Post Archive for October 2014

Parashas Lech-Lecha

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Bereishis 15:1-5):
After these events, the word of Hashem came to Avram in a vision, saying: “Fear not, Avram, I am your shield, your reward will be very great.” And Avram said: “My Lord, Hashem/God, what can You give me, seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascene Eliezer?” Then Avram said: “Behold, You have not granted me offspring, and, behold, my steward is going to inherit me.” And, behold, the word of Hashem came to him, saying: “This one shall not inherit you; rather, one who comes forth from your loins shall inherit you.” 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 (כה) shall your offspring be!”
The Maggid raises two questions arise concerning Hashem’s last statement. First, Hashem could have expressed himself more briefly, saying: “Count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your offspring be!” What is added by the phrase “look up, now, toward the heavens”?  Second, if Hashem were telling Avraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, we would have expected Hashem to use the term כמוהם, which is the appropriate term for a quantitative comparison. Why did Hashem instead use the word כה, which generally designates to a qualitative comparison? The Maggid then presents an insightful answer.
His starting point is to consider why it is impossible to count the stars. It is not so much because there are so many of them; rather, it is because they are constantly moving. Thus, the Gemara relates (Sanhedrin 39a):
The Emperor said to R. Gamaliel: “It is written (Tehillim 147:4), ‘He counts the number of the stars.’ What is the news in this? I can also count them!” R. Gamaliel brought some quinces, put them in a sieve, spun them around, and said: “Count them.” The Emperor replied: “Keep them still.” R. Gamaliel responded: “The heavens also spin around this way.”
We can now see the point behind the phrase “look up, now, toward the heavens.” A person versed in astronomy like Avraham could reasonably estimate the number of stars. But to determine their exact number by looking up at the heavens and counting them is out of the question, due to their constant motion.
Now, when Hashem told Avraham, “so shall your offspring be,” He was saying that the Jewish People would be innumerable in a similar qualitative sense – the Jewish population would be constantly shifting. If, far be it, a calamity would come upon the Jews in a certain place and reduce their number, there would be an increase in the number of Jews somewhere else. We can bring out the idea with an analogy. Suppose a large number of coins are lying on a table, and someone wants to count how many are there. To do so, he will take the coins off the table one by one while keeping count of how many have been removed. But now suppose that whenever the person takes a coin off the table, someone on the other side puts a coin on the table somewhere else. It will then be impossible to make the count. So it is with the Jewish People – if the Jewish population wanes in one area, it will wax somewhere else. The Midrash describes this pattern at the level of Jewish leaders. It is written (Koheles 1:5): “The sun rises and the sun sets.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 58:2): “Before the sun of Moshe set, the sun of Yehoshua rose. … And before the sun of Eli set, the sun of Shmuel rose.” The same pattern applies to the Jewish People as a whole – Hashem promised Avraham that the number of Jews would always remain substantial.
This idea is reflected, we could say, in a famous prophecy of Hoshea (verse 2:1): “The number of the Children of Yisrael shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured and cannot be counted. And it will be, that in place of it being said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ it will be said to them, ‘Children of the Living God!’” In Yoma 22b and Bereishis Rabbah 2:18, our Sages note that the first half of this verse seems self-contradictory: Hoshea first speaks of the number of the Children of Yisrael, and then says that they will be beyond number. We suggest that Hoshea is making the point that we brought out above. The sand of the sea has a definite number, but it is not practicable to determine what this number is. The same holds for the Jewish People, for the reason we have explained, and the second half of Hoshea’s statement reflects this reason. On occasion Hashem strikes down the Jews in one area of the world, saying: “You are not My people.” But correspondingly, in place of the Jews who were smitten, Hashem brings forth elsewhere a flourishing community of Jews, calling them “children of the Living God.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Noach

When Hashem commanded Noach to build the ark, He told him to make it with קנים – compartments (Bereishis 6:14). The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 31:9): “Just as a nest (קן) purifies a metzora [this refers to the two birds a metzora brings as part of his purification process], so, too, your ark will purify you.” What drove our Sages to interpret the word קנים in a sense so different from its plain meaning?
The Maggid explains as follows. It is clear that Noach and the animals were saved by sheer miracle, with natural processes playing no role whatsoever. Another Midrash about Noach, which Rashi quotes, brings out this fact (Bereishis Rabbah 31:12): “You were a [mere] carpenter – if not for the covenant I made with you, you would not [even] have been able to enter the ark. Thus it is written (Bereishis 6:18): ‘And I shall establish My covenant with you.’ When? When you enter the ark [as the verse continues: ‘and you shall enter the ark’].” [The commentaries on this Midrash explain that under the usual scheme of nature, Noach would not even have been able to enter the ark, for he would have been torn to bits by marauders and wild animals.] Thus, we might well ask why Hashem made Noach go through the trouble of making the ark – for even after he did so, a miracle was necessary to save him. Hashem could easily have saved Noach from the flood through miracle alone, without the ark.
It appears that the only reason Hashem told Noach to make the ark was to give him a chance to earn merit. The Midrash says that Noach deserved to perish in the flood along with the rest of the world, but he found favor in Hashem’s eyes (Bereishis Rabbah 28:9 on Bereishis 7–8). He did not have enough good deeds to his credit to deserve to be saved. Only by carrying out Hashem’s command to build the ark did he become worthy. In this connection, the Torah relates (Bereishis 6:22): “And Noach acted in accordance with everything that Hashem commanded him – thus did he do.” That is, Noach’s intent in building the ark was not to save himself, but rather simply to do as Hashem had commanded him. Thus, the Torah continues (ibid. 7:1): “And the Hashem said to Noach, ‘Come over to the ark – you and all your household – for I have seen you as being righteous before Me in this generation.” Noach made himself into a righteous man by fulfilling Hashem’s command faithfully.
We can now understand the Midrash we quoted at the outset. On the surface, this Midrash appears to interpret the word קנים in a sense very different from its plain meaning, but we can explain the Midrash in a way that fits with the plain meaning of the verse. The Midrash seeks to explain why Hashem made Noach go to the trouble of making a separate “nesting place” for each animal species. It is no answer to say that the purpose was to keep the animals from harming each other. Hashem could have accomplished that through a miracle, just as He kept the fruits from rotting, and just as He led all the animals and birds to come to the ark on their own in the numbers that He had specified (cf. Rashi on Bereishis 6:18 and 7:9). The Midrash answers by saying that just as a nest (קן) purifies a metzora, so, too, the work of building the ark purified Noach. Throughout the process of building the ark, Noach was like a person learning Torah and fulfilling its commandments. Hashem gave Noach detailed instructions regarding each and every aspect of the ark’s construction. The building of the ark thus became a laborious project. Hashem arranged matters in this way so that the work of building the ark would elevate Noach and make him worthy of being saved.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas V’zos HaBrachah

Parashas V’zos HaBrachah presents Moshe’s final blessings to the Jewish People, tribe by tribe, and then records Moshe’s death in the land of Moav, near the border of Eretz Yisrael. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 100:4 notes a difference between the Torah’s account of the mourning period following Moshe’s death and its account of the mourning period following Yaakov’s death. Regarding Moshe, the Torah states (Devarim 34:8): “The Children of Yisrael wept over Moshe in the plains of Moav thirty days, and then the days of weeping in the mourning for Moshe ended.” By contrast, regarding Yaakov, the Torah states (Bereishis 50:3-4): “… Egypt wept over him for seventy days. And the days of weeping for him passed ….” The Midrash remarks: “Regarding Moshe, for whom there was not [further] weeping, it is written ended, whereas regarding Yaakov, for whom there was [further] weeping, it is written passed.” Eitz Yosef explains that the mourning over Moshe ended after a short period because he was buried right after his death, whereas the mourning over Yaakov extended over a long period, passing from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael, where Yaakov’s body was taken for burial. The Maggid explains the Midrash in a different way. Yaakov’s family knew that Yaakov’s death was a milestone in the process of their being enslaved in Egypt, and so his death was followed by extended and bitter weeping. At the time of Moshe’s death, by contrast, the Jewish People were poised to enter Eretz Yisrael, conquer it, and settle securely within it, and so his death was followed by a short period of weeping, after which the people charged ahead.
The Maggid goes on to discuss how people tend not to appreciate the great loss they suffer when a righteous person dies. He builds on a passage in Yeshayah (verses 57:1-6): “The righteous man has perished, and no one notices … And now come over here, you children of the sorceress … Can I relent regarding these deeds?” Upon the death of a person who focused his life on worldly indulgences, his departure is clearly noticed and mourned by those he patronized – the food, liquor, clothing, or jewelry merchants – for they have now lost a good customer. But upon the death of a righteous person who refrained from worldly indulgences, no one notices, for no one feels a significant loss of profit. But, in truth, when a righteous person dies, his community suffers a great loss, for they lose the protection against Divine wrath that the righteous person provided them, and now face punishment. The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. When a young boy aggravates his father and makes him ready to lash out against him, often the boy’s mother saves him from being punished. But if the mother has to take a trip, the father is then free to call his son over and dish out heavy punishment.
One of Shlomo HaMelech’s teachings reflects this type of scenario. Shlomo declares (Mishlei 16:14): “The king’s wrath is [like] angels of death, but a wise man will appease it.” The Zohar (parashas Korach 177a) expounds: “It is like when a man is angry at someone, and they bring in the angry man’s young son – his great love for his son makes him forget his anger. … Likewise, so long as a righteous person is present, Hashem holds back His anger on his account and refrains from meting out punishment to sinners.”
The Maggid then notes a verse in Yirmiyah which, under a homiletical interpretation, chastises people who fail to take notice of a righteous person’s death. Yirmiyahu declares (verse 22:20): “Do not weep over a dead man, and do not shake your head over him – instead weep over the one walking on his way …” The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. A man went out collecting for a fund for ransoming Jews taken captive. He approached a miser and asked him to contribute also, but he did not want to do so. The collector then said to him: “You should know that you are also at risk of being taken captive, so you really ought to contribute to the ransom fund, if not for the benefit of the Jew who is now being held captive, then for your own benefit. At the moment you are free to walk on your way, but at any moment you could also be imprisoned.” Similarly, a person might not be moved to cry over a righteous person who has died, but he at least ought to cry over his own self – that the righteous person’s departure means that he has lost a measure of protection against Divine wrath and is now at higher risk of being punished for his sins.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Sukkos

On Sukkos, when saying Birkas HaMazon after a meal, we add the following brief prayer: “The Compassionate One, may He raise up for us the fallen sukkah of David.” This prayer is patterned after a passage in Amos (verses 9:11-12): “On that day will I raise up the fallen sukkah of David, and I will close up its breaches and raise up its ruins, and I will build it up as in the days of old.” This passage appears in a section of Amos that is read as the haftarah of parashas Acharei Mos according to some customs and as the haftarah of parashas Kedoshim according to other customs. I present here a brief essay on the passage taken from Kochav MiYaakov, haftaras Acharei Mos. The essay is marked as being “from Naftali Maskileison,” who collaborated with Rav Avraham Beirush Flamm in the publication of Kochav MiYaakov. A number of commentaries in Kochav MiYaakov bear this annotation. I am not sure whether the annotation means that the commentary is one that the Maggid developed and Rav Maskileison had seen or heard, and passed on for inclusion in Kochav MiYaakov, or one that Rav Maskileison developed himself. In any event the commentary is an appropriate one for Sukkos.
The term “sukkah” generally denotes a booth of the type that is built in a field or vineyard to provide shelter for a watchman. A sukkah is typically a flimsy temporary structure made up of thin wooden beams, branches of trees, or straw. A regular building, by contrast, is built of thick wooden beams or stone or bricks, and is designed to last a long time. Each of these two types of structure has an advantage and a disadvantage relative to the other. A sukkah has the disadvantage of being flimsy and prone to collapse, but has the advantage of being easy to build and rebuild; the process of building a sukkah takes only a short time and does not require trained building personnel. A regular building, on the other hand, has the advantage of being strong and capable of standing for a long time – not being prone to collapse like a sukkah, but has the disadvantage that if it does fall it takes a lot of time, effort, and money to rebuild.
Now, the Beis HaMikdash is referred to as a sukkah. This name reflects the fact that it was destroyed, rebuilt, and then destroyed again. But the name also brings us encouragement, by calling to our attention that the Beis HaMikdash can be easily rebuilt whenever Hashem decides to do so. This dual meaning behind the use of the term “sukkah” is reflected in the passage from Amos. Hashem promises us that He will raise up the “fallen sukkah of David,” indicating that, when the time comes, the process of building the Beis HaMikdash will be quick and easy. But, lest we think that the third Beis HaMikdash will be like a sukkah in the sense of being destined to be destroyed just as the first two Batei Mikdash were destroyed, Hashem informs us otherwise. The third Beis HaMikdash will be like a sukkah only in that it will be built quickly; the Beis HaMikdash will never again fall. Hashem will close up the breaches that the Beis HaMikdash had in the past and raise up its ruins, and build it up as a firm, everlasting structure.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Yom Kippur

The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 65:15):
“Behold my brother Eisav is a hairy man, while I am a smooth-skinned man” (Bereishis 27:11). This is comparable to a curly-headed man and a bald-headed man standing on the edge of the granary. When the chaff would alight upon the curly-headed man, it would get stuck in his hair. But when the chaff would alight upon the bald-headed man, he would draw his hand across his head and clear it away. Similarly, the wicked Eisav gets soiled with sins, and he has nothing through which to gain atonement. Yaakov, too, gets soiled with sins throughout the year. But then Yom Kippur comes and provides him with a means to gain atonement.
The Maggid explains this Midrash as reflecting two character types. One type is the person who is driven by wanton passion. Such a person sins willfully and eagerly. With him, the evil gets stuck in well, to the point where no atonement is possible. This type of person is like a curly-headed man, who cannot easily shake out the chaff that gets caught up in his hair. The other character type is a person who heart is essentially pure and whose true desire is to do only good. Although he occasionally falls into the net of sin, he does so only out of compulsion: the great wiles of the evil inclination and the pressures of circumstances overcome him and cause him to sin. But his heart is not in it when he sins – he does not commit evil willfully and with relish. Moreover, when he commits an evil deed, he regrets it immediately. Every Jew – every member of the nation of Yaakov – is of this type in the inner core of his soul. The Midrash therefore compares Yaakov to a bald-headed man – a man upon whom chaff does not get stuck. We can easily shake ourselves off from sin in one day – Yom Kippur – for then we repent with a whole heart.
David Zucker, Site Administrator