Post Archive for 2015

Parashas Vayechi

This week’s parashah recounts Yaakov Avinu’s death in Egypt and subsequent burial in the Cave of Machpelah. The Torah relates that Yaakov summoned Yosef and said (Bereishis 47:29-30): “Please, if I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do kindness and truth with me: Please do not bury me in Egypt. For I will lie down with my fathers and you shall transport me out of Egypt and bury me in their tomb.” The Midrash picks up on the phrase “kindness and truth,” saying (Bereishis Rabbah 96:5): “Is there such a thing as a false kindness, that he says ‘kindness and truth’? … He was saying to him, ‘If you do a kindness for me after my death, that is a kindness that is an act of truth.’” The Maggid sets out to explain the concept of “a kindness that is an act of truth.” He starts by quoting a verse (Michah 7:20): “Grant truth to Yaakov, kindness to Avraham, as You swore to our forefathers in days of old.” Here also, benevolence is described with the two terms “kindness” and “truth.” The Maggid then develops his explanation through a short parable.
A person wanted to give his friend a handsome sum of money as a gift at some later time. He was worried that his wife might protest, so he decided to write out to his friend a bill of debt for the sum he had in mind, get witnesses to sign it, and then give it to his friend. In this way, when the time arrived his friend could take him to court to force him to pay, and his wife would be unable to protest. In this situation, it fits well to describe the payment as both a kindness and an act of truth. The person’s initial act of writing a bill of debt in advance in order to obligate himself to pay is an act of pure kindness and generosity. At the same time, when the friend makes a claim for the money in court, the person’s payment can be described as an act of truth, for in truth he is obligated to pay the stated sum.
It is similar with Hashem’s grant of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish People. Initially, when Hashem made a covenant with Avraham and swore to him to give Eretz Yisrael to his descendants, Hashem’s binding Himself with an oath to give this very generous gift was an act of pure graciousness. But once Hashem took the oath, Hashem’s conveyance of the land was like payment of an established debt, for Hashem was (so to speak) obligated to keep His word. Thus, Michah’s choice of terms in his request to Hashem was precise. In asking Hashem to “grant truth to Yaakov,” he was calling upon Hashem to fulfill His promise and thereby give credence to His prior oath. At the same time, in asking Hashem to grant “kindness to Avraham” [to whom He made the promise] as He had sworn, he was admitting before Hashem that His initiative to take the oath was a pure kindness.   
This is the idea behind Yaakov’s request to Yosef to do him “kindness and truth.” Had Yosef not sworn to bury Yaakov in the Cave of Machpelah, but had simply done so when the time came, Yosef’s arranging the burial would be called simply an act of kindness. But Yaakov wanted Yosef to obligate himself with an oath, so that when he eventually arranged the burial, his doing so would also constitute an act of truth, for he would be obligated to give credence to his word. Yaakov worded his appeal to Yosef as a request for “kindness and truth” in order to express both aspects. Yaakov insisted on an oath because he knew that Pharaoh would not let Yosef go down to Canaan for the burial had he not sworn to do so. In this vein, after Yaakov’s death Yosef told approached the members of Pharaoh’s household and asked them to tell him (Bereishis 50:5): “My father adjured me, saying, ‘Behold, I am about to die; in my grave, which I have dug for myself in the land of Canaan – there you are to bury me.’ Now, I will go up, if you please, and bury my father, and then I will return.” And Pharaoh replied in turn, saying (ibid. 50:6), “Go up and bury your father as he adjured you,” the closing phrase emphasizing [as Rashi ad loc. comments] that it was only on account of the oath than he was allowing Yosef to go to Eretz Yisrael for the burial.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayiggash

In this week’s parashah, Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers, saying (Bereishis 45:3): “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” Our Sages interpret Yosef’s question as a rebuke: “You claimed that if you went home without Binyamin, your father would be overcome with anguish. Why did you not think of that when you sold me into slavery?” And thus the Torah continues (ibid. 45:4): “His brothers could not answer him because they were taken aback before him.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 93:10):
Woe to us over the day of judgment! Woe to us over the day of rebuke! … Yosef was the least among the sons of Yaakov [involved in the debate], yet the others could not stand up to his rebuke. … All the more so when the Holy One Blessed Be He rebukes each and every person according to his level, as it is written (Tehillim 50:21): “I shall rebuke you before your eyes and judge you.”
We previously presented a segment from the Maggid’s commentary on this Midrash. We now present another segment, in which the Maggid discusses the way Hashem judges us and describes an approach we can take to get Him to judge us leniently.
We realize that we cannot render Hashem the monumental service He truly deserves on account of His greatness, and we know that Hashem does not expect this from us, but graciously accepts the meager service we are capable of offering. Yet a person should not be self-assured, saying to himself: “Given my human limitations, I am doing a good job of serving Hashem.” If a person takes this attitude, Hashem will rebuke him and show him that even according to his level of capability, he has not done a proper job of serving Him, but has fallen well short. And then he will be taken aback before Him. Instead, a person should take a humble attitude, viewing his accomplishments as modest, and then Hashem will judge him leniently. In this vein, David HaMelech says (Tehillim 32:2): “Fortunate is the man to whom Hashem does not ascribe iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” If a person does not falsely regard himself as impeccable, Hashem will not regard him as flawed.
The Torah says (Shemos 20:23): “You shall not go up to My altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be exposed upon it.” The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 30:2 that the verse cannot be read in a strict literal sense, for the Kohanim are required to wear undershorts when performing their duties (Shemos 28:42). The Maggid says that the verse alludes to the idea discussed above. He draws a link to a teaching in Berachos 10b: “A person should not stand in a high place to pray, but rather in a low place. As it is written (Tehillim 130:1): ‘From the depths I call out to you, Hashem.’ … For there is no elevation before the All-Present One.”
He brings out the point with a parable. A person was sued by a creditor claiming from him a large amount of money. He had the money to pay, but he sought a stratagem to avoid paying this large sum. He consulted his friends, and was told that only way out was to swear that he was unable to pay. He was satisfied with this advice, and went home happy, saying, “I’ll hurry over to the court, swear, and be exempted.” He told his servant to prepare his handsome coach and take out the fine suit that he wore only on special occasions. His wife saw what he was doing and hollered at him: “You fool! Why are you packing your finest clothes now and priding yourself in your fancy coach? They’ll work against you when you come before the judge. If you travel in style and show up in court in an expensive suit like a nobleman, how will you possibly argue that you don’t have the money to pay? Put away the fancy suit and wear your worn-out clothes, and travel to the courthouse in a wretched one-horse wagon like the kind poor people ride in. Then you will have a believable case when you claim you can’t pay.”
Our situation is similar. The service we should be rendering Hashem is very extensive. Our only hope is to argue that it is beyond our ability to serve Hashem the way He deserves. Accordingly, when we stand before Hashem in prayer, we must approach Him with a broken heart and a sense of shame over our inability to serve Him properly. This is what the Sages are saying when they teach that a person should not stand in a high place to pray because there is no elevation before Hashem. Indeed, when a person comes to the Beis HaMikdash to bring an offering to atone for a sin, so that Hashem will accept the offering and pardon him, it is imperative that he approach Hashem with awe and fear, and garbed in humility and submission, saying: “Behold my lowliness and limited comprehension, and do not bring me to justice.” The same idea is reflected in the verse that says that one should not go up to the altar in steps, in order not to expose his nakedness. The word that the verse uses for steps, מעלות, can be read homiletically as meaning “positive qualities.” If a person takes a prideful stance and presents himself to Hashem as possessing sterling qualities, he will be exposing his deficiency. As Shlomo HaMelech puts it (Mishlei 29:23): “A man’s pride will bring him low.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mikeitz

This week’s parashah describes Yosef’s rise to power. The Gemara in Berachos 20a teaches that the evil eye has no dominion over Yosef’s descendants. The Gemara explains that since Yosef held his eye back from partaking of what was not his – Potifar’s wife – the evil eye is held back from causing his descendants harm. The Maggid elaborates on this teaching.
The Mishnah in Avos 4:1 teaches: “Who is a mighty person? One who has subdued his evil inclination, as it is written (Mishlei 16:32), ‘He who is slow to anger is better than a person of might, and he who rules over his passions [is better] the conqueror of a city.” The Maggid states that the Mishnah is not speaking metaphorically; it is making a statement that is true in the literal sense. He then proceeds to explain how we can understand the Mishnah literally.
Our Sages teach that just as just as it is only through the evil inclination that a person is led to sin, so, too, it is only through the evil inclination that a person is punished for sinning. Thus, the Gemara in Bava Basra 16a teaches that the Adversarial Angel (Satan), the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one and the same. All the misfortunes that a person suffers at the hands of robbers, extortionists, and other similar evildoers stems from their evil inclination, which, as it lures them into engaging in perverse behavior, exacts punishment from the person for his sins. Just as a person’s evil inclination incites him to wrong others, so, too, it incites others to wrong him. The one depends directly on the other.
If a person subdues his evil inclination and stirs up his good inclination against it to keep it from luring him into evil, as an automatic result the evil inclination is held back from prompting others to harm him. Although we cannot clearly infer this pattern on the basis of reasoning, the Gemara in Berachos that we quoted at the outset tells us that it is so. Just as Yosef kept his evil inclination from leading him to sin, so, too, other people’s evil inclination is kept from wielding power against him and causing him harm.
Along the same lines, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 78:12 relates that when R. Yehudah HaNasi’s grandson complained to R. Shimon ben Lakish about government officials constantly pressing him to give them things, R. Shimon ben Lakish told him: “Don’t take anything from anybody, and you won’t have to give anything to anybody.” That is, if a person keeps himself from envying other people’s assets, other people will not envy his. Similarly, Iyov declared (Iyov 31:9-10): “If my heart was [ever] seduced over a woman, or if I ever lay in wait at my neighbor’s door, may my wife grind for another man, and may strangers kneel over her.” This statement reflects the following principle: If a person’s evil inclination leads him to commit a wrong to someone else, others will be led to commit the same type of wrong against him. As Abaye declared (Pesachim 28a): “When the maker of stocks sits in his own stock, he is repaid by the work of his own hands.”
David HaMelech pleaded to Hashem (Tehillim 17:8-9): “Guard me like the apple of the eye, shelter me in the shadow of Your wings, from the wicked who plunder me, the enemies of my soul who surround me.” We can interpret David’s words homiletically as a plea that Hashem guard him from the evil incitements in his heart – the enemies within his soul – so that he will be securely protected from wicked men who seek to harm him.
From the above discussion, we can derive a wondrous concept: It is within a person’s power to fight and defeat all his enemies and all those who lie in wait for him, near and far, including even those who he does not know and therefore cannot be beware of, by maintaining a state of wholeheartedness and barring the evil inclination from ruling over him. Through such action, he can drive away – without need for any weapon – the hordes of evildoers whose evil inclination might lead them to harass him, and dwell in peace and tranquility. The psalmist declares (Tehillim 46:9): “Go and see the works of Hashem, Who has wrought devastation (שַׁמּוֹת) in the land. He causes wars to cease from the ends of the earth; He will break the bow and cut the spear – He will burn chariots in fire.” We can interpret the word שַׁמּוֹת homiletically as a term signifying dominance, along the lines of a teaching of our Sages in connection with the phrase שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ (“you shall surely set yourself a king”) in Devarim 17:16. [Apparently the teaching builds on a word similarity; I was unable to locate the teaching.] A person does not have to wage war against his enemies. He need only fight his own evil inclination, and he will thereby drive away from him all who might rise against him. This fact is hinted at in the psalmist’s speaking not of subduing enemies but rather of causing wars to cease.
We can now well appreciate how we can understand literally the teaching in Avos 4:1: “Who is a mighty person? One who has subdued his evil inclination, as it is written (Mishlei 16:32), ‘He who is slow to anger is better than a person of might, and he who rules over his passions [is better] the conqueror of a city.” By subduing his evil inclination, a person causes all opposition against him, from wherever it might come, to cease.
Hashem had a discussion with Kayin (Cain) about the evil inclination. He told him (Bereishis 4:7): “Its desire is cast toward you, but you can rule over it.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 22:6):
R. Chanina bar Pappa said: “If your evil inclination comes to play tricks on you, push him off with words of Torah. If you do so, I consider it as if you have created peace. For it is written (Yeshayah 26:3, homiletically): “The evil inclination that is nearby to you guard him with peace, peace.” … It is not written “peace” but rather “peace, peace.” And if you say that the evil inclination is not under your dominion, the verse continues: “for with you it is secure.” And I have already written in the Torah: “Its desire is cast toward you, but you can rule over it.”
We can understand the verse from Yeshayah as saying: “If you want to guard yourself from the evil inclinations of others distant from you, you must guard yourself from the evil inclination that is nearby to you, within your own heart, and then others will also make peace with you.” We have no direct control over the evil inclinations of others, but we do have direct control over our own evil inclination. As the Torah says: “You can rule over it.” And thus we can guard ourselves indirectly against the evil inclination of others. Yeshayah’s repetition of the word “peace” reflects this idea: If others have peace from our evil inclination, then we will have peace from theirs.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Vayeishev

In this week’s haftarah, Amos declares in Hashem’s Name (3:2): “You alone did I know among all the families upon the earth; therefore, I shall hold you to account for all your iniquities.” In Ohel Yaakov, Parashas Bereishis, the Maggid interprets this verse as referring to mankind as a whole. He builds on the following Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 8:1):
R. Nachman said: “Man is the last to have been created, and the first to face punishment.” R. Shmuel said: “In the world’s chorus of praise to Hashem, too, man appears last. Thus we see from Tehillim 148, which describes this chorus of praise. The psalm begins with the heavenly realm: the angels, the sun, the moon, the stars, and so on. It then continues with the earthly realm: the sea and its creatures; fire, hail, snow, and wind; mountains, hills, and trees; animals, insects, and birds. Finally comes man: the nations of the world with their kings, officers, and judges; men and women, the old and the young.” R. Simlai said: “Just as man is the last to give praise, so, too, he is the last to have been created.”
Hashem granted to each creation a set of characteristic traits, and then infused man with the entire gamut of traits that exist within nature. As our Sages say, man is a “miniature universe.” This, the Zohar teaches (Pinchas 238), is why man was created after all other creations – so that all their features could be incorporated with him. Similarly, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 8:3 teaches that, on the sixth day of creation, when Hashem was about to create man, He “consulted” with all the creations He had brought forth on each of the previous days. All these creations served as templates for the various elements that Hashem would build within man.
Hashem had a specific purpose in carrying out creation in this way. The universe is designed as an ensemble of praise to Hashem, with man as the leader. Each creation has its part to play. Yet, since the creations other than man have no free will, the glory they provide Hashem on their own is limited. Man, who encompasses the traits of all other creations, brings the expression of Hashem’s glory within the world to its ultimate level. By choosing, with his free will, to devote all these traits to serving Hashem, man causes every creation’s praise of Hashem to ring forth with full strength.
In so doing, man conveys Divine blessing to the entire world. We can compare the world, with its various constituents, to a group of middle-class men engaging in a joint business venture. None of them on his own has enough funds for serious business, but by pooling their funds, they amass a substantial sum. They appoint an agent to conduct business with the pooled funds, and then divide the profits in proportion to what each one contributed. Similarly, so to speak, the creations of the world operate a joint venture of serving Hashem. Each creation entrusts its traits to man, and the combination of them all enables man to serve Hashem in a consummate fashion. In response, Hashem grants the world blessing, and each creation takes its share. Thus, when man devotes all aspects of his being to serving Hashem, he sanctifies the entire world and brings it blessing. Conversely, when man uses his powers for in a perverted way, as in the generation of the flood, he perverts the entire world.
It is in this vein that the Midrash says: “Man is the last to have been created, and the first to face punishment.” Man is the last to have been created because he encompasses the features of all other creations, to the end of bringing the entire world to its goal. For the very same reason, he is the first to face punishment – for when the world degenerates, he is the one responsible.
This idea is reflected in the verse from this week’s haftarah that we quoted at the outset: “You alone did I know among all the families upon the earth; therefore, I shall hold you to account for all your iniquities.” All the evil in the world is attributed to man, for he is the one who brings it about. Accordingly, the Midrash teaches: “If man merits, he will enjoy both this world and the next, …, and if not, he will be brought to account.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav upon returning from Charan. The Midrash relates (Bereishis Rabbah 75:13):
Yaakov saw Eisav coming from a distance. He lifted his eyes upward, cried, and prayed to Hashem for mercy. Hashem heard his prayer and promised to save him from all his troubles in the merit of Yaakov, as it is written (Tehillim 20:2): “Hashem shall answer you on the day of trouble; the Name of the God of Yaakov shall raise you on high.”
We previously presented a segment from the Maggid’s commentary on this Midrash. Here we present another segment, which focuses on the verse from Tehillim that the Midrash quotes.
Our Sages teach (Sanhedrin 44b): “A person should always pray ahead of time, before misfortune strikes.” Shlomo HaMelech, speaking in Hashem’s name, presents the reason (Mishlei 1:27–28): “When your dread arrives as sudden darkness, and your misfortune comes like a storm, when trouble and distress come upon you – then they will call me, but I will not answer, they will seek me, but they will not find me.” Two questions arise regarding this passage. First, why the repetitive language? Second, and more seriously, what does it mean that “they will not find me,” given that Hashem is present everywhere? Hashem is not like a mortal man who must be sought and found; He is constantly right at our side whenever we wish to call to Him. His degree of closeness to a person depends only on the degree to which the person brings himself toward Him. If a person’s prayer is pure, and he seeks Hashem with his heart and soul, and has faith in His saving power, then his salvation is near. If our hearts are properly prepared, Hashem will hear us (cf. Tehillim 10:17): The Torah tells us that if we seek Hashem with our entire heart and soul, we are sure to find Him (Devarim 4:29).
Now, if a person waits until misfortune strikes to pray to Hashem, it will hard for him to gain Hashem’s aid, for his heart will be clouded with the pain of his suffering and with tempestuous thoughts that undermine his belief in Hashem and disrupt his faith in His providence. This is the lesson behind the message from Hashem that Shlomo conveyed in the passage from Mishlei that we quoted above. When a person seeks Hashem amidst agitation, his heart does not properly sense Hashem’s presence – his faith in Hashem is shaken.
We can now understand easily why our Sages tell us to pray ahead of time, before misfortune strikes. Once we in the throes of misfortune, our situation is desperate. Thus, David HaMelech entreats (Tehillim 20:10): “Hashem save! May the King answer on the day we call.” David is pleading with Hashem to help us even though we are already ensnared in affliction. How can we gain Hashem’s help when we are in such a state? In the verse that the Midrash quotes, David tells us: “Hashem will answer you in the day of misfortune; the God of Yaakov will raise you up.” In times of misfortune, when it is hard for us to gain Hashem’s help through our own efforts, we can still gain relief by drawing on the forces of salvation that our forefather Yaakov generated for us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

In the beginning of this week’s parashah, the Torah relates that before going to Lavan’s house, Yaakov spent a night at the place that would later become the site of the Beis HaMikdash. The Torah states (Bereishis 28:11): “And he encountered the place and spent the night there, for the sun had set.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 68:9):
What does “and he encountered the place” (וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם) mean? It means that he prayed at that place – at the place of the Beis HaMikdash. Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: “The forefathers instituted three prayer services. Avraham instituted the morning service. Thus it is written (Bereishis 19:27): ‘And Avraham arose early toward the place where he had stood before the presence of Hashem.’ And standing (עֲמִידָה) means none other than praying, as it is written (Tehillim 106:30): ‘And Pinchas stood and prayed.’ Yitzchak instituted the afternoon service. Thus it is written (Bereishis 24:63): ‘And Yitzchak went out to speak out his thoughts (לָשׂוּחַ) in the field towards evening.’ And שִׂיחַ means none other than prayer, as it is written (Tehillim 142:3): ‘I shall pour forth before Him my supplication (שִׂיחִי).’ Yaakov instituted the evening prayer. Thus it is written: ‘And he encountered the place (וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם).’ And פְּגִיעָה means none other than prayer. As it is written (Yirmiyah 7:16): ‘And, as for you, do not pray on behalf of this people – do not offer on their behalf a cry and a prayer – and do not entreat Me (וְאַל תִּפְגַּע בִּי) – for I will not hearken to you.’ And elsewhere (ibid. 27:18): ‘And if they are [truly] prophets, and Hashem’s word is [truly] with them, let them now entreat Hashem, Master of Legions (יִפְגְּעוּ נָא בה' צְבָאוֹת) [that the vessels that remain in the Temple of Hashem and the palace of the king of Yehudah and in Yerushalayim not be brought to Babylonia].’”
The Maggid presents a lengthy discussion of this Midrash. I present here a segment analyzing the term פְּגִיעָה as a term of prayer.
He begins with a classic question. Hashem promises us that if call out to Him, He will come to our aid. Thus, for example, it is written (Tehillim 50:15): “Call out to Me in the day of distress; I will release you and you will honor Me.” And similarly (ibid. 91:15): “He will call out to Me and I will answer Him; I am with him in distress – I will release him and I will bring him honor.” Yet, day after day, without stop, we entreat Hashem to reveal His glory within the world, gather our exiles, and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, and Hashem does not grant these requests. Moreover, Hashem speaks to us as if we are not praying to Him at all (Yeshayah 50:2): “Why is it that I have come and there is no one present? That I have called out and there is no one who answers? Is My hand too limited to bring redemption? Do I lack the power to save?” The situation is paradoxical. How can explain this paradox?
The key to the answer, the Maggid says, lies in the following declaration by Hashem to the Jews who were exiled from Yerushalayim to Babylonia (Yirmiyah 29:12): “You will call out to Me; you will go and you will pray to Me, and I will hearken to you.” This declaration is curious in two respects. First, why does Hashem say “you will pray to Me” after He already said “you will call out to Me”? Second, why does Hashem include the seemingly pointless phrase “you will go”? We can explain what Hashem is saying through a parable. A lad misbehaved atrociously toward his father, and the father was led to throw him out of the house. After being thrown out, the lad went wandering from place to place. The father was swept with compassion for his son and he wished to take him back into his house. He hoped earnestly that the lad would abandon from his evil ways and make an overture to reconcile with him, either by coming in person or by sending a messenger to convey his regret over his past deeds. The lad, however, was stubborn and refused to do so. Once, a merchant from the city where the son lived made a business trip to the city where the father lived. The father was one of the people with whom the merchant had dealings, and, amidst their business discussions, they spoke about the lad. The merchant asked: “When will you take your son back into your house?” The father replied: “When he comes to ask me to take him back, or sends a messenger with this request.” The merchant said: “If the matter depends on making a request, then I will make the request on his behalf. After all, I am as good as any messenger.” The father responded: “Your suggestion is foolish. The whole reason why I want him to ask me to take him back is to hear him say, as he makes his request, how very sorry he is about he acted toward me. I’d be happy to see him come in person to express his regret. Or, if he would send a special messenger to me to convey his regret, this would also satisfy me. But a request from you on his behalf would not do the job. You came here not because my son sent you, but rather to carry out your own business dealings. You happened to have a meeting with me, and the thought popped into your head, by the by, to ask me to take my son back. How could a request from you possibly lead me to reconcile with my son?”
The parallel is as follows. If we would stir ourselves to go to the house of prayer with the specific intent of asking Hashem to show His glory, gather our exiles, restore Yerushalayim, and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, and put the main focus of our prayers on these hopes, Hashem would surely answer us speedily. But our hearts, through our many sins, are detached from these hopes. Regarding this state of affairs, it is written (Yeshayah 64:6): “There is no one who calls out in Your Name, who stirs himself to take firm hold of You.” No one sets his sights firmly on Hashem’s honor and stirs himself on his own initiative to call out wholeheartedly to Hashem with a plea for Him to show His glory. Rather, we use the standard prayer that the Men of the Great Assembly composed for us to plead to Hashem to forgive our sins, heal our ills, provide our sustenance, and so on, and then – while we are already offering the standard prayer – we also recite, by the by, the sections presenting requests for the restoration of Yerushalayim, the Beis HaMikdash, and the kingdom of the House of David.
Yaakov’s prayer was also of an incidental nature. The Midrash relates that as Yaakov traveled to Charan, he passed by the holy site where his ancestors had prayed and where the Beis HaMikdash would eventually be built. He did not take note of the location he had reached, but after he had proceeded a good distance away from the site of the Mikdash, he realized what he had done and exclaimed, as the Gemara relates (Sanhedrin 95b; Chullin 91b): “Is it possible that I passed by the place where my fathers prayed and I did not pray there?” He then turned back to pray at the holy site. This is why Yaakov’s prayer is called a פְּגִיעָה, an encounter: The prayer was prompted entirely by Yaakov’s having encountered the site of the Mikdash: Had he not initially passed by the site on his way, he would not have felt a need to go pray there.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

This week’s parashah recounts the birth and development of Yaakov and Eisav. The Torah states (Bereishis 25:28): “Yitzchak loved Eisav, for [his] catch was in his mouth, while Rivkah held an abiding love for Yaakov.” The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 63:10 remarks that whenever Rivkah heard Yaakov’s voice, she would extend added love to him. I present here one of the Maggid’s interpretations of this Midrash, taken from his commentary on Shir HaShirim 2:8. Our verse speaks of Yitzchak’s love for Eisav and Rivkah’s love for Yaakov. Now, love can be classified into two types. One type is the unqualified love that one feels in a relationship with a person of ideal personality and character. The other type is the qualified love that one feels in a relationship with a person who is predominantly good but has significant faults. One notable difference between these two types of love is as follows: Unqualified love is stronger in the loved one’s presence than in his or her absence, whereas qualified love is stronger in the loved one’s absence than in his or her presence. Qualified love involves a balance between positive and negative traits. When the loved one is elsewhere, the negative traits are not seen, so the love comes to the fore. But when the loved one is seen face to face, the negative traits are apparent, and they dampen the feelings of love.
This is precisely the difference between the love Rivkah had for Yaakov and the love Yitzchak had for Eisav. Rivkah’s love for Yaakov was unqualified, since his character was impeccable. Hence, as the Midrash teaches, her love for him grew whenever she heard him. Yitzchak’s love for Eisav, on the other hand, was qualified. Yitzchak was aware of Eisav’s despicable behavior. Yet he loved Eisav because he believed that Eisav had latent positive traits which would lead him to improve his ways when he matured. Eisav deluded his father into having this hope. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 63:10 tells us that Eisav would trap his father with his mouth; he would ask him how to take tithes from straw and salt. These disingenuous questions led Yitzchak to believe that Eisav had a latent good side that would sprout forth in the future. Hence, the Torah writes the phrase “Yitzchak loved Eisav” as ויאהב יצחק את עשו, with a future-tense verb transformed into past tense by the Biblical conversive vav. This construction parallels Yitzchak’s love for Eisav. Yitzchak realized that Eisav was at present not worthy of his love, but he transferred to the present the love he thought he would have for Eisav in the future. Hence, in contrast with Rivkah’s love for Yaakov, Yitzchak’s love for Eisav was greater when Eisav was absent. When Eisav was present, his despicable behavior would dampen Yitzchak’s love.
The same pattern appears in Hashem’s relationship with us. When Hashem loves us due to our own merit, He keeps us near. He takes care of us Himself rather than through an agent. But when God loves us only on account of our forefathers – our own deeds being unworthy – then He prefers to keep a distance from us, so that His love will not be dampened by our misdeeds.  Hence He cares for us through an agent. In this vein, it is written (Yirmiyah 31:2, homiletically): “From a distance, Hashem appeared to me, [saying,] ‘I have loved you with the love of yore.’” Hashem appeared to us from a distance, through an agent. Why? Because He loved us merely with the love of yore; that is, His love for us was not due to our own merit, but rather on account of our patriarchs of yore.
Similarly, in Shir HaShirim 2:8, regarding the Exodus from Egypt, it is written: “It is the voice of my Beloved: Behold, He is coming &nash; skipping over the mountains, jumping over the hills.” The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 15:4 expounds on what this verse is saying. Hashem sent Moshe to the Jewish People to tell them that He was going to take them out of Egypt. The people asked: “Where is He?” Hashem replied: “I am skipping over the mountains. If I were to come to examine your deeds, I would see that you do not merit being redeemed. I am redeeming you only on account of your forefathers.” Because of the Jewish People’s deficiencies, Hashem chose to bring about the redemption from a distance, through an agent.
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 expounds (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 104):
Avraham asked for old age. He said to Hashem: “Master of the Universe! A man and his son enter a place, and no one knows which one to honor. If You adorn the father with old age, people will know whom to honor.” Hashem replied: “By your life, you have asked for a good thing, and it will start with you.” From the beginning of the Torah up to this point, no one is described as old. Then Avraham arose, and Hashem granted him old age.
The Maggid characterizes this Midrash as astonishing. Clearly it is wrong to second-guess the way Hashem created the world. Other Midrashim stress this point. For example, regarding the Torah’s report that Hashem described His creation with all its elements as “very good,” the Midrash remarks (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 17): “Their Creator praises them, who can denigrate them?” Further, it is written (Koheles 2:12):  “Who is man to approach the King about how they have already fashioned him?” And the Midrash in Koheles Rabbah 2:14 elaborates, teaching that a person should not say that it would be better if he had three hands, or three eyes, or three ears, or three legs, for Hashem “conferred” with His heavenly court regarding every limb and organ in the human body, and constructed man in the best possible way. How then could Avraham dare to ask Hashem to introduce the phenomenon of old age into the world, as if he had found a deficiency in Hashem’s creation?
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. A person has two sets of needs to address: those of the body and those of the soul. He can receive aid from others in both of these domains. In the physical domain, a young and vigorous man can provide capable aid while typically an old man cannot. If, for example, a person wants to hire a servant, he will prefer a young man to an old man. In the spiritual domain, on the other hand, an old man is more capable. An elder is preferable to a young man as a moral leader, to exhort the people of the community and direct them toward Hashem’s ways. Thus, the Torah teaches (Devarim 32:7):  “Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you.” Similarly, Iyov’s companion Elihu, in explaining why he waited before expressing his views, stated (Iyov 32:7):  “I said to myself, ‘Let days speak; let abundant years speak wisdom.’” Generally, people defer to an elder and respect his opinion.
Avraham was the first man to assume the role of “elder.”  All the generations before him angered Hashem, one after the other, for they were all sunken in worldly affairs. And even if there were occasional individuals who did good, they were concerned only with their own conduct, and did not strive to enlighten others and lead them to the proper path. Noach, for example, was a “righteous and wholehearted man,” yet he did not make any major effort to provide moral counsel to the people of his generation and set them straight. Hence, until Avraham, there was no reason for introducing old age into the world. On the contrary, for the material pursuits that the people of those generations focused on, old age was – as we noted above – a serious liability. Avraham was the first to take upon himself the mission of providing the masses with moral counsel and an awareness of Hashem. Before Avraham came forward, Hashem was “the God of heaven” but His presence was not perceived on earth; after Avraham’s efforts, Hashem became “the God of heaven and the God of earth,” for Avraham had made Hashem’s Name part of the regular vocabulary of the people.  Accordingly, it was fitting for him to become an old man, for he would then be more effective in his sacred mission: People would regard him with favor and listen to him.
This reasoning is what led Avraham to take the bold step of asking Hashem to make him old. He told Hashem: “A man and his son enter a place, and no one knows which one to honor. If You adorn the father with old age, people will know whom to honor.” Obviously, given Avraham’s lofty spiritual level, it is ridiculous to think that he was seeking honor simply to gratify his ego. Rather, he was seeking honor so that his moral counsel would be more readily accepted. Accordingly, Hashem answered him: “By your life, you have asked for a good thing, and it will start with you.” Hashem knew what Avraham was thinking, and He concurred completely.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah records the birth of our forefather Yitzchak. Avraham and Sarah were old when Yitzchak was born, and both were previously barren, so the birth was a great miracle. Accordingly, Sarah exclaimed (Bereishis 19:7): “Who proclaimed the word to Avraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne a son in his old age!” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 53:5):
It is written (Tehillim 113:9): “He causes the mistress of the house (עקרת הבית) to settle as the joyous mother of children.” He causes the mistress of the house to settle – Sarah, of whom it is written, “Sarai was barren (עקרה).” The joyous mother of children – as it is written, “Sarah would nurse children.” [The Hebrew phrase עקרת הבית in this verse is typically rendered as “barren wife,” but, in line with Maggid’s commentary, I have rendered it “mistress of the house”– cf. Bamidbar Rabbah 14:8 and 14:11.]
The Midrash goes on to relate that Sarah produced so much milk that she was able to nurse other women’s babies as well as her own (Bereishis Rabbah 53:9), as hinted at by the phrase “nurse children” (rather than “nurse a child”) in Sarah’s exclamation. The Maggid sets out to analyze these two Midrashim.
First, the Maggid asks: Why did Hashem cause Sarah to produce so much milk? Seemingly, there was no need for this great miracle. It would have been wondrous enough for Sarah to be able to nurse her son Yitzchak alone. The Maggid explains the purpose of this extravagant miracle by noting the teaching in Bereishis Rabbah 53:8 that at the time Sarah gave birth, many other formerly barren women gave birth along with her. This occurrence could have prompted the people of the time to ask: For whose sake did these miraculous births come about – was it for the sake of Sarah, with the other women benefitting incidentally, or was it for sake of some other woman, with Sarah benefitting incidentally? Hence, in order to show clearly that the miracle was for Sarah’s sake, Hashem caused Sarah to produce so much milk that she could nurse the children of all the women.
The Maggid brings out the point further with an analogy. A stranger visits a certain house, and he sees a group of people seated at a dining table, each with his portion in front of him. He wants to figure out which one is the master of the house. How can he tell? He will wait until the next serving dish is brought to the table, and see which one serves the portions to the others. Similarly, since Sarah produced the milk on which the children of the other women nursed, it was evident that she was the principal figure in the miracle of the births.
The Maggid now turns to the second Midrash and asks: Why do the Sages link the verse about the עקרת הבית with Sarah’s giving birth? The similarity between the phrase עקרת הבית and the word עקרה does not seem a strong enough reason. It appears that the idea is as follows. The phrase עקרת הבית is related to the word עיקר, meaning principal. Thus, the Midrash is teaching that Sarah was, as we explained, the principal figure in the miracle of the births. The proof is that she became a “joyous mother of children” – since she nursed all the other children, it was as if she was the mother of them all.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates how Hashem told Avraham [then called Avram] to leave his birthplace and go to the land that He would show him. The Torah goes on to say (Bereishis 12:4): “And Avram went as Hashem had spoken to him, and Lot went along with him.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 39:13): “‘Avram went as Hashem had spoken to him, and Lot went along with him’ – Lot was an adjunct to him.” The Maggid asks: What are the Sages trying to point out, beyond what is evident from the verse itself? He answers by saying that the Sages are apparently seizing on the fact that the term the verse uses for “with him” is אתו rather than עמו, and taking this as a deliberate hint that Lot was merely tagging along with Avraham.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a small merchant wants to travel to a distant city to sell his wares, but the amount of merchandise he has does not justify the expense of making the trip on his own. He then will join a bigger merchant who is already travelling to the same city. But he is not just an adjunct to this other merchant; rather, he has his own agenda. On the other hand, if a person is making a trip and he takes his attendant along, we would describe the attendant as an adjunct – he is not making the trip for his own reasons, but rather is going only to serve his employer. In the case of the small merchant travelling with the bigger merchant, the appropriate Hebrew term for “with him” is עמו, which indicates one independent entity accompanying another. By contrast, in the case of the attendant, the appropriate term is אתו, which indicates an intrinsic connection.
In the case of Avraham and Lot, Avraham’s departure from Charan for Eretz Yisrael had a specific reason: Hashem had told him to make this trip. When Lot went along, it was not because he himself sought to go to Eretz Yisrael, and was taking an opportunity to make the trip without bearing all the expenses on his own. Rather, Lot made the trip only because he was subordinate to Avraham and naturally went wherever Avraham did. The Midrash reads the Torah’s choice of language as deliberately designed to make this point.
Later, a quarrel erupted between Avraham’s shepherds and Lot’s, and Avraham suggested to Lot that the two of them part company. Avraham said to Lot (Bereishis 13:9): “Behold, the entire land is before you. Please separate from me. If you go left, I will move over to the right, and if you go right, I will move over to the left.” Why did Avraham preface his request with the words “behold, the entire land is before you.” Why did he not simply ask Lot to separate from him? And why did Avraham need to urge Lot to separate from him, as if the matter was up to Lot? Why did Avraham not simply set off in his own direction, and leave Lot behind?
We can explain Avraham’s actions with an analogy. Suppose two wagons are moving in opposite directions on the same road, one wagon with a full load and the other empty. If the road is too narrow for the wagons to pass each other, and one of them must move to the side, the empty wagon will be the one to move. Since the empty wagon is light, its driver can easily move it to the side, whereas the full wagon, being heavy, is hard to move. 
It was similar with Avraham and Lot. Hashem told Avraham to go “to the land that I shall show you.” Clearly Hashem provided Avraham with landmarks to guide his way, just as He later guided the Jewish People in the wilderness by providing a cloud to lead them. Indeed, Hashem must have given Avraham very precise directions, for we know that every step that Avraham took was designed to lay key foundations for his descendants. He camped in Shechem to pray for Yaakov’s sons, who would later wage war there. And he built an altar at Ai, and prayed there on behalf of the Jews of Yehoshua’s time, who would suffer hardship at that particular place. Avraham therefore could not have set off in some other direction in order to separate from Lot. He had to get Lot to move. Thus, he said to Lot: “Behold, the entire land is before you.” Lot had the entire land open to him; he could go wherever he wanted. Avraham, however, had to keep to the path that Hashem had set for him. Avraham called this point to Lot’s attention in order to convince him to set off in another direction.
Avraham said further: “If you go left, I will move over to the right, and if you go right, I will move over to the left.” The Midrash interprets (Bereishis Rabbah 41:6):
If you go to the left, I will go to the south; if I go to the south, you will go to the left. … It is like two men with two stockpiles of grain, one of wheat and the other of barley. Said one of these men to the other: “If the wheat is mine, the barley is yours. And if the barley is yours, the wheat is mine. In any event, the wheat is mine.” Said R. Chanina bar Yitzchak: “It is not written ‘and I will go to the left’ (ואשמאלה), but rather ‘and I will move [you] over to the left’ (ואשמאילה, in the causative form). Avraham was saying: ‘In any event, I will move you over to the left.’”
Thus, Avraham was not giving Lot the option of which direction to choose for himself. Rather, he was telling him: “If you go left, I will move myself over to the right, and if you go right, I will move you over to the left. In any event, I am going to the right. If you go left voluntarily, all is well. And if not, I will force you to do so.” Irrespective of Lot’s wishes, Avraham had to keep his own course, in order to fulfill the mission Hashem gave him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator