Post Archive for September 2015

Haftaras Haazinu

In years like the present one, when there is a Shabbos between Yom Kippur and Sukkos, parashas Haazinu is read on this Shabbos, and the haftarah is the song David HaMelech composed to praise Hashem for delivering him from his enemies (Shmuel Beis 22, also appearing, with a few slight differences, as Tehillim 18). David HaMelech declares (Shmuel Beis 22:36): “You have given me the shield of Your salvation, and Your humility has made me great.” The version in Tehillim 18:36 contains an additional phrase; after the word salvation it is written, “Your right hand supported me.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 48:1):
You have given me the shield of Your salvation – this relates to Avraham. Your right hand supported me – in the fiery furnace, in the period of famine, and in the war against the kings. And Your humility has made me great. What great humility did the Holy One Blessed Be He show Avraham? He [Avraham] was sitting, and the Divine Presence was standing. Thus it is written (Bereishis 18:1): “And Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.”
In his commentary on parashas Vayeira in Ohel Yaakov, the Maggid expounds on this Midrash. He builds on two other Midrashim. The first of these relates to Hashem’s discussion with Avraham after the war against the four kings, Hashem tells Avraham (Bereishis 15:1): “Do not fear, Avram, I am a shield for you – your reward is very great.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 44:4):
Avraham was afraid, for he thought: “I went into the fiery furnace [of Nimrod] and I was saved; I went to war against the four kings and was saved. Perhaps I have received my reward in this world, and I have nothing left for the world to come.” Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “Do not fear – I am a shield (מָגֵן) for you. All that I did with you in this world … was gratis (מַגָן), and you have great reward in store for you in the world to come.”
The second Midrash, in Devarim Rabbah 4:3, discusses a fundamental change in how Hashem relates to us that occurred at the revelation at Sinai. The Midrash states:
It is written (Eichah 3:38, homiletically): “From the mouth of the Most High One comes neither the evil nor the good.” Rather, they come automatically. Evil comes upon those who do evil, and good comes upon those who do good.
Before the giving of the Torah, we were like a young boy living at home with his father taking care of all his needs. After the giving of the Torah, we were like a person entering adulthood, who, with some initial funds from his father, sets out to earn his own living. We became responsible for our own fortune. We no longer acquire blessing as a free gift from Hashem; rather, for the most part, we acquire it “automatically,” as a result of the good deeds we perform. There are occasions, however, when Hashem performs great miracles for us as a pure kindness – just as a father, even after giving his son money to make a start in business, occasionally gives him extra money in times of special need, such as when he is buying a house, or marrying off a son or daughter, or suffering a serious illness.
Over the course of his life, Avraham went through various crises, and Hashem performed miracles to save him. Avraham was afraid that all his merits had thereby been depleted. Hashem therefore assured him: “Do not fear – I am a shield (מָגֵן) for you.” We can understand Hashem’s statement on a literal level: that Hashem acted as a shield from Avraham to protect him from being struck down – and this is why, as the Midrash states, He granted Avraham a miraculous salvation at these times as a free gift (מַגָן).
The Midrash we began with is along the same lines. It portrays Hashem’s dealings with Avraham in terms of the following verse: “You have given me the shield of Your salvation; Your right hand supported me, and Your humility has made me great.” After Hashem appeared to him and granted him a special opportunity to behold the light of His countenance, Avraham broke out in an exclamation of thanks to Hashem for the great kindness He showed him. You have given me the shield (מָגֵן) of your salvation – here, we can interpret מָגֵן as an allusion toמַגָן (gratis), as in the other Midrash about Avraham presented above. Your right hand supported me – Avraham is saying that, through the various crises, Hashem saved him as an act of kindness, symbolized by the right hand, without deducting from his merits. Your humility has made me great – here Avraham speaks of the great humility Hashem showed him by favoring him with a special visit from the Divine Presence when he was recovering from his bris milah, with Divine Presence standing while he sat. Being granted this awesome privilege brought home to Avraham that, indeed, his merits had not been depleted due to the miracles Hashem had performed for him – that Hashem had indeed granted him these miracles as a free gift, and his accumulation of merits remained fully intact.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeilech

We are now in the midst of a period of special Divine favor – the Ten Days of Repentance. I present here a segment from the Maggid’s commentary on this week’s parashah that discusses what we should focus our prayers on during such periods.
David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 63:2-3): “O God, You are my God; I seek you earnestly. My soul thirsts for you; my flesh longs for You, in a parched and thirsty land with no water. I indeed would seek You in the sanctuary, to behold Your might and Your glory.” The Maggid explains this passage with a parable. A person lost in the desert came upon a wrecked ship cast out from the sea, all its crewmen and passengers dead. The ship was filled with food and various treasures. The wanderer partook of the food for a few days and then got ready to resume his search for the way home. He pondered what he should take with him from the ship, given the limit on what he was able to carry. He was in a dilemma: If he took the gold and silver items rather than the food, he would starve in the desert, and if he took the food, he would arrive home empty-handed. In the end, he decided to take the food, so as not to risk dying of starvation on his way home. He bitterly lamented that it was in a desolate area far from his home that he found the ship, so that he was forced to leave the treasures behind. Had he found the ship close to home, he surely would have taken an ample stock of gold and silver.
The parallel is as follows. When a period of Divine favor comes upon us, we have a special opportunity to turn to Hashem with requests. What should we ask for? Ideally we would ask for precious spiritual blessings. But we are faced with pressing worldly needs; as David puts the matter, it is as if we are in a parched land, desperate for water. If only we could seek Hashem in the sanctuary – if only the period of Divine favor arrived while we were settled in our homeland, lacking nothing, as in the days of yore! Then we would ask Hashem to draw us close and allow us to behold His might and His glory.
In truth, any person who can see straight knows that spiritual benefits are more valuable than worldly benefits. Especially during a period of Divine favor, it seems so foolish to lay aside matters relating to the eternal world and focus instead on matters relating to the temporal world. We know that we ought to turn to our compassionate and gracious Father and plead with Him to rebuild Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash, gather all Jews in from exile, and restore the Davidic monarchy. We understand well that if the central needs of the Jewish People as a nation are met, each individual will benefit. But we hesitate to pray for these needs. We are afraid that Hashem will not grant requests of such major proportions. And we say to ourselves that if we do not instead put forward the more modest request that our personal worldly needs be met, we will be left with nothing.
However, says the Maggid, this reasoning is misguided. The truth is reflected in the prayer Shlomo HaMelech offered when the First Beis HaMikdash was completed (Melachim Alef 8:38-39):
And any prayer and any supplication of any man from among Your entire people Yisrael, each man knowing the afflictions of his heart, when he spreads forth his hands toward this house, may You hear in heaven, Your dwelling-place, and forgive, and act, and render unto every man according to all his ways, as You know his heart – for You alone know the hearts of all people – so that they may fear You all the days that they live upon the land that you gave to our forefathers.
In this passage, Shlomo speaks of how Hashem knows all the hidden thoughts in each person’s heart. Hashem is well aware of the anguish a person feels as he struggles to meet his family’s physical needs and spare his children from hunger. This being so, it befits each person to have enough faith in Hashem to set aside his worldly concerns and focus his prayers on loftier matters, for even if Hashem does not grant the lofty blessings he is asking for in his spoken prayer, He will not turn him away empty-handed – Hashem, being aware of all the person’s concerns and troubles, will at least grant him his immediate worldly needs. In this vein, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 21:3): “You have granted him his heart’s desire, and the request of his lips You have not withheld, Selah.” Here, “his heart’s desire” refers to the personal concerns that a person keeps hidden in his heart without expressing them, while “the request of his lips” refers to the blessings he is asking for explicitly in his spoken prayer. Hashem grants a person his immediate personal needs even if he decides to set them aside and focus his supplications on the needs of the Jewish People as a whole; spreading forth his hands, in Shlomo’s words, toward the Beis HaMikdash and praying for its restoration. At the same time, Hashem does not disregard the person’s spoken request; when the proper time comes, He will grant this request as well.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Nitzavim

In this week’s parashah, Moshe tells the Jewish People (Devarim 30:15-20): “Behold, I have placed before you today life and good, death and evil …. I call heaven and earth today to bear witness regarding you – I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you and your descendants will live to love Hashem your God, to heed His voice and to cling to him ….” I present here two selections from the Maggid’s commentary on this passage.
1. Consider someone who hires a day laborer. We can imagine him paying the laborer his wage at the end of the day and then telling him: “Be sure to bring this money home so that you will be able to provide for your family. Don’t fritter the money away on excessive eating and drinking.” Similarly, Moshe tells us choose a way of life that will allow us and our children after us to live securely. We should not live a wasteful life of indulgence. Rather, we should adopt the righteous way of life, for a person who lives righteously leaves over a blessing for those who come after him. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 20:7): “A righteous man who continually walks in his wholeheartedness – fortunate are his children after him.”
2. If a man earns his living through a respectable and well-paying trade – as a jeweler, for example – he will earnestly desire to teach his son this trade, so that his son will also be able to make a nice living in a clean and honorable way. Conversely, if a man works in an ignoble and low-paying occupation, he will seek to prevent his son from taking up the same line of work. If he sees his son walking around with his work tools in his hand, he will yank them away from him and say: “Why learn to do this lowly type of work? Do you want to be poor like me your whole life?” Similarly, a righteous man will tell his children to follow in his footsteps and adhere to the upright way of life, while a wicked man who spent his life following his rash whims and chasing worldly pleasures will ultimately lament his fate and warn his children not to make the same mistake. He will tell them that if they spend their life on empty pursuits as he did, they also will end up with nothing to reap from their activities. In this vein, Moshe exhorts us to choose for ourselves a way of life that we will want our children also to live – a way of life that constitutes true living.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Savo

In this week’s parashah, Moshe tells the Jewish People (Devarim 27:9-10): “Pay attention and hear, O Yisrael – this day you have become a people unto Hashem your God. So hearken to the voice of the Hashem your God, and perform His commandments and His statutes, which I command you today.” The Gemara comments (Berachos 63b):
Was it on that day that the Torah was given to Yisrael? Wasn’t that day the end of the forty years [of the Jewish People’s sojourn in the wilderness]? Rather, it is to teach you that the Torah is as cherished every day to those who study it as on the day was given at Mount Sinai. R. Tanchum ben R. Chiyya, a man of Kefar Acco said: “The proof is that if a man recites the Shema every morning and evening and misses one evening, it is as if he had never recited the Shema.”
The Maggid notes that R. Tanchum ben R. Chiyya’s proof itself needs a proof. How do we know that the proposition he stated is correct? We know that, as a general rule, when a person violates a mitzvah he is not inescapably locked into a tainted state; rather, he can repent his sin and Hashem, in His mercy, will forgive and cleanse him. We would think that this rule would apply to reciting the Shema just as with any other mitzvah. But in fact R. Tanchum ben R. Chiyya is correct, for the Sages teach (Berachos 26a): “‘Something that is distorted cannot be rectified, and something that is absent cannot be counted’ (Koheles 1:15). Something that is distorted cannot be rectified – this refers to someone who omitted the evening Shema or the morning Shema.” So we see that omitting the Shema on a single occasion causes an irreparable loss. Why?
