Post Archive for January 2015

Parashas Beshallach

This week’s parashah recounts the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the song the Jewish People sang afterward to praise Hashem for this miraculous deliverance. The Jewish People declared (Shemos 15:2): “Y-h is my might and my praise, and He was unto me as a salvation (ויהי לי לישועה).” The Midrash remarks (Shemos Rabbah 23:15): “It is not written יהי לי but rather ויהי לי – He was unto me and He will be unto me.” In Ohel Yaakov, Bereishis, parashas Vayechi, the Maggid offers an interpretation of this Midrash. He starts with another Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 2:1):
He made His ways known to Moshe, His actions (עלילותיו) to the Children of Yisrael (Tehillim 103:7). A mortal’s traits and actions are crooked, as it is written (Devarim 22:13), “and he makes a wanton accusation (עלילות דברים) against her [his wife].” But Hashem’s traits and actions are compassionate, as it is written (Tehillim 103:8): “Hashem is compassionate and gracious.” And Hashem made these ways known to Moshe at the time he asked (Shemos 33:13), “Please make known to me Your ways.” Hashem replied (ibid. 33:19): “I show grace toward him to whom I will show grace.” And thus (Tehillim 103:8), “Hashem is compassionate and gracious.”
The Maggid explains as follows. When a mortal king gets angry at one of his servants and orders that he be given a severe beating, the king’s sole intent at that moment is to cause the servant pain. If afterward the servant appeases the king, his attitude toward the servant changes: instead of being a harsh enemy toward him, he is now a gracious friend. Man’s tendency toward such abrupt shifts in attitude is what the Midrash is referring to when it says that a mortal’s actions are crooked: people are constantly changing course. But with Hashem it is different: Even when Hashem punishes a person, His intent in doing so is to benefit him. There is no change, far be it, in Hashem’s attitude toward a person from one moment to a later one. Everything that Hashem brings upon a person is an act of compassion aimed toward the person’s good. This mode of operation is what Hashem was referring to when He told Moshe that “I show grace to whom I will show grace” – everything Hashem does now, at any given moment, is an act of grace that lays the groundwork for a future show of grace.
And this is what the Midrash is pointing to when it calls attention to Moshe’s use of the phrasing ויהי לי as opposed to יהי לי . Had Moshe used the plain future tense phrasing יהי לי, he would be saying only that Hashem can be counted on to come to our aid in times of need. The implication would be that, when the occasion requires, Hashem sets aside His previous plans and launches into a course that will lead to our salvation. By using the alternate phrasing ויהי לי, with the Biblical conversive vav turning a future tense verb to past tense, Moshe is saying that the gracious course of action that we will see Hashem taking toward us in the future is precisely the course of action that Hashem had been taking toward us from the start. All along, although we do not necessarily see it, Hashem has been working toward our salvation, and, when the time comes, we will behold the salvation sprouting forth.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo

The account of the four sons and how the father should interact with them is a familiar segment of the Pesach Haggadah. This week’s parashah describes the interaction with three of the sons:
1. The wicked son asks (Shemos 12:26): “What is this service to you (לכם)?” And the Torah tells us to say (ibid. 12:27): “It is a Pesach offering unto Hashem, who passed over the houses of the Children of Yisrael in Egypt ….”
2. The simple son asks (ibid. 13:14): “What is this?” And the Torah tells us to say: “With a strong hand Hashem took us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage.”
3. To the son who does not know how ask, the Torah tells us to say (ibid. 13:8): “It is on account of this that Hashem took action for me when I went out from Egypt.”
However, in the Haggadah’s account of how to answer the wicked son, the Haggadah does not present the answer the Torah tells us to give him, but instead presents the explanation that the Torah tells us to give to the son who does not know how to ask, interpreting it as speaking of Hashem’s taking action “for me and not for him.” The commentators have grappled with the question of why the Haggadah presents an answer different from the one the Torah gives. An additional question can be posed about the wise son’s query (Devarim 6:20): “What are the testimonial laws and the statutes and the ordinances that Hashem our God commanded to you (אתכם)?” Here, the wise son, just like the wicked son, uses the phrase “to you” rather than “to us.” We can thus ask why we do not relate to him in a similar way, speaking of Hashem’s taking action “for me but not for him.” Why is it that the wicked son’s לכם prompts a rebuke but the wise son’s אתכם does not? The Maggid answers that, when the Sages instructed us to answer the question “What is this service to you (לכם)?” with a rebuke, they were not basing this instruction on the use of the term לכם, but instead were basing it on a more compelling consideration. The Maggid then proceeds to explain the matter.
He brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a person goes to a neighbor’s house and sees his servant doing something that looks strange, such as boring holes in the walls. If the visitor is a man of understanding, he will realize that the servant is surely not doing what he was doing on his own volition, but rather is acting according to his master’s orders. He will thus ask the servant: “Please tell me, my friend, why did your master tell you to do this?” If the visitor is a fool, on the other hand, he will misguidedly assume that the servant was operating on his own accord. And so he will gruffly ask him: “Why are you doing this work?”
The respective questions of the wise son and the wicked son, the Maggid says, follow a similar pattern. When this wise son asks his question, the way he phrases it shows clearly that he realizes that his father is doing what he is doing because Hashem ordered him to do so (with the wise son implicitly acknowledging that, since he is also Hashem’s servant, it is incumbent on him to do the same), and he is asking his father if he knows the reason behind the order. Accordingly, the father answers him by explaining the reason behind the Pesach service (“We were slaves in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand ….” [Devarim 6:21-25]). The way the wicked son phrases his question, by contrast, reflects that the fact that he does not bear in mind that we are Hashem’s servants, obliged to act according to His bidding. He wonders why his father is doing things that seem so strange. And so he asks: “What purpose do these actions serve for you?” He is indicating by his question that he does not see himself as obliged to do what his father is doing, for he regards it as an unnecessary and senseless machination.
The Sages therefore tell the father to answer in a reproving way, saying that “it is on account of this that Hashem took action for me when I went out from Egypt” – for me and not for you. It is true that this answer uses the formula that the Torah designated for speaking with the son who does not know how to ask. Nonetheless, it is a fitting answer to the wicked son, because of its allusion to Hashem’s taking action “for me and not for you.” The Sages aptly tell us to blunt the wicked son’s teeth with this answer, and tell him that if he had been in Egypt he would not have been saved – due to his misguided views, he would have wallowed in Egypt in everlasting disgrace. The father should not hesitate to quarrel with him and tell him straight out where he stands, to keep him from behaving with such insolence in the future.
In this vein, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 139:21-22): “For indeed, those who hate You, Hashem, I hate, and I quarrel with those who rise up against You. With the utmost hatred I hate them – they have become enemies unto me.” It befits a man of wisdom, when he meets a person who is wicked, crooked, and perverted, to hate this person. Thus it is written (ibid. 97:10): “O you who love Hashem: Hate evil.” At the same time, he should not quarrel with him, for no purpose is served in doing so. Indeed, David tells us elsewhere (ibid. 37:1): “Do not contend with evildoers.” A different approach should be followed, however, with an all-out heretic who seeks with suave words to entrap his fellow men. When you meet such a person, it is not enough for you to hate him in your heart. You must quarrel with him to the point that he likewise hates you.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. There was a man who was extremely good-hearted and acted nicely toward everyone; he never got angry, not even with those who hated him. Once a thief came to his house, and he quarreled with him vigorously. People asked him: “What is different today that you show such anger toward this scoundrel? We never saw you get angry like this.” The man replied: “It always was enough for me to hate wicked people in my heart; I never felt a need to quarrel with them. It is different, though, with this thief. I have to protect myself so that he will not steal anything from me. So I have to quarrel vigorously with him to the point where he hates me and wants nothing to do with me, and loathes coming to my house.”
David’s declaration is along these lines. David hates those who hate Hashem, but he keeps his hate concealed in his heart. But with people who rise up against Hashem – heretics who seek to turn others away from revering and serving Him – David openly quarrels, hating them with the utmost hatred and treating them like enemies, to the point where they likewise hate him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeira

Parashas Shemos ends with Moshe crying out to Hashem over the increased severity of the Jewish People’s slavery: “My Lord, why have You done evil to this people, why have you sent me? From the day I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he did evil to this people – You surely have not rescued them.” Hashem answers by saying that he will chastise Pharaoh and induce him to let the Jews free.
Parashas Vaeira begins with the continuation of Hashem’s answer:
I am Hashem. I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but with My Name Hashem I did not make Myself known to them. … I have heard the groan of the Children of Israel whom Egypt is enslaving, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore, say to the Children of Israel, saying: ‘I am Hashem, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt ….
The Maggid offers several commentaries on this interchange. We previously presented some of them, and here we present another. The starting point is a Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 3:6 concerning Moshe’s encounter with Hashem at the burning bush. Hashem told Moshe to return to Egypt and tell the Jews that He was going to redeem them. Moshe asked which Divine Name he should use when conveying this message. The Midrash says that Hashem replied as follows:
You wish to know My Name. The way I am called depends on the way I am acting. … When I am judging My creations I am called Elohim, and when I wage war against the wicked I am called Zevaos. When I arrange to punish a person for his sins (תולה על חטאיו של אדם), I am called El Shaddai [Maharzav explains this Name as indicating that Hashem punishes in a measured way in precise accord with the person’s sin, and when the quota has been fully meted out, He says “enough” (dai)], and when I show mercy toward My world I am called Hashem.
The Maggid explains what was taking place as follows. The Gemara in Bava Kamma 50a says that anyone who says that Hashem vacates sins deserves to have his life vacated. Rather, as Shemos 34:6 indicates, Hashem is long-suffering, but He does not gratuitously wipe the record clean – eventually He metes out punishment. At present this fact is not apparent, for Hashem is long-suffering even toward the wicked, but in the final era Hashem will impose all the punishments that He previously postponed. The Maggid draws an analogy to the way a merchant operates. So long as a merchant is in business, people can buy from him on credit and postpone payment. But when a merchant closes his business, there is no more postponing payment: either the customer pays, or the merchant forgoes the debt. Hashem operates in a similar way. In Koheles 12:1, Shlomo HaMelech describes the final era as a time when there will be no desire, and in Shabbos 151b the Gemara interprets this statement as meaning in the final era there will no more reward or punishment. In particular, so long as the world runs as it does now, Hashem postpones punishment, but in the final era there will be no more postponements. In the end, Hashem will settle all accounts.
In this vein, later on in the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 3:6, the Sages relate that Hashem revealed to Moshe that the redemption from Egypt would not be the final redemption – in the future, the Jewish People would undergo further exiles. Hashem told Moshe that the only reason He was redeeming the Jews after only 210 years of exile in Egypt, rather imposing on them a 400-year exile as He told Avraham He would do (Bereishis 15:13), was because they could no longer bear continued suffering. He explained to Moshe that He was not completely forgoing the other 190 years, but rather He was planning to arrange for the Jews make up these years later.
The Maggid now continues the discussion with a parable. Reuven owed his neighbor Shimon a large sum of money, and when the due date for paying the debt arrived, he did not have the money to pay the entire sum. Reuven offered Shimon a portion of the sum, and Shimon took it without complaint. This scenario can be viewed in two different ways. Perhaps Shimon was foregoing the rest of the loan, so that the debt was now fully discharged. Or perhaps Shimon was simply assenting to late payment of the remainder, planning to approach Reuven later and demand that he pay it. If Reuven thought that Shimon might forego the rest of the loan, he would try to make the partial payment as small as he could. But if Reuven knew that Shimon would later demand payment of the remainder, he would exert himself to make the partial payment as large as possible, so that he would have less hanging over his head.
With this, the Maggid says, we can understand the interchange between Hashem and Moshe. Hashem was hastening the redemption of the Jews because they could not bear enslavement any longer. Hashem told Moshe that the Jews would be exiled again, but Moshe thought that Hashem would ultimately show mercy and regard the 210 years in Egypt as fully satisfying the quota of exile. Moshe did not realize that the way Hashem was exercising His mercy was by granting the Jews a postponement, but not forgoing the rest of the quota. Moshe was therefore perplexed when he saw Hashem intensifying the Jewish People’s suffering. And so he asked Hashem: “My Lord, why have You done evil to this people, why have you sent me? From the day I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he did evil to this people – You surely have not rescued them.” Hashem responded: “Your view of the situation is not the same as Mine. I am not completely forgoing the rest of the quota of exile and suffering, but rather I am only postponing the remainder to another time. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as El Shaddai – the One who metes out suffering precisely as needed to cleanse a person of his spiritual grime (תולה על חטאיו של אדם). And since I am only temporarily suspending [תולהto suspend] the suffering, it is in the people’s best interest that I impose as much suffering as possible now, so that they will have less to endure in the future.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemos

In the middle of this week’s parashah, the Torah relates how Hashem instructed Moshe to return to Egypt and redeem the Jewish People. Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 3:17-18):
Go and gather the elders of Yisrael and tell them, “Hashem, the God of your forefathers, has appeared to me, the God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, saying, ‘I have surely remembered you and what is being done to you in Egypt. And I have said, “I shall bring you up from the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”’”
The Midrash remarks (Shemos Rabbah 3:8):
The elders always preserve Yisrael, and thus it is written (Yehoshua 8:33): “And all Yisrael and its elders, its officers, and its judges flanked the two sides of the Ark ….” When do the People of Yisrael maintain their position? When they have elders. When the Beis HaMikdash stood, the people would seek counsel from the elders, in line with the Torah’s teaching (Devarim 32:7): “Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you.” Whoever takes counsel from the elders never falters.
The Maggid interprets this Midrash as bringing out a key difference between true prophets and false prophets. He draws an analogy to the difference between how a king assembles an army and how a band of traitorous conspirators forms a group of supporters. When a king wants to assemble an army, he first sets up a hierarchy of officers, and then the officers at the bottom of the hierarchy assemble platoons from among the populace until a large army is formed. The leaders of a conspiracy operate differently. Out of fear of being apprehended, at the outset they avoid operating openly. They first gradually assemble a large gang from among the populace, and then they set up a hierarchy of officers. Similarly, the false prophets who spread bogus prophecies work operate from the bottom up. They start off by making emotional appeals to the commoners of weak intellect (as it is written in Mishlei 14:15, “A fool will believe anything.”), thereby forming a large mass of supporters, and they then set out to force the leadership to adopt their position. A true prophet, by contrast, operates like a king, working from the top down. When Hashem appoints a prophet to lead his generation, as it was with Moshe, He cautions him not to start off by conveying his prophecies to the commoners. Instead, when a true prophet receives a prophecy from Hashem, he immediately conveys it to the elders – those who stand at the head of the nation and are devoted to Hashem. Afterward, the elders assemble the people and transmit Hashem’s word to them. Thus, in the present instance, Hashem told Moshe to assemble the elders, and the Midrash remarks that whoever takes counsel from the elders never falters.
The pattern we just described is reflected in the episode of the scouts whom Moshe sent out to survey Eretz Yisrael (parashas Shelach). Moshe turns to Hashem for instructions on to respond to the people’s demand to send scouts, and Hashem tells him (Bamidbar 13:1): “Send for yourself men, and let them scout the Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Yisrael.” Hashem was telling Moshe that the scouts should serve exclusively as his agents, and not as agents of the people, just as a king operates on his own in managing the affairs of his kingdom. And when the scouts returned, they should have gone straight to Moshe and conveyed their report to him alone. However, the scouts acted differently. The Torah relates (Bamidbar 13:26): “And they [the scouts] went and came to Moshe, and to Aharon, and to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, to the wilderness of Paran at Kadesh, and they brought back a report to them, and to the entire assembly, and they showed them the fruit of the land.” They initially turned to the general populace, before reporting to Moshe, and painted a picture of Eretz Yisrael that was designed to sway the people not to follow Hashem’s command to enter the land. In speaking of “Moshe, Aharon, and the entire assembly,” the Torah is saying that the scouts first gathered the people together, and only afterward approached Moshe.
Our discussion here can perhaps serve as an aid to understanding an interpretation in the Gemara of the verse in Bamidbar that we quoted just above. The Gemara remarks (Sotah 35a): “The verse juxtaposes their going to their coming: Just as their coming was with bad intent, so, too, their going out was with bad intent.” We can view the Torah’s statement that the scouts “went and came” in a manner similar to how the Gemara elsewhere views the statement in Ruth 2:3 that Ruth “went and came, and gleaned in the field behind the harvesters.” The Gemara in Shabbos 113b remarks: “She went and she came, she went and she came, until she found people that were suitable for her to go along with.” Similarly, we can say that the scouts secretly went out to circulate among the general populace and spread their negative message until the people amassed in front of Moshe, and afterward the scouts came to Moshe as well. The Gemara in Sotah thus says that the reason the scouts first went out among the populace must have been because from the very start of their mission, their intent in proceeding ahead was not to carry out Moshe’s instructions, but rather to follow their own leanings. In the manner of conspirators, they worked from the bottom up.
Today, 17 Teves 5775, is the Maggid’s 210th yahrzeit.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayechi

This week’s parashah recounts Yaakov’s parting words of admonition and blessing to his sons before his death. Regarding Shimon and Levi, he said (Bereishis 49:5-7):
Shimon and Levi are brothers – their weapons are pilfered tools. Into their council may my soul not enter; with their assembly, O my honor, do not associate. For in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was harsh; I will separate them with Yaakov, and scatter them in Yisrael.
The Midrash in Tanchuma, Vayechi 10, quoted by Rashi, comments: When Yaakov expressed his wish that his soul not enter Shimon and Levi’s council, he had in mind a hope that his name not be associated with Zimri ben Salu, prince of the tribe of Shimon in the wilderness generation, who brazenly consorted with a Midianite princess (Bamidbar 25). The Maggid raises two questions about this passage. First, how does the phrase “their council” refer to Zimri’s sin? Second, when Yaakov says that “in their ‘self-will’ they hamstrung oxen,” what is the import of the term “self-will,” given that is usually a person’s will that motivates him to act as he does. In connection with this term, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 98:5 states that Yaakov was telling Shimon and Levi that “it was in order to carry out the dictate of your desire that you uprooted the bulwark of the converts.” We need to examine what Yaakov had in mind in saying the Shimon and Levi were following the dictate of their desire.
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. Every person, from his earliest days, is caught up in a battle against his evil inclination. On some occasions, the evil inclination’s line of attack is to try to keep a person from performing a mitzvah. On other occasions, the line of attack is to taint a mitzvah that a person does with an ulterior motive. For example, certain mitzvos that a person performs, such as partaking of delicacies on Shabbos in honor of the day, involve an element of pleasure, and then the question arises whether the person is doing the mitzvah to fulfill Hashem’s will or to fulfill his desire. The person himself may not recognize his true motive.
These ideas serve as a guide in viewing Shimon and Levi’s attack on the city of Shechem after Shechem the son of Chamor violated Yaakov’s daughter Dinah. Was the attack motivated by an earnest intent to avenge Hashem’s honor? Or was the attack motivated by an irate desire to avenge their own personal honor, after the assault on their sister? Yaakov discerned that Shimon and Levi’s motive was personal honor. He therefore declared, “Into their council (סודם) may my soul not enter” –  building on the fact that the Hebrew word סוד for council can also mean secret, Yaakov was indicating that he did not want to be associated with the improper motive secreted in Shimon and Levi’s hearts.
How did Yaakov know what their motive was? He prophetically foresaw Zimri ben Salu’s evil deed, and from this he inferred Shimon and Levi’s motive. The Maggid interprets in this vein the Gemara’s teaching in Sanhedrin 82b that Zimri ben Salu’s name (זמרי בן סלוא) alludes to the fact that he caused his family’s sin to be recalled (הסליא עון משפחתו). What was Yaakov’s reasoning? The Maggid explains the reasoning as follows. In Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:24, the Midrash teaches that in the merit of Sarah, who guarded herself against immoral relations when she went down to Egypt, the Jewish women guarded themselves against immoral relations during the enslavement in Egypt, and in the merit of Yosef, who guarded himself against immoral relations in Egypt, the Jewish men guarded themselves against immoral relations during the enslavement in Egypt. In this vein, if Shimon and Levi’s attack against Shechem had been prompted by an earnest intent to avenge Hashem’s honor after an incident involving immoral relations (the way Pinchas was prompted to kill Zimri), this merit would have protected their descendants from engaging in similar wrongdoing. Thus, from the fact that Shimon’s descendant Zimri would engaged in immoral relations, Yaakov inferred that Shimon and Levi’s attack had been prompted by a selfish motive. This is what Yaakov meant in saying that Shimon and Levi had acted out of “self-will,” following the dictates of their desire.
David Zucker, Site Administrator