Post Archive for May 2015

Parashas Naso

In the middle of this week’s parashah, the Torah presents the threefold blessing that Hashem told the Kohanim to convey to the Jewish People. The second blessing is as follows (Bamidbar 6:25): “May Hashem shine His countenance upon you and show graciousness to you.” The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 11:6 gives this blessing the following interpretation: “May Hashem implant within you the mindset of treating each other with graciousness and compassion.” The Midrash supports this interpretation with another verse (Devarim 13:18): “… so that Hashem … will grant you compassion ….” The Maggid brings out the idea behind the Midrash with an analogy. If a generous person is approached by an average pauper, he will give the pauper a routine donation. But if the same generous person is approached by his own son, struggling through hard times, he will extend special help: He will provide a means enabling his son to earn an honorable living for his entire life, either by arranging for his son to learn a trade or by setting his son up in business. Hashem deals similarly with us, His kindred people: He provides us a means enabling us to support ourselves – namely, the Torah.
When we involve ourselves in Torah and mitzvos, we gain blessing. Thus it is written (Devarim 11:26-27): “Behold, I set before you today blessing and curse: the blessing, if you heed the commandments of Hashem your God, which I command you today.” One of the key mitzvos through which we gain blessing is the mitzvah of showing compassion to others, and Hashem aided us in performing this mitzvah by giving us the wherewithal to help others and implanting within us a natural desire to do so. Thus, in connection with Hashem’s statement to Avraham that he “will be a blessing” (Bereishis 12:2), the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 11:2 describes Hashem telling Avraham: “Behold, I have now passed blessing on to you; whomever you bless will be blessed.” In the same vein, Hashem tells Avraham elsewhere (ibid. 22:17) “ברך אברכך”, which we can interpret as meaning “I will bless you with [the power of] blessing.”
In Bereishis Rabbah 33:3, the Midrash presents a teaching along similar lines. It is written (Tehillim 145:9): “Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is upon all His works.” The Midrash remarks: “Hashem is good to all, and He gives of His compassion to His creations.” That is, Hashem graciously instilled within us some of His own Attribute of Compassion, so that we have a natural tendency to help each other. And by exercising this tendency, we gain merit for ourselves. Thus, in connection with Devarim 13:18 (“… so that Hashem … will grant you compassion and treat you with compassion,” quoted in part in the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah with which we began), the Gemara in Shabbos 151b teaches: “Whoever is compassionate to others is treated from Above with compassion.” Tehillim 117 hints at the same message. Tehillim 117 (in its entirety) states:
Praise Hashem, all you nations; laud Him, all you peoples.For His compassion is great toward us, and Hashem’s truth endures forever. Halleluyah.
We can read the phrase כי גבר עלינו חסדו (for His compassion is great toward us) as meaning for He loads His compassion upon us, and then interpret the rest of the psalm as describing the result: Hashem will ultimately come to our aid with true deliverance. In the same vein, in Tehillim 40:12, we plead: “Hashem, do not withhold You compassion from me; may Your kindness and truth always protect me.” Here, we are asking Hashem to ensure that the infusion of His compassion that He granted us will always remain with us, and that, as the Gemara in Shabbos says, our compassionate acts toward our fellow men will lead Him to treat us with compassion.
Yirmiyah 31:19 encapsulates the idea we have presented. In this verse, Yirmiyahu describes Hashem as saying: “Is Ephraim not My dear son, the child I delight in? For whenever I speak of him, I surely remember him further. Therefore My innards are stirred on account of him – I will surely show Him compassion (רחם ארחמנו).” Hashem is saying: “I do not only bear My people in mind when they ask something of Me. Rather, I seek to arrange that I remember them further on, for I know that later they will need My help again. Therefore רחם ארחמנו – I implant within them the attribute of compassion, so that they will perform acts of compassion, and thereby lead Me to treat them with compassion in like fashion.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Bamidbar

This week’s haftarah is taken from Hoshea 2. Hoshea 1 describes Hashem sharply criticizing the Jewish People for their wayward conduct. The chapter concludes with Hashem saying (Hoshea 1:9): “For you are not My people, and I will not be yours.” But in the very next verse, the first verse of this week’s haftarah, Hashem expresses the opposite attitude, saying (ibid. 2:1): “It will come to pass that, instead of what was said to them – ‘You are not My people’ – it will be said to them: “You are the children of the living God.’”
