Post Archive for March 2015

Parashas Tzav

Unfortunately I was unable to post the d’var Torah for parashas Tzav before Shabbos, because of a technical problem with the website, so I am posting it now. I hope you find it interesting.
Parashas Tzav includes a discussion of the thanksgiving offering (Vayikra 7:12-15). The Midrash remarks (Vayikra Rabbah 9:1):
“With the presentation of a thanksgiving offering they shall honor Me” (Tehillim 50:23). It is not written “sin-offering” or “guilt-offering,” but rather “thanksgiving offering.” Why? Because sin-offerings and guilt-offerings are brought on account of a sin, but a thankgiving offering is not brought on account of a sin.
We have previously presented a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on this Midrash. We now present another selection.
The thanksgiving offering is brought to give thanks for a blessing received. The sin-offering and the guilt-offering, on the other hand, are brought for the purpose of being cleansed of the evil effects of sin. Thus, the thanksgiving offering is brought for receipt of good, while the sin-offering and guilt offering are brought for the removal of bad. Both are kindnesses from Hashem, and both lead the recipient of the kindness to rejoice. However, from Hashem’s perspective – from the Giver’s standpoint – these two kindnesses differ considerably. When Hashem grants someone an extra blessing, He regards what He has done as a great kindness. It is different, though, when He takes someone out of a bad situation: The person Hashem has aided may well feel that Hashem has done him a great kindness (cf. Mishlei 27:7, “to the hungry soul, all bitter is sweet”), but Hashem himself regards what He has done as only a modest benefit.
The Maggid suggests that this idea may be what underlies the difference between the following two similar verses (the words that differ are set in italics):
1. Tehillim 57:11: “For great up to the heavens is Your kindness, and up to the celestial heights is Your truth.”
2. Tehillim 108:5: “For great above the heavens is Your kindness and up to the celestial heights is Your truth.”
We can say that the statement “for great above the heavens is Your kindness” refers to kindnesses that are truly great, while the statement “for great up to the heavens” refers to kindnesses that are small from the standpoint of the Giver, and great only from the standpoint of the recipient, on account of his lowly station and dire need. Indeed, a poor person rejoices over such small kindnesses as someone giving him some bread to save him from starvation, while from an ordinary person’s standpoint it is strange to rejoice over receiving some bread. In this vein, regarding Hashem’s subjecting the Jewish People to difficult times it is written (Yirmiyah 7:34): “For I shall cause to cease from the cities of Yehudah and the streets of Yerushalayim the sound of joy and the sound of gladness.” There will still be occasional rejoicing over rescue from plight, but people will be embarrassed to make their rejoicing over such an event heard in the streets.
We can perhaps also see a hint to this idea in a passage in Tehillim 71. The psalmist declares (Tehillim 71:15): “My mouth shall recount Your righteousness, all day long Your salvation, for I do not know their number.” The psalmist is describing how his mouth is occupied entirely with praises of thanks over being saved from distress. The psalmist continues (ibid. 71:16): “May I come with the mighty deeds of the Lord, Hashem/Elokim, and then I will recall Your righteousness alone.” Here, the psalmist speaks of how he yearns for Hashem to give him the opportunity to offer Him praise for performing great acts – that is, for acts of true beneficence. He hopes for the day when he will no longer need to recount how Hashem rescues him from plight, and will be able to speak only of the joy he feels over the blessings Hashem grants him.
We can interpret Tehillim 126 in a similar way. Tehillim 126 reads as follows (rendered differently from usual, in line with the Maggid’s commentary):
A song of ascents: When Hashem will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with glad song. Then they will say they among the nations: “Hashem has wrought great works with these; if Hashem would perform such great works with us, we would jubilant.” O Hashem, return our captivity like streams in the dry land; let those who sow with tears reap with joyous song. He who bears the measure of seed will walk along weeping, but he will return in exultation, bearing his sheaves.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. In a certain city there were two wealthy men, one who had a wise son who gained a rabbinical position, and another who had a son who was a glutton and a carouser. The second man’s son committed a number of serious crimes and was sentenced to death. But before the death sentence was carried out, something happened that led the judge to reverse his decision and let the young man go, and he returned to his home in peace. The young man’s relatives gathered together and celebrated his miraculous deliverance with great joy. Nonetheless, the relatives were not wishing for an opportunity to make a similar celebration for their own children.
Similarly, at the time of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the Jews were under threat of death, hunger, or being taken captive (Yirmiyah 15:2). Some of them were saved, and they felt great joy over their deliverance, yet it was not the kind of joy they wished that others would experience. In Tehillim 126, the psalmist describes the great success that we will attain in the end of days. Our success will be so great that all the other nations will speak of the wondrous works that Hashem is performing with us and describe how they would rejoice if Hashem would perform similar works for them. The psalmist then continues by describing a plea: “O Hashem, return our captivity like streams in the dry land; let those who sow with tears reap with joyous song.” A person who sows in a dry area does so tearfully, out of fear that he will have no crop; when a stream of water happens to pass through the area, he rejoices. He initially walks along weeping while bearing his seed, but afterward he rejoices, bearing his sheaves. But it will be different with us in the end of days, as it is written (Yeshayah 35:10): “Those redeemed by Hashem will return and come to Zion with glad song, with eternal joy upon their heads. They will attain gladness and joy, and anguish and groaning will flee.” No longer will groaning precede our rejoicing; we will be granted true blessing and experience pure joy.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayikra

Sefer Vayikra begins with the following statement: “And He called to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting ….” The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 1:4):
It is written in Tehillim 89:20: “Then You spoke in a vision to Your devout ones.” This verse is referring [homiletically] to Moshe, to whom Hashem communicated though speech and through visions. As it is written (Bamidbar 12:8): “Mouth to mouth I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles.” The phrase “Your devout ones” alludes to Moshe’s being a member of the tribe of Levi, along the lines of Devarim 33:8: “Of Levi he said, ‘Your Urim and Your Tumim befit Your devout one.” The verse in Tehillim 89:20 continues: “And You said, ‘I have placed [My] aid upon the mighty one, I have raised high the one chosen from among the people.’” This is along the lines of what R. Tanchum bar Chanilai said: “In the workings of the world, a load that is too hard for one person can be carried by two, and a load that is too hard for two people can be carried by four. Or perhaps we should say that a load that is too hard for 600,000 can be carried by one. For the entire Jewish People stood at Sinai and said (Devarim 5:22), ‘If we continue to hear the voice of Hashem our God any longer, we will die!’ Yet Moshe heard the Divine voice by himself and lived. Know that this is so, for among all of them, the Divine voice called only to Moshe, as it is written, ‘And He called to Moshe.’” We can see that the phrase “the one chosen from among the people” refers to Moshe, for it is written (Tehillim 106:23): “If not for Moshe, his chosen one.”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash, linking it to a statement Hashem made to Moshe at Sinai (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.” He brings out the message with a parable. In one of the cities under the rule of an important minister, the minister had a special friend whom he cherished and esteemed greatly. This friend could speak all the languages that the minister himself could speak. Once the minister visited the city, and all the city’s residents went out to greet him, among them the minister’s special friend. The minister looked at the crowd and saw his friend, and began speaking to him in Spanish, the language the people in the city spoke. The minister’s friend was very surprised. He asked him: “Why are you speaking to me in Spanish, rather than in some other language such as Arabic or French? You know that I speak all the languages you do.” The minister replied: “You should know that by speaking to you here in Spanish, I showed how much I cherish you. If I spoke to you in some other language, say Arabic, the people here wouldn’t recognize my fondness for you. They would figure I was more comfortable speaking in Arabic, and I chose specifically to speak to you because you are the only one here who speaks that language. But since I started off speaking in Spanish, and still I spoke only with you and not with any of them, they all understand that I chose to speak specifically with you and no one else because you are dearer to me and more esteemed in my eyes than any of them.”
We can now understand the meaning of Hashem’s statement to Moshe at Sinai. Hashem was telling Moshe that when He speaks to him at the mountain, He would speak on the people’s level, in a way they could understand, so that they would recognize how close the two of them were. And then they would believe in Moshe forever. Likewise, we can now understand the Midrash with which we began. The Midrash quotes Hashem’s statement that He spoke to Moshe “mouth to mouth, in a clear vision and not in riddles.” That is, Hashem communicated with Moshe in ordinary language, not in some esoteric manner that the Jewish People could not understand. As the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 5:9 states, expounding on David HaMelech’s statement that the voice of Hashem comes in power (Tehillim 29:4), Hashem’s voice manifested itself to each Jew according to his power of comprehension. Nonetheless, when the Divine voice emanated from the Tent of Meeting, it called only to Moshe.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayakhel-Pekudei

This week’s parashah describes the building and setting up of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 52:3 relates how some people scoffed at Moshe saying, “Is it possible that the Divine Presence will come to rest upon the work of the son of Amram?” But in the end Moshe had the last laugh, for the Divine Presence indeed came to rest upon the Mishkan. The Midrash draws a link between this event and one of Shlomo HaMelech’s statements about the woman of valor (Mishlei 31:25): “Strength and majesty are her attire, and she will merrily rejoice over the last day.” In the process, the Midrash recounts another event which it links to this statement. The Midrash relates that when R. Abbahu was on his deathbed, he saw a vision of all the good awaiting him in the World to Come. He rejoiced, saying: “All this for Abbahu? ‘But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and vanity. Indeed my right is with Hashem and my recompense with is my God”’” (Yeshayah 49:4). The Maggid remarks that surely R. Abbahu was not being facetious in expressing his happy surprise over the reward awaiting him. Yet his reaction is difficult to understand, for surely he was aware of all the Torah he had learned and all the good deeds he had done, and surely he believed that Hashem faithfully pays compensation. The Maggid sets out to explain R. Abbahu’s thought process.
