Post Archive for October 2015

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah records the birth of our forefather Yitzchak. Avraham and Sarah were old when Yitzchak was born, and both were previously barren, so the birth was a great miracle. Accordingly, Sarah exclaimed (Bereishis 19:7): “Who proclaimed the word to Avraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne a son in his old age!” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 53:5):
It is written (Tehillim 113:9): “He causes the mistress of the house (עקרת הבית) to settle as the joyous mother of children.” He causes the mistress of the house to settle – Sarah, of whom it is written, “Sarai was barren (עקרה).” The joyous mother of children – as it is written, “Sarah would nurse children.” [The Hebrew phrase עקרת הבית in this verse is typically rendered as “barren wife,” but, in line with Maggid’s commentary, I have rendered it “mistress of the house”– cf. Bamidbar Rabbah 14:8 and 14:11.]
The Midrash goes on to relate that Sarah produced so much milk that she was able to nurse other women’s babies as well as her own (Bereishis Rabbah 53:9), as hinted at by the phrase “nurse children” (rather than “nurse a child”) in Sarah’s exclamation. The Maggid sets out to analyze these two Midrashim.
First, the Maggid asks: Why did Hashem cause Sarah to produce so much milk? Seemingly, there was no need for this great miracle. It would have been wondrous enough for Sarah to be able to nurse her son Yitzchak alone. The Maggid explains the purpose of this extravagant miracle by noting the teaching in Bereishis Rabbah 53:8 that at the time Sarah gave birth, many other formerly barren women gave birth along with her. This occurrence could have prompted the people of the time to ask: For whose sake did these miraculous births come about – was it for the sake of Sarah, with the other women benefitting incidentally, or was it for sake of some other woman, with Sarah benefitting incidentally? Hence, in order to show clearly that the miracle was for Sarah’s sake, Hashem caused Sarah to produce so much milk that she could nurse the children of all the women.
The Maggid brings out the point further with an analogy. A stranger visits a certain house, and he sees a group of people seated at a dining table, each with his portion in front of him. He wants to figure out which one is the master of the house. How can he tell? He will wait until the next serving dish is brought to the table, and see which one serves the portions to the others. Similarly, since Sarah produced the milk on which the children of the other women nursed, it was evident that she was the principal figure in the miracle of the births.
The Maggid now turns to the second Midrash and asks: Why do the Sages link the verse about the עקרת הבית with Sarah’s giving birth? The similarity between the phrase עקרת הבית and the word עקרה does not seem a strong enough reason. It appears that the idea is as follows. The phrase עקרת הבית is related to the word עיקר, meaning principal. Thus, the Midrash is teaching that Sarah was, as we explained, the principal figure in the miracle of the births. The proof is that she became a “joyous mother of children” – since she nursed all the other children, it was as if she was the mother of them all.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates how Hashem told Avraham [then called Avram] to leave his birthplace and go to the land that He would show him. The Torah goes on to say (Bereishis 12:4): “And Avram went as Hashem had spoken to him, and Lot went along with him.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 39:13): “‘Avram went as Hashem had spoken to him, and Lot went along with him’ – Lot was an adjunct to him.” The Maggid asks: What are the Sages trying to point out, beyond what is evident from the verse itself? He answers by saying that the Sages are apparently seizing on the fact that the term the verse uses for “with him” is אתו rather than עמו, and taking this as a deliberate hint that Lot was merely tagging along with Avraham.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a small merchant wants to travel to a distant city to sell his wares, but the amount of merchandise he has does not justify the expense of making the trip on his own. He then will join a bigger merchant who is already travelling to the same city. But he is not just an adjunct to this other merchant; rather, he has his own agenda. On the other hand, if a person is making a trip and he takes his attendant along, we would describe the attendant as an adjunct – he is not making the trip for his own reasons, but rather is going only to serve his employer. In the case of the small merchant travelling with the bigger merchant, the appropriate Hebrew term for “with him” is עמו, which indicates one independent entity accompanying another. By contrast, in the case of the attendant, the appropriate term is אתו, which indicates an intrinsic connection.
In the case of Avraham and Lot, Avraham’s departure from Charan for Eretz Yisrael had a specific reason: Hashem had told him to make this trip. When Lot went along, it was not because he himself sought to go to Eretz Yisrael, and was taking an opportunity to make the trip without bearing all the expenses on his own. Rather, Lot made the trip only because he was subordinate to Avraham and naturally went wherever Avraham did. The Midrash reads the Torah’s choice of language as deliberately designed to make this point.
Later, a quarrel erupted between Avraham’s shepherds and Lot’s, and Avraham suggested to Lot that the two of them part company. Avraham said to Lot (Bereishis 13:9): “Behold, the entire land is before you. Please separate from me. If you go left, I will move over to the right, and if you go right, I will move over to the left.” Why did Avraham preface his request with the words “behold, the entire land is before you.” Why did he not simply ask Lot to separate from him? And why did Avraham need to urge Lot to separate from him, as if the matter was up to Lot? Why did Avraham not simply set off in his own direction, and leave Lot behind?
We can explain Avraham’s actions with an analogy. Suppose two wagons are moving in opposite directions on the same road, one wagon with a full load and the other empty. If the road is too narrow for the wagons to pass each other, and one of them must move to the side, the empty wagon will be the one to move. Since the empty wagon is light, its driver can easily move it to the side, whereas the full wagon, being heavy, is hard to move. 
It was similar with Avraham and Lot. Hashem told Avraham to go “to the land that I shall show you.” Clearly Hashem provided Avraham with landmarks to guide his way, just as He later guided the Jewish People in the wilderness by providing a cloud to lead them. Indeed, Hashem must have given Avraham very precise directions, for we know that every step that Avraham took was designed to lay key foundations for his descendants. He camped in Shechem to pray for Yaakov’s sons, who would later wage war there. And he built an altar at Ai, and prayed there on behalf of the Jews of Yehoshua’s time, who would suffer hardship at that particular place. Avraham therefore could not have set off in some other direction in order to separate from Lot. He had to get Lot to move. Thus, he said to Lot: “Behold, the entire land is before you.” Lot had the entire land open to him; he could go wherever he wanted. Avraham, however, had to keep to the path that Hashem had set for him. Avraham called this point to Lot’s attention in order to convince him to set off in another direction.
Avraham said further: “If you go left, I will move over to the right, and if you go right, I will move over to the left.” The Midrash interprets (Bereishis Rabbah 41:6):
If you go to the left, I will go to the south; if I go to the south, you will go to the left. … It is like two men with two stockpiles of grain, one of wheat and the other of barley. Said one of these men to the other: “If the wheat is mine, the barley is yours. And if the barley is yours, the wheat is mine. In any event, the wheat is mine.” Said R. Chanina bar Yitzchak: “It is not written ‘and I will go to the left’ (ואשמאלה), but rather ‘and I will move [you] over to the left’ (ואשמאילה, in the causative form). Avraham was saying: ‘In any event, I will move you over to the left.’”
Thus, Avraham was not giving Lot the option of which direction to choose for himself. Rather, he was telling him: “If you go left, I will move myself over to the right, and if you go right, I will move you over to the left. In any event, I am going to the right. If you go left voluntarily, all is well. And if not, I will force you to do so.” Irrespective of Lot’s wishes, Avraham had to keep his own course, in order to fulfill the mission Hashem gave him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Noach

Hashem tells Noach and his family as they leave the ark (Bereishis 9:2): “And the fear and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the field and every bird of the sky – upon all that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. In your hands they are given.” The Maggid discusses this verse in his commentary on Ruth 1:1 in Kol Yaakov. He says that the verse does not mean that Hashem instilled a natural fear of man in every creature. Were this the case, the animals would have total fear of every human being. But we see this is not so: animals often attack people. Rather, the idea is that people should overflow with the fear of Hashem so much that their fear of Hashem spills over onto all their surroundings.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 70:11 and Midrash Seichel Tov, Bereishis, Ch. 29, Paragraph 10) discusses how Rachel had this quality. Yisro’s daughters would be chased away from their local well by the shepherds. But when Rachel went to her local well, the shepherds never disturbed her. The reason is that Rachel was a deeply righteous woman. As it is written (Tehillim 34:8): “The angel of Hashem encamps around those who fear Him and rescues them.” Rachel’s great fear of Hashem spilled over onto those who saw her, so that they could not touch her.
In this vein, it is written (Devarim 28:10, homiletically): “And all the nations of the world will see the Name of Hashem written upon you, and they shall be fearful on account of you.” That is, on account of your overflowing fear of Hashem, the nations of the world will be infused with the fear of Hashem also, and therefore will not harm you. Hashem’s statement to Noach’s family was along the same lines. Hashem was telling them that they should fear Him so profusely that the fear carries over to all the creatures around them. Upon attaining the proper level of God-fearingness, they would become immune to attack by other creatures. Thus our Sages say (Shabbos 151b): “A beast has no dominion over a person unless he seems to it like an animal.” This occurs when a person ceases to be enveloped with the aura of fear. Since the person himself is not fully imbued with fear, it goes without saying that no waves of fear issue forth from him to affect other creatures. But when a person radiates fear of Hashem, he is invulnerable.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bereishis

This Shabbos we begin again the annual cycle of Torah readings. Among the Midrashim on the first chapter of the Torah are some teachings about the Torah itself. Thus, Bereishis Rabbah 1:1 presents the following teaching, based on Mishlei 8:30:
R. Hoshiah Rabbah expounded: “‘I [the Torah] was then His ward – I was then His rapture every day, playing before Him at all times’ (ibid.). A ward under tutelage, a ward in a cloak, a ward hidden away.” [The Midrash continues with proof texts for each of these descriptions.]
To shed light on this enigmatic Midrash, the Maggid turns to another Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 28:1):
Said R. Berechiya: “The tablets [of the law] were six tefachim long – with, so to speak, two tefachim in the hands of the One whose word brought the world into being, two tefachim in Moshe’s hands, and two tefachim in between.
Although the full depth of this second Midrash is beyond our comprehension, the Maggid tells us that we can extract from it one key message: The Torah includes three portions – revealed, concealed, and indiscernible. The two tefachim in Moshe’s hands represent the revealed portion, the intermediate two tefachim represent the concealed portion, and the two tefachim in Hashem’s hands represent the indiscernible portion.
The revealed portion consists of what Moshe conveyed to us: the 613 mitzvos Hashem commanded us to observe. Now, we have very limited knowledge of the reasons behind these directives, and no knowledge of what results they produce within the universe. Nonetheless, we are obligated to follow Hashem’s word, without deviating to the right or to the left.
The concealed portion consists of the reasons behind the mitzvos and the results they produce. When we observe the mitzvos faithfully, for Hashem’s sake, Hashem will disclose this portion to us. As our Sages say (Avos 6:1): “Whoever involves himself in Torah for its own sake … has revealed to him the Torah’s secrets.” Thus, David HaMelech teaches (Tehillim 111:10): “The starting point of wisdom is fear of Hashem, which provides good understanding to all who perform [the mitzvos].” The Gemara in Berachos 17a adds that David is speaking of those who perform the mitzvos for their own sake. The idea here is that we should take it upon ourselves to perform mitzvos simply out of fear of Hashem, without understanding, and afterward Hashem will grant us the understanding. This principle underlies the Jewish People’s declaration at Sinai (Shemos 24:7): “We will do and we will listen.” By doing the mitzvos, we gain the merit to learn their meaning.
And then there is the indiscernible portion, which is totally beyond the grasp of man. Our Sages refer to this portion as “wine stored up in grapes from the six days of creation” (Berachos 34b). It is a side of Torah that will never come to light in the present world, but in the end of days it, too, will be disclosed. As our Sages say, in the end of days Hashem will show the Jewish People us His hidden chambers (Yalkut Shimoni II:882).
The same three portions of Torah are what our Sages are referring to in the first Midrash we quoted. The “ward under tutelage” refers to the revealed portion of Torah, which embodies Hashem’s teachings about how we should act. The “ward in a cloak” refers to the concealed portion, which is cloaked from our view, but can be uncloaked by appropriate means. Finally, the “ward hidden away” refers to the indiscernible portion, which only Hashem can perceive, until He makes it known to us in the end of days.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos

On Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos, the morning service includes a special addition: the reading of Megillas Koheles. In addition, the Torah portion read on Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos is not part of the regular series of parshios, but instead is a special selection from parashas Ki Sissa that begins with the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf and ends with a review of the three pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos. Accordingly, I present here a d’var Torah from the Maggid relating to both the special Torah reading and Megillas Koheles.
The Torah reading includes a list of Divine attributes (Shemos 34:4-7): “Hashem, Hashem, God, Merciful and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Who Preserves Kindness for thousands of generations, Who Forbears Iniquity, Rebellious Sin, and Error, and Who Cleanses.” In his commentary on parashas Ki Sissa, the Maggid analyzes Hashem’s Attribute of Forbearance [Note: because of the three-faceted nature of Hashem’s forbearance, relating to three types of sin, this attribute is typically counted as three separate attributes.] The Maggid’s starting point is Koheles 1:18: “For with great wisdom comes great torment, and one who increases his knowledge increases his grief.” The Maggid interprets this verse as indicating that the punishment Hashem imposes on a person due to a sin is calibrated according to the person’s spiritual stature: the more refined a person is, the stricter Hashem is in meting out punishment to him. In his commentary on the verse in Kol Yaakov, the Maggid discusses this principle at length. David HaMelech’s statement that Hashem “recompenses a person according to his deeds” (Tehillim 62:13) can be read as reflecting this principle; we can understand David as saying that Hashem’s response to a particular action that a person takes is calibrated to the person’s overall pattern of behavior. David HaMelech and others of his spiritual stature harbored a deep fear of Divine punishment, recognizing that because of their great righteousness Hashem would tend to be extremely exacting with them. It is not that Hashem deals with the righteous more harshly than they deserve – far be it for us to entertain such an idea. Rather, it is just the opposite: Hashem metes out to the righteous a punishment commensurate with what absolute justice calls for, while showing mercy to those of lesser spiritual stature and meting out to them much less punishment than absolute justice calls for.
Thus, there are people whose low spiritual stature serves them as a form of protection; they are spiritually poor, but at the same time they are secure from being struck with misfortune. By contrast, a person of high spiritual stature, toward whom Hashem is not so lenient, faces a considerable risk of being struck with misfortune. The Maggid draws an analogy to a man who has a high income, but has been hit with a series of major expenses, so that he is experiencing a substantially negative cash flow. Such a man may well feel a certain envy toward paupers who go door to door begging for alms, for their financial position is in a sense better than his – the paupers can eke out a steady and secure basic subsistence from alms, while he is at risk of falling into heavy debt. Similarly, a person of high spiritual stature may feel a certain envy toward those of lesser stature, toward whom Hashem is lenient. The opening verses of Tehillim 32 can be interpreted as reflecting this attitude. David HaMelech declares: “Fortunate is he whose offense is forborne, whose transgression is concealed. Fortunate is the man for whom Hashem does not count iniquity.” We can read this statement (homiletically) as contrasting the lowly person’s worry-free existence with David’s own constant fear of Divine punishment.
Returning to the Torah reading, after listing the Divine attributes the Torah relates that Moshe bowed his head toward the ground and prostrated himself (Shemos 34:8). The Gemara in Sanhedrin 111a reports two opinions regarding what prompted Moshe to do so. The majority of the Sages say that the reason Moshe bowed and prostrated himself was because he beheld the Attribute of Truth. Rashi explains that Moshe was struck with fear when he saw what could happen if Hashem meted out the full measure of justice: the result could well be total destruction. In this vein, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 39:6 relates that during Avraham’s interchange with Hashem about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham said: “If You wish to have a world, You cannot impose absolute justice, and if You wish to impose absolute justice, there will be no world.”
In Iyov 11:5-11, Iyov’s comrade Tzofar expounds on the way Hashem supervises the world:
If God would speak … He would relate to you the hidden recesses of wisdom, for His sagacity is manifold. Know, then, that God exacts from you less than your iniquities! … He is aware of deceitful people; He sees iniquity, although He acts as if He does not take note.
The message behind this statement is that even with all the strictness that Hashem shows toward the righteous, He still does not mete out to them the full measure of punishment that absolute justice calls for, but shows mercy toward them as well. Among the sins people commit – righteous people included – are numerous sins that they are unaware of. This fact is alluded to in Tzofar’s statement, for we can read the phrase “does not take note” as referring not to the mindset that Hashem seems to adopt, but rather to the mindset that the transgressor himself actually holds – he does not notice that he is transgressing [Cf. Metzudas David, who also reads the phrase “does not take note” as describing the transgressor’s mindset, but whose interpretation of the verse is the opposite of the Maggid’s.] Due to their unawareness, the transgressors feel no regret for these sins and do not repent from them or seek forgiveness for them. Hashem simply tolerates these sins without imposing punishment. This is one major aspect of Hashem’s Attribute of Forbearance.
David Zucker, Site Administrator