The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 2:16, expounding on this passage, quotes Shir HaShirim 8:7-8, interpreting these verses as portraying a dialogue between Hashem and the gentiles. The gentiles ask Hashem why He maintains a relationship with the Jewish People even though they sin. Hashem’s answer is reflected in Shir HaShirim 8:8: “We have a little sister.” Hashem says: “Just as a young child’s father is not upset when the child misbehaves toward him, for he attributes the misbehavior to the child’s young age, so, too, when the Jewish People sin, I attribute their misbehavior to immaturity.”
The Maggid quotes another Midrash along similar lines (Shemos Rabbah 43:9): “When the Jewish People committed the sin of the golden calf, Hashem appeared ready to annihilate them. Said Moshe: ‘Master of the Universe! Is it not from Egypt that You took them out, a place of idolaters? And now they are mere youths. (As it is written (Hoshea 11:1): “For Yisrael is a youth, and I love him.”) Wait a bit for them, and go along with them, and they will do good deeds before You.’”
To bring out the idea behind these Midrashim, the Maggid turns to a halachah regarding tithes. The Mishnah in Maasros 1:4 and Chullin 1:6 states: “In the state in which bitter almonds are subject to tithing, the sweet ones are exempt. In the state in which sweet almonds are subject to tithing, the bitter ones are exempt.” The Gemara in Chullin 25b explains: “In regard to bitter almonds, the small ones must be tithed but the large ones are exempt. And in regard to sweet almonds, the large ones must be tithed but the small ones are exempt.” The principle behind this law is that produce is subject to tithing only when it is suitable for consumption. When sweet almonds are small they are bitter and inedible, and are therefore exempt from tithing. Only when they are fully grown and have become sweet are they subject to tithing. Conversely, when bitter almonds are small they are sweet and edible, and are therefore subject to tithing, but when they are fully grown they are bitter and inedible, and are therefore exempt.
Now, one might ask why one type is called sweet and the other bitter when in fact each type is sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter. But the answer is simple: Produce is named according to what it is like when it is fully grown, for its final state reflects its true nature. If the sweet almonds are bitter when they are small, it is because they have not yet matured. Thus, when someone asks a merchant for sweet almonds, he might say: “The ones I have right now are still bitter.” Here, the merchant is saying the almonds he has are bitter because they are not ripe. Likewise, if a person seeking sweet almonds takes some almonds off a tree and finds them small and bitter, he will not spurn the tree, for he knows that the almonds are bitter only because they are not ripe.
The Maggid says that the same idea applies to the Jewish People, the Children of Yaakov. A Jew’s true nature is completely good. And if we see a Jew exhibiting bad traits, it is only because he has not yet matured. After a Jew matures, through persistent study of Torah wisdom and ethics, his inherent goodness inevitably emerges. Yaakov’s very name hints at this pattern of development: The word yaakov means “he will follow along,” which we can understand as meaning “he will persist,” or, in other words, “he will progress ahead until he reaches completion.” Accordingly, when the Jewish People sin, their sinning is not cause for Hashem to spurn them; it is only a sign that they have not yet fully developed.
Thus, when the Jewish People of Moshe’s time committed the sin of the golden calf, Moshe argued that they were mere youths and urged Hashem to wait for their goodness to emerge. And similarly, as the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 2:16 relates, when the gentiles point out our sinning and asked Hashem why He still holds fast to us, Hashem replies that He knows that our sinning is due only to our immaturity. The Midrash then proceeds to explain the verses in Hoshea, says that it was only in order to stir us to repent that Hashem cast harsh criticism at us, telling us: “You are not My People.” In truth, Hashem did not spurn us. And indeed, the Midrash goes on to say that Hashem could not bear to let this expression of scorn stand for even a moment, and instead immediately changed His demeanor and assured us that ultimately we would be called “children of the living God.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bechukosai

In describing the blessing Hashem grants to those who follow His Torah, parashas Bechukosai begins with the words (Vayikra 26:3): “If you walk in My statutes.” The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 35:1):
It is written (Tehillim 119:59): “I considered my ways, and I made my feet turn back to Your testimonies.” Said David: “Master of the Universe! Each and every day I make plans and say, ‘I am going to such-and-such a place,’ and my feet lead me to houses of prayer and houses of study.” Thus, “I made my feet turn back to Your testimonies.”
In analyzing this Midrash, the Maggid builds on the following Gemara (Berachos 14a):
Rav said: “If someone greets his friend before he has said his prayers it is as if he made him a high place (בָּמָה) [designated for idol worship], as it is written (Yeshayah 2:22), ‘Desist from man who has breath in his nostrils, for on what account (בַּמֶה) is he esteemed?’ Do not read בַּמֶה, but rather בָּמָה.” Shmuel interpreted: “On what account do you esteem this man and not God?”
The Maggid explains this Gemara with an analogy. Suppose a person usually does his shopping in a particular store, but one time the storekeeper sees him going out of another store carrying some merchandise. The storekeeper naturally will get upset, but the shopper can explain his actions by saying: “I needed an item that you do not carry, so I had to go to another store.” But if the store the shopper usually buys from carries every possible type of merchandise, the shopper cannot explain his actions in this way. The storekeeper will say: “What merchandise did you find in this other store that you cannot find in mine?”
Similarly, there is nothing in this world that cannot be accessed through Torah. Thus, the Midrash expounds elsewhere (Shemos Rabbah 33:1):
It is written (Mishlei 4:2): “For I have given you a good commodity; do not abandon My Torah.” Do not abandon the commodity I have given you. Sometimes a person buys merchandise that contains gold but not silver, or silver but not gold. The commodity I have given you, however, contains gold … and it contains silver …. Sometimes a person buys a tract of land that contains fields but not vineyards, or vineyards but not fields. The commodity I have given you, however, contains both fields and vineyards.
Hashem’s Torah is the mode of access for everything in the world. This is the idea behind Shmuel’s criticism of the person who greets his friend before saying his morning prayers: On what account do you esteem this man and not God? What can a person obtain from his friend that he cannot obtain from Hashem? David HaMelech’s statement in Vayikra Rabbah 35:1 is along the same lines. He is saying: “It is not only when I seek to connect with Hashem, learn His ways, and study His laws that I go to the house of study. Even when I seek to care for my physical needs, it is to the house of study that my heart and my feet take me, leading me to Hashem to seek His aid.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behar

The second half of parashas Behar discusses caring for the poor. The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 34:9-10):
It is taught in the name of R. Eliezer: “Vengeance against the Jewish People is in the hands of the poor, as it is written (Devarim 15:9): ‘[Beware lest there be a villainous thought in your heart, saying: “The seventh year is approaching, the year of remission,” and you look with ill will upon your destitute brother and you refuse to give to him], and he cries out against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you.’ Vengeance against Edom is in the hands of the Jewish People, as it is written (Yechezkel 25:14): “I will place My vengeance against Edom in the hands of my people Yisrael.’” R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Eliezer: “We should be grateful to the connivers among them [the poor], for were it not for the connivers among them, if one of them [the poor] asked [for charity] from a person and he sent him back [empty-handed], the person would be immediately punished with death. For it is written (Devarim 15:9), ‘and he cries out against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you,’ and elsewhere it is written (Yechezkel 18:4, 20): ‘the soul that sins will die (הנפש החוטאת היא תמות).’”
The Maggid raises two questions about this Midrash. The first question concerns the phrase “and he cries out against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you (וקרא עליך אל ה' והיה בך חטא).” The wording here is odd; it would have been more natural to write “and he cries out against you to Hashem, and you will have sinned (וקרא עליך אל ה' וחטאת).” And so the Maggid asks: What is the reason behind this odd wording?
The second question concerns the verses in Yechezkel from which the Midrash quotes. In the context of the passage in Yechezkel 18, the import of the word היא is clear: Hashem is saying that He will not take another soul as ransom for the one that sinned, but rather the soul that sinned itself will be the one that dies. Thus, in Yechezkel 18:20 it is written: “The soul that sinned [itself] will die – the son will not bear the sin of the father, nor will the father bear the sin of the son.” It is not clear, however, what the significance of the word היא is in the context of the Midrash. And so the Maggid asks: What point is being brought out by the special emphasis on the fact that the soul that sinned is itself the one that will be punished?
In answering these questions, the Maggid first notes that often Hashem actually does punish a person for someone else’s sin. In particular, the righteous and upright among us, who are free of fault, typically bear the burden of punishments and afflictions for the sins of the Jews of the generation as a whole, in line with the principle that all Jews are guarantors for each other (Shevuos 39a). Similarly, the Jews often bear the burden of punishment for the sins of mankind as a whole. Yeshayah 53 describes how all mankind will ultimately recognize this fact in the end of days. It is in this vein that the Midrash tells us that “vengeance against Edom is in the hands of the Jewish People.” The Midrash is saying that the Jewish People bear the punishment that the Edomites deserve for their sinning. Similarly, when the Midrash tells us that “vengeance against the Jewish People is in the hands of the poor,” it is saying that Jewish paupers bear punishment on behalf of the Jewish People as a whole. Accordingly, it is no mystery why Hashem commanded us, particularly the people of means, to bear the yoke of providing sustenance to the poor. It behooves us to so, for the poor are bearing an even heavier yoke on our behalf – the yoke of punishment for many of the sins that we as a whole commit.
We might well wonder why Hashem deals out punishment in this way. The answer is that Hashem takes this course out of kindness, in order to minimize the total amount of punishment that He dispenses. The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a person runs away from someone he owes money to. If the creditor finds the debtor, he will demand to be paid the full amount owed. But if the creditor does not find the debtor, and ends up turning to a guarantor for payment, he will not be so hard-nosed. He will not insist on full payment down to the last penny, for he recognizes that the guarantor did not take anything from him. Instead, the creditor will be lenient and allow the guarantor to discharge the debt by paying a fraction of the amount owed. Hashem operates in a similar matter in exacting punishment for sin. He turns a blind eye to the sinner, so to speak, and allows him to flee. Afterward, He turns to the righteous, in their role as guarantors, and seeks retribution from them, imposing on them a decree of suffering, frequently the suffering of poverty. In doing so, He is not as strict with them as He would have been with the sinner himself, for He recognizes that those He is turning to did no wrong.
But Hashem operates in this way only if we show compassion to the poor. If we callously ignore the poor, they cry out to Hashem against us, saying: “Why is this great wrath being directed toward me, that I am being made to suffer such poverty?” The poor person’s cry arouses the Attribute of Justice, calling attention to the fact that he committed no sin, but instead is suffering punishment on our behalf. The responsibility for our sins is then shifted away from the poor person and placed back upon us. This is what the Torah means when it says that if you refuse to give to a poor person, he will cry out against you to Hashem, and “it will be a sin upon you.”
Thus, R. Abbahu says in the name of R. Eliezer: “We should be grateful to the connivers among them [the poor], for were it not for the connivers among them, if one of them [the poor] asked [for charity] from a person and he sent him back [empty-handed], the person would be immediately punished with death.” The connivers give us an excuse for occasionally refusing to give. If not for this excuse, our sending away a beggar empty-handed would lead Hashem to place the full brunt of punishment for our sins on us. The two verses that R. Eliezer quotes to prove his point convey this message very well. The first verse, as we just explained, teaches that a person’s refusal to aid the poor leads Hashem to redirect His demand for “payment” for his sins away from them and back to him. The second verse then tells us what happens when this occurs. To a person being punished on behalf of someone else, Hashem is lenient and imposes only monetary hardship, a lesser degree of punishment than what the sinner himself was obligated to pay. But if Hashem is led to exact punishment from the sinner himself, the sinner will die – that is, he will be made to pay the full debt of punishment designated for the sin he committed. Accordingly, the verse in Yechzekel places special emphasis on the fact that the sinner himself is the one being punished, for this fact makes a crucial difference in the punishment imposed.
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David Zucker, Site Administrator