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

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