Post Archive for July 2015

Parashas Vaeschanan

1. In parashas Vaeschanan, Moshe declares to the Jewish People (Devarim 4:7): “For who is a great nation that has a God who is close to them like Hashem, our God, whenever we call to Him.” I previously presented one of the Maggid’s commentaries on this verse; here I present another.
The starting point is a plea that David HaMelech presented to Hashem (Tehillim 86:3): “Show me grace, my Lord, for I call unto You all day long.” The Maggid explains this plea as follows. If a person asks his neighbor for help and the neighbor refuses, often he will accept the refusal and leave. But there are situations where the person knows that the neighbor he has approached is the only one who can help him. In this case, if the neighbor refuses to help, the person will continue pleading and crying nonstop for help until the neighbor relents and grants the request. Now, if the neighbor knows ahead of time that this is what the person will do, he will grant the request immediately, reasoning that there is no point in refusing. This is the idea behind David HaMelech’s plea: He is asking Hashem to help him, and telling Him that if He refuses he will continue beseeching Him. In a similar vein, Asaph declares (Tehillim 80:19): “And we will not retreat from You – revive us and we will proclaim Your Name.”
2. Later in the parashah, Moshe tells the Jewish People (Devarim 4:2): “You shall not add to the word that I command you and you shall not subtract from it, to observe the commandments of Hashem, your God, that I command you.” Again, I previously presented a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on this command. I present here a famous parable that the Maggid composed to bring out the point.
A person had a habit of borrowing utensils from his neighbor, and each time he would return double what he borrowed – for example, two spoons in return for one, or two plates in return for one. The first time this happened, the neighbor asked him in astonishment: “I only gave you one – why are you bringing back two?” The borrower replied: “While the utensil was in my house, it gave birth to another one, and so it belongs to you. The neighbor said, “Well, please feel free to borrow another utensil today,” he gave him one, and the borrower again returned two. These exchanges continued for a long time. One day, the borrower approached the neighbor and said: “Please lend me today your large silver candelabra, because today we are having a family celebration.” The neighbor gave him the candelabra with great joy, figuring that, as usual, he would get back two. The next day, the borrowed did not come, so the neighbor went to his house to ask for his candelabra back. The borrower replied: “Your candelabra died.” The neighbor exclaimed indignantly: “Who ever heard of a candelabra dying?” The borrower responded: “Well, who ever heard of a plate or a pot giving birth? Just you believed me in the past when I told you this happened, so, too, you should believe me now when I tell you the candelabra died.”
The parallel is as follows: Hashem tells us not to add extra mitzvos, for if a person gets into the habit of doing so, then ultimately, when an important and difficult mitzvah comes his way, he will say: “Just as Hashem previously accepted extra mitzvos from me, He will accept my claim that I cannot do this one.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Chazon – Megillas Eichah

In Eichah 1:5 it is written: “Her oppressors rose to the fore, her enemies became tranquil, for Hashem afflicted her on account of her many sins. Her sucklings went into captivity before the enemy.” The Midrash expounds (Eichah Rabbah 1:32):
“For Hashem afflicted her.” We might think it was for nothing. The verse therefore tells us “on account of her many sins” [i.e., all the punishment was completely deserved].
I present here a synopsis of the Maggid’s commentary on this Midrash; the commentary also explains the idea behind the statement in the verse that our “oppressors rose to the fore.”
The Maggid interprets the Midrash as rebutting the argument our enemies advance to explain why we have been exiled and have suffered so greatly. Our enemies claim that Hashem has simply abandoned us and removed His protection and providence from us. They think He has cast us off like a master who angrily throws his servant out of the house. They believe that they can therefore do with us as they please, just as one may toy with cast-off property, and Hashem will not intervene. According to them, all the evil they perpetrate upon us stems from their own desire and will, while Hashem occupies Himself with other matters. But their argument is ill-founded, the Midrash says, and their theory is false.
