Post Archive for 2014

Parashas Vayiggash

Last week’s parashah recounts how Yosef was appointed viceroy of Egypt, and how his brothers had an encounter with him without knowing who he was. At the end of the parashah, Yosef’s silver goblet is found in Binyamin’s sack, and Yosef declares that he will take Binyamin as a slave. At this beginning of this week’s parashah, Yehudah comes forward and asks Yosef to take him as a slave in Binyamin’s place. The parashah begins by stating as follows (Bereishis 44:18): “Then Yehudah approached him [Yosef] and said: ‘If you please, my lord, may your servant speak a word into my lord’s ears, and do not let your anger flare up at your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.’” Yehudah then proceeds with his plea. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 93:6 quotes R. Siemon as teaching that Yehudah put forward an argument based on Torah law. (Maharzav finds a hint to this effect in Yehudah’s opening statement – it would have been enough for Yehudah to say “may your servant speak into my lord’s ears” without the added phrase “a word.” Maharzav, quoting other Midrashim, explains that the term “word” refers to a word of Torah law.) The area of Torah law on which Yehudah built his argument was the laws pertaining to thieves. The argument ran as follows: “In our manual of practices it is written (Shemos 22:2), ‘If he does not have [money to pay restitution], then he shall be sold [as a slave] for his theft.’ But this one [Binyamin] has money to pay.” The Maggid notes that it seems odd for Yehudah to put forward a Torah-based argument before an Egyptian official: Why would an Egyptian care what our Torah says?
The Maggid explains that Yehudah was not suggesting that Yosef ought to follow Torah law, but rather he was putting forward an argument based on ordinary human reason, an argument that applied to men of all nations. Of course the Torah’s laws are edicts issued to us by Hashem, but they also appeal to human intellect. Thus David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 19:9): “The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart.” Similarly, Shlomo HaMelech, speaking of Torah teachings, states (Mishlei 8:9): “They are all correct to one who understands, and upright to those who find knowledge.” Now, it appears on the surface that the law regarding thieves mentioned above is contrary to reason. Who would want to take a thief as a servant and bring him into his household? Wouldn’t one worry about having his household possessions stolen? But, after a closer look, we can see how the law makes sense.
The law deals with a thief who lacks money to pay restitution. Evidently it was for lack of money to meet his needs that the offender resorted to theft. We thus need not abhor him; as Shlomo HaMelech says (ibid. 6:30), “A thief is not scorned if he steals to satisfy his soul when he is hungry.” And there is no need for a person to worry that bringing the offender into his household poses a risk that his possessions will be stolen; if one provides the offender with what he needs, he is not pressed to steal. But if someone who has money steals, then surely one must worry about bringing him into one’s household, for providing his needs will not necessarily keep him from stealing. This was Yehudah’s argument to Yosef. Yehudah noted that Binyamin was rich, but still he was ostensibly found stealing. So it made no sense for Yosef to take Binyamin into his household, for Binyamin would take the opportunity to steal more. It must be, Yehudah argued, that Yosef knew that Binyamin did not steal his goblet, and had simply cooked up a libel against him.

Parashas Mikeitz

In this week’s parashah, we read about how Egypt enjoyed seven years of plenty, during which they stored a portion of their crops (as Yosef had advised them), and then Egypt and the surrounding areas, including Canaan, were struck with famine. The Torah relates (Bereishis 42:3):
Now Yaakov saw that there were provisions in Egypt, and Yaakov said unto his sons: “Why do you make yourselves conspicuous?” And he said: “Behold, I have heard that there are provisions in Egypt. Go down there, and buy for us from there, so that we may live, and not die.”
The Gemara in Taanis 10b, quoted by Rashi in his commentary on the above passage, explains that at the time Yaakov and his family had food, but Yaakov told his sons to go to Egypt and buy food anyway, so that they would not stand out among the Edomites and Yishmaelites. The Maggid asks why Yaakov’s family had food while everyone else did not. Later, as Yaakov’s sons prepared to return home after their trip, Yosef (in his position as viceroy of Egypt) ordered that their money be placed back in their sacks. On the surface, the Maggid notes, it appears that Yosef was embezzling from the Egyptian treasury; we have to analyze why he ordered that the money be returned.
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. Our Sages tell us that there were two reasons why Hashem brought the famine: (1) to induce Yaakov and his family to move to Egypt, after they ran out of food, and (2) to fulfill His promise to Avraham that his descendants would go out from Egypt with great wealth (all the money that Egypt collected from the sale of food ultimately ended up in the Jewish People’s hands when they left Egypt). Under the first reason, Yaakov and his family had to be stricken by the famine. But under the second reason, there was no need for Yaakov and his family to be stricken by the famine, for there would be no gain thereby. It is like a garment merchant who needs a garment for himself and takes one from his stock – there is no need for him to pay, for he would just be moving his money from one pocket to another. Similarly, everyone else in the area had to be stricken with the famine so that they would give over their money to Egypt in exchange for food, but this reason did not apply to Yaakov and his family, for the money Egypt collected from the sales of food was destined to become theirs.
When the famine first struck, it was not yet time for Yaakov and his family to move to Egypt. Thus, at this time, there was no need for Yaakov and his family to suffer from the famine, for neither of the above two reasons applied to them then. Therefore the famine initially did not affect them. There were affected by the famine only later, when the time came for them to move to Egypt. Thus, when the famine first struck, Yaakov and his family had food, and the only reason why Yaakov sent his sons to Egypt to buy food was to avoid standing out among the Edomites and Yishmaelites. And after they bought the food, Yosef ordered that their money be returned to them. He reasoned that if the money were kept in Egypt, it ultimately would be returned to the Jewish People, so he might as well return it to them right away.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeishev

This week’s parashah describes the conflict between Yosef and his brothers. The conflict reaches a climax when Yosef goes out, at Yaakov’s request, to check on his brothers as they tended the flock. The brothers see him from a distance and say to each other (Bereishis 37:19): “Look, that dreamer is coming! So now, come and let us kill him ….” As Yosef reaches the brothers, they strip him of his special tunic and throw him into a pit. Then a Yishmaelite caravan approaches, and Yehudah says (ibid. 37:26): “What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Yishmaelites, but let our hand not be upon him ….” The Maggid notes that Yehudah’s question is peculiar, especially in view of Onkelos’s rendering of the question: “What monetary benefit will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?” Did the brothers intend to achieve a monetary gain by killing Yosef? Also, it is puzzling that Yehudah mentions the covering up of Yosef’s blood; seemingly this detail is inconsequential.
In developing an explanation of Yehudah’s question, the Maggid starts by examining the Torah’s statement that a person who injures his fellow man must be punished measure for measure (Vayikra 24:20): “A break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – just as he will have inflicted [literally, will give] an injury on a person, so shall be inflicted on him.” The Gemara in Bava Kamma 83b-84b explains that the Torah is calling for monetary compensation: from the Torah’s use of the term “giving,” the Gemara concludes that the Torah is calling for a punishment involving giving, namely a monetary penalty.
The Maggid notes that we can conceive of two possible reasons behind the Torah’s directive. The purpose could be to avenge the wrong done and give the victim satisfaction over the revenge exacted for the assault against him. Alternatively, the purpose could be to deter the offender, as well as others, from committing such an offence in the future, along the lines of a statement the Torah makes in a similar context (Devarim 17:13): “And all the people will hear and be struck with fear, and they will not commit willful wrong anymore.” A verse in Tehillim indicates the true purpose. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 19:10): “The judgments of Hashem are true, altogether just.” David’s intent is to say that the purpose behind Hashem’s judgments is to promote truth and justice – to admonish the masses and keep them, along with the person being punished, from committing similar wrongs in the future. In this vein, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 43a states that when someone was taken out to be stoned to death, an announcement would be made: “So-and-so is being taken out to be stoned for committing such-and-such a sin.” Furthermore, the stoning would be carried out in public. This shows that the main purpose of the punishment is not to take revenge (for there is no real benefit to this), but rather to deter others from committing a similar wrong.
Since the purpose of punishment is deterrence, we can understand well the Gemara’s explanation of the verse in Vayikra, for a monetary penalty is usually an adequate deterrent. In addition, we can appreciate the Torah’s choice of words in saying that just as the offender “will give” an injury to his fellow, so will be given to him. On a simple level it would have made more sense for the Torah to say “just as he gave an injury to his fellow, so will be given to him.” But in light of our discussion, we can see that the Torah is saying that the punishment the offender is given parallels the wrong that he might commit in the future, to keep him from committing it.
We can now turn to Yehudah’s question. As we consider the brothers’ plan to kill Yosef, far be it from us to imagine that they were going to commit murder, spilling an innocent man’s blood. Surely they must have judged Yosef as deserving the death penalty under Torah law, and indeed various statements of our Sages indicate explicitly that they made such a judgment. Nonetheless, Yehudah advised the brothers that they ought not kill Yosef. He argued as follows: “It is true, as you say, that under Torah law Yosef deserves the death penalty. But let us consider the matter carefully. The Torah’s purpose in imposing punishment is not for revenge, but rather to deter the public from committing similar crimes. Killing Yosef now will not serve this purpose. You will be forced to cover up Yosef’s blood so that no one will know what happened. And thus we will not achieve the benefit usually gained from the monetary and other punishments that the Torah imposes. This being so, let our hand not be upon him.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

Regarding the night before Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav, the Torah writes (Bereishis 32:25): “And Yaakov remained alone, and a man grappled with him until dawn.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 77:1):
It is written (Devarim 33:26): “There is none like God, Yeshurun – He rides across heaven to help you.” … R. Berechya said in the name of R. Siemon: “There is none like God. And who is like God, Yeshurun? Yisrael, the elder [i.e., Yaakov]. Regarding Hashem it is written (Yeshayah 2:11):  “Hashem alone will be exalted on that day.” And regarding Yaakov it is written: “And Yaakov remained alone.”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He begins with a teaching from Shabbos 133b. It is written (Shemos 15:2): “This is my God, and I will glorify Him.” The Gemara expounds: “‘And I will glorify Him (ואנוהו)’ – be like Him (הוי דומה לו). Just as He is gracious and compassionate, so you, too, be gracious and compassionate.” The Gemara is calling on us to emulate Hashem as much as we can. Now, the Midrash we quoted from Bereishis Rabbah notes that one of Hashem’s traits is that there is none like Him. Accordingly, we must emulate Hashem in this respect as well, and develop ourselves into a unique nation within the world. In this vein, the Gemara teaches (Berachos 6b):
The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Klal Yisrael: “You have made Me a unique entity within the world, and I will make you a unique entity within the world.” You have made Me a unique entity within the world – as it is written (Devarim 6:4): “Hear, O Yisrael, Hashem, our God, Hashem is one.” And I shall make you a unique entity within the world – as it is written (Divrei HaYamim Alef 17:21): “And who is like Your people Yisrael, a unique nation upon the earth.”
We can take the matter a step further. Beyond the duty of the Jewish People as a whole to stand out as unique among the nations of the world, it is the duty of each individual Jew to make himself outstanding. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 37a teaches that Hashem started the world with a single man so that each person would say, “On my account the world was created.” Elsewhere, the Gemara develops a related theme. At the end of Sefer Koheles, Shlomo HaMelech states (Koheles 12:13): “The matter has ended, all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for that is the entirety of man.” The Gemara in Berachos 6b teaches the entire world was created only for the sake of the man who fears God and keeps His commandments. We see from these two Talmudic teachings that a single upright and wholehearted man is enough to warrant the creation of the entire world. Each Jew must strive to perfect his character to the point where he could be that one man.
Avraham, in his time, served in this role. Regarding him, Hashem exhorts (Yeshayah 51:2): “Look to Avraham your forefather … for when he was but one alone I summoned him.” Hashem called Avraham “one” because he was wholehearted in deed and of perfect character in every respect. Thus it was with Yitzchak as well. And thus it was with Yaakov, whom the Torah calls a “wholehearted man” (Bereishis 25:27).  It is in this vein that the Midrash we quoted at the outset draws a comparison between Hashem and Yaakov: “There is none like God. And who is like God, Yeshurun? Yisrael, the elder. Regarding Hashem it is written, ‘Hashem alone will be exalted on that day,’ and regarding Yaakov it is written, ‘and Yaakov remained alone.’” Just as Hashem is unique, so, too, Yaakov was unique – and it is our mission to make ourselves unique as well.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Bereishis 29:31): “And Hashem saw that Leah was disfavored, and he opened her womb, while Rachel was barren.” The Maggid notes that under the regular laws that govern creation, a woman’s womb is naturally open and ready for childbearing, so that the world can continue operating in the normal manner. It is a woman’s womb being closed that is out of the ordinary; thus, regarding Chanah, it is written that Hashem closed her womb (Shmuel Alef 1:5). Accordingly, the Maggid asks: Why did Hashem have to take special steps to open Leah’s womb?
The Maggid develops his answer with a parable. In a certain small town, it was set down, by order of the regional governors, that the town’s affairs would be managed by a group of three superintendents. One of the men of the city strongly desired to be a member of this group of leaders, but the regional governors did not want to put him in this position. So the man traveled to the city where the baron of the province lived, and brought the baron a gift to gain his favor. He succeeded in inducing the baron to order that he be appointed as one of the leaders. The baron wrote a letter to his local agent in the town ordering that one of the current leaders should be removed from his position and that the man who approached him be put in his place. The implementation of the order was delayed, and in the meantime a scandal arose in the town that led the regional governors to put the three town leaders in jail. Afterward, the man who had approached the baron presented himself to the baron’s local agent and gave him the letter that the baron had written him. The agent said, “Alright, so it will be, you will be one of the three town leaders.” He then ordered that the man be put in jail, and that one of the imprisoned town leaders be released.
The parallel is as follows. Hashem decreed, for hidden reasons known only to Him, that the matriarchs of the Jewish People initially be barren. Avraham had only one wife, Sarah [Hagar was only a concubine], and Hashem closed her womb for a long time. Yitzchak likewise had only one wife, Rivkah, and Hashem initially closed her womb as well. But Yaakov had two wives, Leah and Rachel, and Hashem’s decree called for the primary wife to have her womb closed. Since Leah assumed the position of primary wife, the decree of a closed womb was directed toward her. But Yaakov introduced a new element into the situation: He showed Rachel more love than Leah, and regarded Rachel as his primary wife. As a result, the Divine decree called for Leah’s womb to be opened and Rachel’s closed. Thus the Torah writes: “And Hashem saw that Leah was disfavored, and he opened her womb, while Rachel was barren.”
This explanation, the Maggid says, is reflected in a Midrash expounding on the verse. The Midrash states (Bereishis Rabbah 71:2):
And Hashem saw that Leah was disfavored (שנואה) – that she was designated for the enemy (שונא) [Eisav]. … While Rachel was barren (עקרה) – she was the principal lady of the house (עיקרה של בית).
Yaakov disfavored Leah in that he regarded her as a subsidiary wife – that she should have been Eisav’s wife rather than his. He considered Rachel his principal wife, the עיקרה של בית. In so doing, He caused Rachel to be barren – an עקרה.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Bereishis 25:21): “And Yitzchak entreated Hashem opposite his wife, for she was barren; Hashem acceded to him, and his wife Rivkah conceived.” The Gemara in Yevamos 64a reports that both Yitzchak and Rivkah were both originally barren. The Midrash on the verse we just quoted expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 63:5):
Opposite his wife – this teaches that Yitzchak was bowing down in one section of the room and she was bowing down in another section. He said: “Master of the Universe! Let all the children that You are giving me come from this saintly woman.” And, similarly, she said: “Let all the children that You will eventually give me come from this saintly man.”
In other words, although both Yitzchak and Rivkah were both barren, Yitzchak prayed on Rivkah’s behalf rather than his own, while Rivka prayed on Yitzchak’s behalf rather than her own.
The Gemara in Yevamos takes special note of the Torah’s report that “Hashem acceded to him,” and remarks: “It should say ‘Hashem acceded to them’! But the Torah writes ‘to him’ because the prayer of a righteous child of a righteous man is not the same as the prayer of the righteous child of a wicked man.” The Maggid notes that it seemingly would have been enough for the Gemara to write “a righteous child” rather than “the prayer of a righteous child.” He is thus led to explore the question of why the Gemara added the phrase “the prayer of.”
He explains as follows. When a person prays for someone else, it is virtually inevitable that his spiritually level will differ from that of the person he is praying for, either higher or lower. This being so, we may ask whether Hashem’s response to the prayer is based on the spiritual level of the person offering the prayer or on that of the person being prayed for. Initially, we would think that, since the person being prayed for is the one who will receive the benefit of Hashem’s aid, it is his or her level that is the key factor. But evidently this is not so. In the episode we are discussing, Yitzchak was praying for Rivkah and, at the same time, Rivkah was praying for Yitzchak. Now, Yitzchak was a righteous son of a righteous father, while Rivkah was a righteous daughter of a wicked father, and hence Yitzchak was on a higher spiritual level than Rivkah. Thus, if the level of the person being prayed for were the key factor, the Torah should have written: “Hashem acceded to her”– that Hashem answered Rivkah’s prayer that He grant aid to Yitzchak. Since the Torah instead writes to him, we see that level of the person offering the prayer is the key factor. The reason the Gemara writes “the prayer of a righteous child” rather than simply “the righteous child” is to underscore that the focus is on the level of the person offering the prayer.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Bereishis 24:1): “And Avraham was old, advanced in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” The Midrash, linking this verse to Tehillim 24, expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 59:5):
Who shall ascend the mountain of Hashem? This refers to Avraham, as it is written (Bereishis 22:12): “Now I know that you are God-fearing.” And who shall stand within His holy place? This refers to Avraham, as it is written (ibid. 22:3): “And Avraham arose early in the morning … and he rose up and went to the place that God had told him.” One with clean hands. “If a string or a shoelace, or if I take anything of yours” )ibid. 14:23). And a pure heart. “Far be it from You to do such a thing” (ibid. 18:25).  Who has not taken his soul in vain. [In Tehillim 24:4 it is actually written “My soul,” but in the Midrash it is written “his soul.] This refers to the soul of Nimrod [whom Avraham killed, not in vain, but in self-defense]. And has not sworn deceitfully. “I raise up my hand to Hashem, the Supreme God” (ibid. 14:22). He will bear blessing from Hashem. “And Avraham was old, … and Hashem blessed Avraham.” Avraham would bless everyone, as it is written (ibid. 12:3): “And the all families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” And who blessed Avraham? The Holy One Blessed Be He blessed Avraham, as it is written: “And Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows.  A craftsman typically will keep on hand only the tools he needs for his own craft. A tailor keeps needles and other sewing implements; a smith keeps sledgehammers, axes, and the like. If we would see a sledgehammer in a tailor’s shop, or sewing needles in a smith’s shop, we surely would be puzzled. But there is a class of people for whom it is perfectly natural to keep on hand the tools of a wide variety of crafts – namely storekeepers, who stock tools for craftsmen to buy. Similarly, each person is blessed with the specific abilities and resources he needs to fulfill the mission Hashem has assigned to him in this world, and Avraham was in charge of dispensing these blessings. Thus, Hashem tells Avraham, “You shall be a blessing,” and the Midrash elaborates (Bereishis Rabbah 39:11): “Until now, I had to bless My world. From now on, the blessings are given over into your hands.” Hashem entrusted Avraham with the general reservoir of blessing, from which everyone’s portion of blessing is drawn. Accordingly, He blessed Avraham with everything. Avraham served as an agent on behalf of the world at large, making the trip up to Hashem’s mountain to collect blessing, bring it down to the world, and distribute it. The background information about Avraham presented at the beginning of the Midrash indicates why Hashem chose Avraham as the one to be in charge of dispensing blessing. Avraham’s fear of God, clean hands, pure heart, upright conduct, and shunning of falsehood made him the man most qualified for this role.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah records how Avraham pleaded with Hashem to save Sodom. Initially he asks for the city to be spared if there are fifty righteous men there, and Hashem agrees. Avraham then continues his plea. He prefaces his words with the following statement (Bereishis 18:27):  “Behold, now, I have begun to speak with my Lord, although I am but dirt and ashes.” I present here two comments by the Maggid on this statement.
1. In the Nishmas prayer that we recite on Shabbos and Yom Tov, we say: “Until now Your mercy has aided us, and Your kindness has not departed from us. Do not abandon us, Hashem our God, forever.” What leads Hashem to aid the Jewish People, and how can we hope to gain His aid? If the aid He granted the Jews of earlier times were due to their good deeds, then we have good reason to fear now, for we are not as righteous and pure as they were. But, in fact, even the Jews of former generations were not worthy of the extraordinary aid Hashem granted them; rather, Hashem aided them out of pure kindness. Accordingly, we can hope that Hashem will aid us as well – that He will extend kindness to us just as he extended it to our predecessors. This is what we are asking for in the Nishmas prayer – given that Hashem’s past aid to us stemmed from mercy and kindness, we ask Him to continue showing us this favor, and not to abandon us.
Similarly, in our passage, Avraham is appealing to Hashem’s kindness rather than his merits. He is saying to Hashem: “I know that, up to now, the chance You gave me to speak to You was not on account of my merits – for then I would have been able to say only a few words to You, and then my merits would have been used up. Rather, although I am but dirt and ashes, You allowed me to speak with You, out of Your great kindness. And I know that Your kindness continues forever, so I ask You to let me keep speaking to You now.”
2. The Gemara in Sotah 17a relates that, in the merit of Avraham’s comparing himself to dirt and ashes, Hashem told him that He would grant his descendants two mitzvos related to dirt and ashes: the mitzvah of sotah (assessing whether a suspected adulteress is guilty, which involves making her drink water mixed with dirt), and the mitzvah of parah adumah (slaughtering a red heifer and burning the carcass, to use the ashes to make purifying water). The Maggid uses a parable to explain the connection between Avraham’s words and these two mitzvos. A man made a grand banquet, and a certain saintly man was among the invitees. The host wished to seat this distinguished guest at the head table, but the guest, out of his great modesty, chose instead to sit at a lowly table in the back. The host then decided, in order to honor this man, to seat other distinguished men at this same rear table. Similarly, Avraham, in his great modesty, compared himself to dirt and ashes, but Hashem still wished to honor him. Hashem therefore raised the importance of dirt and ashes, by making each a key element of an important mitzvah.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Bereishis 15:1-5):
After these events, the word of Hashem came to Avram in a vision, saying: “Fear not, Avram, I am your shield, your reward will be very great.” And Avram said: “My Lord, Hashem/God, what can You give me, seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascene Eliezer?” Then Avram said: “Behold, You have not granted me offspring, and, behold, my steward is going to inherit me.” And, behold, the word of Hashem came to him, saying: “This one shall not inherit you; rather, one who comes forth from your loins shall inherit you.” And He took him outside and said: “Look up, now, toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He told him: “So (כה) shall your offspring be!”
The Maggid raises two questions arise concerning Hashem’s last statement. First, Hashem could have expressed himself more briefly, saying: “Count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your offspring be!” What is added by the phrase “look up, now, toward the heavens”?  Second, if Hashem were telling Avraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, we would have expected Hashem to use the term כמוהם, which is the appropriate term for a quantitative comparison. Why did Hashem instead use the word כה, which generally designates to a qualitative comparison? The Maggid then presents an insightful answer.
His starting point is to consider why it is impossible to count the stars. It is not so much because there are so many of them; rather, it is because they are constantly moving. Thus, the Gemara relates (Sanhedrin 39a):
The Emperor said to R. Gamaliel: “It is written (Tehillim 147:4), ‘He counts the number of the stars.’ What is the news in this? I can also count them!” R. Gamaliel brought some quinces, put them in a sieve, spun them around, and said: “Count them.” The Emperor replied: “Keep them still.” R. Gamaliel responded: “The heavens also spin around this way.”
We can now see the point behind the phrase “look up, now, toward the heavens.” A person versed in astronomy like Avraham could reasonably estimate the number of stars. But to determine their exact number by looking up at the heavens and counting them is out of the question, due to their constant motion.
Now, when Hashem told Avraham, “so shall your offspring be,” He was saying that the Jewish People would be innumerable in a similar qualitative sense – the Jewish population would be constantly shifting. If, far be it, a calamity would come upon the Jews in a certain place and reduce their number, there would be an increase in the number of Jews somewhere else. We can bring out the idea with an analogy. Suppose a large number of coins are lying on a table, and someone wants to count how many are there. To do so, he will take the coins off the table one by one while keeping count of how many have been removed. But now suppose that whenever the person takes a coin off the table, someone on the other side puts a coin on the table somewhere else. It will then be impossible to make the count. So it is with the Jewish People – if the Jewish population wanes in one area, it will wax somewhere else. The Midrash describes this pattern at the level of Jewish leaders. It is written (Koheles 1:5): “The sun rises and the sun sets.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 58:2): “Before the sun of Moshe set, the sun of Yehoshua rose. … And before the sun of Eli set, the sun of Shmuel rose.” The same pattern applies to the Jewish People as a whole – Hashem promised Avraham that the number of Jews would always remain substantial.
This idea is reflected, we could say, in a famous prophecy of Hoshea (verse 2:1): “The number of the Children of Yisrael shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured and cannot be counted. And it will be, that in place of it being said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ it will be said to them, ‘Children of the Living God!’” In Yoma 22b and Bereishis Rabbah 2:18, our Sages note that the first half of this verse seems self-contradictory: Hoshea first speaks of the number of the Children of Yisrael, and then says that they will be beyond number. We suggest that Hoshea is making the point that we brought out above. The sand of the sea has a definite number, but it is not practicable to determine what this number is. The same holds for the Jewish People, for the reason we have explained, and the second half of Hoshea’s statement reflects this reason. On occasion Hashem strikes down the Jews in one area of the world, saying: “You are not My people.” But correspondingly, in place of the Jews who were smitten, Hashem brings forth elsewhere a flourishing community of Jews, calling them “children of the Living God.”
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David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Noach

When Hashem commanded Noach to build the ark, He told him to make it with קנים – compartments (Bereishis 6:14). The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 31:9): “Just as a nest (קן) purifies a metzora [this refers to the two birds a metzora brings as part of his purification process], so, too, your ark will purify you.” What drove our Sages to interpret the word קנים in a sense so different from its plain meaning?
The Maggid explains as follows. It is clear that Noach and the animals were saved by sheer miracle, with natural processes playing no role whatsoever. Another Midrash about Noach, which Rashi quotes, brings out this fact (Bereishis Rabbah 31:12): “You were a [mere] carpenter – if not for the covenant I made with you, you would not [even] have been able to enter the ark. Thus it is written (Bereishis 6:18): ‘And I shall establish My covenant with you.’ When? When you enter the ark [as the verse continues: ‘and you shall enter the ark’].” [The commentaries on this Midrash explain that under the usual scheme of nature, Noach would not even have been able to enter the ark, for he would have been torn to bits by marauders and wild animals.] Thus, we might well ask why Hashem made Noach go through the trouble of making the ark – for even after he did so, a miracle was necessary to save him. Hashem could easily have saved Noach from the flood through miracle alone, without the ark.
It appears that the only reason Hashem told Noach to make the ark was to give him a chance to earn merit. The Midrash says that Noach deserved to perish in the flood along with the rest of the world, but he found favor in Hashem’s eyes (Bereishis Rabbah 28:9 on Bereishis 7–8). He did not have enough good deeds to his credit to deserve to be saved. Only by carrying out Hashem’s command to build the ark did he become worthy. In this connection, the Torah relates (Bereishis 6:22): “And Noach acted in accordance with everything that Hashem commanded him – thus did he do.” That is, Noach’s intent in building the ark was not to save himself, but rather simply to do as Hashem had commanded him. Thus, the Torah continues (ibid. 7:1): “And the Hashem said to Noach, ‘Come over to the ark – you and all your household – for I have seen you as being righteous before Me in this generation.” Noach made himself into a righteous man by fulfilling Hashem’s command faithfully.
We can now understand the Midrash we quoted at the outset. On the surface, this Midrash appears to interpret the word קנים in a sense very different from its plain meaning, but we can explain the Midrash in a way that fits with the plain meaning of the verse. The Midrash seeks to explain why Hashem made Noach go to the trouble of making a separate “nesting place” for each animal species. It is no answer to say that the purpose was to keep the animals from harming each other. Hashem could have accomplished that through a miracle, just as He kept the fruits from rotting, and just as He led all the animals and birds to come to the ark on their own in the numbers that He had specified (cf. Rashi on Bereishis 6:18 and 7:9). The Midrash answers by saying that just as a nest (קן) purifies a metzora, so, too, the work of building the ark purified Noach. Throughout the process of building the ark, Noach was like a person learning Torah and fulfilling its commandments. Hashem gave Noach detailed instructions regarding each and every aspect of the ark’s construction. The building of the ark thus became a laborious project. Hashem arranged matters in this way so that the work of building the ark would elevate Noach and make him worthy of being saved.
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David Zucker, Site Administrator