Post Archive for March 2014

Parashas Tazria

This week’s parashah begins with some laws pertaining to a woman who has given birth. Accordingly, the Midrashim on this parashah include some teachings about pregnancy and birth. Here we present one of these teachings along with the Maggid’s explanation. The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 14:3):
It is written (Iyov 10:12): “Life and kindness You granted me, and Your command safeguarded my spirit.” … The way of the world is that an animal walks crouched down and its fetus is contained in its innards as if in a sack, while a woman walks upright, her fetus is contained in her innards, and the Holy One Blessed Be He safeguards it so that it should not fall and die.
The Midrash presents several additional comparisons between an animal’s way of bearing offspring and caring for its young and a woman’s way of doing so. The general message that emerges is that Hashem performs miraculous kindnesses in the process through which a woman bears a child and cares for the baby. Yet we can ask: Why does the verse use the term “command” in speaking of these kindnesses?
The Maggid explains as follows. In the Hebrew, the closing phrase of the verse in Iyov is written ופרודתך שמרה רוחי. Had it instead been written ופרודתך שמרה את רוחי with the word את preceding the word רוחי, we would know for sure that “Your command” is the subject of the sentence and “my spirit” is the object. But with the usual את omitted, we can read the verse in two ways: either as “Your command safeguarded my spirit” or as “Your command, my spirit observed.” This pattern is also seen in the phrase ורב יעבד צעיר in Bereishis 25:23 to describe the relationship between Yaakov and Eisav (and, more generally, between their respective descendants). In connection with this phrase, the Midrash comments (Bereishis Rabbah 63:7): “If Yaakov merits, his older brother Eisav will serve him (יַעֲבֺד), and if not, he will subjugate him (יַעֲבִד).” We can ask how our Sages derived this principle, given that the word that the verse uses is in fact יַעֲבֺד and not יַעֲבִד . And we can answer that the Sages derived the principle from the omission of the word את from the phrase ורב יעבד צעיר, which allows the phrase to be read either as “The older will serve the younger” or “The older, the younger will serve.” The same pattern is seen in many other verses.
In the case of the verse in Iyov, the intent of the ambiguous phrasing ופרודתך שמרה רוחי is to call attention to the reason why Hashem commanded and exhorted man to set his intellect above his impulses and not follow his natural tendencies as other creatures do. An animal can well maintain its existence simply by following its natural tendencies. Man’s existence, on the other hand, involves factors that go beyond the natural order of the world. Hashem therefore exhorted man to set aside his natural tendencies and follow the laws He laid down for him in the Torah. Hashem said to man: “Just as My command safeguards your spirit and maintains it within you, so, too, your spirit must observe My command.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemini

This week’s parashah discusses the day of the Mishkan’s inauguration, and relates how Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu were punished by death on that very day for offering a “foreign fire” that Hashem had not commanded. In connection with this incident, the Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 12:2):
R. Yitzchak quoted a verse (Yirmiyah 15:16): “Your words come forth and I devour them, for Your word was my joy and the gladness of my heart, for Your Name was proclaimed upon me, Hashem, God of Legions.” Said R. Shmuel bar Nachman: “This verse refers to the word that was said to Moshe at Sinai, whose meaning he did not know until the event occurred. [Vayikra 10:3: ‘Through My close ones I will be sanctified,’ with the matter alluded to earlier in Shemos 29:43 as Rashi explains there.] Said Moshe to Aharon: ‘My brother, at Sinai I was told that in the future I will consecrate this house, and through a great man I will consecrate it. I thought that perhaps through me or through you this house would be consecrated. But now I see that your two sons were greater than you and I.’ When Aharon heard that his sons were God-fearing [and therefore served as the means of a sanctification of Hashem’s name], he kept silent, and he received reward for his silence.”
Elsewhere, the Midrash states (Vayikra Rabbah 20:4, Pesikta Rabbasi D’Rav Kahana 48):
R. Yudan Galyan expounded on a passage (Iyov 39:27-30): “Is it according to your word that the eagle soars, or makes his nest on high, dwelling and lodging in the clefts of rocks, upon rocky cliff and tower? From there he digs for food, his eyes look out to the distance. His eaglets swallow up blood, and where are corpses, there he is found.” He explained: “… Is it by your command that the eagle soars? Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Iyov: ‘Are you greater than Aharon, to whom I granted honor that I never granted anyone else? When Aharon entered the Holy of Holies, I placed My glory between the two keruvim. … From there he digs for food. From there [the Holy of Holies, where he prayed for a year of bounty], he would collect food for the entire year. His eyes look out to the distance. At the beginning of the year, he would see what its end would bring. … His eaglets swallow up blood. He saw his eaglets weltering in blood on the ground and he was silent. Where there are corpses – Nadav and Avihu. There he is found – the Divine Presence.
The Maggid explains these two Midrashim through a parable. A baron built a magnificent city. When he completed the project, with all its splendor, he had trouble finding water. He dug many wells, but they all came up dry. He sent for an expert engineer, hoping that he could find a reliable source of water – for without this, all the effort in building the city would be for naught. The engineer arrived, and he conducted a comprehensive search over the entire city. He then pointed out a certain area in the city and said: “My lord, in this place there is a spring. After some time passes, it will emerge. And the following will be a sign that the spring will produce consistently and never go dry: When the spring emerges, it will emerge with a force great enough to break through walls.” The baron replied: “I am not anxious over the potential damage to walls. But I am anxious to see that your words are true and there will be enough water to supply this city.” The engineer, applying his expertise, took steps to bring forth the water. A few days later, the water broke out with massive force and destroyed a house. The owner of the house went to the baron, lamenting: “A flood broke out and toppled my house.” The baron was very happy to hear this report. While the distraught flood victim was still speaking, another victim appeared, and then a third, and then a fourth. The baron sat and listened with a big grin, and the onlookers were dumbfounded: How could the baron be happy over such a disaster? The baron explained: “You should understand that no matter how magnificent a city is, it cannot survive without water. How can I not be happy? The engineer predicted the flood, and he said that it would serve as a sign that the spring would always provide this city with a steady water supply.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem instructed Moshe (Shemos 25:8): “Have them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” And He gave a sign that His promise to dwell among the Jewish People would be fulfilled, saying: “Through My close ones I will be sanctified.” And then, after the Mishkan was completed, they saw the sign come forth: Nadav and Avihu died when they came before Hashem with the foreign fire. Aharon said to himself: “I am overjoyed – the sign we were waiting for has come.” This is what the end of the second Midrash is bringing out: Aharon witnessed the death of Nadav and Avihu, yet he refrained from lamenting this loss, for he knew it was a sign that the Divine Presence had come to rest within the Mishkan – through fire Hashem had come, and through fire He executed justice. The message of the first Midrash is similar: Aharon saw the fulfillment of Hashem’s words, “through My close ones I will be sanctified,” and inwardly he rejoiced and was glad of heart, for it was through his incident that Hashem’s Name was proclaimed upon him – the incident made it clear that Hashem’s Presence had arrived.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Megillas Esther

With Purim just around the corner, I present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on Megillas Esther. Chapter 6 of the Megillah tells about Haman’s being ordered by Achashveirosh to escort Mordechai all around Shushan with Mordechai sitting on a royal horse. The Megillah goes on to describe what happened right afterward (Esther 6:13-14):
And Haman recounted to his wife Zeresh and all his close friends all that had happened to him. And his wise men and his wife Zeresh told him: “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock, then you will not prevail against him. You surely will fall to him (נפול תיפול לפניו).” While they were still speaking with him, the king’s chamberlains arrived. They rushed to bring Haman to the feast that Esther had prepared.
The Maggid asks: Why does the Megillah make a point of telling us that the chamberlains came on the scene while Haman’s wise men were still speaking to him? What difference does it make whether they came while Haman’s wise men were still speaking or afterwards? The Maggid goes on to explain that the timing of the chamberlains’ arrival was very significant: It was a true kindness on Hashem’s part to arrange for them to arrive precisely when they did.
Let us look at this episode more closely. The story as a whole presents a difficulty. If Haman’s wise men were truly wise, how could they have said what they said? How could they have declared that Haman will surely fall to Mordecai? Were they unaware of the well-known principle that the utterance of the lips seals in whatever is said, for good or for bad (see Moed Katan 18a)? Why did they “create an opening for Satan” by saying that Haman would fall to Mordecai again and again (as hinted at by the double verb נפול תיפול – see Megillah 16a)?
The answer lies in the following Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 571, middle):
“Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed” (Bamidbar 24:9). But previously it was written (Bereishis 27:29): “Those who curse you are cursed, and those who bless you are blessed.” However, Bilaam, since he hated us, opened with blessing and concluded with curse. Yitzchak, since he loved us, opened with curse and concluded with blessing.
We see that the main point of any statement is the conclusion. Yitzchak’s focus was on blessing, so he concluded with blessing. Bilaam’s focus was on curse, so he concluded with curse.
Haman’s wise men also wished to finish off on a negative note for Mordecai. This is seen from how they phrased their statement, as the Gemara interprets it (Megillah 16a). They began by saying, “If Mordechai descends from the tribes of Yehudah, Binyamin, Ephraim, or Menasheh, then you will not prevail against him.” They meant to conclude with the other side of the coin: “However, if Mordechai descends from one of the other tribes, then you will prevail against him, and you will be exceedingly elevated over him.”
But the All-Present One, in His kindness for us, did not allow the wise men to conclude their remarks. He would not allow a bad forecast for the Jews – even just a conditional one, preceded by an if ­– to come out of their mouths. Therefore, He arranged for the chamberlains to come while the wise men were still speaking. The wise men thus finished off with a bad forecast for Haman, thereby sealing Haman’s doom with the utterance of their lips.
Purim Sameach!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayikra

This week’s parashah discusses various types of korbanos (offering). At the end of the parashah, the Torah discusses the korban asham (guilt offering). Below is an excerpt from the Torah’s discussion (Vayikra 5:17-19):
 If a person sins and performs an act that violates one of any Hashem’s commandments that impose a prohibition, but he did not know and became guilty, he shall bear his iniquity. He shall bring to the Kohen an unblemished ram from the flock, of the proper value, as a guilt offering – and the Kohen shall provide him atonement for the error he made and did not know, and it will be forgiven him. It is a guilt offering – he became guilty before Hashem (אָשָׁם הוּא אָשֹׁם אָשַׁם לה').
The Maggid sets out to explain the repetitive language in the last verse of the above excerpt. He takes as his starting point a passage in Mishlei (verses 6:1-4):
My child, if you have been a guarantor for your comrade, if you have given your handshake for a stranger, you have been tripped up by the words of your mouth, snared by the words of your mouth. Do this, therefore, and be rescued, for you have come into your fellow’s hand. Go humble yourself and placate your fellow.
This passage also contains repetitive language whose meaning is not immediately clear. The Maggid analyzes the difference between “you have been tripped up” (נוקשת) and “you have been snared” (נלכדת) in connection with a person’s words. There are two types of sins, the Maggid says, that a person can commit with his mouth. The first type of verbal sinning is a sin involving only an offence against Hashem. For instance, our Sages teach (Yoma 19b): “One who engages in idle talk violates a positive commandment. It is written ‘and you shall speak in them’ [the words of the Torah] – and not in idle words.” All the more so with mockery, which the Sages liken to idolatry. The second type of verbal sinning is a sin that involves an offence between the sinner and his fellow man, such as derogatory speech and gossip. The Maggid then connects this idea with the verse in Mishlei. The term tripped refers to a situation where someone has stumbled on some obstacle, such as a rock, fallen, and caused himself painful injury. In this situation, a person can alleviate his distress on his own; for example, he can drink wine or take some medicine to reduce the pain. By contrast, the term snared refers to a situation where a person has come under the control of other people who are causing him distress. In this situation, the person cannot alleviate his distress on his own; the most he can do is to beg his oppressors to show him mercy.
It is similar with the two types of verbal sins. When a person has committed a verbal sin solely against Hashem, it is within his power to repent. But when a person has committed a verbal sin that involves an offence between him and his fellow man, repentance alone will not clear him. The person must placate the one whom he caused injury, by rectifying the damage he did to him and asking him to forgive him. Only then will repentance gain him pardon from Hashem. With this, the Maggid returns to the passage in Mishlei. In connection with the first segment of this passage, the Midrash expounds as follows (Vayikra Rabbah 6:1): “My child, if you have been a guarantor for your comrade – the “comrade” is Hashem, in the same vein as is written elsewhere (Mishlei 27:10): ‘Your comrade and your father’s comrade, do not abandon.’” Thus, this segment alludes to the offense a person commits against Hashem through improper speech. The second segment – “if you have given your handshake for a stranger” – alludes to the offence a person commits against his fellow man through improper speech. Shlomo HaMelech likens the first to tripping (“you have been tripped up”) and the second to being snared (“you have been snared”). Shlomo then describes what a person must do to gain atonement – he must first rectify the damage he caused his fellow man, and then turn to Hashem to repent.
Finally, the Maggid turns to the excerpt in this week’s parashah. The Torah includes two separate passages dealing with the asham. The first passage deals with an asham brought for inadvertent misappropriation of sanctified property and an asham brought when a person is in doubt whether he committed a sin requiring a korban chatas. The excerpt quoted above is from the end of this passage. The type of sin the passage is discussing is a sin involving only an offence against Hashem. Thus, the atonement process involves repenting and bringing the asham. This suffices for atonement, and the Torah explains the reason: “he has become guilty before Hashem” – the offense is only against Hashem. The second passage about the asham deals with an asham brought for various interpersonal sins: denying a pledge or loan, theft, fraud, or denying having found a lost object. These sins involve an offence against both Hashem and another person. Regarding such a sin, if a person returns the stolen object and then brings the asham, he has satisfied his obligation to bring the asham, but if he brings his asham before returning the stolen object, he has not satisfied his obligation to bring the asham.
David Zucker, Site Administrator