As Yirmiyahu puts it (Eichah 3:22): “Hashem’s kindnesses have not come to an end, and His mercies have not ceased.” On the contrary, everything emanates from Divine providence and is always for our benefit. Hashem subjects us to harsh afflictions to heal our souls from the injuries caused by our sins. The bitter medicine of affliction purges our iniquities and makes us whole again. All that happens to us comes from Hashem – in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in justice. Everything that at first glance appears bad is really for the ultimate overall good. Just as He is diligent in blessing us when we deserve it, so too He is diligent in afflicting us when we need it. Whatever happens to us stems from Hashem’s loving care and is really what is best for us. It is not at all as our enemies say: that we suffer because Hashem has stopped watching over us.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. A certain man’s only son fell sick, and the man sent for the doctor to perform a blood-letting on him. The doctor told the father to go out of the house so the son could not see him. The father put his trust in the doctor and left the boy to his care, for he could do nothing for his son himself. The father went outside, and when the son saw that no one was there to help him, he had no choice but to endure everything the doctor did to him. After the doctor had finished, the father returned to the house. When the boy saw his father, he screamed out bitterly: “Father! This savage attacked me for no reason and hurt me viciously!” The father slyly hollered at the doctor: “Get out of here, you savage!” He then took the doctor out of the house, and followed after him.
The boy thought his father had gone out to give the doctor a sound beating. Upon looking out of the window, however, he saw his father give the doctor a hefty sum of money and send him home with a warm farewell. Whereupon the lad screamed out to his father: “You are repaying bad with good? Now I see that you too have cruelly turned against me – you paid for my maiming seven times over.” The father answered: “Don’t be foolish! You should realize that what he did to you was not at all bad. On the contrary, it was of great benefit: it was to cure you and relieve you of your pains.”
This parable explains why our “oppressors rose to the fore.” On the surface it appears that Hashem is paying a nice compensation to those who do us evil. However, just as in the parable, our suffering is actually a cure. It all emanates from Hashem’s individualized providence over us. The suffering is necessitated by our sorry condition: “Hashem afflicted her on account of her many sins.”
This is the message of the Midrash with which we began. The Midrash says: “We might think it was for nothing.” We might think that suffering came upon us because Hashem stopped watching over us and abandoned us to happenstance, as our enemies claim. The Midrash then says that we see from the verse that this is not so. Rather, everything that happens to us emanates from finely-tailored providence, in order to purge us of our sins. The proof is that our enemies are well paid: they are at the fore. In truth, they truly deserve their pay, for they are doing us a real favor, and fulfilling well the mission the Creator gave them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mattos-Masei

Parashas Mattos recounts the war of vengeance the Jewish People waged against Midian for luring them into licentious conduct. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 22:5 says that Moshe yearned to behold this act of vengeance before his death, and Hashem granted this wish. The Midrash links the episode to the following verse (Tehillim 58:11): “The righteous one rejoiced when he beheld vengeance.” Hashem’s command to wage this war reflects the principle that when a person causes someone else to sin, he bears blame. The Maggid discusses how far this principle goes. His discussion is based on the end of the verse in Tehillim from which the Midrash quotes: “His footsteps he washed in the blood of the wicked one.”
The Maggid’s starting point is the following passage in parashas Shoftim (Devarim 17:7):
If there is found within your midst, … a man or woman who does what is evil in Hashem’s eyes, … and goes and serves other gods …. You shall investigate diligently, and if, behold, it is true … that such an abomination was committed within Yisrael, … you shall stone him, so that he will die. …. The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people, and you shall purge the evil from within your midst.
In explaining this passage, the Maggid recalls the episode involving Yosef and his brothers recounted in Bereishis 44. Yosef gave his goblet to his attendant and told him to plant it in Binyamin’s sack, and then told the attendant to chase after his brothers and accuse them of stealing the goblet. When the goblet was found in Binyamin’s sack, the other brothers tore their clothes. The Midrash in Esther Rabbah 8:1 says that because Binyamin’s brothers tore their clothes on his account, retribution was exacted from Binyamin’s descendant Mordechai – he was led to tear his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. We see that a person is held accountable in some way for everything he brings about, even when he was unaware of what was going to take place.
