Post Archive for February 2015

Megillas Esther

Since we will be celebrating Purim this coming week, I present a piece from the Maggid’s commentary on Megillas Esther. The Megillah states (Esther 1:8): “And the drinking was according to law, with no compulsion. For thus the king directed all the attendants of his household, to do according to each man’s desire.” The Gemara states (Megillah 12a) that the phrase כרצון איש ואיש [which could be more literally rendered as according to the desire of this man and that man] refers to Mordechai and Haman. For Mordechai is called איש יהודי, a Jewish man (Esther 2:5), while Haman is called איש צר ואויב, a man who is an adversary and an enemy (Esther 7:6).
The Maggid presents a parable to explain this Gemara. A certain man’s wife died, leaving him with an only son – a dear, sweet boy. The man married another woman with a very bad disposition, who was mean toward the son whom he loved so very much. She hated the boy thoroughly, like a typical stepmother. The man and his second wife fought incessantly over how to treat the boy. While the father wished to pamper his son and lavish him with the best of delicacies, the stepmother prevented him from doing so, and treated the boy with the utmost stinginess wherever possible. After a time, the boy fell mortally ill. The father called in doctors, who rescued the boy from the jaws of death. The doctors then warned the father: “Take care not to give your son too much to eat until he regains his former strength. If you do, he could get sick again, and then he will be in very grave danger. The more you restrict his eating, the more quickly he will recover.”
The father took this to heart. At mealtime, as the stepmother prepared a small portion of food to serve to the boy, the father thought to himself: “Even this amount is too much for my son now.” So the father served the boy even less. When the boy saw this, he was quite taken aback. He said to his father: “Father, you have just done something now that I have never seen you do ever before. Until now, you have always treated me differently from the way your wife has treated me. Whenever she would serve me a small portion, you would add to it from your own portion. But now you act just as she does. The two of you are conspiring to limit how much I get to eat. The portions she serves me are small enough. Must you reduce them even more? I see that she has won you over to her side!” The father replied with a chuckle: “My son, you have misjudged me. True, the way we act toward you now is the same. But our intentions are quite different. She acts out of great stinginess, and out of a begrudging attitude toward you. But I am acting out of my great love for you. I reduced your portion out of concern for your health, for the doctors warned that too much food could harm you.”
The parallel is clear. Mordechai and Haman fought constantly over how to treat the Jews. Mordechai strove for their welfare, desiring that they be blessed with everything good – that they should eat well and indulge themselves. On the other hand, Haman was always the Jewish People’s nemesis. He wanted them to suffer – he wanted every last one of them to be famished and destitute. He could not bear to see any Jew enjoy any worldly pleasure. Thus Mordechai and Haman were always in opposition. At Achashveirosh’s feast, however, the two of them ostensibly had the same goal. Mordechai also desired that the Jews derive no enjoyment from the feast. But they each had a distinctly different motivation. Mordechai wanted the Jews to refrain from partaking of the wicked Achashveirosh’s feast, so that they would avoid punishment. Haman, on the other hand, simply had a begrudging attitude toward the Jews. He considered them contemptible and could not stand to see them indulge themselves with the king’s food and wine.
The two of them together refrained from forcing anyone to eat or drink at this feast, although it was the custom at Persian feasts to force people to drink from a huge cup of wine (Esther Rabbah 1:13). Mordechai refrained from forcing them in the hope that the Jews would choose not to partake of the feast, once they saw that no one was forcing them to do so. Haman refrained from forcing them because anyway he begrudged them any enjoyment.
Now we can easily reconcile the verse we quoted at the outset with the Gemara we presented afterward. The plain meaning of the verse is that Achashveirosh ordered against forced eating and drinking at the feast. Each man was free to eat and drink as much or as little as he desired; a person could even refrain from partaking entirely. But, as we have just explained, this is precisely how the two men Mordechai and Haman desired to run the feast. Thus, the Sages, who knew that these two men were in charge of the feast, interpreted the phrase כרצון איש ואיש homiletically as referring to what these two men desired. Thus, although Mordechai and Haman had always opposed each other, in this case they had a common desire not to force the Jews to partake of the feast, albeit for differing reasons.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Terumah

