Post Archive for June 2015

Parashas Chukas

Near the end of this week’s parashah, the Torah recounts an episode of successive conquests of the city of Cheshbon and its surroundings, with the Jewish People ultimately taking control. The territory originally belonged to Moav, was conquered by the Amorite king Sichon, and afterward was conquered by the Jews. As part of its account of this episode, the Torah records a ballad about Sichon’s initial conquest of the territory from Moav. The Torah states: “Regarding this, the bards (moshlim) would say, ‘Come to Cheshbon – let it built and established as the city of Sichon.” The Gemara expounds homiletically (Bava Basra 78a):
What does this verse teach? Moshlim refers to those who rule over (mosheil) their drives. They say, “Come and let us reckon the account (cheshbon) of the world – the cost of doing a mitzvah versus the gain, and the gain in committing a sin versus the loss.”
We previously presented a segment from the Maggid’s commentary on this teaching. We now present another segment. In this segment, the Maggid discusses a key difference between a person whose drives rule over him and a person who rules over his drives and whose actions are dictated by his intellect.
The Maggid’s discussion concerns the way a person relates to his relationships and his possessions. A person whose drives rule over him will often seek something simply for the pleasure it provides, even if the item does not serve a practical need. The Maggid (in the context of the period he lived in) gives the example of a clock. Suppose a person has a neighbor who owns a clock which chimes every quarter hour loudly enough that he can hear it. The person then does not need a clock, since he can tell time through his neighbor’s clock. But if he is ruled over by his drive for pleasure, he may well buy a fancy clock anyway, either for the delight he will have in enjoying its beauty or for the satisfaction he will have simply in owning a nice clock. By contrast, a person who operates according to his intellect focuses on the goal that the relationship or possession will help him achieve. In this vein, the Gemara relates (Shabbos 118b): “Said R. Yose, ‘All my days I never called my wife “my wife” or my ox “my ox.” Rather, I called my wife “my home” and my ox “my field.”’” In regard to his wife, R. Yose focused not on the pleasure she could provide him, but rather on her role as his partner in building a Jewish home. And in regard to his ox, he focused on its utility in providing a means of plowing his field.
Elsewhere, the Gemara teaches (Sukkah 46a-b): “Go and see how the nature of the Holy One Blessed Be He is not like the nature of a mortal man. A mortal man puts his wares into an empty vessel but not into a full one, while the Holy One Blessed Be He puts His wares into a full vessel but not into an empty one.” This teaching brings out a basic principle regarding human desire. When a person whose desire rule over him attains the object of his desire, he initially feels great pleasure, but over time the pleasure wears off, and eventually dissipates entirely. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech writes (Mishlei 27:7): “The satiated soul loathes the honeycomb, but to the hungry soul, all bitter is sweet.” The Maggid elaborates on this principle in his commentary to Eichah 1:7. In particular, for a person who focuses on the pleasure he derives from his assets, the more money he amasses the less satisfaction he gets from it. But with a person who focuses on what his assets help him do, it is just the opposite: The more he acquires, the more satisfaction he gets, for he is able to accomplish more, especially in the area of mitzvos. In the Gemara’s words, he may be full, but he is always able to take in more. Along these lines, in concluding the discussion of the mitzvah of bringing the first fruits, the Torah says (Devarim 26:11): “You shall rejoice in all the good that Hashem your God has given you.” He never gets tired of what Hashem grants him; everything he receives gives him satisfaction.
This idea is reflected in the following passage from Tehillim (verses 63:4-6):
Your kindness surpasses life; my lips continually praise You. Thus I will bless You all my life; in Your Name I will lift up my hands. My soul is sated as with fat and plenty, and my mouth praises You with joyful lips.
We can interpret what David HaMelech is saying to Hashem as follows: “All my life I will praise and bless You for the superlative good You granted me in the past, and at the same time I will lift my hands in Your Name to entreat You to grant me further good in the future. Although I am sated as with fat and plenty, my joy does not diminish in the way that a person’s delight in worldly pleasures diminishes after he attains them. Rather, since I focus on what I can accomplish with the good You grant me, my mouth will continue forever to praise You with joyful lips.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

On Pirkei Avos

The Mishnah in Avos 2:13 lists various notions regarding the proper path to which a person should cling. R. Shimon says that a person should act with foresight. In a similar vein, the Gemara in Tamid 32a states: “Who is a wise man? He who foresees consequences.” In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaAhavah, chapter 2, the Maggid elaborates on the trait of foresight.