Continuing, the Maggid says that when someone turns into a criminal and ultimately commits so much evil that he must be put to death, it is inevitable that some people in his city had some role – either intentional or unintentional – in leading him to wrongdoing. For example, seeing someone in town wearing fancy clothes may have caused the criminal to be inflamed with jealousy, which played a part in some of his crimes. In this vein, we can homiletically interpret Shlomo HaMelech’s statement גם בלא דעת נפש לא טוב in Mishlei 19:2 as meaning that a soul can perpetrate acts that are not good even without knowledge. Thus, a person bears blame not only for deliberately inciting someone else to sin, as was the case with the Midianites and the Jews, but also – at some level – for inadvertently influencing someone else to commit a sin.
In the passage from parashas Shoftim quoted above, we can interpret the phrase “such an abomination was committed within Yisrael” as meaning that the offender’s idol worship implanted some culpability for such an abomination within the members of his community. Accordingly, the Torah provides the community members a simple way to cleanse themselves: each of them should participate in the stoning of the offender. As each person throws a stone, it is inevitable that he will feel some pain, for Jews are naturally compassionate. The person’s participation in the stoning and the resulting pain that he feels purge him of the trace of evil that was implanted within him by the offender’s sin. And thus the Torah says: “The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people, and you shall [thus] purge the evil from within your midst.”
The idea we just explained is reflected in the segment from Tehillim 58:11 that we quoted at the outset: “His footsteps he washed in the blood of the wicked one.” Here, David HaMelech speaks metaphorically of the defilement that occasionally comes upon a person without his knowledge as a result of the evil deeds of wicked men. David likens this defilement to the dirt that a person gets on his feet as he walks along. And he tells us that a person washes off this defilement in the blood of the wicked – that is, through participating in the punishment of the wicked man, he is cleansed of the defilement.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Pinchas

The second half of this week’s parashah describes the festival offerings. This leads the Maggid to present several teachings relating to the festivals. Here I present one of the these teachings, which is also related to the annual three-week period of mourning we are now observing over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.
The Gemara in Berachos 28a, expounding on Tzefaniah 3:18, states that the Jewish People suffer tragically on account of delay in the festival observances. The Maggid, in a homiletic vein, interprets this teaching as follows. When the Beis HaMikdash was standing, we had a set place for rejoicing. Thus, the Torah says (Devarim 12:12): “You shall rejoice before Hashem your God [i.e., in the place where He sets His Presence]. And Yerushalayim is described as being “beautiful in setting, the joy of the entire earth” (Tehillim 48:3). But this situation changed after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Regarding the time of the destruction, Yirmiyahu says (verse 7:34, speaking in Hashem’s Name): “I will bring to a halt, in the cities of Yehudah and from the streets of Yerushalayim, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.”
Moreover, when the Beis HaMikdash was standing, we had set times for rejoicing – the festivals that the Torah designates, where we gathered together at the Beis HaMikdash to rejoice. In former days, at times of the year associated with the festivals, we would harvest the crops of our fields and vineyards and rejoice over the bounty Hashem granted us. But now we have no set place for rejoicing, and we have no set time for rejoicing – it is as if our rejoicing is delayed. It is true that we still observe the festivals, but our rejoicing is muted and tinged with sorrow because of the subjugation we suffer. As the Gemara states (Shabbos 145b): “There is no festival on which troops did not come to Sepphoris.”
A key reason why we have no set place and time for rejoicing is that our rejoicing depends on the success of others: We are sustained through the bounty left over from other lands. Regarding this situation, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 4:8, homiletically): “You brought joy to my heart at the time their grain and wine became abundant” – we rejoice at the unpredictably varying times when other nations are enriched, for we rely on their support. It is written (Tehillim 137:4): “How can we sing the song of Hashem in a foreign land?” We may ask how Jews living in Eretz Yisrael can pose this question, given that they actually live in the Jewish homeland, the sacred home of our forefathers. And we can answer that the question is an expression of sorrow over the fact that we are no longer able us to sustain ourselves fully from blessings that Hashem brings to our own land, but instead are dependent on other nations, as if we were living in foreign lands.