The Maggid explains the matter with an analogy. Consider a general (in the pre-electronic age) who is managing a battle from a station at some distance from the battlefront. He will set up a series of sentries reaching from his station to the front, so that he can receive messages from the front and relay messages back, with each sentry conveying the message to the sentry nearest to him, one after the other, until the message gets to its destination. But this system works only if all the sentries are close enough to each other that each one can hear what the one nearest to him is calling out. If one of sentries leaves his post, so that there is too large a gap between two successive sentries, the chain is broken.
Elsewhere Moshe exhorts us (Devarim 4:9-10):
Just guard yourself, and guard your soul very well – lest you forget the things that your eyes beheld and lest they depart from your heart – all the days of your life, and make them known to your children and your children’s children: the day you stood before Hashem your God at Chorev [Sinai], when Hashem said to me, “Assemble the people to Me and I will make them hear My words, so that they will learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and they will teach their children.”
The twice-daily recitation of the Shema, in which we proclaim Hashem’s oneness as sustainer and master of the universe, is one of the chains that link us to the Divine revelation at Sinai, when Hashem demonstrated to us His mastery over the universe, instilled fear of Him within us, and infused us with holiness and with the noble character traits we need in order to serve Him. Each day, morning and evening, we fortify ourselves with fear and love of Hashem through the recitation of the Shema, reviving within ourselves the fear of Hashem we felt at the revelation at Sinai, so that it will last until the next recitation. As Yeshayah 58:2 puts it: “They seek Me day after day.” The idea here is similar to what the Kuzari said about prayer: just as a meal sustains the body until the next meal, so, too, prayer sustains the soul until the next prayer. The recitation of the Shema serves a similar function. And if on one occasion the recitation is omitted, the chain is broken, or at least weakened. We can now understand well the Gemara’s teaching that omitting the Shema even just once is a fault that cannot be rectified.
Daily Torah study is another chain that links us to the revelation at Sinai. In Mishlei 8:32-33, Shlomo HaMelech describes the Torah telling us: “Well-established is the person who listens to me, to hasten to my doors every day, to the doorposts of my entranceways. For one who finds me finds life and gains רצון from Hashem.” Here, the term “life” is a general term encompassing the spectrum of noble character traits. And regarding gaining רצון [usually rendered as “gaining favor”] David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 145:19): “The desire (רצון) of those who fear Him He will effectuate.” We can interpret this statement homiletically as meaning that if a person fears Hashem, then Hashem will infuse him with enhanced fear of Him and with love of Him, and will effectuate within him a consummate desire to serve Him truly. The Gemara teaches (Berachos 6b): “If a man regularly comes to shul [or to the Beis Midrash] each day and one day does not come, Hashem inquires about him. For it is written (Yeshayah 50:10): ‘Who among you fears Hashem and heeds the voice of His servant, and now walks in darkness and has no light?’” A person who comes regularly to pray and learn is described as one who fears Hashem, but if he misses one day, it is said of him that he has no light, for the interruption compromises his connection to the revelation at Sinai. As the passage from Devarim 4 that we quoted above says, a person must maintain hold of his connection to Sinai “all the days of your life.”
This principle underlies Moshe’s message to the Jewish People that we quoted at the outset: “Pay attention and hear, O Yisrael – this day you have become a people unto Hashem your God. So hearken to the voice of the Hashem your God, and perform His commandments and His statutes, which I command you today.” Moshe is exhorting to involve ourselves constantly in Torah study, never missing a day, so that we maintain at full strength our connection to the day at Sinai when we became a people unto Hashem. In connection with this charge, the Gemara tells us that the Torah is as cherished every day to those who study it as on the day was given at Mount Sinai. That is, to those who study Torah every single day without a lapse the Torah is as cherished every day as on the day it was given at Sinai. And R. Tanchum ben R. Chiyya puts forward a proof from the recitation of the Shema, where missing a single day is described as a fault that “cannot be rectified.” The same is true of Torah study. And so the Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 873 teaches that Torah tells us: “If you abandon me for one day, I will abandon you for two.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator