Post Archive for August 2014

Haftaras Shoftim

This week’s haftarah begins as follows (Yeshayah 51:12-15):
I, yea I, am the One who comforts you. Who are you, that you are afraid of mortal man, of a son of man who will be made to be like grass – and have forgotten Hashem your Maker, who stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth, and fear continually all day long because of the oppressor’s fury, as he prepares to destroy – and where is the oppressor’s fury? … I am Hashem, your God ….
Last year we presented one of the Maggid’s interpretations of this passage (link here). We now present another one.
The key idea is that Hashem is the one and only absolute king in the universe. Various nations across the world are ruled by a person who acts as a king, but an earthly, mortal king holds his position as sovereign only because Hashem placed him in this position. An earthly king is merely a tool that Hashem uses to manage the world according to His will, bringing blessing and honor as He wishes to the upright and good, and bringing punishment as He wishes to evildoers. Shlomo HaMelech puts the matter as follows (Mishlei 21:1): “Like streams of water is a king’s heart in Hashem’s hand – to wherever He wishes he directs it.” Consequently, a person who is oppressed by an earthly king should not make the king the target of his complaints, for the king is not the one who decided to cause him suffering, but rather it is Hashem who willed it so. When Hashem decides that a certain person should receive blessing or suffer affliction, He puts into the king’s heart to act accordingly, thus carrying out His will.
A number of verses reflect this principle. One such verse describes Hashem declaring (Yeshayah 10:5): “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger; My wrath is a staff in their hand.” Similarly, the Assyrian king Sancheirev declares (Yeshayah 36:10): “And now, is it without [a directive from] Hashem that I have come up to this land to destroy it? Hashem told me, ‘Go up against this land and destroy it.’” In the same vein, Hashem declares elsewhere (Yeshayah 44:24-28): “I am Hashem, who has made everything … who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd – he will fulfill all My wishes.’”
Whenever someone brings blessing or misfortune to someone else, both the person who is acting and the person who is being acted upon should understand clearly what is really taking place, and recognize that nothing happens in this world, either for good or for bad, other than what Hashem wills. Thus it is written (Eichah 3:37): “Who [ever] spoke and it came to pass, something that Hashem did not command.” In particular, when a person is being oppressed, it is not his earthly oppressor whom he should fear, but rather Hashem. He should tremble over Hashem’s wrath, which He is channeling through the earthly oppressor, using the oppressor as a tool to mete out retribution according to His will.
In this vein, Yeshayah exclaims (verses 42:18-19): “O deaf ones, listen; and blind ones, gaze to see! Who is blind but My servant, and deaf as My messenger whom I send?” As we know, the term “deaf” is often used to refer to someone who does not understand what he hears, and the term “blind” is often used to refer to someone who does not properly interpret what he sees. We can regard the passage we just quoted as speaking of a situation where one person is causing suffering to another. The “messenger” is the person doing the acting, and the “servant” is the one being acted upon. The person being acted upon fails to see and recognize that Hashem is the true source of the suffering he is experiencing, while the person doing the acting does not understand that Hashem is directing his actions in a deliberately calculated way. Elsewhere, Michah uses the metaphor of hearing to convey a similar message (verse 6:9): “Listen to the rod [of punishment] and [recognize] who directed it.” 
This is the message that Yeshayah is conveying in our haftarah. He asks us: “Why do you fear your mortal oppressor? You perceive the oppressor preparing to exercise force against you and destroy you, and so all day long you fear him. But where is the oppressor’s fury? That is, what is the source of the oppressor’s fury? Think carefully and understand that it is from the One On High that the fury is pouring forth. It is Hashem alone that you should fear. Repent from your wayward conduct and plead to Him for atonement.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Re’eh

In this week’s parashah, it is written (Devarim 13:1): “The entire word that I am commanding you, guard it to fulfill it – do not add to it and do not subtract from it.” The directive not to add to or subtract from the Torah is stated previously in parashas Vaeschanan (Devarim 4:2), and I present here an explanation based on the Maggid’s commentary on that parashah.
The Maggid explains the directive with a parable. A man of modest means made a match for his son with the daughter of a close friend. In the discussions over the marriage arrangements, the man promised to furnish his son with three sets of clothes. His counterpart replied: “My dear friend, I know that you can afford only two sets of clothes. If you take it upon yourself to make an extra effort and provide three sets, which is beyond your means, you will be forced to have them made with cheap, low-quality material, and then the three sets taken together will be inferior to two good sets. So I ask for just two.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem knows our capabilities, and He designed the Torah’s mitzvos match them. He took care not to overburden us. In this vein, it is written (Micah 6:3): “O My people, what have I done to you, and how have I wearied you? Answer Me!” In connection with this verse, the Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 27:6):
In the edicts I have issued you, I have not burdened you. When you read the Shema, I have not required you to stand or [as a gesture of fear] to appear before Me with your hair disheveled, but rather I have told you to read it in your usual state, “as you sit in your house and as you walk on the way, as you get up and as you lie down” (Devarim 6:7). … I gave over to you ten species of animals [as permitted for food – they are listed in a later segment of this week’s parashah, Devarim 14:4-5]. Three of them are domesticated: the ox, the sheep, and the goat. And seven of them are undomesticated: the hart, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the pygarg, the antelope, and the mountain-sheep. But I have not burdened you and told you weary yourselves on the mountains to catch undomesticated animals to bring them as offerings before Me. Rather, I told you to bring Me domesticated animals as offerings.
Since Hashem carefully tailored the Torah to our capabilities, He told us not to add to the Torah by taking extra obligations upon ourselves and performing acts of service that He did not command. For if we do, we will inevitably come to subtract from the Torah in some other way, paying insufficient attention to some of the existing mitzvos and performing them sloppily or tardily.
In the directive we quoted at the outset, Hashem tells us to “guard” the mitzvos. The charge to “guard the mitzvos” is repeated in the Torah many times; we see that Hashem stresses this matter. The duty to guard the mitzvos is a key aspect of our relationship with Hashem. We should bear in mind the great love Hashem has for us. He regards us like a son. Thus, later in our parashah, the Torah states (Devarim 14:1): “You are children of Hashem your God.” Similarly, David HaMelech speaks of how Hashem regards him like a son (Tehillim 2:7): “You are My son; I have begotten you this day.” Hashem delights in us the way a father delights in an only son who was born to him in his old age. We can easily imagine how such a father watches over his son day and night. In the same way, Hashem constantly watches over us. If we consider how Hashem cherishes us and cares for us, we should feel great joy over our relationship with Him, and should keep Hashem and His Torah constantly in the forefront of our minds. Thus, in the first paragraph of the Shema, the Torah tells us (Devarim 6:5-6): “You shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon thy heart.” In the same vein, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 16:7-8): “I bless Hashem who advises me … I have placed Hashem before me constantly.”
Thus, rather than adding to the Torah, we should pay proper attention to what Hashem told us to do, fulfilling the mitzvos meticulously, eagerly, and with great love. Avraham set an example for us in the way he fulfilled Hashem’s command to bring his son Yitzchak as an offering (Bereishis 22): He woke up early, and personally saddled his donkey, chopped the wood, and carried the knife, and made sure that all necessary preparations had been made so that there would be no delays in fulfilling the mitzvah. If we follow his example, our deeds will shine with splendor.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Eikev

In this week’s parashah, Moshe says (Devarim 10:12-14):
And now, Yisrael, what does Hashem your God ask of you? Only to revere Hashem your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep Hashem’s commandments and His statutes which I command you this day, for your good. Behold – to Hashem your God belongs the heaven and the highest heaven, the earth and all it contains.
The Maggid discusses the directive to revere and love Hashem. We are Hashem’s servants, exerting ourselves throughout our lifetime to perform the 613 mitzvos that He commanded us, along with various rabbinical enactments, and receiving reward in return. Now, a servant must do what his master tells him in order to receive his wage, but he is not obliged to revere and love his master. Why is it different between us and Hashem, that we are obliged not only to serve Him, but also to revere and love Him?
The Maggid answers through an analogy. Imagine a rich man with a houseful of servants. Suppose he finds a destitute person on the street, and hires him as an additional servant. Surely this servant is obliged to love his master, for he should recognize that the rich man hired him not out of need (for he had plenty of more capable servants already) but out of compassion for him. Now let us consider a modified version of this story. Suppose the rich man comes across an orphan boy who has no one to look after him, and he takes the boy into his home, treats him like a son, and says to him: “I will provide you food and fine clothing, and I will pay you ten gold pieces a month, and your duty will be to serve as a study companion to my son, studying with a tutor along with him.” If this boy has an understanding heart, he will realize that he owes great love to his master, for his master is giving him food, clothing, and a salary, and his only duty involves an activity that is really for his own good.  
This is how it is between us and Hashem. Hashem has taken us on as His servants, and commanded us to carry out certain activities He has specified in the Torah, i.e., mitzvos. But He gains no benefit from what we do, for the entire universe is His, and there is nothing we can give Him. As it is written (Iyov 35:7): “If you have been righteous, what have you given Him, or what could He take from your hand?” Rather, the mitzvos are really for our own good. All that Hashem asks of us, Moshe tells us, is to revere and love Him as we carry out His directives. And surely we can see, if we reflect on what Hashem gives us, that we owe Him this reverence and love. Moshe goes on to elaborate, noting that Hashem, as master of heaven and earth and all they contain, has no lack of servants. He already has myriads of servants much more eminent than we are: the ereilim, serafim, ofanim, and other celestial beings. It is thus clear that He took us on as His servants not out of need, but out of compassion for us.
Later in the parashah, we read the second paragraph of the Shema. This paragraph begins as follows (Devarim 11:13): “And it will be, if you earnestly pay heed to My mitzvos which I command you this day, to love Hashem your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul.…” We can read this verse as calling on us to reflect earnestly on our foundation of our relationship with Hashem and gain an understanding of the true nature of this relationship, along the lines we have explained above. Mitzvos – they are not meant for Hashem’s benefit, for, as we explained, Hashem has no need to receive anything from us. Which I command you – even though Hashem has myriads of celestial beings ready to serve Him, nonetheless He has directed the mitzvos specifically to us, mortal man, creatures with a coarse physical body. This day – it is only in this world, during our limited earthly lifetime, that we are required to perform the mitzvos, while in the next world we receive eternal reward. If we reflect on these points, we will be automatically led to draw close to Hashem – to love Him so dearly that we are eager to serve Him personally, rather than just support others who serve Him. With all your heart (בכל לבבכם) – here the use of the term לבבכם rather than לבכם indicates that we are to serve Hashem with “both our hearts,” e.g. with both our good inclination and our evil inclination.
The evil inclination focuses on the pursuit of pleasure. It naturally tends to regard the mitzvos as chores that Hashem wants us to do for His benefit, and hence to be lackadaisical about carrying them out, saying to ourselves, “Not them and not their reward.” But if we lead our evil inclination to reflect carefully on the mitzvos, it will realize that they are in fact a kindness that Hashem extends to us, to bring us blessing and grant us eternal life in the next world. And when the evil inclination comes to grasp the true nature of the mitzvos, it will agree to perform them. It is just as in the analogy we presented above. There, the servant boy takes note of everything his master gives him – a place to stay, sumptuous food to eat, and a tutor to educate him – and he sees that the payment arrangement between him and his master should really go the other way around: Instead of the master paying him, he should be paying his master for all the benefits he provides him. Similarly, if we reflect carefully, we can see that we should be paying Hashem for arranging for us to partake of the sublimity of His holy Torah, with its mitzvos that bring blessing and eternal life.
A verse in Tehillim reflects this idea. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 116:12): “How can I repay Hashem for all the good He has bestowed upon me (מה אשיב לה' כל תגמולוהי עלי)?” Note that the term David uses for “good” is גמול, a term often used to mean “compensation.” Accordingly, on a homiletical level we can break up the verse into two parts – מה אשיב לה'? כל תגמולוהי עלי! – and read it as follows: “How can I repay Hashem? He gives me compensation for keeping the Torah, but in truth all this compensation should be going from me to Him!”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeschanan

This week’s parashah begins with Moshe describing his (unsuccessful) prayers to Hashem to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. This prompts the Midrash to present various teachings regarding prayer, and the Maggid follows suit. I present here a selection from the Maggid’s teachings about prayer in his commentary on the parashah; this teaching ties in with the teaching from the Maggid’s commentary on Megillas Eichah that I presented in my last d’var Torah.
The Maggid poses the question of why we have a fixed daily schedule of prayer. We might well think that a person needs to plead to Hashem for help only when he is in a situation of misfortune, and since such situations arise only episodically, we do not need a regular prayer schedule. The purpose of the fixed prayer schedule can be explained in various ways. Here, the Maggid explains that it befits a person to pray not only over his own misfortunes, but also over the misfortunes of others. Thus, when Iyov cried out to Hashem over his suffering, he cited as a point in his favor the concern he showed previously for others in distress (Iyov 30:25): “Did I not weep for those in hardship? Did I not show sorrow for the destitute?” The Gemara in Berachos 12b says that one who is aware of his fellow man’s distress but does not ask Hashem to show the person mercy is a sinner. At any given time, within the sphere in which a person lives, there are many people suffering misfortune, and so there is never any lack of something to pray about. Accordingly, a regular prayer schedule makes eminently good sense. The Maggid adds that if a person makes it his practice to pray on behalf of others, then on occasions when he is in distress and others are praying on his behalf, Hashem answers these prayers.
The Maggid links the discussion above with a teaching in Berachos 6b. The Gemara says that if someone sets for himself a fixed place for prayer, the God of Avraham is his aid, and when he dies, people say about him, “Alas, a humble man, a pious man, a disciple of our forefather Avraham.” When a person sets for himself a fixed place for prayer, this shows that he takes the daily prayer schedule seriously, and it is thus clear (since he himself is not always in distress) that he takes care to pray on behalf of others. And then, measure for measure, Hashem grants him aid when he suffers trouble. Moreover, when he dies his neighbors earnestly mourn his death, for they recognize the concern that he showed for them.
The Maggid adds further that a prayer that someone offers on behalf of others is more easily accepted than a prayer he offers on his own behalf. The Maggid explains this principle with a parable. A man is traveling around a city collecting charity for a needy neighbor. In the marketplace, he runs across someone who hates him. He says to him: “Don’t refuse to give me a donation in order to cause me grief. I am not collecting for myself, but for a neighbor. You will not be doing me any good turn if you give, and you will not be causing me any harm if you refuse – you will only be helping or harming the person I am collecting for.” The parallel is as follows. When a person prays for himself, his prayer is opposed by accusing angels who argue that, on account of his sins, he does not deserve to be answered. But when a person prays for someone else, the angels do not step in to block the prayer; instead, they offer their support.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Megillas Eichah

I was planning to post this D’var Torah for Shabbos Chazon, but was kept from doing so by a technical problem with my server. I present here an excerpt from the Maggid’s commentary on Megillas Eichah. In Eichah 3:39 it is written: “Over what shall a living man mourn? A bold man – over his losses” (here, in line with the Maggid’s commentary, I am rendering חטאיו as losses rather than as sins, cf. Melachim Alef 1:21 – “And I and my son Shlomo will be disentitled (חטאים).”) The Maggid interprets the verse as an exhortation to the individual not to separate himself from the community, but rather to mourn their troubles at all times. A person should mourn even when his neighbors suffer a misfortune that does not affect him at all. He should worry that the cup of misfortune may later pass on to him as well.
The Maggid brings out the point through a parable about patients visiting a doctor’s office. As we know, when a doctor approaches a patient to give him some bitter medicine to drink, the patient naturally tends to become frightened and upset. The Maggid’s parable involves a scenario where several patients were waiting together in a doctor’s office. The doctor brought out a large container filled with medicine and set it down in front of one of the patients. The patient was very distressed because he thought that the whole container was just for him. Meanwhile, the other patients were not frightened at all, because they thought the same. The doctor said to them: “What are all of you thinking? Do you really believe that this patient will drink the whole thing and you will not take the slightest sip? Not so! Each will drink his portion.”
The parallel is clear. When trouble strikes some of the people, the rest should not feel smug and say, “We will have peace.” Instead they should worry that eventually the cup of misfortune might – God forbid – pass on to them also. A person should always be concerned when misfortune strikes his neighbor. In this vein, we can read the verse as asking the following rhetorical question: ““Over what shall a living man mourn? A bold man – over his own losses alone?” A person should not lament only over his own troubles. It is better for all of us to join together to plead for mercy, each for his fellow. Then we all will be given a remedy for our troubles together.
David Zucker, Site Administrator