We know, the Maggid says, that there are two aspects to serving Hashem: turning aside from evil and doing good (cf. Tehillim 34:15). A person spends the great majority of his effort avoiding evil, working to overcome his desires. Doing good is not so much of a struggle, especially since Hashem aids those who set out to do good. Avoiding evil is where the main struggle lies. Yet it is man’s doing that the evil inclination entered his inner being. Initially, Adam HaRishon experienced the evil inclination as an outside inciter; it is only as a result of his sinning by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that the evil inclination entered his inner being. At the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the powerful display of Hashem’s Presence cleansed the Jewish People and brought them back to the state that Adam was in before his sin; afterward, however, through the sin of the golden calf, the evil inclination re-entered their inner being. R. Abbahu thought that since man was responsible for turning the avoidance of evil into such a great struggle, Hashem probably would not pay much reward for the great effort involved in avoiding evil.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. Once a certain man’s house burned down, and he allowed his neighbors to use the site as a garbage dump. After some time, the local baron was struck with pity for him and decided to build him a magnificent new home. In preparation, he told the man to clear away all the garbage to make the site fit for building. The man had the garbage cleared away, in the process spending all the money he had previously amassed after salvaging what he could after the fire. The baron then arranged the construction of the new home. Some time later, the baron heard that the man was boasting to other people that he had built his magnificent home in partnership with the baron. The baron approached the man and said: “Show me, please, what components of the building you contributed and what components I contributed.” The man showed the baron a list of expenses he incurred in hiring wagons to clear away the garbage. The baron replied: “You fool! Who forced you to incur these expenses? The junk you needed to get hauled away is none other than the junk you yourself allowed to be dumped on the site in the first place. You let it in, and then you got it out. But the work in building your home was contributed entirely by me.”
Similarly, the typical person believes he deserves great reward from Hashem for his efforts in overcoming his desires and wiping out his bad character traits. But the lofty R. Abbahu, taking a broader view, was not expecting much reward from Hashem for his efforts in overcoming his evil inclination. He reasoned that Hashem was not obligated to pay reward for these efforts, for for man is the one who let the evil inclination into his inner being in the first place. In quoting the verse in Yeshayah, R. Abbahu was explaining his reasoning. He declared that, in the main, he spent his strength on naught and vanity – that is, on clearing out his heart from the mass of vain desires and reducing the agglomeration of negative tendencies to naught. And for the effort he spent on this process he expected little reward, as we have explained. R. Abbahu then continued: “Indeed my right is with Hashem and my recompense is with my God.” Here, R. Abbahu was saying that the main credit for what he did right is due to Hashem’s aid, and hence he was not expecting much reward for this either. R. Abbahu was therefore happily surprised when he saw the reward awaiting him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Ki Sissa

The designated haftarah for parashas Ki Sissa is often preempted by the special haftarah for parashas Parah, but this year we have the opportunity to read it. The haftarah recounts the famous showdown between Eliyahu HaNavi and the prophets of Baal. Eliyahu tells the prophets of Baal (Melachim Alef 18:24): “You shall call out to your gods.” The Maggid examines the four verses in the Bible where the phrase “you shall call out” (וקראתם) appears (Vayikra 23:21, Vayikra 25:10, Melachim Alef 18:24, and Yirmiyah 29:12). Reading the phrase in our haftarah homiletically as “you shall call out to your God [i.e., Hashem],” the Maggid builds from the four verses an essay on the topic of prayer. I present here a portion of this essay.
Yeshayah 21:11, in a prophecy called “a prophecy regarding Dumah,” describes a dialogue between the Jewish People and Hashem, who is referred to as “the Watchman.” The Jews in exile call out: “Watchman, what about the night? Watchman, what about the night?” The Watchman replies: “Morning has come, and also night. If you truly desire [My aid], repent and come.” The Maggid interprets this dialogue by means of a parable.
In a certain country, there was a rich and eminent man who was close to the king. Some people were jealous of this man and spread a rumor that he committed a capital crime. The king issued an order to his officers to arrest him, and so they rushed to the man’s house, without advance notice, hauled him out of bed, and put him in a deep and dark dungeon. He asked the officers why he was being arrested, but they did not know. After a short while, he fell asleep. By the time he stirred awake, he had forgotten the whole episode and he thought he was at home in his own bed. His usual practice when stirring awake from sleep at home was to look out the window to decide what to do; if he saw the morning light he would get up and otherwise he would continue sleeping. So while in the dungeon he took a look, saw that everything was dark, and went back to sleep. Some time passed, he stirred awake again, saw again that everything was dark, and went back to sleep again. He was astonished that the night was so long. Meantime, the king started to worry about him, for he had not been brought before him, so he went to the dungeon to check on him. He heard him lamenting: “Ah, this night is so long. I wish morning would come already, so that I can get up.” The king exclaimed: “You fool! You think that you are sleeping in your own bed and you are waiting to see the morning light? Now you are in a dungeon where no light shines in. It has turned morning and then night again several times already. You need only plead to me to free you. Speak, and I will listen.”
The parallel is as follows. Day represents a time when Hashem’s compassion is at the forefront, while night represents a time when Hashem’s judgment is at the forefront. When the Beis HaMikdash was standing, we had ways of knowing when it was a time of Divine favor. We could consult with the prophets regarding Hashem’s favor or disfavor toward us at a given time. In addition, signs of Hashem’s favor or disfavor were provided by various aspects of the service in the Beis HaMikdash. One sign was the way the smoke from the altar arose (see Yoma 21b). Another sign was the red string that was tied to the goat sent off the cliff in the Yom Kippur service – if the string turned white, it was a sign that our sins had been forgiven. The knowledge of whether it was a time of favor or disfavor guided how we acted. In times of favor we could pray for Hashem’s aid, and in times of disfavor we would be aroused to mend our ways.
But now that Beis HaMikdash is no longer standing, we no longer have the prophets or the special signs, so we cannot readily tell when a time of Divine favor is at hand that is opportune for prayers for Divine aid. As Yirmiyahu puts it (Eichah 3:6): “He has placed me in darkness like the eternally dead.” We remain silent, imagining in our mental haziness that the period of our exile is entirely night. We conduct ourselves along the lines of Yeshayah’s advice to “hide for a brief moment until the wrath has passed” (Yeshayah 21:20). And we marvel over how long the night is.
Yeshayah’s prophecy about Dumah (דומה) describes this state of affairs. Yeshayah saw prophetically that a time would come when there would be silence (דממה) among the Jewish People – that none of us would open his mouth and plead with Hashem to show compassion. Instead, we merely call out: “Watchman, what about the night? Watchman, what about the night?” We repeat the question out of our great astonishment over the extraordinary length of the night. Hashem answers us: “Morning has come, and also night.” He is telling us that our view of our situation is totally mistaken. Morning has come many times to dispel the darkness, but we have missed our opportunities. For example, the Gemara in Berachos 4a tells us that the Jordan River should have split at the time Ezra brought the Jews back from exile in Babylonia to Eretz Yisrael just as it had when Yehoshua first brought the Jews into the land, but our sins caused us to lose the opportunity to enter the land with a high hand, amidst great miracles. Instead we returned in a humble way, having to gain permission from the Persian kings who ruled Babylonia.
Opportunities for redemption have come multiple times, like the cycle of morning and night. Unlike in the days of the Beis HaMikdash, we have no explicit sign of when we have reached a time of Divine favor, a time that is ripe for redemption. In fact, the times that seem blackest for us are actually the times that are most opportune for us to gain redemption. Thus the Torah says (Devarim 4:30-31): “In your distress, when all these things have come upon you, in the end of days, you will return to Hashem your God, and hearken unto His voice, for Hashem your God is a merciful God – He will not abandon you or destroy you, or forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore unto them.” If we repent and plead earnestly to Hashem for redemption, He will grant it to us. As Yeshayah relates, Hashem tells us: “If you truly desire [My aid], repent and come.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator