Post Archive for August 2015

Parashas Ki Seitzei

Among the many mitzvos the Torah presents in this week’s parashah is the mitzvah of sending away a mother bird before taking the eggs or chicks from its nest. The Torah says that if we fulfill this mitzvah “it will be good for you and you will gain length of days.” In the Fifth Commandment, the Torah promises the same reward to a person who honors his father and mother. The Gemara in Chullin 142a relates a story of a man who fulfilled both mitzvos at the same time but died immediately afterward. The man’s father asked him to climb to the top of a building and bring him some young doves. He went ahead and climbed to the top of the building, found a dove’s nest, sent away the mother bird, and took the young doves. On his way back down he fell and was killed. The Gemara asks: “Where is this man’s length of days, and where is the good that he was due?” The Gemara answers: “Length of days – in the world that is completely long. It will be good for you – in the world that is completely good.” Both of the expressions that the Gemara uses here refer to the World to Come.
The Maggid sets out to elucidate this Gemara passage. His starting point is a plea by David HaMelech (Tehillim 39:5, rendered in accordance with the Maggid’s commentary): “Inform me, Hashem, of my end and of what is the measure of my days, so that I will know what my cessation will be.” Many commentators regard the two phrases “my end” and “the measure of my days” as poetic repetition, expressing the same concept in two different ways. The Maggid offers an explanation that associates a distinct concept with each of the phrases.
When a person follows the path of righteousness and molds his conduct in accordance with Torah wisdom, he experiences the days of his life in this world as very good and pleasant. In this connection, the Sages teach (Avos 4:22): “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the entire life of the World to Come.” But a person mired in evil pursuits would rather be dead than alive. The Maggid likens a person’s sojourn in this world to a merchant’s trip to a merchant’s fair. If the merchant’s dealings at the fair are going well, his days at the fair pass quickly for him, even if the fair lasts a long time. Conversely, if the merchant’s dealings at the fair are unsuccessful, and he doesn’t even cover his travel expenses, his stay at the fair seems exceedingly long, even if the fair lasts only a few days. This idea is expressed in a Midrash in Vaykira Rabbah 19:5, commenting on the use in various Biblical verses of the phrase “many days” in connection with periods of short or moderate length. The Midrash says that the reason for this type of use is that the period being discussed is one of suffering (so that the people involved experienced the period as being long).
Now, it is the way of the righteous not to feel confident in their righteousness. Indeed, the Gemara warns the righteous to avoid such a feeling of confidence, deliberately expressing this idea in extreme terms (Niddah 30b): “Even if the entire world calls you righteous, you should view yourself as wicked.” Accordingly, as the Gemara reports (Berachos 4a, expounding on Tehillim 27:13), David HaMelech felt unsure about whether he would have a share in the World to Come. In the plea quoted above from Tehillim 39:5, David is asking Hashem to inform him of his destiny. The plea includes two distinct requests. David’s request that Hashem inform him of “my end” is a request for Him to tell him the number of days he will be spending in this world, whereas his request that Hashem inform him of “measure of my days” is a request for Him to tell him the nature of these days, whether they will be good days or bad.
David concludes by expressing a wish to know what his cessation will be – that is, what he will be ceasing from when he departs from this world. If his days will be successful and good, he will be taking leave of a precious realm of accomplishment. And if his days will be bad, his departure will result in a cessation of trying experiences and spiritual hazards. In a similar vein, speaking about the grave, Iyov says (verse 3:16): “There the wicked cease from agitation and there the weary ones are at rest.” [In Bereishis Rabbah 9:5, the Midrash says that “the weary ones” refers to the righteous, who spend their lives struggling against the evil inclination.] Correspondingly, by knowing the measure of his days, David will know whether he will be ceasing from what the wicked cease from or ceasing from what the righteous cease from.
The Maggid now returns to the Torah’s promise that a person who fulfills the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird will be granted good and length of days. He interprets the promise as meaning that the person will be granted length of days that will be for his good. If the person is spiritually successful in this world, so that added life in this world will enable him to acquire added spiritual gains, then Hashem will extend the length of his life in this world, for such an extension will be to his benefit. But if added days of life in this world will not be to the person’s benefit, and he will be better off with a shorter stay in this world, then Hashem will wait and grant him his reward in the World to Come, the world that is completely long and completely good.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shoftim

