Post Archive for November 2015

Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav upon returning from Charan. The Midrash relates (Bereishis Rabbah 75:13):
Yaakov saw Eisav coming from a distance. He lifted his eyes upward, cried, and prayed to Hashem for mercy. Hashem heard his prayer and promised to save him from all his troubles in the merit of Yaakov, as it is written (Tehillim 20:2): “Hashem shall answer you on the day of trouble; the Name of the God of Yaakov shall raise you on high.”
We previously presented a segment from the Maggid’s commentary on this Midrash. Here we present another segment, which focuses on the verse from Tehillim that the Midrash quotes.
Our Sages teach (Sanhedrin 44b): “A person should always pray ahead of time, before misfortune strikes.” Shlomo HaMelech, speaking in Hashem’s name, presents the reason (Mishlei 1:27–28): “When your dread arrives as sudden darkness, and your misfortune comes like a storm, when trouble and distress come upon you – then they will call me, but I will not answer, they will seek me, but they will not find me.” Two questions arise regarding this passage. First, why the repetitive language? Second, and more seriously, what does it mean that “they will not find me,” given that Hashem is present everywhere? Hashem is not like a mortal man who must be sought and found; He is constantly right at our side whenever we wish to call to Him. His degree of closeness to a person depends only on the degree to which the person brings himself toward Him. If a person’s prayer is pure, and he seeks Hashem with his heart and soul, and has faith in His saving power, then his salvation is near. If our hearts are properly prepared, Hashem will hear us (cf. Tehillim 10:17): The Torah tells us that if we seek Hashem with our entire heart and soul, we are sure to find Him (Devarim 4:29).
Now, if a person waits until misfortune strikes to pray to Hashem, it will hard for him to gain Hashem’s aid, for his heart will be clouded with the pain of his suffering and with tempestuous thoughts that undermine his belief in Hashem and disrupt his faith in His providence. This is the lesson behind the message from Hashem that Shlomo conveyed in the passage from Mishlei that we quoted above. When a person seeks Hashem amidst agitation, his heart does not properly sense Hashem’s presence – his faith in Hashem is shaken.
We can now understand easily why our Sages tell us to pray ahead of time, before misfortune strikes. Once we in the throes of misfortune, our situation is desperate. Thus, David HaMelech entreats (Tehillim 20:10): “Hashem save! May the King answer on the day we call.” David is pleading with Hashem to help us even though we are already ensnared in affliction. How can we gain Hashem’s help when we are in such a state? In the verse that the Midrash quotes, David tells us: “Hashem will answer you in the day of misfortune; the God of Yaakov will raise you up.” In times of misfortune, when it is hard for us to gain Hashem’s help through our own efforts, we can still gain relief by drawing on the forces of salvation that our forefather Yaakov generated for us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

In the beginning of this week’s parashah, the Torah relates that before going to Lavan’s house, Yaakov spent a night at the place that would later become the site of the Beis HaMikdash. The Torah states (Bereishis 28:11): “And he encountered the place and spent the night there, for the sun had set.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 68:9):
What does “and he encountered the place” (וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם) mean? It means that he prayed at that place – at the place of the Beis HaMikdash. Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: “The forefathers instituted three prayer services. Avraham instituted the morning service. Thus it is written (Bereishis 19:27): ‘And Avraham arose early toward the place where he had stood before the presence of Hashem.’ And standing (עֲמִידָה) means none other than praying, as it is written (Tehillim 106:30): ‘And Pinchas stood and prayed.’ Yitzchak instituted the afternoon service. Thus it is written (Bereishis 24:63): ‘And Yitzchak went out to speak out his thoughts (לָשׂוּחַ) in the field towards evening.’ And שִׂיחַ means none other than prayer, as it is written (Tehillim 142:3): ‘I shall pour forth before Him my supplication (שִׂיחִי).’ Yaakov instituted the evening prayer. Thus it is written: ‘And he encountered the place (וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם).’ And פְּגִיעָה means none other than prayer. As it is written (Yirmiyah 7:16): ‘And, as for you, do not pray on behalf of this people – do not offer on their behalf a cry and a prayer – and do not entreat Me (וְאַל תִּפְגַּע בִּי) – for I will not hearken to you.’ And elsewhere (ibid. 27:18): ‘And if they are [truly] prophets, and Hashem’s word is [truly] with them, let them now entreat Hashem, Master of Legions (יִפְגְּעוּ נָא בה' צְבָאוֹת) [that the vessels that remain in the Temple of Hashem and the palace of the king of Yehudah and in Yerushalayim not be brought to Babylonia].’”
The Maggid presents a lengthy discussion of this Midrash. I present here a segment analyzing the term פְּגִיעָה as a term of prayer.
He begins with a classic question. Hashem promises us that if call out to Him, He will come to our aid. Thus, for example, it is written (Tehillim 50:15): “Call out to Me in the day of distress; I will release you and you will honor Me.” And similarly (ibid. 91:15): “He will call out to Me and I will answer Him; I am with him in distress – I will release him and I will bring him honor.” Yet, day after day, without stop, we entreat Hashem to reveal His glory within the world, gather our exiles, and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, and Hashem does not grant these requests. Moreover, Hashem speaks to us as if we are not praying to Him at all (Yeshayah 50:2): “Why is it that I have come and there is no one present? That I have called out and there is no one who answers? Is My hand too limited to bring redemption? Do I lack the power to save?” The situation is paradoxical. How can explain this paradox?
The key to the answer, the Maggid says, lies in the following declaration by Hashem to the Jews who were exiled from Yerushalayim to Babylonia (Yirmiyah 29:12): “You will call out to Me; you will go and you will pray to Me, and I will hearken to you.” This declaration is curious in two respects. First, why does Hashem say “you will pray to Me” after He already said “you will call out to Me”? Second, why does Hashem include the seemingly pointless phrase “you will go”? We can explain what Hashem is saying through a parable. A lad misbehaved atrociously toward his father, and the father was led to throw him out of the house. After being thrown out, the lad went wandering from place to place. The father was swept with compassion for his son and he wished to take him back into his house. He hoped earnestly that the lad would abandon from his evil ways and make an overture to reconcile with him, either by coming in person or by sending a messenger to convey his regret over his past deeds. The lad, however, was stubborn and refused to do so. Once, a merchant from the city where the son lived made a business trip to the city where the father lived. The father was one of the people with whom the merchant had dealings, and, amidst their business discussions, they spoke about the lad. The merchant asked: “When will you take your son back into your house?” The father replied: “When he comes to ask me to take him back, or sends a messenger with this request.” The merchant said: “If the matter depends on making a request, then I will make the request on his behalf. After all, I am as good as any messenger.” The father responded: “Your suggestion is foolish. The whole reason why I want him to ask me to take him back is to hear him say, as he makes his request, how very sorry he is about he acted toward me. I’d be happy to see him come in person to express his regret. Or, if he would send a special messenger to me to convey his regret, this would also satisfy me. But a request from you on his behalf would not do the job. You came here not because my son sent you, but rather to carry out your own business dealings. You happened to have a meeting with me, and the thought popped into your head, by the by, to ask me to take my son back. How could a request from you possibly lead me to reconcile with my son?”
The parallel is as follows. If we would stir ourselves to go to the house of prayer with the specific intent of asking Hashem to show His glory, gather our exiles, restore Yerushalayim, and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, and put the main focus of our prayers on these hopes, Hashem would surely answer us speedily. But our hearts, through our many sins, are detached from these hopes. Regarding this state of affairs, it is written (Yeshayah 64:6): “There is no one who calls out in Your Name, who stirs himself to take firm hold of You.” No one sets his sights firmly on Hashem’s honor and stirs himself on his own initiative to call out wholeheartedly to Hashem with a plea for Him to show His glory. Rather, we use the standard prayer that the Men of the Great Assembly composed for us to plead to Hashem to forgive our sins, heal our ills, provide our sustenance, and so on, and then – while we are already offering the standard prayer – we also recite, by the by, the sections presenting requests for the restoration of Yerushalayim, the Beis HaMikdash, and the kingdom of the House of David.
Yaakov’s prayer was also of an incidental nature. The Midrash relates that as Yaakov traveled to Charan, he passed by the holy site where his ancestors had prayed and where the Beis HaMikdash would eventually be built. He did not take note of the location he had reached, but after he had proceeded a good distance away from the site of the Mikdash, he realized what he had done and exclaimed, as the Gemara relates (Sanhedrin 95b; Chullin 91b): “Is it possible that I passed by the place where my fathers prayed and I did not pray there?” He then turned back to pray at the holy site. This is why Yaakov’s prayer is called a פְּגִיעָה, an encounter: The prayer was prompted entirely by Yaakov’s having encountered the site of the Mikdash: Had he not initially passed by the site on his way, he would not have felt a need to go pray there.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

This week’s parashah recounts the birth and development of Yaakov and Eisav. The Torah states (Bereishis 25:28): “Yitzchak loved Eisav, for [his] catch was in his mouth, while Rivkah held an abiding love for Yaakov.” The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 63:10 remarks that whenever Rivkah heard Yaakov’s voice, she would extend added love to him. I present here one of the Maggid’s interpretations of this Midrash, taken from his commentary on Shir HaShirim 2:8. Our verse speaks of Yitzchak’s love for Eisav and Rivkah’s love for Yaakov. Now, love can be classified into two types. One type is the unqualified love that one feels in a relationship with a person of ideal personality and character. The other type is the qualified love that one feels in a relationship with a person who is predominantly good but has significant faults. One notable difference between these two types of love is as follows: Unqualified love is stronger in the loved one’s presence than in his or her absence, whereas qualified love is stronger in the loved one’s absence than in his or her presence. Qualified love involves a balance between positive and negative traits. When the loved one is elsewhere, the negative traits are not seen, so the love comes to the fore. But when the loved one is seen face to face, the negative traits are apparent, and they dampen the feelings of love.
This is precisely the difference between the love Rivkah had for Yaakov and the love Yitzchak had for Eisav. Rivkah’s love for Yaakov was unqualified, since his character was impeccable. Hence, as the Midrash teaches, her love for him grew whenever she heard him. Yitzchak’s love for Eisav, on the other hand, was qualified. Yitzchak was aware of Eisav’s despicable behavior. Yet he loved Eisav because he believed that Eisav had latent positive traits which would lead him to improve his ways when he matured. Eisav deluded his father into having this hope. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 63:10 tells us that Eisav would trap his father with his mouth; he would ask him how to take tithes from straw and salt. These disingenuous questions led Yitzchak to believe that Eisav had a latent good side that would sprout forth in the future. Hence, the Torah writes the phrase “Yitzchak loved Eisav” as ויאהב יצחק את עשו, with a future-tense verb transformed into past tense by the Biblical conversive vav. This construction parallels Yitzchak’s love for Eisav. Yitzchak realized that Eisav was at present not worthy of his love, but he transferred to the present the love he thought he would have for Eisav in the future. Hence, in contrast with Rivkah’s love for Yaakov, Yitzchak’s love for Eisav was greater when Eisav was absent. When Eisav was present, his despicable behavior would dampen Yitzchak’s love.
The same pattern appears in Hashem’s relationship with us. When Hashem loves us due to our own merit, He keeps us near. He takes care of us Himself rather than through an agent. But when God loves us only on account of our forefathers – our own deeds being unworthy – then He prefers to keep a distance from us, so that His love will not be dampened by our misdeeds.  Hence He cares for us through an agent. In this vein, it is written (Yirmiyah 31:2, homiletically): “From a distance, Hashem appeared to me, [saying,] ‘I have loved you with the love of yore.’” Hashem appeared to us from a distance, through an agent. Why? Because He loved us merely with the love of yore; that is, His love for us was not due to our own merit, but rather on account of our patriarchs of yore.
Similarly, in Shir HaShirim 2:8, regarding the Exodus from Egypt, it is written: “It is the voice of my Beloved: Behold, He is coming &nash; skipping over the mountains, jumping over the hills.” The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 15:4 expounds on what this verse is saying. Hashem sent Moshe to the Jewish People to tell them that He was going to take them out of Egypt. The people asked: “Where is He?” Hashem replied: “I am skipping over the mountains. If I were to come to examine your deeds, I would see that you do not merit being redeemed. I am redeeming you only on account of your forefathers.” Because of the Jewish People’s deficiencies, Hashem chose to bring about the redemption from a distance, through an agent.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Bereishis 24:1): “And Avraham was old, advanced in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” The Midrash expounds (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 104):
Avraham asked for old age. He said to Hashem: “Master of the Universe! A man and his son enter a place, and no one knows which one to honor. If You adorn the father with old age, people will know whom to honor.” Hashem replied: “By your life, you have asked for a good thing, and it will start with you.” From the beginning of the Torah up to this point, no one is described as old. Then Avraham arose, and Hashem granted him old age.
The Maggid characterizes this Midrash as astonishing. Clearly it is wrong to second-guess the way Hashem created the world. Other Midrashim stress this point. For example, regarding the Torah’s report that Hashem described His creation with all its elements as “very good,” the Midrash remarks (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 17): “Their Creator praises them, who can denigrate them?” Further, it is written (Koheles 2:12):  “Who is man to approach the King about how they have already fashioned him?” And the Midrash in Koheles Rabbah 2:14 elaborates, teaching that a person should not say that it would be better if he had three hands, or three eyes, or three ears, or three legs, for Hashem “conferred” with His heavenly court regarding every limb and organ in the human body, and constructed man in the best possible way. How then could Avraham dare to ask Hashem to introduce the phenomenon of old age into the world, as if he had found a deficiency in Hashem’s creation?
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. A person has two sets of needs to address: those of the body and those of the soul. He can receive aid from others in both of these domains. In the physical domain, a young and vigorous man can provide capable aid while typically an old man cannot. If, for example, a person wants to hire a servant, he will prefer a young man to an old man. In the spiritual domain, on the other hand, an old man is more capable. An elder is preferable to a young man as a moral leader, to exhort the people of the community and direct them toward Hashem’s ways. Thus, the Torah teaches (Devarim 32:7):  “Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you.” Similarly, Iyov’s companion Elihu, in explaining why he waited before expressing his views, stated (Iyov 32:7):  “I said to myself, ‘Let days speak; let abundant years speak wisdom.’” Generally, people defer to an elder and respect his opinion.
Avraham was the first man to assume the role of “elder.”  All the generations before him angered Hashem, one after the other, for they were all sunken in worldly affairs. And even if there were occasional individuals who did good, they were concerned only with their own conduct, and did not strive to enlighten others and lead them to the proper path. Noach, for example, was a “righteous and wholehearted man,” yet he did not make any major effort to provide moral counsel to the people of his generation and set them straight. Hence, until Avraham, there was no reason for introducing old age into the world. On the contrary, for the material pursuits that the people of those generations focused on, old age was – as we noted above – a serious liability. Avraham was the first to take upon himself the mission of providing the masses with moral counsel and an awareness of Hashem. Before Avraham came forward, Hashem was “the God of heaven” but His presence was not perceived on earth; after Avraham’s efforts, Hashem became “the God of heaven and the God of earth,” for Avraham had made Hashem’s Name part of the regular vocabulary of the people.  Accordingly, it was fitting for him to become an old man, for he would then be more effective in his sacred mission: People would regard him with favor and listen to him.
This reasoning is what led Avraham to take the bold step of asking Hashem to make him old. He told Hashem: “A man and his son enter a place, and no one knows which one to honor. If You adorn the father with old age, people will know whom to honor.” Obviously, given Avraham’s lofty spiritual level, it is ridiculous to think that he was seeking honor simply to gratify his ego. Rather, he was seeking honor so that his moral counsel would be more readily accepted. Accordingly, Hashem answered him: “By your life, you have asked for a good thing, and it will start with you.” Hashem knew what Avraham was thinking, and He concurred completely.
David Zucker, Site Administrator