Post Archive for December 2015

Parashas Vayechi

This week’s parashah recounts Yaakov Avinu’s death in Egypt and subsequent burial in the Cave of Machpelah. The Torah relates that Yaakov summoned Yosef and said (Bereishis 47:29-30): “Please, if I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do kindness and truth with me: Please do not bury me in Egypt. For I will lie down with my fathers and you shall transport me out of Egypt and bury me in their tomb.” The Midrash picks up on the phrase “kindness and truth,” saying (Bereishis Rabbah 96:5): “Is there such a thing as a false kindness, that he says ‘kindness and truth’? … He was saying to him, ‘If you do a kindness for me after my death, that is a kindness that is an act of truth.’” The Maggid sets out to explain the concept of “a kindness that is an act of truth.” He starts by quoting a verse (Michah 7:20): “Grant truth to Yaakov, kindness to Avraham, as You swore to our forefathers in days of old.” Here also, benevolence is described with the two terms “kindness” and “truth.” The Maggid then develops his explanation through a short parable.
A person wanted to give his friend a handsome sum of money as a gift at some later time. He was worried that his wife might protest, so he decided to write out to his friend a bill of debt for the sum he had in mind, get witnesses to sign it, and then give it to his friend. In this way, when the time arrived his friend could take him to court to force him to pay, and his wife would be unable to protest. In this situation, it fits well to describe the payment as both a kindness and an act of truth. The person’s initial act of writing a bill of debt in advance in order to obligate himself to pay is an act of pure kindness and generosity. At the same time, when the friend makes a claim for the money in court, the person’s payment can be described as an act of truth, for in truth he is obligated to pay the stated sum.
It is similar with Hashem’s grant of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish People. Initially, when Hashem made a covenant with Avraham and swore to him to give Eretz Yisrael to his descendants, Hashem’s binding Himself with an oath to give this very generous gift was an act of pure graciousness. But once Hashem took the oath, Hashem’s conveyance of the land was like payment of an established debt, for Hashem was (so to speak) obligated to keep His word. Thus, Michah’s choice of terms in his request to Hashem was precise. In asking Hashem to “grant truth to Yaakov,” he was calling upon Hashem to fulfill His promise and thereby give credence to His prior oath. At the same time, in asking Hashem to grant “kindness to Avraham” [to whom He made the promise] as He had sworn, he was admitting before Hashem that His initiative to take the oath was a pure kindness.   
This is the idea behind Yaakov’s request to Yosef to do him “kindness and truth.” Had Yosef not sworn to bury Yaakov in the Cave of Machpelah, but had simply done so when the time came, Yosef’s arranging the burial would be called simply an act of kindness. But Yaakov wanted Yosef to obligate himself with an oath, so that when he eventually arranged the burial, his doing so would also constitute an act of truth, for he would be obligated to give credence to his word. Yaakov worded his appeal to Yosef as a request for “kindness and truth” in order to express both aspects. Yaakov insisted on an oath because he knew that Pharaoh would not let Yosef go down to Canaan for the burial had he not sworn to do so. In this vein, after Yaakov’s death Yosef told approached the members of Pharaoh’s household and asked them to tell him (Bereishis 50:5): “My father adjured me, saying, ‘Behold, I am about to die; in my grave, which I have dug for myself in the land of Canaan – there you are to bury me.’ Now, I will go up, if you please, and bury my father, and then I will return.” And Pharaoh replied in turn, saying (ibid. 50:6), “Go up and bury your father as he adjured you,” the closing phrase emphasizing [as Rashi ad loc. comments] that it was only on account of the oath than he was allowing Yosef to go to Eretz Yisrael for the burial.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayiggash

In this week’s parashah, Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers, saying (Bereishis 45:3): “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” Our Sages interpret Yosef’s question as a rebuke: “You claimed that if you went home without Binyamin, your father would be overcome with anguish. Why did you not think of that when you sold me into slavery?” And thus the Torah continues (ibid. 45:4): “His brothers could not answer him because they were taken aback before him.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 93:10):
Woe to us over the day of judgment! Woe to us over the day of rebuke! … Yosef was the least among the sons of Yaakov [involved in the debate], yet the others could not stand up to his rebuke. … All the more so when the Holy One Blessed Be He rebukes each and every person according to his level, as it is written (Tehillim 50:21): “I shall rebuke you before your eyes and judge you.”
We previously presented a segment from the Maggid’s commentary on this Midrash. We now present another segment, in which the Maggid discusses the way Hashem judges us and describes an approach we can take to get Him to judge us leniently.
We realize that we cannot render Hashem the monumental service He truly deserves on account of His greatness, and we know that Hashem does not expect this from us, but graciously accepts the meager service we are capable of offering. Yet a person should not be self-assured, saying to himself: “Given my human limitations, I am doing a good job of serving Hashem.” If a person takes this attitude, Hashem will rebuke him and show him that even according to his level of capability, he has not done a proper job of serving Him, but has fallen well short. And then he will be taken aback before Him. Instead, a person should take a humble attitude, viewing his accomplishments as modest, and then Hashem will judge him leniently. In this vein, David HaMelech says (Tehillim 32:2): “Fortunate is the man to whom Hashem does not ascribe iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” If a person does not falsely regard himself as impeccable, Hashem will not regard him as flawed.
The Torah says (Shemos 20:23): “You shall not go up to My altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be exposed upon it.” The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 30:2 that the verse cannot be read in a strict literal sense, for the Kohanim are required to wear undershorts when performing their duties (Shemos 28:42). The Maggid says that the verse alludes to the idea discussed above. He draws a link to a teaching in Berachos 10b: “A person should not stand in a high place to pray, but rather in a low place. As it is written (Tehillim 130:1): ‘From the depths I call out to you, Hashem.’ … For there is no elevation before the All-Present One.”
He brings out the point with a parable. A person was sued by a creditor claiming from him a large amount of money. He had the money to pay, but he sought a stratagem to avoid paying this large sum. He consulted his friends, and was told that only way out was to swear that he was unable to pay. He was satisfied with this advice, and went home happy, saying, “I’ll hurry over to the court, swear, and be exempted.” He told his servant to prepare his handsome coach and take out the fine suit that he wore only on special occasions. His wife saw what he was doing and hollered at him: “You fool! Why are you packing your finest clothes now and priding yourself in your fancy coach? They’ll work against you when you come before the judge. If you travel in style and show up in court in an expensive suit like a nobleman, how will you possibly argue that you don’t have the money to pay? Put away the fancy suit and wear your worn-out clothes, and travel to the courthouse in a wretched one-horse wagon like the kind poor people ride in. Then you will have a believable case when you claim you can’t pay.”
Our situation is similar. The service we should be rendering Hashem is very extensive. Our only hope is to argue that it is beyond our ability to serve Hashem the way He deserves. Accordingly, when we stand before Hashem in prayer, we must approach Him with a broken heart and a sense of shame over our inability to serve Him properly. This is what the Sages are saying when they teach that a person should not stand in a high place to pray because there is no elevation before Hashem. Indeed, when a person comes to the Beis HaMikdash to bring an offering to atone for a sin, so that Hashem will accept the offering and pardon him, it is imperative that he approach Hashem with awe and fear, and garbed in humility and submission, saying: “Behold my lowliness and limited comprehension, and do not bring me to justice.” The same idea is reflected in the verse that says that one should not go up to the altar in steps, in order not to expose his nakedness. The word that the verse uses for steps, מעלות, can be read homiletically as meaning “positive qualities.” If a person takes a prideful stance and presents himself to Hashem as possessing sterling qualities, he will be exposing his deficiency. As Shlomo HaMelech puts it (Mishlei 29:23): “A man’s pride will bring him low.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mikeitz

This week’s parashah describes Yosef’s rise to power. The Gemara in Berachos 20a teaches that the evil eye has no dominion over Yosef’s descendants. The Gemara explains that since Yosef held his eye back from partaking of what was not his – Potifar’s wife – the evil eye is held back from causing his descendants harm. The Maggid elaborates on this teaching.
The Mishnah in Avos 4:1 teaches: “Who is a mighty person? One who has subdued his evil inclination, as it is written (Mishlei 16:32), ‘He who is slow to anger is better than a person of might, and he who rules over his passions [is better] the conqueror of a city.” The Maggid states that the Mishnah is not speaking metaphorically; it is making a statement that is true in the literal sense. He then proceeds to explain how we can understand the Mishnah literally.
Our Sages teach that just as just as it is only through the evil inclination that a person is led to sin, so, too, it is only through the evil inclination that a person is punished for sinning. Thus, the Gemara in Bava Basra 16a teaches that the Adversarial Angel (Satan), the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one and the same. All the misfortunes that a person suffers at the hands of robbers, extortionists, and other similar evildoers stems from their evil inclination, which, as it lures them into engaging in perverse behavior, exacts punishment from the person for his sins. Just as a person’s evil inclination incites him to wrong others, so, too, it incites others to wrong him. The one depends directly on the other.
If a person subdues his evil inclination and stirs up his good inclination against it to keep it from luring him into evil, as an automatic result the evil inclination is held back from prompting others to harm him. Although we cannot clearly infer this pattern on the basis of reasoning, the Gemara in Berachos that we quoted at the outset tells us that it is so. Just as Yosef kept his evil inclination from leading him to sin, so, too, other people’s evil inclination is kept from wielding power against him and causing him harm.
Along the same lines, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 78:12 relates that when R. Yehudah HaNasi’s grandson complained to R. Shimon ben Lakish about government officials constantly pressing him to give them things, R. Shimon ben Lakish told him: “Don’t take anything from anybody, and you won’t have to give anything to anybody.” That is, if a person keeps himself from envying other people’s assets, other people will not envy his. Similarly, Iyov declared (Iyov 31:9-10): “If my heart was [ever] seduced over a woman, or if I ever lay in wait at my neighbor’s door, may my wife grind for another man, and may strangers kneel over her.” This statement reflects the following principle: If a person’s evil inclination leads him to commit a wrong to someone else, others will be led to commit the same type of wrong against him. As Abaye declared (Pesachim 28a): “When the maker of stocks sits in his own stock, he is repaid by the work of his own hands.”
David HaMelech pleaded to Hashem (Tehillim 17:8-9): “Guard me like the apple of the eye, shelter me in the shadow of Your wings, from the wicked who plunder me, the enemies of my soul who surround me.” We can interpret David’s words homiletically as a plea that Hashem guard him from the evil incitements in his heart – the enemies within his soul – so that he will be securely protected from wicked men who seek to harm him.
From the above discussion, we can derive a wondrous concept: It is within a person’s power to fight and defeat all his enemies and all those who lie in wait for him, near and far, including even those who he does not know and therefore cannot be beware of, by maintaining a state of wholeheartedness and barring the evil inclination from ruling over him. Through such action, he can drive away – without need for any weapon – the hordes of evildoers whose evil inclination might lead them to harass him, and dwell in peace and tranquility. The psalmist declares (Tehillim 46:9): “Go and see the works of Hashem, Who has wrought devastation (שַׁמּוֹת) in the land. He causes wars to cease from the ends of the earth; He will break the bow and cut the spear – He will burn chariots in fire.” We can interpret the word שַׁמּוֹת homiletically as a term signifying dominance, along the lines of a teaching of our Sages in connection with the phrase שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ (“you shall surely set yourself a king”) in Devarim 17:16. [Apparently the teaching builds on a word similarity; I was unable to locate the teaching.] A person does not have to wage war against his enemies. He need only fight his own evil inclination, and he will thereby drive away from him all who might rise against him. This fact is hinted at in the psalmist’s speaking not of subduing enemies but rather of causing wars to cease.
We can now well appreciate how we can understand literally the teaching in Avos 4:1: “Who is a mighty person? One who has subdued his evil inclination, as it is written (Mishlei 16:32), ‘He who is slow to anger is better than a person of might, and he who rules over his passions [is better] the conqueror of a city.” By subduing his evil inclination, a person causes all opposition against him, from wherever it might come, to cease.
Hashem had a discussion with Kayin (Cain) about the evil inclination. He told him (Bereishis 4:7): “Its desire is cast toward you, but you can rule over it.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 22:6):
R. Chanina bar Pappa said: “If your evil inclination comes to play tricks on you, push him off with words of Torah. If you do so, I consider it as if you have created peace. For it is written (Yeshayah 26:3, homiletically): “The evil inclination that is nearby to you guard him with peace, peace.” … It is not written “peace” but rather “peace, peace.” And if you say that the evil inclination is not under your dominion, the verse continues: “for with you it is secure.” And I have already written in the Torah: “Its desire is cast toward you, but you can rule over it.”
We can understand the verse from Yeshayah as saying: “If you want to guard yourself from the evil inclinations of others distant from you, you must guard yourself from the evil inclination that is nearby to you, within your own heart, and then others will also make peace with you.” We have no direct control over the evil inclinations of others, but we do have direct control over our own evil inclination. As the Torah says: “You can rule over it.” And thus we can guard ourselves indirectly against the evil inclination of others. Yeshayah’s repetition of the word “peace” reflects this idea: If others have peace from our evil inclination, then we will have peace from theirs.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Vayeishev

In this week’s haftarah, Amos declares in Hashem’s Name (3:2): “You alone did I know among all the families upon the earth; therefore, I shall hold you to account for all your iniquities.” In Ohel Yaakov, Parashas Bereishis, the Maggid interprets this verse as referring to mankind as a whole. He builds on the following Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 8:1):
R. Nachman said: “Man is the last to have been created, and the first to face punishment.” R. Shmuel said: “In the world’s chorus of praise to Hashem, too, man appears last. Thus we see from Tehillim 148, which describes this chorus of praise. The psalm begins with the heavenly realm: the angels, the sun, the moon, the stars, and so on. It then continues with the earthly realm: the sea and its creatures; fire, hail, snow, and wind; mountains, hills, and trees; animals, insects, and birds. Finally comes man: the nations of the world with their kings, officers, and judges; men and women, the old and the young.” R. Simlai said: “Just as man is the last to give praise, so, too, he is the last to have been created.”
Hashem granted to each creation a set of characteristic traits, and then infused man with the entire gamut of traits that exist within nature. As our Sages say, man is a “miniature universe.” This, the Zohar teaches (Pinchas 238), is why man was created after all other creations – so that all their features could be incorporated with him. Similarly, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 8:3 teaches that, on the sixth day of creation, when Hashem was about to create man, He “consulted” with all the creations He had brought forth on each of the previous days. All these creations served as templates for the various elements that Hashem would build within man.
Hashem had a specific purpose in carrying out creation in this way. The universe is designed as an ensemble of praise to Hashem, with man as the leader. Each creation has its part to play. Yet, since the creations other than man have no free will, the glory they provide Hashem on their own is limited. Man, who encompasses the traits of all other creations, brings the expression of Hashem’s glory within the world to its ultimate level. By choosing, with his free will, to devote all these traits to serving Hashem, man causes every creation’s praise of Hashem to ring forth with full strength.
In so doing, man conveys Divine blessing to the entire world. We can compare the world, with its various constituents, to a group of middle-class men engaging in a joint business venture. None of them on his own has enough funds for serious business, but by pooling their funds, they amass a substantial sum. They appoint an agent to conduct business with the pooled funds, and then divide the profits in proportion to what each one contributed. Similarly, so to speak, the creations of the world operate a joint venture of serving Hashem. Each creation entrusts its traits to man, and the combination of them all enables man to serve Hashem in a consummate fashion. In response, Hashem grants the world blessing, and each creation takes its share. Thus, when man devotes all aspects of his being to serving Hashem, he sanctifies the entire world and brings it blessing. Conversely, when man uses his powers for in a perverted way, as in the generation of the flood, he perverts the entire world.
It is in this vein that the Midrash says: “Man is the last to have been created, and the first to face punishment.” Man is the last to have been created because he encompasses the features of all other creations, to the end of bringing the entire world to its goal. For the very same reason, he is the first to face punishment – for when the world degenerates, he is the one responsible.
This idea is reflected in the verse from this week’s haftarah that we quoted at the outset: “You alone did I know among all the families upon the earth; therefore, I shall hold you to account for all your iniquities.” All the evil in the world is attributed to man, for he is the one who brings it about. Accordingly, the Midrash teaches: “If man merits, he will enjoy both this world and the next, …, and if not, he will be brought to account.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator