Post Archive for February 2014

Parashas Pekudei

In his commentary on this week’s parashah, in the course of explaining a Midrash, the Maggid analyzes the following verse (Yeshayah 5:20): “Woe to those who speak of bad as good and of good as bad, who regard darkness as light and light as darkness, who regard the bitter as sweet and the sweet as bitter.” The Maggid asks why Yeshayah had to speak both of regarding the negative as positive and of regarding the positive as negative. Seemingly, it would have been enough for Yeshayah to rebuke the people for regarding the negative as positive: the bad as good, the darkness as light, and the bitter as sweet.
The Maggid develops an answer through a parable. A certain pauper had a relative who was very rich. This relative was making a wedding for his son, and clearly the wedding meal was going to be lavish. The pauper expected that, as a relative, he would be invited to the wedding. [Unlike nowadays, when formal wedding invitations are sent in advance, it was apparently the practice in those times simply to send messengers to people on the wedding day and tell them to come.] He prepared himself for this event by refraining from eating on the day before the wedding and the day of the wedding itself, so that he would be able to eat a lot of the choice food that was going to be served at the wedding meal.
As the evening of the wedding day approached, he felt very faint, and he looked out the window to see if his relative’s servants had begun approaching people to invite them to come to the wedding. He saw that all the servants were passing by his door without calling him, and he was bitterly upset. Finally, he could hold out no longer, and he asked his wife to prepare him a meal from what they had in the house. She gave him some bread and some radishes and onions. Out of his great hunger, he ate a huge amount. Shortly afterward, one of his relative’s servants came to him and said: “My master wishes you to come to the wedding he is making.” The pauper went to the wedding in bitter spirits, and took his place at the table. The first course was fish; the pauper partook, but since he was already stuffed, he did not enjoy the food. Afterward, soup and roast meat was served. The pauper had some of the hot soup, and experienced a reflux of the onions and radishes, making the soup taste bitter and sour. His hope to enjoy a sumptuous meal had turned into a mirage.
The pauper sat through the entire meal without eating any of the delicious food. Eventually the wedding celebration ended, and people began to head back home. On the way, the pauper heard people praising the food enthusiastically. He said jokingly: “You all must be kidding. I also ate at the meal, and I found the food absolutely horrible.” The people were astounded that someone could speak badly of such a wonderful meal. Finally, one of them said: “I’ll explain to all of you what happened. Before the wedding, I saw this guy eating a large amount of onions and radishes. Because of that, he couldn’t taste the delicious flavor of the food – the bitterness of the onions and radishes was still in his system.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem invited us to “partake” of His Torah and mitzvos, which are, as Dovid HaMelech says (Tehillim 19:11), sweeter than honey. Anyone could sense their sweetness, if his soul were pure. But some people fill themselves up with coarse and bitter worldly pleasures. This being so, how could they possibly sense the Torah’s sweetness? The Torah is the exact opposite of what they have accustomed themselves to and pine for. And so they conclude that the Torah is bad and bitter. This is the message behind Yeshayah’s words. He is saying that since the strayers have regarded the bad as good and filled themselves up with junk, it is inevitable that they will regard the good as bad. As the Midrash puts it [cf. Yalkut Shimoni, Torah, 830 and 391, and Tosefos, Kesuvos 104a, s.v. I did not take pleasure], Hashem tells us: “Before you pray that words of Torah enter your innards, ask that banalities be purged from your innards.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayakhel

Last week’s parashah dealt with the episode of the golden calf. This week’s parashah deals with the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Maggid, in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 1:5, analyzes Midrashim that discuss the connection between these two events. In Shir HaShirim 1:5, it is written: “I am blackened, yet beautiful, O daughters of Yerushalayim. “In Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:35, the Midrash remarks:
Said Knesses Yisrael: “I looked black when making the golden calf, but beautiful when building the Tabernacle.”
In Shemos Rabbah 33:2, the Midrash expounds:
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “The gentiles say that I will not return to them [the Jewish People], because they engaged in idol worship – as it is written, ‘they have quickly turned away’ (Shemos 32:8). Even though they turned away, I will not set them aside – I will dwell among them.”
We discuss the second Midrash first. This Midrash is based on Tehillim 68:19:
עָלִיתָ לַמָּרוֹם שָׁבִיתָ שֶּׁבִי לָקַחְתָּ מַתָּנוֹת בָּאָדָם וְאַף סוֹרְרִים לִשְׁכֹּן יָ-הּ אֱ-לֹהִים:
The first part of the Midrash, not quoted here, builds on the first part of this verse (עָלִיתָ לַמָּרוֹם שָׁבִיתָ שֶּׁבִי לָקַחְתָּ מַתָּנוֹת בָּאָדָם) to indicate how Moshe went up to Heaven to “seize” the Torah from the angels, and ultimately acquired it as a gift (see also Shemos Rabbah 28:1 for a detailed discussion). The second part of the Midrash, quoted just above, uses the second part of the verse (וְאַף סוֹרְרִים לִשְׁכֹּן יָ-הּ אֱ-לֹהִים) to prove that Hashem dwells among the Jewish People even when they turn away.
Now the Midrash’s proof is puzzling, for it is written לִשְׁכֹּן rather than יִשְׁכֹּן. Had it been written יִשְׁכֹּן, we could render the verse as follows: “You ascended on high, you have taken captives; you acquired gifts for man. Even among those who turned away, will Y-h, God, dwell.” The proof then would be clear: Although the Jews turned away by worshipping the calf, Hashem will still dwell among them. But in fact it is written לִשְׁכֹּן, which leads to the following rendering: “You ascended on high, you have taken captives; you acquired gifts for man. Even those who turned away – for Y‑h, God, to dwell.” Read in this way, the verse itself is awkward, and the Midrash’s proof is hard to grasp. What is the message here?
It appears, the Maggid says, that the intent of the Midrash is to bring out the praiseworthy side of the disgraceful act of making the golden calf. It was actually the Jewish People’s spiritual loftiness that led them to make the calf. As the Kuzari explains at length (First Discourse, paragraph 97), they were anxiously waiting for the Divine Presence to enter their midst. With Moshe having seemingly disappeared, the people thought that the calf could serve as an alternative means of channeling the Divine Presence down to them, as the Kuzari explains at length. This is the point of the verse from Tehillim: the reason the Jewish People committed their wayward act was in order to bring Hashem to dwell among them. Thus, although Hashem was displeased with the act, He was pleased with the intent behind the act. And so Hashem viewed the Jewish People as worthy of having Him return to them.
The same idea underlies the first Midrash that we quoted. We can render the Midrash as follows: “I seemed black when making the golden calf, but emerged as beautiful when making the Mishkan.” In this week’s parashah, the Torah describes in detail how the Jewish People rushed to give generous contributions toward the building of the Mishkan. From their zeal in building the Mishkan, it became apparent that their sole motive in making the golden calf was to behold Hashem’s sublimity.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Sissa

This week’s parashah relates the episode of the golden calf. Hashem tells Moshe of the people’s sin, and then tells him that He is going to destroy the people and start a new nation from him. Moshe pleads with Hashem to spare the people, saying (Shemos 32:11-12):
Hashem, why should Your anger flare up against Your people, whom You took out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak out, saying: ‘With evil intent He took them out, to kill them in the mountains, and to eradicate them from the face of the earth’? Relent from Your flaring anger, and recant the evil against Your people.
The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 43:2):
Scoffing men set a city ablaze (Mishlei 29:8) – this refers to the nation Yisrael, who set a blaze [of destruction] through the calf they made. … And wise men turn back anger (ibid., end) – this refers to Moshe, who turned back Hashem’s anger through his advocacy.
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He notes that Moshe’s plea on the Jewish People’s behalf involved two arguments. The first argument was that Hashem should show the Jews mercy, for they had just come out of Egypt – a land riddled with idolatry – and thus were not to blame for slipping into a form of worship resembling idolatry. The second argument was that Hashem should spare the people, for if He destroyed them, the Egyptians would say that He took the people out of Egypt with evil intent. We may wonder why Moshe advanced both arguments; seemingly either one would have been enough. Moreover, the first argument intimates that Hashem would be treating the Jews unfairly by destroying them for their misdeed, and thus seems to accuse Hashem of acting unjustly. Why did Moshe use such an audacious argument when he did not have to?
The Maggid answers this question through a parable. A man bought his son an expensive Shabbos suit. The first time the boy wore it, he went out playing with his friends. They cast him into the mud, ruining the suit. On that particular Shabbos, the father had eminent guests visiting him. They were all sitting around the table, and then the son came in with his suit still dripping with muddy water. The father was incensed, but he held his anger back in order not to make a scene in front of his guests. He kept still, anxiously waiting for the guests to leave so he could give the boy a thorough scolding. One of the guests noticed the father’s agitation, and he sought to save the boy from the impending punishment. He said: “I see you are very angry at your son. But he is not to blame. I saw him through the window, heading for the Beis Midrash with a Gemara in hand, when a drunk came along and threw him into the mud.” Now, all the guests played a role in sparing the boy from punishment, but the guest who presented the alibi accomplished more than the rest of them. The other guests provided the boy protection only while they were still seated at the father’s table, but once they left their influence would cease. The guest who presented the alibi, on the hand, provided the boy protection that would last even after all the guests left.
The parallel is as follows. Moshe knew that the argument about what the Egyptians would say would suffice to keep Hashem from destroying the Jewish People on the spot. But he realized that this argument would protect the Jews only as long as the Egyptians were still around. Once the Egyptians died out, the protection would fall away. Moshe therefore felt compelled to advance the argument claiming that the Jews were not to blame for their sin; only this argument would provide the Jews lasting protection from a Divine show of wrath.
The Maggid presents an additional analogy that enables us to understand the Midrash with which we began. Suppose someone dumps a pile of coals and timber in the middle of a city. Not only is the spot where the coals and timber were dumped in jeopardy; other areas are also in jeopardy of damage from flames lashing out. Thus, putting out the fire at the source saves not only the immediate area, but also outlying areas. Similarly, the sin of the golden calf was like a fire. It threatened not only the wilderness generation, but also future generations of Jews. And so the Midrash expounds: “Scoffing men set a city ablaze – this refers to the nation Yisrael, who set a blaze [of destruction] through the calf they made.” And then the Midrash continues: “And wise men turn back anger – this refers to Moshe, who turned back Hashem’s anger through his advocacy. Moshe’s advocacy saved not only his own generation, but future generations as well.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Tetzaveh

In this week’s parashah, Hashem instructs Moshe about the process of inducting Aharon into the position of Kohen Gadol. Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 28:1): “Now, you bring near to you Aharon your brother and his sons along with him, from among the Children of Yisrael, to minister to Me.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 37:4):
It is written (Tehillim 119:92): “Were your Torah not my delight, I then would have been devastated in my affliction.” When the Holy One Blessed Be He told Moshe, “Now, you bring near to you Aharon your brother and his sons … to minister to Me,” Moshe viewed the matter with disfavor. Hashem told him: “I had the Torah – without which My world would have been devastated – and I gave it to you.”
The Maggid sets out to shed light on this puzzling Midrash. His starting point is a Midrash in Koheles Rabbah 1:8 about the status of Jewish leaders. The Midrash expounds:
It is written (Divrei HaYamim Alef 12:28): “And Yehoyadah, the leader of Aharon.” Was Yehoyadah indeed Aharon’s leader? Rather, understand the matter as follows: If Aharon were alive in Yehoyadah’s generation, Yehoyadah in his time would be greater than him.
The Midrash then goes on to present a few similar comparisons.
Elsewhere, the Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 42:2):
Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 32:7): “Go, descend.” Moshe said to Him: “Master of the Universe! Yesterday You told me (Shemos 19:24), ‘Then you shall ascend’ … and now You tell me to descend?” Hashem replied: “It is not for your own honor that you ascended, but for the honor of My children. To their elder [Yaakov], I showed a vision (Bereishis 28:12), ‘Behold, angels of God were ascending and descending בו [literally, on it].’ What is the meaning of בו [homiletically, through them]? Thus I told him: ‘When your children are righteous, they ascend, and their leaders ascend with them. And when they descend, their leaders also descend.’”
The lesson behind these teachings is as follows: Just as it is a deficiency for the leader of a generation to be lower in caliber than the people of his generation, so, too, it is a deficiency for the leader to be too much higher in caliber than the people. It is just like choosing a garment: the garment must be of the right size, not too small and not too large. Similarly, in order for a leader to be successful, he must not be of too low a level or of too high a level. If a person is of much higher caliber than his community, he will not succeed in leading the people, for they will not have the capacity to emulate him and follow his ways.
This is what the Midrash is saying when it states that if Aharon were alive in Yehoyadah’s generation, Yehoyadah in his time would be greater than him. The reason for Yehoyadah’s greatness in his generation was not due to an absolute dearth of people of Aharon’s caliber in that time. Rather, it was due to Yehoyadah’s being suitably matched to the people. If Aharon were alive in Yehoyadah’s time, he would have less eminence and influence than Yehoyadah. Similarly, after the Jewish People committed the sin of the golden calf, and thereby descended greatly from the lofty level they had attained at Sinai, Hashem told Moshe to descend: In order for Moshe to be able to continue leading the people, he had to descend in his spiritual level (at least outwardly) so that he would remain suitably matched to the people.
The Maggid brings out the point further with a parable. A nobleman hired a tutor for his older sons. Sometime afterward, his youngest son reached the age for learning the alphabet, shapes, and other similar elementary topics. So he hired another tutor for this son. The first tutor asked him: “Why did you hire another tutor for this boy? Do I not know enough to teach him? After all, you regarded me as capable of teaching your older sons, so certainly I should be able to teach this young boy.” The nobleman replied: “Based on your reasoning, you could equally well ask why I myself don’t teach the boy. And the answer is that my mind operates on so much higher a level than his that I cannot teach him effectively. The same is true of you: Your mind operates on too high a level to teach children as young as he is.”
This, the Maggid says, is the idea behind Hashem’s response to Moshe’s disfavor with Aharon’s being appointed Kohen Gadol. Hashem was telling him that he had no reason to be upset over not being appointed to the position himself, for he was of too high a level compared to the people to be able to serve effectively in this position. Hashem made His point through a comparison with the giving of the Torah. He was saying: “The Torah was Mine, and I gave it to you and made you an intermediary between Me and the people. Why did I not teach them the Torah Myself? The reason is that I am too far above them. Indeed, they themselves said (Shemos 20:15): ‘You speak with us, and we will listen. Let God not speak with us, lest we die.’” In this way, Hashem taught Moshe the lesson that in order to serve effectively in a public position, a person must be neither of too low a level nor of too high a level, just as in the analogy of choosing a garment.
David Zucker, Site Administrator