Post Archive for April 2014

Parashas Kedoshim

In this week’s parashah, the Torah commands (Vayikra 19:4): “Do not turn to the idols (אל תפנו אל האלילים).” The Gemara in Shabbos 149a derives from this verse a prohibition against looking at idolatrous images. The Gemara then raises the question of how exactly the prohibition is derived from the verse, and presents the answer of R. Chanin – the verse is to be interpreted as saying: “Do not turn to what you conceive in your own hearts.” Rashi explains that this interpretation builds on the similarity between the word אליל and the word חלל, which in the present context refers to the chambers of the heart. Yet the teaching still seems very puzzling. The Maggid sets out to explain the Gemara’s message.
The Maggid bases his explanation on an analysis of the exact meaning of the verb פנה. His starting point is another Torah verse involving this verb, which again is interpreted in the Gemara in a puzzling way. In the Torah’s account of how Miriam made to Aharon a comment criticizing Moshe, and was punished with tzaraas, the Torah says (Bamidbar 12:20): “Aharon turned (ויפן) to Miriam, and – behold – she was afflicted with tzaraas like snow.” The Gemara remarks (Shabbos 97a): “He turned away (i.e., was healed) from his own tzaraas.” The Maggid contrasts two Hebrew verbs that signify turning (i.e., changing direction), פנה and נטה. The verb נטה, the Maggid says, refers to turning toward, whereas the verb פנה signifies turning away. The Maggid presents a number of examples of these usages.
For נטה, the Maggid presents the following examples: Bereishis 38:1 (describing Yehudah’s turning toward Hirah the Adulamite), Daniel 9:18 (a plea to Hashem to incline His ear toward the Jewish People’s prayers), and Tehillim 18:10 (“He bent down the heavens and descended”). For פנה, one example is Shemos 10:06: “He [Moshe] turned and left Pharaoh’s presence”. Another example is Vayikra 26:9: “I will turn My attention toward you – I will make you fruitful and increase you.” Although on the surface this statement appears to describe a turning toward, Rashi explains that Hashem is speaking of His turning away from all His other affairs to pay us reward. The Torah uses an abbreviated phrasing, and Rashi fills in the missing piece. We can now easily understand the Gemara about Aharon: Because the Torah uses the verb פנה rather than נטה, we see that the Torah is referring to some type of turning away.
We find the verb פנה used similarly in other verses. One instance is Devarim 16:7, “And you may turn back in the morning and go to your tent,” which speaks of returning home after offering the korban Pesach. The Torah is hinting that we should have such a strong love for the Beis HaMikdash that we have to pull ourselves away to go home. Another instance is Devarim 31:20: “But they will eat, be sated, and grow fat, and will turn to the gods of others.” Here Moshe is saying that if we indulge in worldly pleasures and thereby turn away from Torah and mitzvos, we ultimately will come to worship other gods. In this vein, the Torah warns us (Devarim 11:16): “Beware, lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray (וסרתם) and worship other gods.” We should adopt the approach to life that David HaMelech followed (Tehillim 16:8): “I set Hashem before me always.”
We now turn to our verse. The Torah commands: “Do not turn to the idols.” R. Chanin interprets this command as a charge as telling us not to turn to what we conceive in our own hearts. Again, the Torah uses an abbreviated phrasing, and here R. Chanin fills in the missing piece. The Torah is telling us to be very careful not to turn our attention away from the sublimity of closeness to Hashem, just as a person who is watching an object must be very careful not to turn his attention away from it. For if a person turns his attention away from Hashem, he ultimately will come to worship other gods. Accordingly, the Sages forbade us from looking at idolatrous images, even out of mere curiosity, lest we turn our attention away from what we are supposed to focus on.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shir HaShirim

On Shabbos Chol HaMoed Pesach, we read Shir HaShirim, a poetic portrayal of the mutual love between Hashem and the Jewish People. Accordingly, I present a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on Shir HaShirim. In Shir HaShirim 2:4, the Jewish People describe how Hashem lovingly cares for them: “He brought me into the house of wine and lovingly set me under banners.” Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:13 presents various homiletical interpretations of the closing phrase of this statement, וְדִגְלוֹ עָלַי אַהֲבָה. In particular, the Midrash expounds:
Said R. Acha: “In regard to an ignoramus who reads an expression of love as an expression of enmity – for example, in place ofוְאָהַבְתָּ  (and you shall love) [he reads] וְאָיַבְתָּ (and you shall regard as an enemy) – the Holy One Blessed Be He declares: ‘וְדִלוּגוֹ עָלַי אַהֲבָה’ – ‘his omissions I view with love.’” Said R. Yissachar: “In regard to a schoolboy who reads Mosheh as Masheh, or Aharon as Aharan, or Ephron as Ephran, the Holy One Blessed Be He declares: ‘וְלִגְלוּגוֹ עָלַי אַהֲבָה’ – ‘his garbling I view with love.’”
On occasion, our Sages present teachings based on a garbled reading of a word in a verse. For example, in Mishlei 3:9 it is written:  “Honor Hashem with your wealth (הונך), and with the first of all your produce.” In connection with this verse, the Midrash expounds (Yalkut Shimoni, Nach, 932): “Honor Hashem with what He graced you with (חננך). If you have a pleasant voice, go lead the prayers.” The Maggid explains that it is one of the wonders of Hashem’s Torah that even elementary reading mistakes yield a valid teaching. Hashem constructed the Torah in this way because He cherishes the efforts of a simple man who learns with a whole heart and sincere intent. Hashem regards his faulty reading with the same love as He has for an accurate reading.
The Maggid notes that the gracious attitude Hashem shows toward a simple man’s learning is in line with how He relates in general to all efforts toward serving Him. Hashem is pleased by the humble offering of a poor man just as much as by the lavish offering of a rich man.  Hashem values all sincere efforts at serving Him; He desires only that a person serve Him to the best of his ability. When a semi-literate man makes a sincere effort to learn, Hashem regards his error-riddled reading with the same favor as the precise reading of a scholar who is well versed in grammar. Hashem recognizes that the man has good intentions, but simply lacks the ability to read accurately. Hashem values the learning of simple men so highly that He built into the Torah the capacity to allow even elementary reading mistakes to be given a valid interpretation. Our Sages tell us that, at the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, Hashem showed Moshe every Torah teaching that would ever be developed over the course of history (Yerushalmi, Peah 2:4). It follows that even the interpretations that arise from reading mistakes were conveyed to Moshe at Sinai. This is a clear sign of how much Hashem cherishes the learning of a simple man.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shabbos HaGadol

On Shabbos HaGadol, we read a special haftarah from Sefer Malachi. In this haftarah, we find Hashem telling us (Malachi 3:10):
Bring all the tithes into the storage-house, and let it be for sustenance in My House. Test Me through this, if you please, … and see if I will not open up for you the heavenly portals, and pour down upon you blessing without measure.
The Maggid asks: Why did Hashem choose specifically the mitzvah of tithing, as opposed to some other mitzvah, as the means through which we can “test” Him? The Maggid answers via an analogy. Imagine a cloth merchant coming to town with a wagon full of cut cloth. The buyers ask him how long the cuttings are, and he answers that all of them are 10 meters long. Suppose a buyer does not believe the seller, and wishes to verify his statement. He is not going to measure every single cutting in the wagon, for it would take a great deal of time to do so, and this is not the way people do business. Rather, he will sample one cutting from the stock and measure it, and thereby draw a conclusion about the entire stock. Which cutting will the buyer choose to measure? Obviously he will pick the cutting that looks to him to be the shortest, so that verifying its length will lead to a firm conclusion about the rest.
Similarly, Hashem approached us with a large stock of “merchandise” – 613 mitzvos. He told us that these mitzvos have special power to bring us success and blessing. But He recognized that we, as mortals of limited understanding, would not accept the “deal” wholeheartedly without testing the mitzvos and verifying their power. And He realized that it would not be practicable for us to check all 613 mitzvos; instead, we would seek to check one mitzvah and extrapolate from it to all the other mitzvos. Which mitzvah would be the right one for us to choose? Hashem graciously extended us good advice about this issue: He told us to verify His “claim” via the mitzvah of tithing, for it appears on the surface that this mitzvah leads to a loss. After we see that the mitzvah of tithing in fact brings us blessing, we can confidently conclude that the same is true of all the rest of the mitzvos.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Metzora

Parashas Metzora continues the discussion begun in parashas Tazria regarding the skin disease tzaraas. The Gemara in Arachin 15b lists several offenses for which a person is stricken with tzaraas. One of these offenses is evil speech (lashon hara). The root cause of evil speech, the Maggid explains, is hatred that a person harbors in his heart against his fellow man. Such hatred is often triggered by jealousy, which, our Sages say (Avos 4:21), drives a person out of the world. If a person who engages in evil speech were aware of the powerful effect of his words – the indictments against him in heaven and the damage he causes to himself through his evil speech – he would not allow himself to speak evil even against someone he thoroughly hates. For the evil words he speaks against someone he hates to disgrace him cause great harm even to those he loves, and, indeed, to the entire world. The Midrash reflects this principle. Regarding the wicked man, it is written (Tehillim 50:20): “You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your mother’s son (בְּבֶן אִמְּךָ).” The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 6:9): “If you accustom your tongue to speaking evil against someone who is not of your people (בֶּן אֻמָּתְךָ), in the end you will come to slander those who are of your people.”
Right before the verse that this Midrash quotes, it is written (Tehillim 50:19): “You dispatched your mouth toward evil, and your tongue adheres to deceit.” The Maggid explains the two verses as follows. A person who engages in evil speech might think he can limit the scope of his aspersion and direct it only toward evildoers. But he is deceiving himself. Ultimately he will also cast aspersion against men of good character.
In order to punish the person who speaks evil and to demonstrate the powerful negative effect that words can have, Hashem smites him with the disease of tzaraas. The status of a person with a tzaraas-like lesion depends on the word of the Kohen who renders a ruling on the lesion. If the Kohen declares him defiled, he is defiled, and if the Kohen declares him pure, he is pure. Indeed, Mishnah Negaim 3:1 teaches that, although anyone is qualified to examine a tzaraas-like lesion and tell the Kohen how to rule, the status of the afflicted person as defiled or pure is determined solely by the Kohen’s declaration. Similarly, when a person with tzaraas believes he is healed, he must go to a Kohen and have the Kohen declare him healed. In this way, the tzaraas sufferer learns the power of words, and in the future will restrain himself from evil speech.
David Zucker, Site Administrator