At the beginning of this week’s parashah, the Torah commands us to establish a system of judges and enforcement officers. Accordingly, the Maggid’s commentary on the parashah includes some teachings about civil law. The first of these builds on a Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 30:1, expounding on Tehillim 99:4: “You established uprightness for Your beloved ones – through the laws that You gave them, they enter into disputes with one another, and go to have them adjudicated, and [thereby] they make peace.” In his commentary on parashas Mishpatim, the Maggid presents several interpretations of this Midrash, which we summarized in a previous d’var Torah. Here we present an additional interpretation, taken, as indicated above, from the Maggid’s commentary on parashas Shoftim.
In Tehillim 99:4, the term used for uprightness is משרים, a plural noun. The Maggid says that a plural noun is used because Hashem employed two mechanisms to convey to us an understanding of proper civil law. First, He implanted within us an innate sense of right and wrong. Second, He presented in the Torah a detailed code of civil law. Both mechanisms are necessary. The innate sense of right and wrong allows us to assess the propriety of actions that we see others do and learn from what we see. But it is not enough to allow us to assess with full accurately the propriety of actions that we ourselves have done, because a person has a natural bias in his own favor – the Gemara in Kesuvos 105b teaches that a person does not recognize fault in himself. A person can easily judge an improper act on his part toward someone else to be proper, and this tendency can lead to disputes between people. Hashem therefore conveyed in the Torah a detailed code of civil law, so that people can have their disputes adjudicated and afterward make peace with each other.
We may ask why Hashem implanted in each person a natural bias in his own favor, so that people have a distorted view of their own actions. Why didn’t Hashem arrange for our natural sense of right and wrong to be free of any distortion? The answer is that if He had done so, we would not deserve any reward for acting uprightly. It would be simply instinct, like the instinct Hashem planted within the chasidah (commonly translated as stork) to act with “kindness” (chesed) toward other chasidos by sharing food with them (Chullin 63a). Hashem implanted within us a natural bias in our own favor so that we can work to overcome this bias and thereby gain reward.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Re’eh

This week’s parashah begins (Devarim 11:26-27): “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing – that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God, that I command you today. And the curse – if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God ….” The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 4:1):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “It is not to do you evil that I gave you blessings and curses. Rather, it is to inform you what is the proper path for you to choose and thereby receive reward. From where do we know this? From that which is written: “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.”
We previously presented an explanation by the Maggid of this Midrash taken from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Re’eh. We now present another explanation, taken from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Eikev.
As a rule, a curse does not produce a blessing. For example, some people try to make a living by stealing and cheating, thereby bringing a curse on others, but in end they do not benefit from their evildoing. Thus the Midrash teaches (Vayikra Rabbah 15:7): “Blessings bring blessing, and curses bring curse. It is written (Devarim 25:15): ‘A perfect and honest weight shall you have.’ If you act accordingly, you will have what to do business with. And it is written just before (ibid. 25:13): ‘You shall not have in your pouch one weight and another – a large one and a small one.’ If you do, you will not have what to do business with.” Similarly, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 12:27): “A deceitful person will not get to roast his catch.”
As another example, in the account of the flood, the Torah states (Bereishis 8:14): “In the second month, on the twenty-seventh of the month, the earth dried up.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 33:12): “It became like a parched field. They planted it and nothing sprouted. Why? Because the flood rains were a curse and a curse does not lead to a blessing. They waited until it rained, and then they planted again.”
The Gemara teaches (Berachos 58a): “When Babylonia is cursed, its neighbors are cursed. When Shomron [in Eretz Yisrael] is cursed, its neighbors are blessed.” Now, we just explained that curses do not lead to a blessing. It must be, then, that the curses brought on Shomron were not really curses. In general, any curse brought upon the Jewish People is ultimately for their good. This is the basic message of the Midrash we quoted at the outset.
Rav Flamm, the redactor of Ohel Yaakov, directs us to a discussion of the above-quoted Gemara in the work Maon HaBerachos by Rav Yisrael Yonah Landau (died 1824). The discussion begins with an explanation of Yirmiyah 14:19-22 that Rav Landau related in the name of “a certain scholar,”and Rav Flamm tells us that this scholar is the Maggid. With Hashem’s help, I was able to locate the work Maon Berachos, and so I present the explanation here.
Yirmiyahu pleaded before Hashem:
Do you utterly despise Yehudah, do you loathe Tziyon? Why have You smitten us in such a way that we have no cure? … Do not annul Your covenant with us. Are there bringers of rain among the inanities of the nations? Will the heavens bring forth raindrops? Surely it is You, Hashem, our God, and we place our hope in You, for You do all these things.
The explanation of this passage is developed, in the Maggid’s typical style, through a parable. A certain man had an only son, for whom he hired a private tutor. The tutor was strict, and often beat the boy. Once the boy misbehaved during mealtime, and the father got angry and sent him away from the table. In order to cause the boy extra grief, the father ordered that the boy’s portion be given to the tutor, along with the tutor’s own regular portion. The boy peered into the room through a window, and when he saw his portion being given to the tutor, he rejoiced. The father asked: “Why are you so happy?” The son replied: “At first I thought that you had sent me away for good, but now that I see that you are keeping my tutor here and giving him food, I understand that you plan to bring me back.”
The parallel is as follows. Because we rebelled against Hashem, He sent us into exile. And we see that while He refrains from granting us bounty, He dispenses blessing generously to the nations that oppress us. In the case of Shomron, it was Assyria, the rod of Hashem’s wrath (Yeshayah 10:5), and there have been many others over the course of history. Seeing the success that our oppressors enjoy could well be cause for grief. But we know that the bounty they receive does not come from the false gods they worship; rather, Hashem is surely the One who grants it to them. And we continue to hope in Him. Indeed, we are consoled by Hashem’s beneficence to our oppressors, for it is a sign that He has not despisingly cast us away, but instead wishes to continue disciplining us, and plans eventually to gather us back from exile.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Eikev

