Post Archive for June 2014

Parashas Chukas

This week’s parashah begins with the law of the red heifer, a classic example of a chok – a Torah law whose reason is hidden from us, and which we must simply accept as a Divine edict. The Torah introduces the topic by stating (Bamidbar 19:2): “This is the law (chok) of the Torah, that Hashem commanded, saying ….” The Maggid brings out a key lesson about the chukim.
If we were sufficiently discerning, we would understand the benefit behind the Torah’s directives and would readily adopt them. Just as the body keenly recognizes what is good for it and what causes it harm, so, too, the man whose heart is pure and attuned to matters of the soul is acutely aware of what is good for his soul and what harms it. This is why Hashem did not present the Torah to our forefathers as a mandate that they must follow – the holy forefathers, in their profound spiritual understanding, knew on their own what they needed to do to care for their souls. They kept the Torah’s laws without a direct mandate from Hashem because they understood how these practices were essential to their spiritual well-being.
In later generations, however, we were not as wise and pure of heart, and therefore were less aware of the regimen required to care for our souls. Some of the Torah’s laws we could grasp on our own, such as the prohibition against theft and the like. Other laws we could not possibly have come up with ourselves – laws such as tzitzis, tefillin, mezuzah, lulav, and so on. Accordingly, Hashem saw that the time had come for Him to tell us what to do, and so He gave us the Torah. As David HaMelech puts it (Tehillim 119:130), Hashem’s Torah provides light to guide simpletons. Hashem’s giving us the Torah is like a doctor giving his patient instructions. Although Hashem presented the Torah to us as a set of edicts, we should realize that they are for our own good.
In this vein, it is written (Iyov 28:27): “Then He saw it [wisdom] and recorded it; He prepared it and probed it.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 40:1): “Then He saw it and recorded it – at Sinai. He prepared it – at the Tent of Meeting. And probed it – at the plains of Moav [where Moshe reviewed the Torah in depth before the Jewish People].” The passage in Iyov continues (Iyov 28:28): “And unto man He said: ‘Behold, the fear of Hashem is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.’” Although we accepted Hashem’s Torah out of great terror, for Hashem held Mount Sinai over us like a barrel (Shabbos 88a), in truth the fear of Hashem is wisdom – simple common sense dictates that we fear Hashem, follow His directives, and turn away from what He tells us is evil. We should not view the chukim as an aberration. On the contrary, were it not for the chukim, Hashem would not have needed to give us the Torah, and thus the chukim represent the Torah’s very essence.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Korach

The haftarah for parashas Korach is a section in Shmuel Alef presenting Shmuel HaNavi’s farewell address to the Jewish People; this section was chosen because Shmuel is a descendant of the sons of Korach – see Tachuma, Korach 5. Early in the address, Shmuel says (Shmuel Alef 12:3):
Here I am – Testify regarding me before Hashem, and before His anointed: Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I robbed? Whom have I coerced? From whose hand have I taken a ransom that I should avert my eyes from him? [Tell me], and I will make restitution to you.
I present here the Maggid’s commentary on this passage.
It is a basic tenet of our faith that Hashem alone is sovereign over heaven and earth. When a mortal man exercises rulership, it is solely because Hashem put him in this position of power, so that he may use his power to establish law and order and subjugate the wicked. In this vein, Yeshayah says (verse 32:1): “Behold, the king will rule for the sake of righteousness.” That is, the king’s role is to teach the people how to act righteously and uprightly. Similarly, when presenting the laws pertaining to a Jewish king, the Torah commands (Devarim 17:18-19):
And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him for himself two copies of this Torah in a book … and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear Hashem his God, to observe all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to do them.
The king is the people’s guide, to exhort them to do good and admonish them to shun evil. Thus Shlomo HaMelech states (Mishlei 24:21): “Fear Hashem, my child, and the king.” Fearing the king is part of fearing Hashem, for the purpose of a king is to teach the people wisdom and fear of Hashem. The Torah commands further (Devarim 19:20) that the king must not raise his heart above his brethren. The king must not exploit his position to advance his own honor; he must understand that his exalted station is an entrustment that Hashem granted him so that he may lead the people along the proper path. Accordingly, in regard to Shlomo HaMelech it is written (Divrei HaYamim Alef 29:23): “Shlomo sat on the throne of Hashem.” Shlomo understood that his throne was really Hashem’s and not his own; he never entertained the thought of priding himself over his position.
Speaking of Hashem’s sovereignty, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 145:13): “Your kingdom is the kingdom of all worlds.” Seemingly, it would have been more appropriate for David to say: “You are king over all worlds.” But David chose his words carefully. He is saying that the entire essence of all worldly kingdoms the role they play as part of Hashem’s kingdom, that Hashem established worldly kingdoms with their sovereigns in order to promote His honor. Thus, in the prayers of the Yamim Noraim, we say that Hashem grants kings sovereignty but the dominion is really His (הממליך מלכים ולו המלוכה) – that is, that Hashem grants kings sovereignty for His own sake. The same theme surfaces in David’s final address to the Jewish People. In its account of this address, the Bible describes David as “the man raised on high” (Shmuel Beis 24:1). David opens his address by saying (ibid. Beis 24:2): “The spirit of Hashem spoke through me, and His word was upon my tongue.” Here, David is saying: “My kingdom belongs to Hashem; He vested it in me so that I serve as His agent, to carry out justice and lead the people to fear Him. The words I speak are Hashem’s words.” David then continues (ibid. 23:3): “The God of Yisrael has said – the Rock of Israel has spoken to me – [Become a] ruler over men, a righteous one, who rules through the fear of God.” The righteous ruler recognizes that the sole purpose of his position is to instill fear of Hashem and promote his honor.
It was an established practice for Jewish leaders to vindicate themselves, in the course of a final address, for example, by pointing out that they did not deal with the people imperiously and did not take grandeur for themselves. Thus, in this week’s parashah, Moshe said to Hashem (Bamidbar 16:16): “I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs, nor have I wronged even one of them.” Likewise, David HaMelech, in his final address, testified that he used his position only to promote Hashem’s honor and not to glorify himself. He declared (Divrei HaYamim 29:11): “Yours, Hashem, is the greatness, and the strength, and the splendor, and the triumph, and the glory, indeed everything in heaven and on earth; Yours, Hashem, is the kingdom, and the sovereignty over every leader.” And in the passage from this week’s haftarah that we quoted at the outset, Shmuel vindicates himself similarly. Shmuel was not merely saying that he never took someone’s ox or donkey, and never robbed or coerced anyone. Rather, he was issuing a general declaration that he never used his leadership position for any kind of personal gain.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shelach

This week’s parashah begins with Hashem telling Moshe (Bamidbar 13:7): “Send forth for yourself men, and have them scout out the land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Yisrael. In Bamidbar Rabbah 16:8, the Midrash relates that the Jewish People asked Moshe to send out scouts, Moshe asked Hashem what to do, and Hashem replied: “I know what the people of the land are like, but since you asked, send forth men for yourself.” As Rashi says, Hashem was telling Moshe that He was not commanding the people to send forth scouts, but if they wanted to do so they should. The Maggid comments that Hashem’s answer, on the surface, seems odd – if Moshe had planned to do what the people wanted, he would not have asked Hashem what to do, but rather would have simply gone ahead and done it.
The Maggid sets out to explain the deeper meaning of what Hashem was saying. He begins by discussing three attitudes that a person can take in regard to caring for his needs. At one extreme is the attitude where a person puts all his faith in his own efforts, without turning to Hashem at all. At the other extreme, there is the attitude R. Shimon bar Yochai advocated, as related in Berachos 25b, where the person spends all his time learning Torah, and relies completely on Hashem to provide his needs. In the middle is the attitude R. Yishmael recommended for most people (ibid.), where a person combines Torah study with working for a livelihood, while bearing in mind that it is really through Hashem that he obtains what he needs, and not through “my strength and the might of my hand” (Devarim 8:17). The person following the middle path works not because he counts on his own efforts, but rather because Hashem set up the world in a way that calls for people to make some effort toward obtaining what they need, and he takes it upon himself to fulfill this Divine decree just as with any other.
The Maggid then enters into a general discussion of faith in Hashem. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 32:10): “The one who puts his faith in Hashem, kindness surrounds him.” If a person relies on Hashem to care for him, Hashem provides for him and protects him. Usually Hashem helps a person take the step of turning to Him, as it is written (Tehillim 10:17): “The desire of the humble You have heard, Hashem; guide their hearts and let Your ear be attentive.” When Hashem punishes the wicked, He also withholds this help from them, allowing their hearts to remain so clogged that they do not turn to Him for relief. Otherwise, as David says elsewhere (Tehillim 145:18), “Hashem is near to all who call upon Him.”
Speaking of the righteous, David says (Tehillim 112:7): “Of evil tidings he will not fear; His heart is steadfast, trusting in Hashem.” In Berachos 60a, Rava teaches that this verse can be read in both directions: When read as written, it means that the righteous man will not fear evil tidings because his heart is steadfast, trusting in Hashem – when read in reverse, it means that the righteous is steadfast, trusting in Hashem, and therefore he will not fear suffering. On the surface, it seems that the two readings bear exactly the same message. But the idea we just discussed enables us to grasp the difference between the two readings. Read as written, the verse’s message is as we just said: the righteous man will not fear evil tidings because his heart is steadfast, trusting in Hashem. But read in reverse, the verse is conveying a different message: If a person’s heart is steadfast and he puts is faith in Hashem, he has no need to fear evil tidings, for, on account of his faith, it is certain that Hashem will help him. In this connection, the Gemara relates the following episode: once, when Hillel was returning from a trip, he heard a great outcry in the city, and he said, “I am sure this is not coming from my house.” He knew that, because of his strong faith in Hashem, He would surely spare him this suffering.
With this background, the Maggid turns to the Midrash with which we began. We know that Yehoshua sent out scouts before entering Eretz Yisrael, and he was not criticized for doing so. Similarly, Hashem told Gid’on that if he felt fear over going to battle against the Midianites, he should spy on them beforehand, so that he could fortify his heart by hearing one Midianite say to another that the Jews would surely defeat them. We learn from these episodes that if someone is afraid about going to battle, he should take steps to fortify his heart; such steps are part of the normal effort that Hashem decreed a person must make effort to care for himself. The Jews of Yehoshua’s generation did not see the miracles that Hashem performed when He took the Jewish People out of Egypt, but had only heard about these miracles from their fathers, and it is human nature that hearing makes less of an impression than seeing. Yehoshua was thus perfectly right in sending out scouts. Likewise, Gid’on was not at fault for the fear he felt.
The Jews of Moshe’s generation, however, had seen with their own eyes the miracles that Hashem performed in Egypt. They should have been ready to march into Eretz Yisrael fearlessly, without sending scouts first. Accordingly, Hashem was not planning to command them to send scouts. But since they wanted to do so, it was evident that they harbored fear, and this fear made it necessary for them, as with Gid’on, to send the scouts to fortify their hearts.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behaalosecha

I present here an essay by the Maggid that links a passage in Megillas Ruth (which we read this week on Shavuos) to a passage in this week’s Torah parashah. In the parashah, the Torah records how the Jewish People bemoaned their life in the wilderness (Bamidbar 11:10): “And Moshe heard the people crying in their family groups, each one at the entrance of his tent ….” The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 15:24 tells us that they were not just crying in family groups: they were actually crying over their family groups. Specifically, they were crying over the laws in Vayikra 18 prohibiting marriages among certain relatives – marriages that previously were common. The people were troubled that marrying outside the family would weaken family ties.
If two relatives – a brother and sister, for example – would marry each other, the family ties would remain intact. Though the couple would be bound together in the special bond of marriage, this would not disrupt the family’s relationship with either of them. But when a man and a woman from different families get married, the bond of marriage between the two of them inevitably weakens the ties that each of them has with his or her family. Indeed, the Torah declares (Bereishis 2:24): “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall become as one flesh.” The Torah is saying that a man must loosen his ties with his parents so that his love for his wife will be complete. In the wilderness, each man cried at the entrance of his tent. Our Sages note that the word tent refers to a person’s wife. When a man would take leave of his family on his wedding day, he would weep.
We now turn to the passage in Megillas Ruth. After Boaz arranged his marriage with Ruth, the elders and the people at the gate said (Ruth 4:11): “May Hashem grant that the woman who is coming into your house be like Rachel and like Leah, who both together built the House of Yisrael.” They were trying to lead Boaz to truly cherish Ruth. The fact that Ruth was a Moabite convert was liable to reduce her appeal as a wife. Indeed, Elimelech’s closer relative, who had priority as redeemer, declined to marry Ruth for this reason. Hence all the people joined together to encourage Boaz by casting this apparent flaw as a point in Ruth’s favor.
The people reasoned with Boaz: “Hashem has done you a kindness by putting this woman into your hands. She is a convert, with no family ties to worry about. And so she will cleave to you totally.” The same logic surfaces in an episode involving Yaakov and his wives Rachel and Leah. When Yaakov was preparing to leave the house of his father-in-law Lavan to return to his own family, he was concerned that his wives would be uncomfortable with the move. Therefore he took them to the field to discuss the matter at length, as the Torah relates (Bereishis 31:4-13). Rachel and Leah replied (ibid. 31:14-15): “Have we any longer a share or inheritance in our father’s house? Behold, we are like strangers to him ….” They reassured Yaakov by telling him that they had no qualms about leaving their father’s house to cleave to him; there was no problem of disrupted family ties. Hence, when the elders and the people at the gate encouraged Boaz about his marriage to Ruth, they alluded to this episode: “May Hashem grant that the woman who is coming into your house be like Rachel and like Leah ….”
David Zucker, Site Administrator