This week’s parashah describes the design of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Ark, which contained the Tablets of the Law, represents the Torah. The Ark was built with a crown. The Gemara in Yoma 72b remarks: “If a person merits, the Torah becomes a crown (zeir) for him. And if the does not merit, it becomes a stranger (zarah) to him.” The Maggid discusses this Gemara in the introduction to Sefer HaMiddos. He asks the question: What makes a person merit the Torah? He answers with a well-known teaching in Vayikra Rabbah 9:3: “Derech Eretz (decent conduct) precedes Torah.” The term Derech Eretz, says the Maggid, encompasses a range of good character traits such as speaking only the truth, acting with compassion toward others, doing acts of kindness, being humble, and so on. A person of good character who learns Torah is like a person in fine, respectable clothing who wears a crown – the crown befits him. And a person of bad character who learns Torah is like a person dressed in rags who wears a crown – the crown looks strange on him.
Hashem exhorts us (Vayikra 19:1): “Be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy.” Hashem calls upon us to be His devoted servants. But before taking this role upon ourselves, we must first shed our bad character traits and make ourselves decent human beings. In this vein, the prophet Yeshayah exhorts us in Hashem’s Name, saying (Yeshayah 1:16-18): ”Wash yourselves, cleanse yourselves, remove your evildoing from before My eyes – cease doing evil. Learn to do well, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, says Hashem: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, though they are red like crimson, they shall like wool.” The Maggid brings out the idea with a parable about a husband and wife who were quarreling over money issues. During the period that they were quarreling, the husband got severely sick and was confined to bed. But while he was in his sickbed, he continued quarreling with his wife. The wife said to him: “Why are you still quarreling with me when you have not been cured of your illness? First turn yourself into a functioning person, and then we can discuss our money issues.” Thus, the prophet Hoshea exhorts us (Hoshea 14:2): “Return, O Yisrael, unto (ad) Hashem your God.” Hoshea uses unusual phrasing here: instead of the more natural l‘Hashem or el Hashem, he uses the phrasing ad Hashem, meaning literally that we should return “up to” Hashem. We have to work our way up, first going through the preliminary stages of character development, and afterward turning ourselves into Hashem‘s servants.
L‘Ilui nishmas Devorah Rivka bas Avraham, my dear great-aunt Rebecca, who passed away this week.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mishpatim

Near the end of this week’s parashah, Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 23:20): “Behold, I am sending an angel before you to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” The Midrash recounts Moshe’s reaction (Shemos Rabbah 32:8):
Moshe said to Him: “You are sending an angel with me? Was this the arrangement we made? Didn’t You say, ‘and I will go down to save them from the hands of Egypt and bring them up from this land [Egypt]’ (Shemos 3:8)? And now You say, ‘behold, I am sending an angel before you’? If Your Presence does not go along [with us], do not bring us up from here (Shemos 33:15). Hashem replied (Shemos 33:3): “I shall not go up among you.” Moshe declared: “You say that you will send an angel and I have insisted that You go Yourself. We will see whose word stands.” … Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to him: “By your life, My Presence will go [with you] and provide you rest” (ibid 33:14). And a heavenly voice cried out (Koheles 8:4-5): “In regard to the King’s word being law, who can say to Him: ‘What are You doing?’ He who observes the mitzvos will know no evil.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash in terms of two modes of operation that Hashem uses to save us from our enemies. He brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a person sees a friend of his fighting with someone else, and he seeks to help him. He can provide help in one of two ways. He can either do something that improves his friend’s position, or do something that weakens his friend’s opponent. Similarly, when we are threatened by an enemy, Hashem can help us either by improving our position or by weakening our enemy, along the lines of the Torah’s statement in Devarim 28:7 that if we obey Hashem’s commands He will cause our enemies to be struck down. An example of a situation where Hashem improved our position is the episode where Pharaoh sought to bring us back to Egypt after he had released us. Hashem enveloped us with protective clouds and split the sea for us. An example of a situation where Hashem weakened our enemy is the episode where the Assyrian army laid siege to Jerusalem and Hashem sent an angel to smite them at night. Perhaps it was these two forms of providing help that Yehoshua had in mind when he asked the sword-bearing angel, “Are you with us or with our enemies?” (Yehoshua 5:13). It is incredible that Yehoshua would think that Hashem sent the angel to help the Jewish People’s enemies. But, in light of our discussion, we can say that Yehoshua was simply asking which form of help Hashem planned to extend to us.
There is a key difference between these two modes of operation that Hashem uses to help us. When Hashem operates by improving our position and providing us with added might, He intervenes Himself, along the lines of David HaMelech’s statement that Hashem alone has true greatness and might (Divrei HaYamim Alef 29:11: “Yours, Hashem, is the greatness and the might”). On the other hand, when He operates by weakening our enemy, He sends an angel to carry out His plan; since Hashem is good to all, it does not comport with His honor to act as if He is bringing evil. Thus, in the example of the Assyrian siege that we mentioned just above, Hashem sent an angel to smite the Assyrians rather than doing so Himself.
Let us analyze further the conditions under which Hashem saves us by taking action Himself and the conditions under which Hashem send an angel to smite our enemies. We can say that the matter depends on our spiritual level. In some cases, we are all righteous and spiritually whole, so that we are eminent in our own right and well deserve Hashem’s help. In other cases, we are not on such a high spiritual level, but we can still be rated as eminent in comparison with our wicked enemies. When we are eminent in our own right, Hashem honors us by intervening on our behalf Himself and granting us added might. And when we are eminent only in comparison with our enemies, He send an angel to smite our enemy, and our salvation comes as an automatic side effect of our enemies being smitten, just as our eminence emerges as a side effect of our wicked enemies being on the scene. David HaMelech speaks of the first mode of operation, declaring (Tehillim 13:3): “I shall sing to Hashem, for He has provided for me (גמל עלי).” David was saying that Hashem saved him from his enemies by providing him with added might in compensation (גמול) for his righteousness and spiritual wholeness, and not by smiting his enemies on account of their wickedness.
We now return to the Midrash with which we began. In Moshe’s time, although occasionally we faltered, on the whole we were eminent in our own right; as Bilaam put it, we were a nation that dwells alone, not being reckoned among the other nations (Bamidbar 23:9). We therefore deserved to have Hashem save us from our enemies Himself. And this is what Moshe was asking for when he said: “If Your Presence does not go along [with us], do not bring us forward from here. For how, then, will it be known that I have found favor in your eyes – I and Your people – unless you accompany us, and I and Your people will be made distinct from every nation on the face of the earth?” Moshe wanted Hashem to demonstrate overtly that it was on account of our righteousness and His resulting love for us that He came to our aid, and not merely on account of His hatred for our enemies. Our intrinsic eminence would be demonstrated by Hashem’s accompanying us and performing wonders to invest us with added might. Hashem replied: “My Presence will go [with you] and provide you rest.” Hashem told Moshe that indeed He Himself would accompany us and give us the might to overcome our enemies. This message comes out very clearly if we render the phrase והניחותי לך (and provide you rest) as indicating that Hashem would place His might at our disposal (להניח – to set down).
The Midrash concludes: “And a heavenly voice cried out: “In regard to the King’s word being law, who can say to Him: ‘What are You doing?’ He who observes the mitzvos will know no evil.” The Midrash is saying that Moshe prevailed in his plea to Hashem that He Himself would stand at our aid, and then explains the reason: “He who observes the mitzvos will know no evil.” For those who observe the mitzvos, it is not fitting to bring them salvation as a side effect of their enemies being smitten; rather, they deserve to have Hashem save them directly by standing by them and granting them added might.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Yisro

This week’s parashah recounts the revelation at Sinai. After presenting the account, the Torah states (Shemos 20:14-16):
The entire people perceived the thunder and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain; the people saw it and they trembled, and they stood far off. And they said to Moshe: “You speak to us and we will hear; let not God speak with us, lest we die.” And Moshe said to the people: “Do not fear, for God has come in order to raise you up, and in order that awe of Him shall be upon your faces, so that you will not sin.”
In explaining this passage, the Maggid takes as his starting point a discussion by Akeidas Yitzchak (Gate 48) regarding a passage in Tehillim 68:8-11:
O God, when You went forth before Your nation, when You marched through the wilderness, Selah – the earth quaked, even the heavens dripped before the Presence of God – even Sinai, before God, the God of Yisrael. A generous rain did You pour down; when Your heritage was weary, You established it firmly. Your flock settled there; in Your goodness You prepared for the impoverished, O God.
The gist of Akeidas Yitzchak’s discussion is as follows. Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 19:9): “Behold, I am going to come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people will hear as I speak with you, and also will believe in you forever.” From this statement, Moshe understood that the Jewish People’s encounter with Hashem would be awesome, stunning, and terrifying. And thus it was. The people beheld a wondrous display of Hashem’s glory, His fearsomeness, and His radiant holiness. They heard and saw powerful thunder and lightning, a thick cloud, and a mighty shofar blast.  Hashem’s words issued forth like flashes of fire. Hashem orchestrated this awesome scene, with phenomena never before observed anywhere in the entire world, in order to smash the people’s hearts of stone and melt their iron sinews, so as to cultivate the people’s souls and usher them into a state of spiritual completeness. Hashem’s actions were like those of a person arduously laboring over a barren field that has long lain fallow in order to enable it to produce. All of this is reflected in the passage in Tehillim quoted above. David HaMelech likens Hashem’s display of wonders at Sinai to a downpour of rain on a parched field. Hashem performed these wonders in order to draw His spiritually impoverished people near to Him.
The Jews at Sinai who beheld these wonders were unable to bear them – they were struck with terror. They said to Moshe: “You speak to us and we will hear; let not God speak with us, lest we die.” Moshe spoke to the people’s hearts, saying: “Do not fear, for God has come in order to raise you up (נסות אתכם).” He was saying to them: “Hashem did not bring forth these wonders in order to cause you to die. Rather, He brought them forth in order to raise high like a banner (נס להתנוסס) your recognition of His Godly power, and prepare you for true spiritual success.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator