Post Archive for May 2014

Parashas Naso

This week’s parashah discusses several topics related to the Jewish People’s setting up camp in the wilderness. In the middle of the parashah, the Torah records the blessing that Hashem told the Kohanim to convey to the Jewish People (Bamidbar 6:24-26): “May Hashem bless you and safeguard you. May Hashem shine His countenance upon you and be gracious toward you. May Hashem lift up His countenance toward you and establish among you peace.” Right afterward, the Torah goes on to discuss the completion of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its inauguration. The Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 12:1):
“It was on the day Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan” (Bamidbar 5:1). Thus it is written (Tehillim 85:9): “I hear what the Almighty, Hashem, speaks – for He speaks of peace to His people and to his devout ones ….” R. Berechyah HaKohen said in the name of R. Yehudah bar Siemon: “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe, ‘In the past, there was animosity between Me and My children … but now that the Mishkan has been built there is love between Me and My children, peace between Me and My children.’” … And how do we know that the verse from Tehillim is speaking about the Mishkan (משכן)? We know from the verse right afterward (ibid. 85:10): “Indeed, His salvation is near to those who fear Him, in that [His] glory is set to dwell (לשכון) in our land.” When was their peace for Yisrael? When Hashem’s glory dwelt in the Mishkan. As it is written (Shemos 40:34): “And Hashem’s glory filled the Mishkan.” Said R. Shimon ben Lakish: “Why do we need to turn to a verse in Tehillim for this message? The message can be drawn from the Torah’s account. For it is written, ‘And establish among you peace,’ and then right afterward, ‘It was on the day Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan.’”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. When the Jews committed the sin of the golden calf, Hashem told Moshe that he was going to annihilate them, but after Moshe’s pleas for mercy He canceled the decree. The Torah states (Shemos 32:14): “And Hashem retracted the evil that He declared He would bring upon His people.” Let us examine the meaning of the phrase “retracted the evil.” Suppose Reuvein gets angry at Shimon because of some offense. There are two different ways that they can reconcile. The first possibility is that Shimon placates Reuvein, leading him to agree not to take any action against him; Reuvein considers his initial anger justified, but he forgives Shimon, so that from the time of the reconciliation and onward, Reuvein and Shimon are at peace. The second possibility is that it is proved that Shimon actually did not commit any offense, but rather some scoundrels spread a false rumor about him. In this case, Reuvein regrets that he got angry at Shimon in the first place. It is this second type of reconciliation that the Torah describes when it says that Hashem “retracted the evil” that He said He would bring on the Jewish People. Moshe said to Hashem (ibid. 32:13): “Why, Hashem, should Your anger flare up against Your people?” Moshe was not seeking merely to convince Hashem not to punish the Jews, but rather to show that there was no reason for Hashem to get angry at them. The Maggid elaborates on the matter in his commentary on the golden calf episode.
In truth, however, it is not correct to speak of Hashem “retracting” a previous stance. Mortal men undergo changes in attitude – sometimes angry and sometimes contented, sometimes merciful and sometimes cruel – but Hashem does not, far be it, undergo any such changes. Thus it is written (Malachi 3:9): “I, Hashem, have not changed.” Hashem knows everything; He does not make mistakes. Given this fact, we have to consider more carefully the contrast between Hashem “granting forgiveness” and Hashem “retracting His anger.” The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed), sheds light on this matter. He explains that the Torah’s descriptions of Hashem’s attitude and conduct are only figurative, indicating by analogy the nature of the effects that are taking place within the world at a given moment. Thus, when the Torah speaks of Hashem “getting angry” over a person’s sin, it is describing the evil effects that a sinner causes through what he did. Likewise, when the Torah speaks of Hashem “retracting His anger,” it is describing the peace that ensues when a sinner repents – there is no longer cause for any evil to come upon the person, for he has changed himself by repenting and has rectified the damage he caused. More precisely, when the Torah says that “Hashem retracted the evil that He declared He would bring upon His people,” it means that Hashem not only forgave the people for the sin they had just committed, but also graciously infused them with added holiness that enabled them to avoid provoking His “anger” in the future, so that there would no longer be any animosity between Him and the people – it will be as if there never was any cause for Hashem to show anger toward the people.
This is what the Midrash is describing when it expounds on the passage in Tehillim. In its entirety, the first verse in the passage reads as follows: “I hear what the Almighty, Hashem, speaks – for He speaks of peace to His people and to his devout ones, and they will not revert to folly.” The psalmist says the people will no longer commit the misdeeds that they committed in the past. The passage then continues:  “Indeed, His salvation is near to those who fear Him, in that [His] glory is set to dwell in our land.” In the first half of this verse, the psalmist is associating the people’s being delivered from misfortune with the people themselves, and not with Hashem. In other words, the deliverance is not due to Hashem restraining Himself from anger, but rather to the people’s increased level of spiritual and moral excellence. In the second half of the verse, the psalmist indicates the explanation: the Mishkan provided the people added holiness that enabled them to achieve this higher level.
We can now understand well the words of R. Shimon ben Lakish at the end of the Midrash. R. Shimon ben Lakish said: “Why do we need to turn to a verse in Tehillim for this message? The message can be drawn from the Torah’s account. For it is written, ‘And establish among you peace,’ and then right afterward, ‘It was on the day Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan.’” Hashem told the Kohanim to convey to the people the blessing that He establish true peace among them – namely, peace from the incitements of the evil inclination. The Mishkan served as the means through which the people would attain this peace.
The Gemara in Sukkah 52a speaks about this peace with the evil inclination, expounding on one of Shlomo HaMelech’s teachings (Mishlei 25:21-22): “If your nemesis is hungry, feed him bread, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for through this you will be scooping coals [to heap] on his head, and Hashem will pay you reward (ה' ישלם לך) [see Rashi’s commentary on the Gemara for an explanation of the first half of this verse]. The Gemara tells us: Do not read ישלם לך – He will pay you reward. Instead read ישלימנו לך – He will reconcile your nemesis with you, so that he will no longer badger you with his incitements.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bamidbar

The Midrash on this week’s parashah expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:12):
Avraham was blessed in terms of the stars, as it is written (Bereishis 13:5): “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 shall your offspring be!’” Yitzchak was blessed in terms of the sand, as it is written (Bereishis 22:17) [The angel speaking in Hashem’s name to Avraham after he put Yitzchak on the altar as an offering]: “I shall surely bless you, and I will surely make your offspring abundant like the stars of the heavens, and like the sand on the seashore.” And Yaakov was blessed in terms of the dust, as it is written (Bereishis 29:14): “And your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth.” Avraham’s blessing was fulfilled in Moshe’s days, as it is written (Devarim 1:10): “Hashem, your God, has multiplied you and – behold – you are like the stars of the heavens in abundance.” Yaakov’s blessing was fulfilled in Bilaam’s days, as it is written (Bamidbar 23:10): “Who has counted the dust of Yaakov?” And Yitzchak’s blessing was fulfilled in Hoshea’s days, as it is written (Hoshea 2:1, homiletically): “The number of the Children of Yisrael was like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured and cannot be counted. And it will then be, in the place where it had been said of them, ‘You are not My people,’ it will be said of them, ‘Children of the Living God!’” Now, since Yitzchak was the one blessed in terms of the sand, it should have been written, “The number of the Children of Yitzchak was like the sand of the sea.” But it is not written this way, but rather, “The number of the Children of Yisrael was like the sand of the sea.” Why? Because at the time that our forefather Yaakov left to go to Paddan-Aram, Yitzchak conveyed to him the blessing of the sand, as he said to him (Bereishis 25:4): “May He give you the blessing of Avraham.” … Said R. Chama bar Chanina: “Thus he said to him, ‘I am giving you the blessing with which Avraham and I were blessed together.” I shall surely bless you (ברך אברכך) – a blessing for the father and a blessing for the son. And I shall surely make your offspring abundant (הרבה ארבה את זרעך) – abundance for the father and abundance for the son. Like the stars of the heavens, and like the sand on the seashore. This blessing Yitzchak conveyed to Yaakov. And therefore it is written: “And the number of the Children of Yisrael was like the sand of the sea.”
The Maggid interprets this Midrash in terms of another Midrash, which reads as follows (Vayikra Rabbah 1:5):
It is better that it should be said to you, ‘Come up here,’ than that you be brought low before the prince (Mishlei 25:7). R. Akiva expounded on this verse in the name of R. Shimon ben Azzai: “Distance yourself two or three seats from the place you deserve to have and sit there until they tell you to come up, rather than coming up and have them tell you to go down. It is better that they should tell you “come up, come up,” than that they tell you, “go down, go down.” And thus Hillel said: “My bringing myself low is what elevates me, and my elevating myself is what lowers me.”
Yitzchak advised Yaakov along these lines, telling him: “Although in the eyes of others you may be as eminent as the stars, you should regard yourself as being like sand, and then you will maintain hold on your blessing. But if you raise yourself high, then in the end the blessing will turn into a curse. For it is Hashem’s way to bring the proud low and raise the lowly high.” Yaakov took Yitzchak’s advice. Therefore Hoshea says: “And the number of the Children of Yisrael was like the sand of the sea.” And then Hoshea continues: “And it will then be, in the place where it was said of them, ‘You are not My people,’ it will be said of them, ‘Children of the Living God!’” The Jewish People’s humility will be cause for them to be praised.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bechukosai

In this week’s parashah, the Torah describes the blessings Hashem will grant us if we obey His word and the punishments He will bring on us if we disobey. Near the end of the segment describing the punishments, Hashem says (Vayikra 26:44): “But despite all this, though they are in the land of their enemies, I did not reject them and I did not abhor them to destroy them, to break My covenant with them, for I am Hashem their God.” The Gemara in Megillah 11a expounds as follows (see the Gemara right afterward for a variant version, and Esther Rabbah Pesichasa 4 for a third version):
I did not reject them – in the days of the Greeks. And I did not abhor them – in the days of Nevuchadetzar. To destroy them – in the days of Haman. To break My covenant with them – in the days of the Persians [in other versions, “the Romans”]. For I am Hashem their God – in the days of Gog and Magog [i.e., at the time of the great war in the end of days, to be followed by the era of Moshiach].
The Maggid offers several commentaries on this teaching. In a previous post, we presented one of them; here we present another.
The Maggid builds on the following Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 79:2):
A Song of Ascents. “Greatly have they distressed me since my youth,” let Yisrael now declare” (Tehillim 129:1). Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to him: “And have they subdued you?” He said back to Him (ibid. 129:2): “Greatly have they distressed me since my youth, and also they have not subdued me.”
This interchange may be understood in several ways. The most natural interpretation is that we are praising Hashem for rescuing us from our enemies. But the Maggid suggests another interpretation: that we are lamenting how Hashem repeatedly puts us in the hands of oppressors – each time He rescues us, but afterward He sends another oppressor against us. It is like a penal officer whipping a criminal, letting him recover, and then whipping him again. Similarly, it seems that Hashem grants us respite only in order to subject us to more suffering. In this vein, Yirmiyahu laments (verse 8:18, homiletically), “He enables me to withstand the sorrow, and my heart is sick within me” – our hearts are sick over the way Hashem continually fortifies us and then afflicts us again. But if we reflect on the situation, we realize that Hashem must have something good in store for us for the future – otherwise, He would simply let us perish. Accordingly, the Gemara teaches us that the ongoing cycle of affliction, deliverance, and more affliction is itself proof that Hashem is our God, and He will raise us high in the end of days.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behar

This week’s parashah discusses caring for the poor. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 41:2): “Fortunate is he who pays mind to the needy; on the day of trouble Hashem will deliver him.” The Gemara in Nedarim 40a comments: “There is no needy one (דל) other than a sick person, as it is written (Shmuel Beis 13:4), ‘Why are you sick (דל) like this?’” Now, the word דל is used countless times in the Bible to mean needy, so it is odd, the Maggid says, that on account of a single instance where דל is used to mean sick the Gemara equates דל with sick. The Maggid explains the Gemara as follows. There are two types of benefactors who provide aid to the poor. There is the benefactor who aids a poor person only when he knocks on his door, describes his plight, and pleads for help. And then there is the benefactor who actively pays mind to the poor – who, out the goodness of his heart, approaches poor people and asks them about their situation. There is a key difference between these two types. Suppose a poor person falls ill and is unable to go begging door to door. In such a case, a benefactor of the first type will not show the person any compassion, for he will not know of the person’s needs. But it is different with a benefactor of the second type, who is always looking into how others are faring. If he notices that the person has not been around, he will for sure ask about his welfare, and then go to visit him to see what he needs and provide help.
Hashem similarly has two different modes of relating to people: There is the mode of “he will call to me and I will answer him” (Tehillim 91:15), and then there is the mode of “and it will be that before they call, I will answer” (Yeshayah 65:24), which means that even when a person does not present a prayer, Hashem will take note of the person’s needs and help him. And, as always, the way Hashem acts toward a person depends on the way the person himself acts. If someone helps poor people only when they approach him, Hashem deals with him via the mode of “he will call to me and I will answer him.” On the other hand, if someone makes it his business to look into the welfare of others, Hashem deals with him via the mode of “before they call, I will answer.” And as with the two types of benefactors, there is a key difference between these two respective modes. Occasionally there occur periods of trouble when Hashem is subjecting the world to judgment and the gates of prayer are closed. During such a period, a person whom Hashem deals with via the first mode will not receive Hashem’s help, whereas a person whom Hashem deals with via the second mode will.
We can now understand the Gemara’s comment on David’s statement. The Gemara is not saying that דל is not a general term for sick, but rather that in the context of David’s statement, the term דל refers specifically to a needy person who is also sick. David is saying that if a person actively pays mind to the poor, and helps him even when he is too sick to come and ask, Hashem will deliver him even in the harsh times when the gates of prayer are closed.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Emor

This week’s parashah opens with the following charge from Hashem to Moshe (Vayikra 21:1): “Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and tell them: ‘Each of you must not contaminate himself for a [dead] person among his people.’” The Maggid points out that the phrase “tell them” is not expressed in the usual future form תאמר but instead is expressed as ואמרת, a past tense form with the Biblical conversive prefix vav changing the tense from past to future. Moreover, in expressing His charge, Hashem uses double language: “say” and “tell them.” The Midrash takes note of the double language and remarks (Vayikra Rabbah 26:5): “In heaven, where the evil inclination does not abide, saying something once is enough, …, but on earth, where the evil inclination abides, if only instructions would be upheld after telling them twice!”
The Maggid explains this Midrash and the use of the word ואמרת through an analogy to a doctor caring for a patient. Suppose the doctor instructs the patient, saying: “Don’t eat sharp foods like onion and garlic, because they will make you very sick.” If the patient believes the doctor and follows his instructions, then he will not get sick. He thus will have heeded the doctor in advance of being stricken with illness. But suppose the patient does not listen to what the doctor said, eats sharp foods, and then gets sick. In this case, the doctor’s initial instructions will have not have helped keep his patient healthy, for the patient foolishly disregarded them. Nonetheless, the doctor’s words will have had two positive effects. First, the patient will now believe what the doctor said, and he will understand why he got sick. Second, after this event, if on another occasion the doctor tells the patient what to do, the patient will be careful to follow what he says. Thus, in this scenario, the patient will not have believed the doctor at the outset, before the fact, as the doctor had intended, but he will have believed the doctor after the fact.
Similarly, while the evil inclination leads us not follow Hashem’s instructions at the outset, at least after misfortune strikes we should heed what Hashem told us. In this vein, Yeshayah declares (verses 42:22-24):
But they are a looted and hounded people, all of them trapped in holes, and hidden away in prisons; they have been looted and there is no rescuer – they have been plundered with none to say ‘Give it back.’ Who among you will pay heed to this, will hearken and hear in retrospect? Who gave Yaakov over to plunder and Yisrael to robbers? Is it not Hashem, against whom we sinned? They did not wish to follow His ways, and they did not listen to His instruction.
We can now understand the Midrash about telling twice. Hashem is saying to Moshe: “The first time you instruct the people, your purpose will be to give them advance warning not to do things that will cause them trouble, so that they may avoid the misfortune. If this initial injunction is not enough, then the misfortune will come and they will regret what they did. You should then instruct them us a second time. You will not need to speak about the matter at length; it will be enough for you remind them of what you told them before. If they do not listen to you the first time, at least may it be that they will listen the second time.”
And we can now also understand Hashem’s use of the word ואמרת. Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 25:11): “Like golden apples in silver settings, so is a matter spoken of in the appropriate way.” The way a matter is expressed should be tailored to its nature. In our context, the nature of the second telling is to convert the past into the future: that in the future the people should listen when reminded of what they were told in the past. Accordingly, Hashem chose a phrasing that signals the past being converted into the future.
David Zucker, Site Administrator