Post Archive for July 2014

Parashas Masei

This week’s parashah begins as follows (Bamidbar 33:1-2):
These are the journeys of the Children of Yisrael, who went out from the land of Egypt, according to their legions, under the hand of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe wrote down their goings forth according to their journeys at Hashem’s command, and these were their journeys according to their goings forth.
The Midrash says (Bamidbar Rabbah 23:1): “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe, ‘Record the journeys that the People of Yisrael made in the wilderness, so that they will know what miracles I did for them.’” The Maggid discusses the purpose of making such a record, and more generally, the reason why Hashem performed so many miracles for the Jews in the wilderness when it was possible for Him to convey them to Eretz Yisrael in a more natural way. He also discusses why the second verse of the parashah initially places “goings forth” before “journeys,” but afterward reverses the order. He brings out the point with a parable.
A certain rich man had two sons. When the older son got engaged, he set aside for him a large sum of money to help him and his wife establish a household, and gave the money to a trustee. The younger son saw how much money his father was spending on his brother, and he asked his father: “Why did you give so much money to my brother, while not giving such a sum to me? Am I inferior, that I should get less than him?” The father replied: “Your older brother will soon be getting married, and I have set aside money for him to establish a household. You, on the other hand, are still young. Your turn will come. Write down what I gave your brother and have me sign on it, and when your time comes I will give you the same.” So younger son took a notebook and wrote the sum down.
Some time afterward, he saw fine cloth being delivered to the house, and he was very happy over this development. A tailor then came and took the older son’s measurements, while not involving himself with the younger son at all. The younger son started to cry, and he asked his father: “Why is it that with all this nice cloth the tailor is making clothes only for my brother and not for me?” The father replied: “I explained to you already that I am spending a lot of money on your brother because he is getting married. I am now preparing him a wardrobe. As I said before, write everything down, and when your time comes I will give you the same.” So the younger son stood by the tailor with his notebook and made a list of all the clothes he was making for his brother. Afterward, when his father bought items jewelry for the bride, he made a list of these as well. When all the clothes were finished and all the jewelry had been bought, the father put everything in a storage chest to be kept there until the wedding.
Shortly afterward, the chest was stolen. The father was very upset, especially since the wedding day was soon approaching. Having no choice, he went back to the cloth store, had new cloth delivered, and called in the tailor to prepare the wardrobe again. The younger son got out his notebook and wrote everything down. This incident repeated itself several times. Eventually the wedding was held. Some time afterward, when the groom was out on a stroll with his brother and his father-in-law, he recounted how his father had been so generous toward him, and even had his wardrobe remade several times because of the thefts. The younger brother remarked: “My brother, you don’t have the story quite right. You shouldn’t say that you had new clothes made because the previous clothes were stolen. Rather, you should say that the previous clothes were stolen so that new clothes would be made for you. I arranged for the thieves to come and steal the clothes, so that our father would have to get the wardrobe remade for you. I wanted our father to spend a lot on you, since he promised me that whatever he gave you he would also give me.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem told Moshe to take a pen and wrote down all the incidents that occurred to the Jewish People during their journeys in the wilderness. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 23:3 compares this process to a father taking his sick son to a doctor in a distant city, and afterward, on the return trip, recounting the incidents that occurred to them along the way to the doctor: “Here we slept, “Here we suffered a cold spell,” “Here you got a headache,” and so on. Similarly, Hashem told Moshe to make a record of everything the Jews went through in the wilderness: the spells of hunger and thirst, the battles, and so on. And He made a point of having the Torah describe the record as a list of “their journeys according to their goings forth,” i.e., their journeys according to their experiences. He did so in order that we would understand that these experiences did not occur by mere happenstance as the Jews encamped in various places, but rather it was just the opposite: Hashem deliberately arranged for us to travel to these places so that we would go through these experiences and have Him grant us a miraculous deliverance. Hashem’s aim in doing so was to set a series of precedents for later generations and, ultimately, for the final redemption, may it come speedily and soon.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mattos

Parashas Mattos recounts the Jewish People’s war of vengeance against Midian for leading them to sin. In last week’s parashah, the Torah relates Hashem’s command to wage this war (Bamidbar 25:17-18): “Harass the Midianites, and smite them, for they harassed you through their connivery with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor ….” The Maggid asks why Hashem made a point of specifying that the war was on account of the “matter of Peor” – what difference did it make whether the Midianites led the Jews to worship Peor or some other idol?
The Maggid answers this question with a parable. Two bums latched onto to a young lad, an only son. Both of them constantly encouraged the lad to drink liquor, ultimately leading him to become an alcoholic. But each of them had a different modus operandi. One of them would ask the lad to buy some liquor so that the two of them could drink together. The other would buy the lad liquor with his own money and give it to him to drink. When the father found out what was happening, he naturally was angry with both bums, but he was much angrier with the second one. The first bum’s actions could be chalked up to his own desire for liquor, but the second one clearly was acting with evil intent, deliberately trying to turn his son into a degenerate.
The parallel is as follows. If the Midianites had induced the Jews to worship some other idol, their action could be attributed to a desire to bring the idol honor. But the Peor cult was different. The Peor cult was aimed at despising all forms of authority; the Peor rite involved making a disgusting gesture of contempt toward the Peor. The Midianites were degenerates, and they wanted to turn the Jews into degenerates also. Accordingly, Hashem made a point of specifying that the Jews were to wage war against Midian on account of the “matter of Peor,” in order to emphasize the evil intent behind the Midianites’ actions.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Pinchas

This year parashas Pinchas is read before the three weeks, and so we have the rare opportunity to read the selection from Sefer Melachim designated as the haftarah for parashas Pinchas. I take this opportunity to present a portion of the Maggid’s commentary on this haftarah. The haftarah reports an episode about Eliyahu HaNavi, in line with the teaching in the Midrash and the Zohar that Pinchas and Eliyahu are the same person.
The haftarah relates that Eliyahu, after fleeing from Izevel, traveled to Mount Sinai and spent the night in a cave there. Afterward, the word of Hashem came to him and asked him: “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?” Eliyahu replied (Melachim Alef 19:10): “I have acted with great zealousness for Hashem, God of Legions, for the Children of Yisrael have forsaken Your covenant; they have razed Your altars and killed Your prophets by the sword, so that I alone have remained, and now they seek to take my life.” Hashem then told Eliyahu to go out of the cave and stand on the mountain before Him, and He sent him a vision (ibid. 19:11-12): “A great and powerful wind went before Hashem, smashing mountains and breaking rocks. ‘Hashem is not in the wind!’ After the wind came an earthquake. ‘Hashem is not in the earthquake.’ After the earthquake came a fire. ‘Hashem is not in the fire.’ And after the fire, a still, small voice.”
The Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 217 remarks that Eliyahu should have acted as a advocate for the Jewish People rather than as an accuser. The Midrash then reports an interchange between Hashem and Eliyahu, part of which is recorded in the haftarah. Hashem shows Eliyahu the vision, lets three hours pass, and then asks Eliyahu a second time why he is at the mountain. Eliyahu gives the same reply as before. Hashem then tells Eliyahu to annoint Elisha as a prophet, ultimately to serve as Eliyahu’s successor. In the end, Hashem tells Pinchas/Eliyahu: “You always act zealously. You acted zealously at Shittim on account of the Jewish People’s licentiousness, and now you act zealously again [on account of the Jewish People’s ceasing to practice circumcision]. By your life, every circumcision that the Jews perform, you will see with your own eyes!”
This Midrash is puzzling. It describes Hashem chastising Pinchas/Eliyahu for his zealousness, apparently charging him with repeating a misdeed. Yet, in our parashah, the Torah says explicitly that Hashem paid Pinchas/Eliyahu great reward for his zealous action at Shittim. Several times in the Bible and in Midrashim, Pinchas is praised for his action. So why now the criticism? And what is the meaning of the vision that Hashem showed Eliyahu?
The Maggid explains with a parable. A certain man’s only son got very sick, and he took him to a doctor for treatment. The doctor amputated the lad’s arm, and the lad then returned to health.  The father thanked the doctor and paid him his fee. Some time later, the lad got sick again, and the father took him back to the same doctor. The doctor gave the lad a drug to cause him to die. The father recognized the drug and he cried out: “You scoundrel! I brought my son to you so that you would heal him, not so that you would kill him! And now I see, looking back, that the first time you treated him, when you amputated his arm, you also meant to harm him. True, my son recovered from his illness, but evidently you wanted to turn him into a mutilated person. All along, your intent was to do him evil!”
The parallel is as follows. Previously, Eliyahu had declared (Melachim Alef 17:1): “By the life of Hashem, God of Yisrael, before Whom I stand, [I swear that] there will not be dew or rain during theses years, except by my word.” Later, Eliyahu presented an accusation against the Jewish People, that they had forsaken their covenant with Hashem – a sin for which they deserved to be wiped them out, far be it. Eliyahu’s presenting this harsh accusation could be viewed as showing that his earlier declaration about the rain was not intended to stir the people to repent, but rather simply to cause them harm. And likewise, it could be viewed as showing that Pinchas/Eliyahu’s zealous act at Shittim was not meant to bring them merit, but rather to indict them – to convey the message that they deserved to be wiped out. And so Hashem charged him with acting with ill will toward the Jewish People, and undeserving of the reward he previously received. Hashem knew that in truth Eliyahu did not act with evil intent, and He leveled against this charge against him only as a form of rebuke.
Hashem was telling Eliyahu that it not fitting for a people’s leader to indict them. Rather, a leader must take it upon himself to bear with the people’s conduct. He must strive to avoid castigating his people with fiery rebukes. Rather, he must endeavor to lead them gently toward the proper path, along the lines that Malachi later described (verse 2:5-6): “My covenant was with him, life and peace, …, the teaching  of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips – he walked before Me in peace and with fairness, and turned many away from iniquity.” This was also the message behind the vision Hashem showed Eliyahu. “My glory is not found, Hashem said, “in forces of destruction – wind, earthquakes, and fire – but, rather, it is found in a still, small voice.” With this, Hashem meant to teach Eliyahu, and each of us, to deal with others gently.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Balak and Pirkei Avos, Chapter 5

It is the custom in the summer months to study a chapter of Pirkei Avos on Shabbos afternoon. This week we study Chapter 5, and so I present one of the Maggid’s teachings on a Mishnah in this chapter. This teaching appears in Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas, Chapter 2. The teaching ties in with another Mishnah in Chapter 5 of Avos that contrasts the righteous Avraham with the wicked Bilaam, about whom we read in this week’s parashah.
The Mishnah states (Avos 5:20): “Yehudah ben Teima says, ‘Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.’” It is a deer’s nature, as it runs, to look back from time to time to see if it is being chased. Similarly, the Maggid says, as a person goes through life it is advisable to look back regularly to check whether the evil inclination is chasing after him to bring him down.
In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech says (Koheles 2:13): “I saw that the advantage of wisdom over foolishness is like the advantage of light over darkness. A wise man’s eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness.” Just as a person is able to see only when there is light, so, too, it is only through wisdom that a person can judge his ways. And “a wise man’s eyes are in his head” – that is, the wise man reflects on why his eyes are in his head rather than in some other part of his body, and he recognizes that Hashem, in His wisdom, deliberately created him this way, so that, as he proceeds along, he can turn his head around and look back to see if he is being chased. And then the wise man realizes that, similarly, he must be constantly on guard against the wiles of the evil inclination. The fool, by contrast, walks in darkness – even the hazards that are right in front of him he is unable to see.
Let us now bring out another facet of Shlomo’s statement that “a wise man’s eyes are in his head.” We start with an analogy. Consider a merchant who is traveling for business, with his son tagging along just for the enjoyment of travel. The merchant gains satisfaction from noting how far he has traveled, for this represents his progress toward his destination. The son, on the other hand, gains satisfaction from noting how much further there is to go, for this represents how much further opportunity he has to experience the enjoyment of travel. Similarly, a righteous man gains satisfaction from noting how long he has lived so far and reflecting on how much Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds he has amassed during this time. [In Ohel Yaakov, parashas Emor, in an essay we presented previously, the Maggid uses this idea to explain why the counting of the omer is conducted by counting up and not by counting down.] And he is apprehensive about the time he has left in this world, for he recognizes that he cannot know what the future will bring (see Koheles 8:7) and he is aware of the Sages’ teaching that a person should not believe in himself until the day of his death (Avos 2:5). It is different with the fool who spends his time indulging in temporary worldly enjoyments. For him, the time he has lived up to the present is no longer of any value to him, for the enjoyments he indulged in during this period have passed and are no more. He gains no further satisfaction from them. He gains satisfaction only from noting how much time he has left to indulge in further enjoyments. As Yeshayah puts it (verses 56:11-12): “And the dogs are greedy; they do not know satiety. These are the shepherds who cannot understand; they have all gone off on their own way, each to his own corner, for his own gain. ‘Come, I will fetch wine, and we will guzzle liquor, and tomorrow will also be like this, and even much greater.’” In this vein, the Mishnah in Avos 5:22 describes Bilaam as having an “expansive drive,” meaning that he had a voracious, insatiable desire for physical pleasure.
The contrast described above is reflected in Shlomo’s statement that “a wise man’s eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness.” The wise man realizes that Hashem put his eyes in his head so that he could turn back and take a look at his past life, to see whether it provides him satisfaction. He thus learns to use his time productively. But regarding the foolish and wicked, Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 12:7, homiletically): “The wicked turn back and are no more.” When the wicked man turns back to take a look at his past, he finds nothing left of it. Accordingly, he is led to focus all his attention on the future. But since he cannot know what the future will bring, he is like a man walking in the dark.

David Zucker, Site Administrator