We constantly look ahead with intense hope for the time when Hashem will restore our former rejoicing, as in the days when we had homesteads in Eretz Yisrael with fields and vineyards, and enable us to gather together at the Beis HaMikdash and rejoice with full gladness on the designated festivals. We yearn for the future era of Yeshayah spoke (verse 35:10): “Those redeemed by Hashem will return and come to Tziyon with exuberant song. Eternal joy will be upon their heads; they will attain jubilation and joy, and anguish and groaning will flee.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Balak

This week’s parashah relates how Balak, king of Moab, hired the sorcerer Bilaam to curse the Jewish People, and how Hashem caused Bilaam to bless them instead. The end of the parashah describes how (at Bilaam’s suggestion, see Sanhedrin 106a) the Moabite women subsequently lured the Jews into immorality. The Midrash comments (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:4): “Someone who induces a person to sin is worse than someone who kills him.” We can easily understand this statement in the context of inducing a person to commit the grievous sin of immorality. However, the Maggid teaches that this principle applies also to lesser sins. This teaching appears in Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaSinah, chapter 11, as part of a discussion about reacting to insults. This discussion is very enlightening in its own right, and so I present a summary of the discussion here, including the teaching just mentioned.
The Maggid says that there are strong reasons that lead a person to react to an insult by keeping silent. He lists seven reasons, as follows:
1. Pride, which leads a person to feel that it is beneath his dignity respond to the insult.
2. Wisdom, which leads a person to understand that silence is the best way to take revenge against the offender and preserve his honor among his fellow men. A response of silence and a show of disregard for the insult pain the offender more than any other response. In addition, the onlookers will respect the offended party for showing restraint.
3. A desire for reward, including the reward Hashem grants a person who reacts to an insult with silence. In Chullin 89a, quoting Iyov’s description of how Hashem “suspends the earth on nothingness (בלי מה),” the Gemara teaches that the world is supported by people who restrain (בולם) themselves a time of contention. Likewise, the Gemara in Shabbos 88b praises those who do not respond to insults.
4. Fear of God, which leads a person to understand that it behooves him to act with restraint in Hashem’s presence, just as he would act with restraint in the presence of an earthly king.
5. Humility, which leads a person to feel no need to defend his honor.
6. Faith, i.e., an understanding that everything that happens to a person comes from Hashem. Since the person who insulted him was just serving as Hashem’s agent, it is out of place to get angry at him.
7. An understanding of the transience of this world. Since this world is only a way station and not a person’s true home, the insult is inconsequential. Moreover, life in this world is short and a person has much to accomplish, so it is not worth wasting time responding to insults.
The Maggid then goes on to say that if we are not spiritually great enough to keep silent for the loftier reasons, we should at least keep silent for the more pragmatic reasons, and take this as a starting point toward rising to the loftier levels. We should restrain our mouths and avoid getting into arguments. Certainly we should not provoke an argument or insult anyone. If we do so, the other person may get angry and respond with improper words. We will then have caused him to sin, which, as the Midrash says, is worse than killing him.
We should strive to speak to others calmly and gently. Borrowing a phrase from Yeshayah 29:4, we can say that we should think imagine ourselves speaking from beneath the ground before the other person. And if one of us is insulted by another person and gets angry, he should nonetheless respond calmly and in a pleasant tone of voice. As Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 15:1): “A gentle reply turns away anger.” If we conduct ourselves this way, we will be regarded with favor by Hashem and by other men, for nothing is more pleasant to a listener than words spoken calmly and gently. Furthermore, we bring blessing to the Jewish People. We should keep our speech calm and gentle until we reach, with Hashem’s help, the state of true humility. And then we will attain immense reward – Hashem will bestow upon us, from his hidden storehouse, blessing beyond our imagination.
David Zucker, Site Administrator