Post Archive for April 2015

Parashas Emor

Parashas Emor begins with the law that a Kohen may not come near a human corpse except for that of one of his close relatives. The parashah begins with Hashem telling Moshe to convey these laws to Aharon and his sons. The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 26:6):
Thus it is written (Tehillim 19:10): “Fear of Hashem is pure, enduring forever.” Said R. Levi: “On account of the fear that Aharon had of the Holy One Blessed Be He, he gained the merit of being granted a certain section of Torah, which will remain unbudging with him, and his sons, and his sons’ sons, throughout all generations. And what section is it? The section prohibiting a Kohen from coming near a human corpse.”
Now, there are a number of other sections of Torah addressed to Aharon, such as the sections dealing with terumos (specific gifts to the Kohen from agricultural produce), tithes, first fruits, the section granting to Kohanim the breast and right thigh of every shelamim (peace) offering, and so on. Why, then, the Maggid asks, does the Midrash single out the section about avoiding corpses as a section that was specifically granted to Aharon and his descendants on account of his fear of Hashem?
The Maggid’s answer involves an analysis of the concept of “fear of Hashem.” Consider the following verse (Hoshea 6:4): “O Efraim, what can I do for you? O Yehudah, what can I do for you? For your devotion is like a morning cloud, and like the dew that goes away in the early morning.” The meaning of the first simile in this verse is clear: The morning cloud represents something that does not endure. The meaning of the second simile, however, is obscure. The fact that dew goes away in the early morning is seemingly not a flaw, for the natural function of dew is to come down in the evening and provide moisture to the ground through the night, and when morning comes the function of dew ends.
The Maggid explains the simile in terms of the two basic types of fear of Hashem. One type is fear of Hashem’s power to punish; the second type is awe of Hashem because He is the source and master of all things. The first type is a fledgling form of fear, while the second type is fear of Hashem in the true sense. Now, fear of Hashem’s power to punish operates mainly when a person is suffering; his afflictions sharply remind him that his fate is in Hashem’s hands. But in times of good, a person becomes complacent and his fear of Hashem fades. We can now understand the simile about the dew. Dew comes at night and disappears in the morning. Similarly, when person’s fear of Hashem is based solely on fear of punishment, his fear is present only in dark times, but when Hashem causes to sun to shine on him, so to speak, and grants him success, his fear vanishes. This idea is hinted at in Tehillim 34:10. In its literal meaning, the verse states: “Fear Hashem, O His holy ones, for those who fear him suffer no lack.” But we can interpret the verse as telling us to fear Hashem in the true sense, so that even when suffer no lack our fear does not diminish. In summary, a person’s fear of Hashem’s power of punishment depends on whether he is suffering or is at ease and successful, and therefore comes and goes with changes in circumstances, whereas fear of Hashem in the sense of awe is independent of circumstances, and therefore stands firm at all times.
Let us now recall the verse from Tehillim that the Midrash quotes: “Fear of Hashem is pure, enduring forever.” We can read the verse alternatively as follows: “Pure fear of Hashem endures forever.” [In the Hebrew, this reading fits very well with the verse.] Read in this way, the verse is stating the principle we just presented: Fear of Hashem that is based purely on awe, without any admixture of personal concerns, endures continually and permanently. We can link our discussion to a Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, Torah, 855 (cf. Berachos 33b): “The Holy One Blessed Be He has nothing for Himself in His world except for a storehouse of fear of heaven alone.” On the surface, the word “alone” here seems superfluous. But in light of what we have explained, the import of the word is clear: The Midrash is telling us that what Hashem values for Himself in this world is fear of Him that is alone, free of personal considerations.
The Gemara in Berachos 5a presents three steps a person can take when his evil inclination rises up against him. The first step is to involve himself in Torah study. If this doesn’t work, he should recite the Shema. If this doesn’t work, he should call to mind the day of death, as it is written in Koheles 7:2: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for this is the end of all men, and the living person should take it to heart.” Recalling the day of death is a powerful tactic. But when a person must resort to this tactic, being unable to save himself from his evil inclination through Torah and mitzvos, this inability shows that the person is at a low spiritual level. We can see this notion brought out in a story in Berachos 31a. At the wedding of Mar the son of Ravina, the Rabbis asked R. Hamnuna Zuti: “Please sing us something.” R. Hamnuna replied: “Woe to us that we will die! Woe to us that we will die!” The Rabbis asked: “What should we respond after you?” R. Hamnuna said: “Where is the Torah and where is the mitzvah that will shield us?” R. Hamnuna wanted to arouse the celebrants’ fear of Hashem, and to do so he went to the maximum extreme, recalling the day of death. And the meaning of the response that he told the celebrants to recite is as follows: “We wish we were strong enough to conquer the evil inclination through Torah and the mitzvah of reciting the Shema, rather than having to recall the day of death.”
In the beginning parashas Emor, the Torah commands Aharon and his descendants not to involve themselves with the dead. Now, we might be puzzled by this command, since recalling death is an important tool for arousing fear of Hashem. The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah is meant to explain why the command would not hamper the Kohanim in maintaining a high spiritual level. The Midrash says that Aharon was given this mitzvah in the merit of his fear of Hashem, quoting Tehillim 19:10, which, as we explained, indicates that fear of Hashem in the pure sense endures forever. The Midrash is saying that the Kohanim do not need the tool of recalling death, for their fear of Hashem is pure and therefore everlasting.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Acharei-Mos/Kedoshim

In parashas Kedoshim, the Torah commands (Vayikra 19:17): “Do not hate your brother in your heart; you must surely rebuke your fellow man, and do not bear sin on his account (לא תשא עליו חטא).” In discussing this command, the Maggid begins by noting that a person must not rely on his own judgment alone to decide how to act; he must also acquire guidance from others. In this vein, Hillel declares (Pirkei Avos 1:12): “If I am for myself [alone], what am I?” Along the same lines, Shlomo HaMelech tells us that “he who walks with wise men will grow wise” (Mishlei 13:30), and R. Yehoshua ben Perachya teaches (Avos 1:6), “Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend.” If the only ruler a person has over him is his own conscience, he is in danger, for by himself he may be unable to control his drives. Indeed, he might not even see that he is acting improperly; as the Gemara in Shabbos 119a says, people do not recognize their own faults. The Maggid then goes on to say that, beyond turning to others for good advice, a person must reflect on the misdeeds he sees others commit and learn a lesson from them about how not to act. This principle is the focus of the Maggid’s ensuing discussion.
In Berachos 43b, the Gemara expounds: “It is written (Koheles 3:11), ‘He made everything fitting in its time.’ This teaches that the Holy One Blessed Be He made each and every one’s habits seem fitting in his own eyes.” [In line with the Maggid’s commentary, I have rendered אומנתו as habits instead of the usual rendering as occupation.] The Gemara is saying that everyone has an inborn bias toward being satisfied with his own conduct. Note that the Gemara writes “each and every one” (אחד אחד) rather than “each and every man” (איש איש). By this choice of phrasing, the Gemara hints that a person’s inborn tendency to judge himself favorably operates only when he is alone, but when two people are each other’s company, often each one will judge his conduct differently, as each one sizes up the other’s conduct. Watching someone else can help a person gain an more accurate grasp of right and wrong; although people are biased toward finding favor with their own conduct, as we just said, no one has any inborn bias toward finding favor with someone else’s conduct.
We can connect this discussion with one of Shlomo HaMelech’s teachings (Mishlei 27:22): “If you grind a fool in a mortar along with softened grain and pound him with a pestle, you will not remove his foolishness from him.” On the surface, the phrase “along with softened grain” is puzzling, for the point of Shlomo’s statement seems clear without this phrase, and seemingly it should not matter whether the fool is ground along with softened grain or by himself. But when we analyze the statement closely, we will see the depth of its wisdom. The Maggid brings out the point with a parable.  Once a Torah scholar rebuked a group of people for their bad ways. After he left, one said to the other: “Did this scholar speak falsely, far be it? Is it right that you cook on Shabbos? Have you ever seen a Jew do such a thing?” And the other retorted: “Do you worry about mixing meat and milk, or eating nonkosher meat?” When the scholar heard what happened, he said with amusement: “These guys are each searching only in someone else’s bag. None of them wants to search his own bag. While one of them is examining another, the other one examines him.”
The lesson is as follows. Delivering rebuke is a great mitzvah: The Torah tells us that a Jew must surely rebuke his fellow man. But there is a condition attached to this charge. The Gemara teaches (Arachin 17a): “We might think that one should rebuke his fellow man until he blushes. Therefore it is written, ‘do not bear sin on his account.’” Torah scholars have an established strategy for delivering rebuke: They address their rebuke to the entire community, and the offenders in the audience understand that the rebuke is directed toward them. In this way, the goal of the rebuke is achieved without shaming anyone. But this approach works only if the offenders indeed recognize that the rebuke is directed toward them. But an offender may say to himself: “I wonder who the speaker has in mind. Maybe it is so-and-so.” The situation is then exactly like grinding a fool along with softened grain: The fool says to himself, “He isn’t trying to grind me – he just wants to grind the grain.” If the offender takes this attitude, the rebuker will not remove the fool’s foolishness. The offender is blinded by his bias toward finding favor with his own conduct. In such a case, the rebuker has no choice but to “grind” the fool by himself, and then the fool will understand that he is the one being ground.  
Let us now return to our main discussion about the Torah’s command regarding rebuke. You can look at another person’s actions and see thereby how you should judge yourself. You can then correct your behavior accordingly. But this process will take place only if you regard the other person as your “fellow” – that is, as your friend whom you love as you love yourself [which the Torah tells us to do in the very next verse]. It is only then that the other person will serve as a mirror through which you can examine yourself. It is different if you do not like the other person, and all the more so if you hate him. You will then feel no remorse when you see the other person’s misconduct. You will say to yourself that only a scoundrel like him engages in such foolish behavior. The Torah therefore tells us “do not hate your brother in your heart” and then continues by saying “you must surely rebuke your fellow.” If you do not hate your brother, you will be able to rebuke him and yourself along with him. The Torah then continues further by saying לא תשא עליו חטא, which we can interpret as telling us not to place the blame for sin solely upon the specific person whom we saw sinning. Rather we should draw from him a lesson applying to everyone, ourselves included.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

On Pirkei Avos

On Shabbos afternoons between Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to study a chapter from Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers). Accordingly, I present here a message from the Maggid based on a teaching in Pirkei Avos.
In Avos 2:5, Hillel advises: “Do not trust yourself until the day you die.” In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, chapter 7, the Maggid discusses this principle. He tells us that, along with being constantly suffused with fear of Hashem, we must also be constantly suffused with fear of the evil inclination, the enemy who seeks to destroy us. We must pour out our hearts like water before Hashem and plead with Him to save us from this cunning foe and prevent it from ensnaring us and casting us into a quagmire of negative thought and behavior patterns. At the same time, we must do everything in our power to guard ourselves against its attacks.
We all must maintain a strong fear of the evil inclination throughout every single day, for everyone is imbued with evil drives, and these drives can rise up within a person at any time. Even if a person is of high spiritual stature, wise and graced with a sterling record of good deeds, he must continue to fear the evil inclination just as much as he did at the start of his spiritual development. The evil inclination will never let up, even when a person reaches old age. It is on this account that Hillel taught that a person should not trust himself until the day of his death. Indeed, the Gemara in Berachos 29a relates that Yochanan the Kohen Gadol served as Kohen Gadol for eighty years, but in the end became a Sadducee (Tzeduki) – a member of a heretical sect that denied the Oral Torah.
Each of us must examine his inner being and make himself aware of the great intensity with which the evil inclination works to deploy its crafty schemes – of how it unrelentingly strives, from the beginning of a person’s life until its end, to unsettle him and bring him to ruin. Your heart may promise you that it will halt the evil inclination’s attacks, saying (Mishlei 16:7), “When Hashem finds favor with a person’s ways, his enemies will also reconcile with him.” Do not rely on this promise; instead, maintain constant vigilance. Indeed, as the Gemara in Berachos 61a relates, the great sage Rava took a cautious attitude, viewing himself as a person of a middling spiritual level. Fear of the evil inclination befits all classes of people: the young, the old, the virtuous, the devout, and the eminent in performing good deeds.
In fact, the greater a person is, the greater is the evil inclination’s efforts are to ensnare him. This point is reflected in a prophecy of Yoel conveying Hashem’s promise to do away with our enemies in the end of days (Yoel 2:20): “I will distance the one of the north (צפוני) from you and banish it to an arid and desolate land … for it has wrought great works of [evil].” The Gemara in Sukkah 52a explains that the term צפוני alludes to the evil inclination, which lies in hiding (צפון) within a person’s heart. And commenting on the statement “it has wrought great works of evil,” Abaye teaches that the evil inclination does greater evil against a Torah scholar than against anyone else. Similarly, the Gemara subsequently quotes an elder as saying: “The greater a man is, the greater is his evil inclination.”