A fool, the Maggid says, grasps only what his physical senses register. He does not ponder what he observes to determine its ramifications. He is like an animal that gives up its life for a trifle. If you take some barley in your hand and hold it in front of an animal, you can lead it to the slaughter. It is similar with a fool. He acts with no understanding. He loves only what his physical senses feel as pleasant, and regards a pleasant experience the ultimate in success. If something can bring him pleasure, he yearns for it, prays for it, rejoices when he gets it, is downcast when he does not, and considers anything that leads him to it as his faithful friend. His attitude is due to his blindness and deafness to the signals presented to him, and to his great haste, which allows him no time for careful thought. He is constantly running from one thing to the next. As Yeshayah puts it (verse 57:20): “The wicked are like the raging sea that cannot rest, and whose waters churn up mire and mud.” He focuses only on this world, paying no mind to the next. The Maggid offers some advice to lead the fool to abandon his misguided focus on worldly pleasures.
Even if it were true, as the fool believes, that worldly pleasures provide genuine good, in any case what they provide is only temporary. This world is not our final homestead. Rather, we are supposed to take from this world only what we need to serve Hashem, and the rest we should cast aside. For, as the Sages say in Avos 6:9, what accompanies a person as he proceeds from this world to the next is not silver, or gold, or gems, or pearls, but rather only Torah and good deeds.
A person should ponder what he sees in this world and extract a lesson from his observations. Many people before us have toiled to establish themselves in this world, devoting all their energy to this end. But what they amassed did not remain in their hands. Some of them suffered a major loss at some point in their lifetime in this world. And ultimately they all passed on, and others enjoy all the worldly assets they amassed. Are we any different from them? If not, why should we give over our souls for worldly gains? Shlomo HaMelech exhorts us to avoid this error, saying (Mishlei 5:8-10): “Keep your way far from her [the “foreign woman” who represents the lure of worldly gains] and do not come near to the door of her house. … Lest strangers be satiated as a result of your strength, and your exertions come into the house of an alien.” Moreover, even during his lifetime in this world, a wealthy man does not benefit from a thousandth of what he toils for. Instead, he assembles a large staff of servants and maids, to whom he provides food and clothing, and they benefit from the bulk of what he acquires. As Shlomo HaMelech puts it (Koheles 5:10): “As the blessing grows great, so does the number of those who consume it. What advantage, then, does the owner have, aside from what his eyes see?” Thus, instead of squandering our efforts on building ourselves up in this world, we should work on laying our foundation in the eternal world.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shelach

The last segment of this week’s parashah presents the mitzvah of tzitzis, the fringes we attach to the corners of a four-cornered garment to remind us of the mitzvos. The Torah states (Bamidbar 15:37-40):
Hashem said to Moshe, saying: “Speak to the Children of Yisrael and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations. … And it shall be unto you as a fringe, so that you may look upon it and remember all of Hashem’s commandments and perform them, and so that you will not explore after your heart and after your eyes, that you go astray after them. So that you may remember and perform all My commandments and be holy unto your God.”
Ohel Yaakov, Parashas Shelach presents an explanation of this passage in the name of Rav Moshe Albilada (I have seen several spellings of the name), author of Reishis Daas (a work published about 400 years ago). (In a search, I found this explanation of Rav Albilada also presented, in almost the same words, in a collection of sermons by the American rabbi Rav Zvi Hirsch Arlinsky, known as the Skidler Maggid.) I present this explanation below.
Rav Albilada says that just as the conditions that Hashem arranged for the Jews of the wilderness generation (the clouds of glory, the manna, and so on) went beyond the regular order of nature, so, too, the sins that these Jews committed also went beyond the regular order of nature. Typically, the process leading to sin starts with a person’s physical senses: The observations that a person registers through his senses lead him to develop a desire in his heart for a forbidden activity, and then the person goes on to sin. Thus, expounding on the passage quoted above, Rashi states: “The eyes see, the heart desires, and the body commits the sins.” But with the Jews of the wilderness generation, the process took place in reverse. The Jews of that generation saw with their eyes great miracles that Hashem performed right in front of them. But their hearts raised doubts and put forward specious arguments that caused them to deny the reality of what they had seen, and think that it was an illusion produced by sorcery. Thus, their hearts strayed first, and their senses strayed afterward.
In the passage presenting the mitzvah of tzitzis, the Torah first addresses the Jews of future generations (“throughout your generations”), explaining to them the special power of the mitzvah of tzitzis – how looking at the tzitzis serves to prevent the eyes from leading the heart astray. The Torah then turns to the Jews of the wilderness generation, telling them also to place fringes on the corners of their garments, but now for the purpose of keeping them from falling into the worse trap of allowing their hearts to distort the perception of their senses. The Torah states that the reason for placing the tzitzis is “so that you will not explore after your heart and after your eyes.” Here, the Torah mentions the heart first and afterward the eyes. The Torah reverses the usual order, just as the process leading the Jews of the wilderness generation to sin occurred in the reverse of the usual order. The Torah then adds the phrase “that you go astray after them (אחריכם),” with the word אחריכם being related to the word אחור, which means “backward,” and with the phrase thus alluding to a process where the heart leads the senses to an after-the-fact betrayal.
In his preface to Ohel Yaakov, Sefer Devarim, Rav Flamm (the redactor of Ohel Yaakov) presents a similar idea in the name of Rav Heschel Aschkenazi. Expounding on the Torah passage regarding tzitzis, the Gemara states (Berachos 12b): “‘After your hearts’ – this refers to heresy, as it is written (Tehillim 14:1), ‘The debased one says in his heart, “There is no God!”’” We can explain this teaching as follows. The sins stemming from desire are prompted by the eyes, as in the principle we mentioned previously: “The eyes see, the heart desires, and the body commits the sins.” Accordingly, as suggested above, we would think that the Torah should have written, “… and so that you will not explore after your eyes and after your heart,” mentioning the eyes before the heart. But instead the Torah mentions the heart before the eyes. From this choice of phrasing, the Gemara infers that “after your heart” refers to heresy, for the vice of heresy originates from the heart: Initially, a person’s heart ruminates over false ideas, and afterward the person is led to follow his whim and ultimately becomes enslaved to sin. The verse in Tehillim that the Gemara cites as a proof brings out the point well. The verse starts by saying, “The debased one says in his heart, ‘There is no God!’” The verse then continues by saying, “They have acted corruptly and abominably; there is no one who does good.” We can understand the message of the verse as follows: A debased person broadcasts publicly the perverse notions that he harbors in his heart, and afterward, as the listeners ruminate over what he said, they are all led to adopt corrupt and abominable ways.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behaalosecha

This week’s parashah begins with a recapitulation of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah in the Mishkan. The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:1-2):
We find many places where the Holy One Blessed Be He commanded us regarding the lamps, and about kindling them with olive oil. In Shemos 27:20 it is written: “And you shall command the Children of Yisrael, that they shall take to you pure olive oil, pressed, for illumination, to kindle a perpetual lamp.” In Vayikra 24:4, Hashem repeats the command. And here it is written (Bamidbar 8:2): “Speak to Aharon and say to him, ‘When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.’” This is as it is written (Yeshayah 42:21): “Hashem wished, for the sake of [the Jewish People’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious.”
In Mishnah Makkos 3:16, the verse in Yeshayah is quoted as a proof of the following principle: “The Holy One Blessed Be He wished to bring merit to the Jewish People; therefore He gave Torah and mitzvos in manifold.” We previously presented a segment from the Maggid’s commentary on the foregoing Midrash, expounding on the great multiplicity of mitzvos. Here we present a further segment.
The Maggid’s starting point is a Gemara in Shabbos 87a. The Gemara says that Moshe did three things on his own initiative with which Hashem concurred. One of them was Moshe’s smashing the Tablets of the Law when he came down from Mt. Sinai and beheld the sin of the golden calf. R. Shimon ben Lakish relates that Hashem said: “More power to you, that you broke them!” It is perplexing, the Maggid says, that Hashem not only refrained from punishing Moshe for breaking the Tablets, but actually praised him for doing so. To shed light on the matter, the Maggid turns to a Gemara in Nedarim 22b. The Gemara there describes Hashem saying: “If the Tablets had not been broken, I would have given the Jewish People only the five books of the Torah. Now I give them the Prophets, the Writings, the Mishnah, laws, and homiletical teachings.” Thus, the Jewish People received a large body of additional Torah as a result of the breaking of the Tablets. The Maggid seeks to explain, at least in part, the reason for this outcome.
The Maggid begins his discussion with a principle he presented in his commentary on parashas Noach [cross-reference]. We find that the Torah sometimes presents a reason for a particular mitzvah. For example, in regard to the mitzvah that a Jewish king should not have many wives, the Torah says that this mitzvah serves to prevent the king from being led astray. In addition, some mitzvos serve a purpose that we can grasp with our own intellect, without a reason being stated in the Torah. Nonetheless, in these cases where we can understand the purpose the mitzvah is serving, we understand only the general gist of the mitzvah. We cannot fully grasp the rationale of the mitzvos; from our standpoint they are simply Divine edicts. In this vein, the Midrash relates (Shemos Rabbah 6:1, expounding on Koheles 2:12): “Said Shlomo, ‘I had a feeling of wisdom regarding the Torah’s words, and I thought I knew the Torah’s intent, but this understanding and knowledge was madness and folly.’”
Mishnah Shabbos 1:3 states that it is forbidden on Shabbos to read by the light of a lamp. The Mishnah does not indicate a reason. The Gemara in Shabbos 12b reports a teaching of Rava that this prohibition applies even if the lamp is at the height of ten houses one on top of the other. The Gemara then expounds:
One must not read by the light of a lamp [on Shabbos], lest he tilt the lamp. Said R. Yishmael ben Elisha: “I will read [by the light of a lamp] and not tilt it.” Yet once he read [by the light of a lamp] and sought to tilt it. He declared: “How great are the words of the Sages, who said, ‘One must not read by the light of a lamp!’”
The Maggid relates the Vilna Gaon’s interpretation of this Gemara. The Vilna Gaon explains that when R. Yishmael praised the words of the Sages, he was praising the Mishnaic Sages for simply stating that one may not read by the light of a lamp on Shabbos, without indicating a reason. It is a non-Mishnaic Rabbinical teaching that says that the reason for the prohibition is in order to prevent a person from tilting the lamp. Because of this teaching, R. Yishmael stumbled, and he was thereby led to marvel over the wisdom of the Mishnaic Sages in presenting the prohibition without a reason.
We can interpret Vayikra 17:1-9 along similar lines. In this passage, the Torah presents twice a prohibition (during the Jewish People’s sojourn in the wilderness) to slaughter an animal without bringing it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting as an offering to Hashem. We can ask why the Torah repeats this prohibition. And we can then explain as follows. The first time the Torah presents the prohibition, it states a reason: so that the Jews will bring their feast-offerings to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and slaughter them as feast peace-offerings unto Hashem, and no longer offer their offerings to the demons. But the second time the Torah presents the prohibition, it refrains from stating a reason, in order to indicate that the prohibition is an absolute one that the people must accept as a Divine edict and not violate under any circumstances.
We now connect this discussion with the breaking of the Tablets. Here, I elaborate on the Maggid’s discussion with some ideas that the Maggid presents elsewhere. As the Kuzari explains at length (First Discourse, paragraph 97), the making of the golden calf was not an act of idol worship, but rather an attempt to establish a connection with Hashem. With Moshe having seemingly disappeared, the people thought that the calf could serve as an alternative means of channeling the Divine Presence down to them. Their mistake was that they performed an act of service to Hashem that they made up on their own, without Hashem having commanded it. Thus, in the sin of the golden calf, the Jewish People showed a tendency to rely on their own judgment rather than solely on Hashem’s word. It was therefore necessary to make a new start in the process of conveying the Torah to the Jewish People. Moshe smashed the Tablets, and then Hashem gave the Jewish People an expanded version of the Torah, including prohibitions – among them blanket prohibitions presented without any reason – that the Sages would later enact to safeguard the Torah.
Shlomo HaMelech exhorts (Mishlei 1:8-9): “Heed, my child, the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother. For they are an adornment of grace for your head (לראשך) and a chain for your neck.”  The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 6:3): “Words of Torah become a source of favor for you when you become feeble (לרשיותך).” In line with the discussion above, the Maggid suggests that the Midrash is indicating that when we are feeble and prone to misjudgment, we need added safeguards, in the form of Rabbinical decrees and personal vows, to keep us from violating Torah laws.
David Zucker, Site Administrator