Post Archive for November 2014

Parashas Vayeitzei

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Bereishis 29:31): “And Hashem saw that Leah was disfavored, and he opened her womb, while Rachel was barren.” The Maggid notes that under the regular laws that govern creation, a woman’s womb is naturally open and ready for childbearing, so that the world can continue operating in the normal manner. It is a woman’s womb being closed that is out of the ordinary; thus, regarding Chanah, it is written that Hashem closed her womb (Shmuel Alef 1:5). Accordingly, the Maggid asks: Why did Hashem have to take special steps to open Leah’s womb?
The Maggid develops his answer with a parable. In a certain small town, it was set down, by order of the regional governors, that the town’s affairs would be managed by a group of three superintendents. One of the men of the city strongly desired to be a member of this group of leaders, but the regional governors did not want to put him in this position. So the man traveled to the city where the baron of the province lived, and brought the baron a gift to gain his favor. He succeeded in inducing the baron to order that he be appointed as one of the leaders. The baron wrote a letter to his local agent in the town ordering that one of the current leaders should be removed from his position and that the man who approached him be put in his place. The implementation of the order was delayed, and in the meantime a scandal arose in the town that led the regional governors to put the three town leaders in jail. Afterward, the man who had approached the baron presented himself to the baron’s local agent and gave him the letter that the baron had written him. The agent said, “Alright, so it will be, you will be one of the three town leaders.” He then ordered that the man be put in jail, and that one of the imprisoned town leaders be released.
The parallel is as follows. Hashem decreed, for hidden reasons known only to Him, that the matriarchs of the Jewish People initially be barren. Avraham had only one wife, Sarah [Hagar was only a concubine], and Hashem closed her womb for a long time. Yitzchak likewise had only one wife, Rivkah, and Hashem initially closed her womb as well. But Yaakov had two wives, Leah and Rachel, and Hashem’s decree called for the primary wife to have her womb closed. Since Leah assumed the position of primary wife, the decree of a closed womb was directed toward her. But Yaakov introduced a new element into the situation: He showed Rachel more love than Leah, and regarded Rachel as his primary wife. As a result, the Divine decree called for Leah’s womb to be opened and Rachel’s closed. Thus the Torah writes: “And Hashem saw that Leah was disfavored, and he opened her womb, while Rachel was barren.”
This explanation, the Maggid says, is reflected in a Midrash expounding on the verse. The Midrash states (Bereishis Rabbah 71:2):
And Hashem saw that Leah was disfavored (שנואה) – that she was designated for the enemy (שונא) [Eisav]. … While Rachel was barren (עקרה) – she was the principal lady of the house (עיקרה של בית).
Yaakov disfavored Leah in that he regarded her as a subsidiary wife – that she should have been Eisav’s wife rather than his. He considered Rachel his principal wife, the עיקרה של בית. In so doing, He caused Rachel to be barren – an עקרה.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Bereishis 25:21): “And Yitzchak entreated Hashem opposite his wife, for she was barren; Hashem acceded to him, and his wife Rivkah conceived.” The Gemara in Yevamos 64a reports that both Yitzchak and Rivkah were both originally barren. The Midrash on the verse we just quoted expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 63:5):
Opposite his wife – this teaches that Yitzchak was bowing down in one section of the room and she was bowing down in another section. He said: “Master of the Universe! Let all the children that You are giving me come from this saintly woman.” And, similarly, she said: “Let all the children that You will eventually give me come from this saintly man.”
In other words, although both Yitzchak and Rivkah were both barren, Yitzchak prayed on Rivkah’s behalf rather than his own, while Rivka prayed on Yitzchak’s behalf rather than her own.
The Gemara in Yevamos takes special note of the Torah’s report that “Hashem acceded to him,” and remarks: “It should say ‘Hashem acceded to them’! But the Torah writes ‘to him’ because the prayer of a righteous child of a righteous man is not the same as the prayer of the righteous child of a wicked man.” The Maggid notes that it seemingly would have been enough for the Gemara to write “a righteous child” rather than “the prayer of a righteous child.” He is thus led to explore the question of why the Gemara added the phrase “the prayer of.”
He explains as follows. When a person prays for someone else, it is virtually inevitable that his spiritually level will differ from that of the person he is praying for, either higher or lower. This being so, we may ask whether Hashem’s response to the prayer is based on the spiritual level of the person offering the prayer or on that of the person being prayed for. Initially, we would think that, since the person being prayed for is the one who will receive the benefit of Hashem’s aid, it is his or her level that is the key factor. But evidently this is not so. In the episode we are discussing, Yitzchak was praying for Rivkah and, at the same time, Rivkah was praying for Yitzchak. Now, Yitzchak was a righteous son of a righteous father, while Rivkah was a righteous daughter of a wicked father, and hence Yitzchak was on a higher spiritual level than Rivkah. Thus, if the level of the person being prayed for were the key factor, the Torah should have written: “Hashem acceded to her”– that Hashem answered Rivkah’s prayer that He grant aid to Yitzchak. Since the Torah instead writes to him, we see that level of the person offering the prayer is the key factor. The reason the Gemara writes “the prayer of a righteous child” rather than simply “the righteous child” is to underscore that the focus is on the level of the person offering the prayer.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Bereishis 24:1): “And Avraham was old, advanced in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” The Midrash, linking this verse to Tehillim 24, expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 59:5):
Who shall ascend the mountain of Hashem? This refers to Avraham, as it is written (Bereishis 22:12): “Now I know that you are God-fearing.” And who shall stand within His holy place? This refers to Avraham, as it is written (ibid. 22:3): “And Avraham arose early in the morning … and he rose up and went to the place that God had told him.” One with clean hands. “If a string or a shoelace, or if I take anything of yours” )ibid. 14:23). And a pure heart. “Far be it from You to do such a thing” (ibid. 18:25).  Who has not taken his soul in vain. [In Tehillim 24:4 it is actually written “My soul,” but in the Midrash it is written “his soul.] This refers to the soul of Nimrod [whom Avraham killed, not in vain, but in self-defense]. And has not sworn deceitfully. “I raise up my hand to Hashem, the Supreme God” (ibid. 14:22). He will bear blessing from Hashem. “And Avraham was old, … and Hashem blessed Avraham.” Avraham would bless everyone, as it is written (ibid. 12:3): “And the all families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” And who blessed Avraham? The Holy One Blessed Be He blessed Avraham, as it is written: “And Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows.  A craftsman typically will keep on hand only the tools he needs for his own craft. A tailor keeps needles and other sewing implements; a smith keeps sledgehammers, axes, and the like. If we would see a sledgehammer in a tailor’s shop, or sewing needles in a smith’s shop, we surely would be puzzled. But there is a class of people for whom it is perfectly natural to keep on hand the tools of a wide variety of crafts – namely storekeepers, who stock tools for craftsmen to buy. Similarly, each person is blessed with the specific abilities and resources he needs to fulfill the mission Hashem has assigned to him in this world, and Avraham was in charge of dispensing these blessings. Thus, Hashem tells Avraham, “You shall be a blessing,” and the Midrash elaborates (Bereishis Rabbah 39:11): “Until now, I had to bless My world. From now on, the blessings are given over into your hands.” Hashem entrusted Avraham with the general reservoir of blessing, from which everyone’s portion of blessing is drawn. Accordingly, He blessed Avraham with everything. Avraham served as an agent on behalf of the world at large, making the trip up to Hashem’s mountain to collect blessing, bring it down to the world, and distribute it. The background information about Avraham presented at the beginning of the Midrash indicates why Hashem chose Avraham as the one to be in charge of dispensing blessing. Avraham’s fear of God, clean hands, pure heart, upright conduct, and shunning of falsehood made him the man most qualified for this role.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah records how Avraham pleaded with Hashem to save Sodom. Initially he asks for the city to be spared if there are fifty righteous men there, and Hashem agrees. Avraham then continues his plea. He prefaces his words with the following statement (Bereishis 18:27):  “Behold, now, I have begun to speak with my Lord, although I am but dirt and ashes.” I present here two comments by the Maggid on this statement.
1. In the Nishmas prayer that we recite on Shabbos and Yom Tov, we say: “Until now Your mercy has aided us, and Your kindness has not departed from us. Do not abandon us, Hashem our God, forever.” What leads Hashem to aid the Jewish People, and how can we hope to gain His aid? If the aid He granted the Jews of earlier times were due to their good deeds, then we have good reason to fear now, for we are not as righteous and pure as they were. But, in fact, even the Jews of former generations were not worthy of the extraordinary aid Hashem granted them; rather, Hashem aided them out of pure kindness. Accordingly, we can hope that Hashem will aid us as well – that He will extend kindness to us just as he extended it to our predecessors. This is what we are asking for in the Nishmas prayer – given that Hashem’s past aid to us stemmed from mercy and kindness, we ask Him to continue showing us this favor, and not to abandon us.
Similarly, in our passage, Avraham is appealing to Hashem’s kindness rather than his merits. He is saying to Hashem: “I know that, up to now, the chance You gave me to speak to You was not on account of my merits – for then I would have been able to say only a few words to You, and then my merits would have been used up. Rather, although I am but dirt and ashes, You allowed me to speak with You, out of Your great kindness. And I know that Your kindness continues forever, so I ask You to let me keep speaking to You now.”
2. The Gemara in Sotah 17a relates that, in the merit of Avraham’s comparing himself to dirt and ashes, Hashem told him that He would grant his descendants two mitzvos related to dirt and ashes: the mitzvah of sotah (assessing whether a suspected adulteress is guilty, which involves making her drink water mixed with dirt), and the mitzvah of parah adumah (slaughtering a red heifer and burning the carcass, to use the ashes to make purifying water). The Maggid uses a parable to explain the connection between Avraham’s words and these two mitzvos. A man made a grand banquet, and a certain saintly man was among the invitees. The host wished to seat this distinguished guest at the head table, but the guest, out of his great modesty, chose instead to sit at a lowly table in the back. The host then decided, in order to honor this man, to seat other distinguished men at this same rear table. Similarly, Avraham, in his great modesty, compared himself to dirt and ashes, but Hashem still wished to honor him. Hashem therefore raised the importance of dirt and ashes, by making each a key element of an important mitzvah.
David Zucker, Site Administrator