Accordingly, in exhorting us to firm vigilance against the evil inclination, the Maggid offers us advice that enables us to hide from it and protect ourselves from being ambushed by it; borrowing a phrase from Yeshayah 16:3, he likens his guidance toward safety to hiding a person’s shadow at noon as if it were night. And, drawing on Mishlei 3:26, the Maggid concludes with a wish for us that Hashem will help us in securing ourselves from its attacks.

Beholding Hashem’s Glory

This coming Shabbos has a dual status: In Eretz Yisrael it is a regular Shabbos, with parashas Shemini as the Torah reading, and outside Eretz Yisrael it is the eighth day of Pesach, with a special Yom Tov Torah reading and the special Pesach reading of Shir HaShirim. Accordingly, this week’s D’var Torah relates both to parashas Shemini and to Shir HaShirim.
Parashas Shemini describes the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Near the beginning of the parashah, the Torah relates that Moshe announced to the people (Vayikra 9:6): “This act, which Hashem has commanded, do – and then Hashem’s glory will appear to you.” The Midrash elaborates (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 521):
Said Moshe to the People of Israel: “Remove this evil inclination from your hearts, and let all of you have a single-minded fear of God and a unified agenda to serve before the All-Present One. Just as He is the sole power in the world, so, too, let your efforts be directly solely toward Him. … If you do so, Hashem’s glory will appear to you.”
We previously presented a selection from the Maggid’s commentaries on this Midrash [link]; we now present another.
In Shir HaShirim 1:4 it is written: “Let the King bring me into His inner chamber. We shall jubilate and rejoice in You.” The “inner chamber” is the Holy of Holies. This chamber was a place of captivating splendor. Yet, when the Kohen Gadol entered it, he did not gaze at the glorious sights there in order to enjoy their great beauty. Indeed, if he did so, he would be guilty of misappropriating sacred property. Rather, the Kohen Gadol’s intense love of Hashem eclipsed any pleasure he might derive from the beautiful surroundings. The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a young boy who has not seen his father in a long time gains the opportunity to see him in an extraordinarily beautiful hall. Obviously, his attention would be riveted on his father, and he would not even sense the hall’s beauty. The Kohen Gadol’s experience in the Holy of Holies was of a similar nature. This state of affairs is reflected in the following Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:32):
It is written (Tehillim 118:24): “This is the day that Hashem has wrought – we shall jubilate and rejoice בו.” Said R. Avin: “We cannot tell what we should rejoice over – the day or the Holy One Blessed Be He. [The word בו can mean either in it or in Him.] Shlomo came and explained it: ‘We shall jubilate and rejoice in You (בך)’ – the Holy One Blessed Be He – in Your salvation, in Your Torah, in Your awesomeness.”
When a person focuses on his love of Hashem, his feelings of love for other things dissipate.
The Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni that we quoted above describes Moshe telling us that the foundation of service to Hashem is to carry out His commands with the sole intent of serving Him, free of any other motives. Obviously we should avoid specious motives, such as performing mitzvos in order to take pride in our piety. But beyond that, although Hashem faithfully rewards us for our mitzvos either in this world or the next, we should not base our service of Hashem on the goal of receiving reward. In Devarim 6, the Torah conveys this message to us. The Torah states (Devarim 6:24): “Hashem commanded us to perform all these decrees, to fear Hashem our God, for our good, all the days, to give us life, as this very day.” Here the Torah tells us that performing the mitzvos will bring us good. But then the Torah continues (ibid. 6:25): “And it will be a merit for us if we take care to perform this entire commandment before Hashem our God, as He commanded us.” Here the Torah tells us that it will be a merit for us if we perform mitzvos simply because Hashem commanded us to do so. And conversely, it is ignoble to serve Hashem for the sake of reward; if we do so, we are in effect serving ourselves.
The Maggid draws an analogy to the laws of the red heifer (parah adumah). To be fit for the use that the Torah describes, the heifer must never have done any work. Mishnah Parah 2:3 states: “If one made for it a shoe so that it should not slip, or placed a cloak on it to protect it from flies, it is kosher. This is the rule: Whenever something is [placed upon it] for its own needs, it is kosher, and whenever something is [placed upon it] for some other purpose, it is unkosher.” Placing an item on the heifer for its own sake is not regarded as doing work with it. The same idea applies to a person’s mitzvah performance: Any mitzvah a person does to cater to his own needs is not really an act of service to Hashem.
Thus, in Tehillim 103:20, David HaMelech describes the angels as “mighty ones who do His bidding to obey the voice of His word (עושי דבריו לשמוע בקול דברו). A faithful servant of Hashem is one who does His bidding simply in order to obey His word, and not for any other reason. In this vein, the Gemara teaches (Nedarim 62a):
One should not say … “I will study so that I will be called ‘Rabbi’” … rather, learn out of love, and honor will come in the end. … Do good deeds for the sake of their Maker, and speak words of Torah their own sake. Do not make of them a crown to aggrandize yourself with, nor a spade to dig with.
In other words, whatever Hashem decides to send us will ultimately come to us of its own accord, but our job is simply to do what Hashem commands, and we have no right to direct our performance of these commands toward some personal goal. Moshe tells us that if we serve Hashem solely for the sake of serving Him, His glory will appear to us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator


On Pesach we recount and relive the Exodus from Egypt. As we examine the events of the Exodus, we see in action how Hashem runs the world. Most prominently, we see Hashem intervening through open miracles, such as the ten plagues and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. But we also see Hashem shrewdly guiding events from behind the scenes. In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaBitachon, chapter 8, the Maggid discusses this second mode of operation.
In Shemos Rabbah 26:2, the Midrash describes Hashem saying: “The way I work is not the way a mortal man works. A mortal man smites with a knife and heals with a dressing. But with Me, through the same means through which I smite, I heal.” The Maggid expresses this principle through the following saying: “Through the blow itself He prepares the dressing.” (The Maggid indicates that this saying is of Rabbinic origin. I was unable to find this exact wording in Rabbinic sources, but I did find it in many other sources, including the first selichah for the first Monday of BaHaB.) The Maggid notes that we do not say that “through the blow itself He creates the cure,” but rather “through the wound itself He prepares the cure.” The Hebrew term used for prepare is מתקן, which means “fix” or “adjust.” The idea here, the Maggid says, is that Hashem adjusts ostensibly negative events so that they lead to a positive outcome.
For example, the Egyptians decreed that baby boys be cast into the Nile, so that the one who was destined to serve as Hashem’s agent in saving the Jewish People would drown. Hashem did not stop this decree from being carried out, but instead He redirected its consequences. Because of the decree, when Moshe was born his mother put him in a wicker basket and placed him into the Nile, which in turn led to Pharaoh’s daughter finding Moshe, adopting him, and raising him in the Egyptian royal palace, so that Moshe received an upbringing that prepared him for leadership. Similarly, shortly after setting the Jews free, the Egyptians had a change of heart and chased after them. Initially this seemed to be a bad turn of events for the Jews, but in the end it led to the Egyptians drowning in the Sea of Reeds.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. I think this parable illustrates not only  Hashem’s power to guide events behind the scenes as He wishes, but also His power to openly overturn the ordinary laws of nature as He sees fit. The parable is thus relevant to both modes of intervention that Hashem employed in redeeming the Jewish People from Egypt.
The parable is as follows. Once a man sought to abduct his enemy from his home and imprison him. When the man arrived at his enemy’s home, his advisers told him: “Why do you need to haul this guy out of his house and lock him up someplace else? Just set up a blockade around the house.” The man heeded this advice, set up the blockade, and then left the scene to attend to other matters, confident that he had his enemy totally confined and under his control. But his captive had a secret passageway out of his house, and he availed himself of this passageway to escape. When the man who set up the blockade returned, he was astonished to find that his captive was gone. People who understood what happened said to him: “You fool! How could you think that you could hold this man captive in his own home? Didn’t you realize that since he himself built this house, he knew better than anyone else its ins and outs?”
Similarly, some wicked people think they can outwit Hashem to achieve their evil goals, but these people are fools. Since Hashem created the world, He obviously He can do with it as He pleases.   
Chag Kasher V'Sameach!
David Zucker, Site Administrator