maggid links this Midrash to the following Gemara (Shabbos 112b): “If those of former times were angels, we are men. And if they were men, we are donkeys.” The Maggid explains this deep teaching, and then he discusses how it is connected with the Midrash. He brings out the idea with an analogy. Suppose someone standing in a store sees the owner sell a certain item for $100, and then later sees him sell the same item to another customer for $75. He is then left to wonder: Did the first customer pay the market value and the second get a discount, or did the second customer pay the market value and the first volunteer to pay extra?
This, the Maggid says, is exactly the type of question that the Tannaim were prompted to ask when they compared their level of service to Hashem with the level of those of former times. In former times, the world was filled with spiritual giants: prophets, great sages, and saints – individuals who were part of Hashem’s inner counsel. They, like us, were mortals – born of a woman and made up of earth – yet, in terms of spiritual achievements, the little finger of one of them was thicker than the waist of one of us. Did those of former times go beyond what is expected of man, and reach the level of angels? If so, then we can reckon that we are serving Hashem at the level of expected of man. But if they merely fulfilled what is expected of man, then we are serving Hashem at a level much lower than expected of man – at the level of a donkey. Fortunately, a Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 1:1 suggests that we can resolve the doubt in our favor. In speaking of how Hashem took us out of Egypt under the leadership of Moshe, the Torah states (Bamidbar 20:16): “He sent an agent [מלאך – angel] and took us out of Egypt.” From this statement, the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 1:1 concludes that the prophets were like angels, implying that we are worthy of the noble title of “man.”
We now return to the Midrash with which we began. Let us consider again the analogy of the customers in the store. If the second customer paid the market value and the first one paid extra, then the owner would naturally rejoice over receiving a windfall from the first customer. But if the first customer paid the market value and the second paid less, the owner has no cause to rejoice over what he received from the first customer; on the contrary, he would lament having received less than he should have from the second. Now, before Avraham prayed for mercy for the men of Sodom, Hashem expected from His world, so to speak, a superior level of service, in line with His greatness. Hence, He had no cause to rejoice over Avraham’s exemplary service to Him, for it was no more than what He expected. Rather, He was upset over the deficient service that others rendered Him. But after Avraham’s prayer, Hashem lowered His demands, so to speak, in recognition of the fact that He could not demand His “full rights” and expect the world to remain standing. He then had cause for great joy over Avraham’s service, for it far exceeded what He now expected of man.
Thus, Hashem declared: “You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows.” He was saying: “You loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Yet, you also desired to vindicate man, and opposed indictments against him. You preferred to prevail upon Me to lower My demands on man. Therefore, I have anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration. I am joyous over your righteousness and piety, which so greatly exceeds that of your fellow men. I therefore set you above your fellows – I single you out as the one with whom I speak.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shabbos Rosh Chodesh

In this week’s special haftarah for Shabbos Rosh Chodesh, it is written (Yeshayah 66:4): “They did what was evil in My eyes, and what I did not desire, they chose.” The Maggid links this verse to a passage in last week’s parashah (Bereishis 6:2-5):
The sons of the rulers saw that the daughters of man were goodly, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose. … And Hashem saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and every product of the thoughts of his heart was only bad all day long.
He focuses on the phrase “only bad,” and explains this phrase as follows. There are two basic possible motivations in performing a mitzvah – either for the sake of the mitzvah itself or for the sake of some enjoyment or benefit resulting from the mitzvah act. Similarly, there are two basic possible motivations in committing a sin – either to fulfill a desire for some pleasure or to rebel against Hashem. One who sins only to cater to his desire will sin only when the forbidden act brings him some pleasure. But one who sins to rebel against Hashem may very well commit (or even opt for deliberately) a sin that brings him no pleasure.
Given this idea, we can understand the passage from Bereishis quoted above. Initially, the sons of the rulers took for themselves wives as they wished because they considered the women goodly and they sought to gain pleasure through being married to them. In the end, however, they wound up committing acts that brought them no pleasure, but were motivated solely by a wish to rebel against Hashem. All their thoughts were directed toward this evil goal; they had in mind “only bad,” with no interest in pleasure.
The same idea underlies the statement in the haftarah: “What I did not desire, they chose.” Out of a wish to rebel against Hashem, people chose to engage specifically in activities that Hashem did not desire, simply for the reason that He considered them undesirable.
David Zucker, Site Administrator