In this week’s parashah, Moshe says to the Jewish People (Devarim 9:4-5):
Do not say in your heart, when Hashem your God drives them out from before you, saying: “Because of my righteousness Hashem brought me in to possess this land, and because of the wickedness of these nations Hashem drove them out from before you.” It is not on account of your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart that you are coming to possess their land; rather, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that Hashem your God drove them out from before you, and in order to establish the word which Hashem swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov.
The Maggid notes that Moshe’s statement seems to contradict itself: Initially it rules out two possible reasons why Hashem gave Eretz Yisrael to the Jews, but afterward it affirms the second reason and comes close to affirming the first. The Maggid sets out to explain what Moshe is saying.
He brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose you are in the marketplace and you see someone buying an item from someone else. There are two possible reasons behind the sale. One possibility is that the buyer is buying because he has a pressing need for the item. The other possibility is that the seller is selling because he has a pressing need for the money, while the buyer is buying because he is getting a good deal on the price, although he has no immediate need for the item. Initially you may not know which of these two reasons is behind the particular sale that you saw. But if afterward you see the buyer selling the item to someone else for a modest profit, you now know that the seller sold the item at a low price because he urgently needed the money, and the buyer bought it only because of the low price. If the buyer needed the item, he would not have let it go.
The parallel is as follows. Hashem took Eretz Yisrael away from the Canaanites and the other nations that occupied the land. There were two possible reasons behind this transfer: the Jews’ merits and the Canaanites’ wickedness. The reason had implications for the future status of the land. If the transfer was because of the Jews’ merits, it would be quite conceivable that they would possess the land forever. In this vein, the Gemara in Zevachim 102a says that when a person is put in a position of eminence, his descendants, throughout all generations, are also put in a position of eminence. The Gemara in Yoma 87a presents a similar teaching. On the other hand, if the transfer was because of the Canaanites’ wickedness, it could well be that when the Jews sinned, the same Attribute of Justice that took the land away from the Canaanites would take the land away from them. Moshe was telling the people that, at the juncture in time when he was speaking, the main reason for the transfer was the Canaanites’ wickedness, while the Jews’ merit was a subsidiary reason. Accordingly, Moshe said, that in speaking of this transfer the Canaanites’ wickedness should be mentioned first and the Jews’ merit second.
Chanah says in her prayer (Shmuel Alef 2:7): “Hashem impoverishes and enriches; He brings low and also (אף) raises up.” The Midrash comments (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:8): “With the anger (אף) that He brings upon one person, He raises up another.” The Maggid interprets this Midrash as reflecting the principle that sometimes Hashem takes an action that is primarily designed to bring some people low while also having the secondary effect of raising others up.
David Zucker, Site Administrator