Post Archive for 2016

Parashas Mikeitz

I decided this week to continue where I left off last week in presenting a discourse of the Maggid on the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 85:1, since the discourse pertains to this week’s parashah as well as to last week’s. The Midrash states:
And it was at that time, that Yehudah went down from his brothers. It is written (Malachi 2:11): “Yehudah has betrayed, and an abomination has been done within Yisrael ….” Hashem said: “Yehudah, you have repudiated. Yehudah, you have lied. An abomination has been done within Yisrael. Yehudah has become unsanctified.” [As it is written further in the verse in Malachi]: “For Yehudah has defiled Hashem’s holy one, whom He loved.” And it was at that time. It is written (Michah 1:15): “I will yet bring over to you a dispossessor, O inhabitant of Mareshah; the glory of Yisrael will come way up to Adulam.” To Adulam will come the sovereign and the holy one of Yisrael. As it is written: He turned aside to an Adulamite man. And it was at that time. R. Shmuel bar Nachman expounded: “It is written (Yirmiyah 29:11): ‘For I know the thoughts.’ Yaakov’s sons were engaged in the sale of Yosef, Yosef was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Yaakov was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Yehudah was engaged in taking a wife for himself, and the Holy One Blessed Be He was engaged in creating the light of King Mashiach.” And it was at that time, that Yehudah went down from his brothers. It is written (Yeshayah 66:7): “Before she went into labor, she gave birth.” Before the first subjugator came into being, the final redeemer was born. And what is written right before? “And the Medanites had sold him [Yosef] to Egypt” (Bereishis 37:36).
In the segment we presented last week, the Maggid discussed the fact that everything Hashem does is for the good, even when we experience events that seem to us to be bad.
The Maggid now continues by discussing how the events recounted in parshios Vayeishev and Mikeitz illustrate this fact. In these parshios, the Torah describes a number of trying events that Yaakov went through: Yosef’s disappearance and apparent death, Shimon’s being taken captive, and Binyamin’s having to leave Yaakov to travel to Egypt with his brothers. The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 84:14):
It is written (Bereishis 37:14): “‘And bring me back word.’ And he sent him from the valley (עמק) of Chevron.” But Chevron is on a mountain, so how could it be written ‘the valley of Chevron’? Said R. Acha: “He went to implement the deep accord (העצה העמוקה) that the Holy One Blessed Be He concluded with the fine friend who was buried in Chevron: ‘And they shall enslave them and afflict them [for 400 years … and then they will go out with great wealth] (ibid. 15:13-14).
We can explain this Midrash as follows. Hashem chose Yaakov as the one from whom He would build the House of Yisrael, the understanding nation, so that they would accept His holy Torah and enter the goodly land, Eretz Yisrael, that He had promised to Avraham, and so that He would cause His Presence to abide in their midst. In order for this plan to be accomplished, it was necessary first that the Jews be enslaved in Egypt. In this vein, it is written (Hoshea 11:1): “From Egypt I called to my son.” And along these lines the Gemara says (Berachos 5a): “Three goodly gifts were given to Yisrael, and all three were given only through affliction: the Torah, Eretz Yisrael, and the World to Come.” Accordingly, Yaakov had to be drawn into Egypt. The Midrash on our parashah expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 86:2):
It is like a cow that was being led to market and would not be drawn along. What did they do? They drew her calf along in front of her, and she went after him. … Similarly, it would have been fitting for our father Yaakov to have gone down to Egypt bound and collared in chains. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “This is my firstborn son – shall I bring him down in disgrace? Instead, behold, I shall draw his son along in front of him, and he shall go down after him.”
We thus see that Hashem brought upon Yaakov the events we mentioned above in order to bring him and his family down to Egypt, thus setting the foundation for the wondrous good that He would ultimately bestow upon Yaakov’s descendants. As it is written (Yeshayah 27:6): “[Days] are coming when Yaakov shall take root; Yisrael shall bud and blossom.” But Yaakov did not understand the purpose of the events he was going through, and so each event caused him added worry and anguish. Thus, the Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 91:10):
“And Yisrael said: ‘Why did you do me ill [by telling you man you had a brother]?’” (Bereishis 43:6). … The Holy One Blessed Be He said: “I am engaged in making his son a ruler in Egypt, and he says, ‘Why did you do me ill?’” This is as it is written (Yeshayah 40:27-28): “Why do you say, O Yaakov, and declare, O Yisrael, ‘My way is hidden from Hashem, and my cause has passed by my God? Did you not know? Did you not hear? Hashem is God of the universe, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not tire, He does not grow weary, and His discernment is beyond fathom.”
When a person raises questions in his mind about a difficult experience that Hashem sent his way, he thinks he that he previously understood how Hashem operates, and only now he was put through a difficult experience that he cannot comprehend. But in truth we cannot really understand anything that Hashem does until we see the final result.
We can bring out the point with an analogy. Consider a visit to a great craftsman by a commoner who knows nothing about crafts. He sees him working with stones and he asks him about a specific action that he performed. The craftsman retorts sharply: “Do you have an understanding of crafts, that you ask me a question about what I’m doing before I’ve finished my work? After I’m done, you’ll see that nothing I did up to now was for nought, and each and every thing I did was clearly a necessary step in the process of making this item.”
This is the idea behind Hashem’s statement in the passage from Yeshayah that the Midrash quotes. Hashem is saying: “How can you question what I am doing before I am finished and you see that goal I wanted to accomplish? I am the Creator of the ends of the earth, and I am in the process of developing the state of affairs that will prevail on earth in the end of days. What you are going through now is not the ultimate goal I’m aiming for, but stepping stones toward the great blessing I will bring you and your descendants in the era of Mashiach.” Yaakov was upset over the ordeals involving Yosef, Shimon, and Binyamin because he thought that the era of Mashiach was supposed to arrival in his time, and when the ordeals came upon him, he thought that some sin he committed caused matters to go awry. But he miscalculated because he did not grasp Hashem’s true plan.
We now return to the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 85:1. The verse from Yirmiyah quoted in the Midrash teaches us about the way Hashem runs our affairs. Yirmiyah declares: “‘I know the thoughts that I am thinking over you,’ says Hashem, ‘thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.’” As we explained above, every single event that Yaakov and his family experienced was orchestrated by Hashem toward the goal of bringing about the lofty and idyllic state of affairs that He had planned for them in granting them the Torah and Eretz Yisrael. But Yaakov and his sons did not grasp what was really taking place. Each of them reacted to the events according to his own mind’s understanding, and each took his own course, while Hashem was pursuing a larger plan. Thus the Midrash says: “Yaakov’s sons were engaged in the sale of Yosef, Yosef was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Yaakov was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Yehudah was engaged in taking a wife for himself, and the Holy One Blessed Be He was engaged in creating the light of King Mashiach.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeishev

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates the episode in which Yosef’s brothers captured him and ultimately, at Yehudah’s suggestion, sold him into slavery. It was to Yehudah’s credit that he dissuaded his brothers from their initial plan to kill Yosef, but still the Sages consider him blameworthy for not suggesting that they free Yosef. Right afterward, the Torah relates the episode of Yehudah’s union with Tamar, which resulted in the birth of Peretz, the ancestor of Mashiach. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 85:1 links these two episodes, building on the statement with which the Torah introduces its account of the second one (Bereishis 38:1): “And it was at that time, that Yehudah went down from his brothers and he turned aside to an Adulamite man whose name was Chirah.” The Midrash expounds as follows:
And it was at that time, that Yehudah went down from his brothers. It is written (Malachi 2:11): “Yehudah has betrayed, and an abomination has been done within Yisrael ….” Hashem said: “Yehudah, you have repudiated. Yehudah, you have lied. An abomination has been done within Yisrael. Yehudah has become unsanctified.” [As it is written further in the verse in Malachi]: “For Yehudah has defiled Hashem’s holy one, whom He loved.” And it was at that time. It is written (Michah 1:15): “I will yet bring over to you a dispossessor, O inhabitant of Mareshah; the glory of Yisrael will come way up to Adulam.” To Adulam will come the sovereign and the holy one of Yisrael. As it is written: He turned aside to an Adulamite man. And it was at that time. R. Shmuel bar Nachman expounded: “It is written (Yirmiyah 29:11): ‘For I know the thoughts.’ Yaakov’s sons were engaged in the sale of Yosef, Yosef was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Yaakov was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, Yehudah was engaged in taking a wife for himself, and the Holy One Blessed Be He was engaged in creating the light of King Mashiach.” And it was at that time, that Yehudah went down from his brothers. It is written (Yeshayah 66:7): “Before she went into labor, she gave birth.” Before the first subjugator came into being, the final redeemer was born. And what is written right before? “And the Medanites had sold him [Yosef] to Egypt” (Bereishis 37:36).
The Maggid presents a lengthy discourse on this Midrash. I present here the first portion of the discourse. I hope in future years to present the remaining portions.
In another Midrash, the Sages teach (Devarim Rabbah 4:1):
A question in halachah: Is it permitted to split the reading of the תוכחה (litany of curses) into multiple segments? Thus the Sages taught: “We do not interrupt the reading of the curses.” … Said R. Chiya bar Gamda: “For it is written (Mishlei 3:11), ‘The chastisement of Hashem, my child, do not disdain, and do not abhor His rebuke (אל תקוץ בתוכחתו).’ Do not break up the litany of admonitions into separate ‘thorns’ (קוצים). Rather, one person should read them all.”
The Maggid sets out to explain what R. Chiyah bar Gamda had in mind in seemingly interpreting the word תקוץ in a manner far removed from its literal meaning. The Gemara states (Berachos 54a): “A person must recite a blessing on bad events just as he recites a blessing on good events.” The Gemara goes on to say that the blessing on a bad event must be recited with joy. Surely there is a deep message underlying this teaching, and it behooves us to find it. We can explain the Gemara as follows. On some occasions, Hashem’s generous goodness towards a person can be seen clearly, such as when He grants him wealth, possessions, honor, and so on. On other occasions, Hashem works for a person’s good by putting him into a situation which appears to our mortal eyes to be bad, but which He knows to be to his benefit.
It is just like a fool watching a skilled tailor taking a large sheet of cloth and cutting them into small pieces, seemingly haphazardly– the fool thinks that the tailor is destroying valuable cloth, but in fact he is in the process of making a fine suit. Or, as another example, consider a fool watching a builder preparing wood for building. The fool sees the builder taking large, nice-looking cedar logs and chopping them into beams and other variously-sized pieces according to his building needs, including some very small, thin pieces to be used for frames and the like, and drilling holes into some of these pieces. The fool thinks the builder is chopping the expensive logs haphazardly and figures he is crazy. But an understanding person realizes that everything the builder is doing is necessary for building purpose, and when the various pieces are put together the result will be a magnificent building.
Thus it is with the way Hashem manages a person’s affairs. Hashem’s wisdom is unfathomable. We cannot always understand how He deals with us, for His reckonings are very deep. A person may find himself undergoing occurrences that he experiences as very bitter, but which Hashem put into operation to produce great benefit, and without which the benefit could not come about. Thus, our Sages teach that a person must recite a blessing over events that appear to him bad, for underlying such events is unimaginable good.
We can still ask, though, why the Sages stressed that a person must recite the blessing with joy. Why does it not suffice for the person to rejoice when he sees the ultimate beneficial result? After reflecting on the matter, we can give a simple answer. If a person we accepts a seemingly bad event joyfully and with firm faith in Hashem’s goodness, Hashem will be pleased with him and deem it fit to bring His plan to completion and produce the benefit He intended. But if the person does not accept the event joyfully, and instead reacts with anger and questions Hashem’s ways, far be it, Hashem might decide to discontinue implementing His plan in the middle of the process, in which case the person will have suffered the painful experiences without gaining the benefit that they were meant to produce.
We can bring out the point by returning to the analogy of the builder. Suppose that the fool, when seeing the building chopping the logs into the various beams and smaller pieces, screams at him, saying: “Why are you destroying these beautiful and valuable logs?” The builder might decide out of anger to stop his work and leave all the building materials out on the ground, and then they will remain as fragments, for no one is there anymore to put them together. Questioning Hashem’s ways may lead to a similar result. In this vein, David HaMelech, speaking of the wicked, declares (Tehillim 28:5, homiletically): “Because they do not understand Hashem’s actions and the work of His hands, He will tear them down and not rebuild them.”
We can now understand very well the Midrash about not stopping in the middle of the תוכחה. R. Chiya bar Gamda in fact is not interpreting the word תקוץ in Mishlei 3:11 in a manner far removed from its literal meaning; on the contrary, in his interpretation of the verse in Mishlei, he reads the phrase אל תקוץ בתוכחתו in full accord with its literal meaning: Do not abhor His rebuke. He exhorts us not to question Hashem’s dealings with us when we experience misfortunes, and afterward describes the consequence that will come about if we do: Hashem will discontinue implementing the plan He had in mind when sending the misfortunes, and leave them lying, so to speak, as separate thorns.
The same idea underlies the verse in Yirmiyah that the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah quotes: “‘I know the thoughts that I am thinking over you,’ says Hashem, ‘thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.’” On the surface, Hashem’s words are bewildering. Who doesn’t know the thoughts behind his own actions? Everyone knows, of course, even before the job is completed, for the result was already in mind when the work was started. What, then, is Hashem saying? In light of our discussion above, we can give an answer. We may see a person who undergoing occurrences which to our mortal eyes appear to be completely bad, but our perception is limited – we do not have the knowledge and wisdom to understand the true nature of these occurrences. Hashem is the only one who knows the thoughts behind what He does, and recognizes clearly that what He is doing is for our good.   
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah relates the episode in which Shechem, the son of Chamor the Chivite violated Yaakov’s daughter Dinah and then approached Yaakov to ask for her hand in marriage. The Torah relates (Bereishis 34:13-15):
And the sons of Yaakov answered Shechem and Chamor his father with guile, and spoke, for he had defiled Dinah their sister, and they said to them: “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one that is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace to us. Only on this condition will we accede to you: if you will be as we are, that every male among you be circumcised.”
The Maggid remarks that the phrase “with guile” in this passage is odd, for the words that Yaakov’s sons spoke make evident in themselves whether they were spoke with guile or not. He also asks why the Torah says that Yaakov’s son “answered Shechem and Chamor” and afterwards says that they “spoke” – Why the double language?
The Maggid suggests that the Torah’s intent is to indicate why Yaakov’s sons responded to Shechem and Chamor rather than allowing Yaakov to respond. It is a basic principle that a junior person should not speak up before a senior person. Indeed, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 74:4 teaches that Rachel died before Leah as punishment for having responded first when Yaakov told them of his intent to leave Lavan’s house (Bereishis 31:14). All the more so should sons refrain from speaking before their father. But in the case of the discussion with Shechem and Chamor, it was actually to preserve Yaakov’s honor that his sons stepped in and responded.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. When a father and his sons are walking down a road or entering a house, the sons usually let the father go first in order to honor him. But in some situations it is more to the father’s honor for the sons to go first. For example, if the road is littered with clumps of dirt, then it is better for the sons to first, so that they can crush the clumps with their feet as they walk and prepare a clear path for their father. Similarly, in the case of the discussion with Shechem and Chamor, where a crafty response was called for, Yaakov’s sons understood that it was more of an honor to their father that they be the ones to respond, so that their father would be spared the degradation of speaking with guile. The Torah’s phrasing was designed to convey this idea. The Torah makes a point of stating that guile was involved in the response that Yaakov’s gave, to indicate that it was with this background that they took the initiative and spoke.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

At the beginning of this week’s parashah, the Torah describes the striking dream Yaakov dreamt the night he slept at the future site of the Beis HaMikdash. Upon awaking, Yaakov declared (Bereishis 28:17): “How awesome is this place! This is nought but the House of God.” The Maggid offers various explanations of Yaakov’s statement. Here we present one of them. The starting point is a Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 65:23):
It is written (Bereishis 27:27): “And he [Yaakov] approached, and he [Yitzchak] kissed him, and he smelled the scent of his garments, and he blessed him. And he said: ‘Behold, my son’s scent is like the scent of the field that Hashem blessed.’” This verse teaches that Hashem showed Yitzchak the Beis HaMikdash being built, being destroyed, and being built again. My son’s scent – this alludes to the Beis HaMikdash being built, as it is written (Bamidbar 28:2):  “My pleasing aroma, be vigilant to offer in its appointed time.” Like the scent of the field – this alludes to the Beis HaMikdash being destroyed, as it is written (Michah 3:12): “Zion shall be plowed like a field.” That Hashem blessed – this alludes to the Beis HaMikdash being built again, as it is written (Tehillim 133:3): “For there Hashem has ordered the blessing – everlasting life.”
The Maggid remarks that this Midrash is utterly mysterious. He offers one possible explanation, and then links the discussion to Yaakov’s statement.
As we know well, the kind of mitzvah observance that Hashem wants from us is performance of the mitzvah act coupled with a pure desire to carry out His will. Now, many mitzvos, such as fasting on Yom Kippur or giving charity, run counter to our worldly desires. When observing such mitzvos, it is easy to carry them out with the proper intent. But other mitzvos, such as honoring Shabbos and Yom Yov with fine food, involve physical pleasure. With such mitzvos, it is clearly a challenge to focus our minds solely on bringing Hashem satisfaction. Now the Beis HaMikdash benefitted both the body and the soul, as it is written (Tehillim 84:3): “My heart and my flesh shall sing to the living God.” As reflected in Yaakov’s dream, the Beis HaMikdash was like a ladder set upon the earth, with its top reaching to heaven – it was a conduit through which bounty flowed from Hashem’s storehouse in heaven down to earth. Unavoidably, the Kohanim who performed the service in the Mikdash felt a sense of satisfaction that their actions were bringing bounty into the world. It therefore had to be very hard for them to stay focused on honoring Hashem, and keep their minds from dwelling on the physical benefit that their actions were producing.
It makes sense to say that the reason the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed was an excessive focus on extracting material gain. On the whole, we do not find lapses in the actual performance of the service, so the fault must have been with the intent with which it was done. We know for a fact that many Kohanim in the era of the second Beis HaMikdash took on the service solely as a means of catering to their personal needs. This exploitation is alluded to in the prophet’s lament that “Zion shall be plowed like a field” – the Kohanim were running the Beis HaMikdash for personal gain like a farmer plowing his field to make it produce crops he can benefit from.
We can read the Midrash as speaking about how Yitzchak understood these matters. The Midrash says: “My son’s scent – this alludes to the Beis HaMikdash being built, as it is written: ‘My pleasing aroma, be vigilant to offer in its appointed time.’” If the Kohanim perform the service with a focus on bringing Hashem satisfaction – offering Him a “pleasing aroma” – their devotion will make the Beis HaMikdash well-built and it will remain standing. But if they perform the service with a focus on personal gain, as if they were working a field, their materialistic motives will turn the Beis HaMikdash into a spiritual ruin, and lead to its physical destruction.
We now return to Yaakov’s statement: “How awesome is this place! This is nought but the House of God.” The holy site is one that prompts great fear. There is much reason for fear regarding the service to be performed at this site. Because of the flow of bounty that the service will generate, those performing the service will be prone to focus on the material benefit involved. But the site is supposed to be “nought but the House of God” – the service is supposed to be done for no other motive aside from fulfilling Hashem’s will. It is so easy to slip, and the consequences are so very grave.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Bereishis 26:1-3):
And there was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine that occurred in the days of Avraham, and Yitzchak went to Avimelech, king of the Philistines – to Gerar. And Hashem appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt – dwell in the land that I shall indicate to you. Sojourn in this land, and I shall be with you, and I shall bless you – for to you and to your offspring I shall give all these lands, and I shall fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Avraham.”
The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 64:1-2):
It is written (Tehillim 37:18-19): “Hashem knows the days of the wholehearted, and their inheritance shall abide forever. They shall not be abashed in times of misfortune, and in days of famine they shall be sated.” Hashem knows the days of the wholehearted – this refers to Yitzchak. And their inheritance shall abide forever – “Sojourn in this land.” They shall not be abashed in times of misfortune – the misfortune that Avimelech suffered. And in days of famine they shall be sated – “And there was a famine in the land.” It is written further (Mishlei 10:3): “Hashem does not bring hunger upon the soul of a saintly man, but the wicked He topples with their wreckage.” Hashem does not bring hunger upon the soul of a saintly man – this refers to Yitzchak: “Sojourn in this land.” But the wicked He topples with their wreckage – this refers to Avimelech.
The aim of this enigmatic Midrash, the Maggid says, is to explain the phrasing in Hashem’s message to Yitzchak. Hashem had previously made a covenant with Avraham and told him (Bereishis 18:15): “To your offspring I have given this land.” Indeed, in regard to this Divine proclamation, Rashi comments: “With Hashem’s word it is as if it is done.” In other words, Hashem’s proclamation already invested Avraham’s family conclusively with title to the land. It is natural, then, to ask why Hashem phrased His command to Yitzchak to remain in the Land of Israel in terms of “sojourning,” as if Yitzchak were a foreigner residing in the land. The Maggid explains how the Midrash provides the answer to this question.
The starting point for the explanation is the following verse (Tehillim 104:31): “May Hashem’s glory endure forever; let Hashem rejoice in His works.” On a simple level, in the context of the verse, the phrase ישמח ה' is read as we have rendered it: “Let Hashem rejoice.” But since the phrase involves a future tense verb construction, it can also be read as a statement about the future: “Hashem shall rejoice.” The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 20:2 makes a point of this matter, stating that, so to speak, Hashem does not rejoice in His works now, but will rejoice only in the future.  Similarly, it is written elsewhere (Tehillim 149:2): “Let Yisrael rejoice in their Maker; let the Children of Zion jubilate in their King.” Again, the Midrash picks up on the future tense construction, and remarks that Yisrael does not rejoice in their Maker now, but will rejoice only in the future. Our Sages seek to explain here why Hashem puts off granting us satisfaction for a later time, when we reach the end of days, while granting others satisfaction right away. By way of analogy, an innkeeper will attend right away to a guest who he knows is a hurry to head out on the road, and will put off attending to a guest who he knows is planning to stay for some time. Similarly, with nations whose time on the world scene is limited, Hashem has to grant them their measure of satisfaction right away. But we, the Jewish People, are here to stay, and so Hashem can put off granting us our measure of satisfaction until the most opportune time.
The same idea underlies the Midrash on our passage. The Midrash quotes David HaMelech’s words: “Hashem knows the days of the wholehearted, and their inheritance shall abide forever.” We Jews will abide forever, and hence, even though Hashem promised us the Land of Israel, He need not rush to give us full possession of it – there is yet time.
The Midrash continues with another verse phrase: “They shall not be abashed in times of misfortune.” The Midrash reads this phrase as indicating that Yitzchak did not suffer the misfortune that came upon Avimelech. We can explain the matter as follows. Hashem had decided to bring a famine on the land. He wanted Yitzchak to stay put and not travel elsewhere, but, at the same time, He did not want Yitzchak to suffer. He therefore phrased His message to Yitzchak with deliberate care, telling him: “Sojourn in this land.” His intent was to give Yitzchak the status of a sojourner, rather than a settler, so that he would not be subject to the decree of famine that had been cast upon Avimelech. Thus, the final segment of the Midrash indicates that it was because “Hashem does not bring hunger upon the soul of a saintly man” that He told Yitzchak: “Sojourn in this land.” We see here the profound kindness that Hashem shows to those who are devoted to Him. It was not merely because He had plenty of time that Hashem put off transferring ownership of the land to Yitzchak; rather, He delayed the transfer deliberately for Yitzchak’s benefit.
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 Maggid’s commentary on this verse brings out various facets of Avraham’s greatness. We present here a segment from this discussion. After Avraham prevailed in his war against the four kings, Hashem told him (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 for you. All that I did with you in this world I did for you for nothing, and you have great reward in store for you in the world to come.” Your reward is very great, as it is written (Tehillim 31:20), “How great is Your blessing that You have hidden in store for those who fear You!” [The Midrash builds on the similarity between the word מָגֵן, meaning shield, and the Aramaic word מַגָן, meaning for nothing.]
The Maggid explains that Hashem was telling Avraham that the miracles He had done for him were not intended as reward, but rather as means to enable him to carry on with his sacred mission and accomplish still more good. The people of the world, having beheld the miracles that had occurred for Avraham’s benefit, would see that he was a true man of God, and they would then cleave to him and follow his word. In this way, Avraham would be able to lead masses of people onto the path of serving Hashem. Accordingly, these miracles served as the means through which Avraham would accrue “very great” reward.
It is with the same idea in mind, the Maggid says, that Hashem told Avraham earlier (Bereishis 12:2): “I shall bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” As a result of attaining a great name among the nations, Avraham would succeed in his holy endeavors, and would thereby gain eternal blessing.
On another occasion Hashem tells Avraham (Bereishis 17:1): “I shall set My covenant between Me and you, and I shall increase you very, very greatly (במאד מאד).” The Maggid notes that the prefix ב- in the phrase במאד מאד is unusual; the natural phrasing is simply מאד מאד. The Maggid ties the unusual phrasing into the above discussion. He explains that we can read the prefix ב- as meaning through, and interpret Hashem’s statement as follows: “Through the very great blessing that I put into your hands, you will attain a very great increase in blessing.” We can interpret in the same way the message Hashem sent to Avraham through the angel He sent to him at the time of the binding of Yitzchak: “Because you performed this deed … I shall surely bless you (אברך אברכך).” The double verb suggests repeated blessing, alluding to an initial grant of blessing being used to generate further blessing.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah opens as follows (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.” Regarding Avraham’s location “at the entrance of the tent,” the Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 48:8):
A fine entranceway you have provided for the goers and comers; a fine entranceway you have provided for converts, for, were it not for you, I would not have created heaven and earth, of which it is written (Yeshayah 40:22): “And He stretched them forth like a tent for dwelling.”
Here, the Midrash is interpreting “entrance of the tent” as meaning “entranceway to heaven and earth,” which the quoted verse likens to a tent. The Midrash says that Avraham provided an entranceway for converts. The Maggid asks: Of what entranceway are the Sages speaking?
He explains as follows. Avraham had just finished performing bris milah on himself and the members of his household. Regarding bris milah the Gemara states (Nedarim 32a): “Great is bris milah, for, were it not for bris milah, heaven and earth would not remain in existence.” The mitzvah of bris milah, as we know, is one of the foundations of Torah observance. Hashem therefore arranged to ease the way to fulfillment of this mitzvah, so that it would not meet with resistance and be neglected, far be it. He commanded that a Jewish baby boy undergo a bris milah on his eighth day of life. The father, although he might hesitate in subjecting his son to circumcision out of a tenderhearted desire not to cause the baby pain, is expected to overcome this hesitation and do what Hashem commanded. The son, for his part, although he feels pain while he is being circumcised, is unable to protest or stop the circumcision from being carried out. This system ensures that every Jewish male will bear the holy sign of bris milah, much more easily that would be if Hashem has specified that the bris milah be performed in adulthood.
Now, the law is that someone can perform a bris milah on someone else only if he himself has undergone bris milah, as our Sages infer from the double verb המול ימול in the Torah passage presenting the mitzvah of milah. It logically follows that the first to undergo milah would have to perform it on himself in adulthood. After this first self-done milah, then, and only then, would the way be open for fathers to perform milah on their infant sons. Avraham was the one who opened the way, and for this we owe him tremendous thanks.
When the Midrash speaks of “goers and comers,” we can say that it is referring to the succession of generations, along the lines of Shlomo HaMelech’s saying that “a generation goes, and a generation comes” (Koheles 1:4), Avraham provided the opening for those of a new generation to be circumcised by those of the previous generation. He provided, as well, the opening for converts – those wishing to enter the covenant with Hashem as a member of the Jewish People – to be circumcised by a mohel rather than having to circumcise themselves.
With thanks to Hashem for His great kindness, I am happy to announce the engagement of my son Yosef to Tamar Rohb of Rishon L’Tziyon.

Parashas Lech-Lecha

The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 2:12 relates that Avraham saw an astrological sign showing that he would not be able to father children. Hashem then took him outside, told him to look up toward the heavens, and said: “In the very sign from which you see that you are not destined to father children, I am showing you that you will father children.” The Maggid remarks that this interchange is puzzling in two respects. First, given that Avraham was an expert at reading astrological signs, it is puzzling that he would have wrongly interpreted a sign as indicating that he would not father children. Second, Hashem’s response is puzzling – it is not clear what He means. In another discussion of our passage, the Gemara in Shabbos 156a-b reports that Hashem said to Avraham: “Set aside your astrologizing! The People of Israel are not governed by the planets and the stars. What are you thinking? That Tzedek (Jupiter) is situated in the west? I will turn it back and set it in the east.” But, if a reworking of the celestial system is what Hashem had in mind, we would expect Him to have said: “In the very sign from which you see that you are not destined to father children, I will show you that you will father children.” But, instead, He said: “I am showing you that you will father children.” It is puzzling that Hashem expressed the matter in this way, especially given that Avraham saw just the opposite.
In developing his explanation, the Maggid analyzes an interchange between Yeshayahu HaNavi and Chizkiyahu HaMelech. Chizkiyahu fell ill, and Yeshayahu told him: “Issue your final orders to your household, for you are going to die, and you shall not live.” The Gemara in Berachos 10a reports the discussion that ensued. After Chizkiyahu suggested a way he could remedy his sin and nullify the death decree, Yeshayahu told him that the decree was final. Chizkiyahu exclaimed: “Son of Amotz, stop your prophesying and leave! Thus I have it from my father’s father: ‘Even if a sharp sword is placed on a person’s throat, he should not refrain from pleading for mercy.’”
The Maggid explains this episode with a simple parable. A villager had a large collection of silver and gold vessels and jewelry. He was afraid to keep all these precious items in his own house. He therefore handed them over to a friend of his in a nearby town, to hide them away and keep watch over them. But, one night, this friend’s house was burgled, and all the gold, silver, and other precious items in the house were stolen. The next morning, the friend sent a special messenger to the villager to tell him what happened. The villager, upon hearing the news, immediately sent his entire household out onto the roads to search for the burglars. The messenger declared: “I think you should call off this expedition. Why waste your effort, and squander whatever assets you still have left?” The villager replied: “Why do you think my friend rushed to send you to me to tell me about the burglary in his house? He recognized that, with the resources at my disposal, I could catch these burglars. Your foolish advice runs counter to the very reason you were sent here.”
Similarly, when Hashem sends a messenger with a threat of calamity, almost always His whole purpose is to prompt a search for the failing that triggered the threat, so that the failing will be remedied and the threat can be withdrawn. In particular, this was the case when Hashem sent Yeshayahu to Chizkiyahu with the message “you are going to die, and you shall not live.” Chizkiyahu recognized Hashem’s intent, asked Yeshayahu to tell him the reason for the severe decree, and learned that he was being taken to task for not making an effort to bring forth children. Chizkiyahu then set out to remedy this failing: He asked Yeshayahu to allow him to marry his daughter. When Yeshayah responded by saying that the decree had already been cast, Chizkiyahu told him to stop his prophesying and leave. He was saying: “The whole reason you were sent to me was to prompt me to look into what I had done wrong. Now that I know, you can leave; I have the means to remedy the failing and nullify the decree. Indeed, if there were nothing I could do to nullify the decree, what point would there be in Hashem’s sending you to me to tell me about it?”
With this, we can understand the discussion between Hashem and Avraham. Hashem wanted Avraham to pray for children; as the Midrash states, He made the matriarchs barren because He “yearns” for the prayers of the righteous. Hashem needed a means to prompt Avraham to pray; since no prophets were on the scene, Hashem showed Avraham an astrological sign indicating that he would not have children. Avraham read the sign’s literal message correctly, but he misconstrued what Hashem meant by showing it to him. He incorrectly assumed that the destiny reflected in the sign was absolute and could not be changed. Hashem told him: “Set aside your astrologizing!” Hashem was saying: “You have misunderstood the import of the sign. You think it means that you absolutely will not have children, but in fact it means just the opposite.” Hashem then continued: “In this very sign I am showing you that you will father children. For if the sign meant what you thought it did – that you are destined not to father children and you have no power to change this destiny – what point would there have been in My showing it to you?”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Noach

In this week’s haftarah, Yeshayah tells the Jewish People (Yeshayah 54:14): “Establish yourself through righteousness, distance yourself from oppression and do not fear.” In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, chapter 1, the Maggid brings this exhortation into his discussion of fear of Hashem.
In describing the ideal form of fear of Hashem, the Maggid starts by quoting Mishlei 2:1-5:
My child: if you accept My words, and store up My commandments within yourself, making your ears attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding: if only you call out to understanding, and lift up your voice to discernment – if you seek it out as [you would] for silver, and search for it as for hidden treasure – then you will understand fear of Hashem and find knowledge of God.
The Maggid raises two questions about this passage. First, the Mishnah in Avos 3:11 seems to present an opposite teaching. The passage above indicates that wisdom and knowledge are prerequisites to fear of Hashem. On the other hand, the Mishnah in Avos says: “With anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom endures, but with anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure.” This teaching indicates that fear of Hashem must precede the pursuit of wisdom. How do we resolve the apparent conflict? Second, what does Shlomo HaMelech mean when he speaks of finding “knowledge of God”? We cannot comprehend Hashem’s nature, so what is Shlomo saying?
The Maggid explains that there are two types of fear of Hashem. A person may fear Hashem because he recognizes that Hashem has total control over his fate, for good or for bad. He therefore keeps the mitzvos to gain reward and refrains from sin to avoid punishment. But the ideal form of fear of Hashem is that engendered by awe of Hashem’s greatness, where a person internalizes the fact that Hashem is infinitely lofty, and he is utterly humbled – to the point of shamefacedness (בושה) – in His Presence. It is like the feeling a one has in the presence of an exceptionally wise and saintly person – one is afraid to approach him, on account of his striking intellectual and moral stature, which makes him worthy of lavish praise. In this vein, in the Song of the Sea (Shemos 15:11), the Jewish People describe Hashem as “awesome in praise” (נורא תהילות) – He is awesome on account of His infinite capabilities and supremely noble traits, which make Him worthy of boundless praise (cf. Ramban ad loc.). Thus, in Shemos 20:17, Moshe tells the Jewish People that Hashem revealed Himself at Sinai with a staggering display of power “so that fear of Him should be upon your faces, and you shall not sin.” The Gemara in Nedarim 20a explains that Moshe is speaking of is shamefacedness. We can read Moshe’s statement [homiletically] as telling us the following: Even if we are free of sin and are certain that we are not at risk of punishment, nonetheless the fear of Hashem – in the sense of awe – should be on our faces.
Thus, in Tehillim 96:9-10 it is written: “Tremble before Him, everyone on earth. … Indeed (אף), the world is set firm so it cannot falter.” This verse hints to us that even if the world were arranged so that everything endured continually without ever buckling or suffering damage, we should bear the fear of Hashem on our faces on account of His glory [the word אף can also mean even]. Tehillim 34:10 conveys a similar message. David HaMelech declares: “Fear Hashem, O His holy ones, for there is no lack for those who fear Him.” The Hebrew word כי in this verse, which in the literal rendering means for, also bears the meaning of when. We can thus render the verse homiletically as follows: “Fear Hashem, O His holy ones, even when there is no lack for those who fear Him.” We can thus interpret David’s words as saying that even when we have everything we desire and suffer no lack, we should fear Hashem because of His powers and His nobility. The truly wise choose the path of Torah and mitzvos because they see that it is noble. As David HaMelech puts it in Tehillim 12:7: “Hashem’s words are pure words.” And they avoid sin because they consider it abominable, rather than because they wish to escape punishment. As it is written (ibid. 97:10): “O you who love Hashem, hate evil!” This is the message behind the verse from our haftarah: “Establish yourself through righteousness, distance yourself from oppression and do not fear.” Yeshayah is telling us that we should distance ourselves from oppressive conduct because we consider it vile, rather than out of fear of the punishment we may get for oppressing others.
But to attain the wisdom needed to reach the higher level of fear of Hashem, one must start with the lower level. This is what the Mishnah in Avos means when it teaches that fear of sin is a prerequisite to wisdom. Fear of punishment for sin paves the way for a person to stride the path of Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds. And then the door to the realm of wisdom opens for him, and he can enter and proceed to its innermost region. Immersion in wisdom leads a person to appreciate the sublimity and radiance of Hashem’s Presence. This is what Shlomo HaMelech means in the passage from Mishlei that we quoted, where he teaches that wisdom leads to fear of Hashem. By “knowledge of God,” Shlomo means recognition of Hashem’s greatness, through which a person becomes filled with awe of Hashem. He is then led to cling to Hashem and His Torah. He declares, as Tehillim 73:28 puts it: “Nearness to Hashem is what I find good.” Of such a person it is written (ibid. 112:1): “Praiseworthy is the man who fears Hashem, who greatly desires His commandments.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bereishis

Bereishis Rabbah 1:1 teaches that the Torah mapped out the plan of creation. The starting point for the teaching is the following verse (Mishlei 8:30): “I [the Torah] was then His ward – I was then His rapture every day, playing before Him at all times.” Building on the similarity between the between the word אָמוֺן for ward, and the word אֻמָן for artisan or architect, the Midrash expounds:
The Torah says, “I am Hashem’s architect.” When a man builds a palace, he consults an architect. And the architect consults his files of blueprints to work out how to construct the building. Similarly, Hashem consulted the Torah, and afterward He created the world. The Torah then declared: “On the basis of ‘the beginning,’ God created the heaven and the earth.” And “the beginning” is none other than the Torah, as it is written (Mishlei 8:22): “Hashem took me [the Torah] as the beginning of His path, [preceding His works of yore].”
The Maggid comments that this teaching is bewildering. What does it mean to say that Hashem consulted the Torah to see how to create the world? Does Hashem need guidance? Besides, the Torah itself is His creation. And when the Midrash describes the Torah declaring, “On the basis of ‘the beginning,’ God created heaven and earth,” what is the Midrash trying to say?
To explain the Midrash, the Maggid turns to Shlomo HaMelech’s teaching in Koheles 3:14: “I realized that everything God will do endures forever – it cannot be augmented or diminished – and God made it so that He be feared.” There is a message, the Maggid says, in Shlomo’s choice of the phrase “will do” rather than “has done.” The phrasing stands out as unusual. The Maggid explains it as follows. We know the creations of the world are perishable. Man and his various material assets all have a finite lifespan, and all are vulnerable to damage and decay. But, Shlomo says, we must not think that Hashem made the world this way due to an inability to do otherwise. The phrase “will do” tells us that Hashem has the potential to make His creations enduring, if He so chooses. It must be, then, that Hashem deliberately chose to make His creations perishable.
Why did He do so? Shlomo tells us: “So that He be feared.” When man notes that he and his assets are vulnerable, he feels fear of Hashem. And why did God want man to feel such fear? In order that he be careful to follow the Torah scrupulously. Thus, God designed the world with the specific goal of firmly emplacing the Torah within it. When the Midrash says that Hashem created the world “on the basis” of Torah, it is teaching us this lesson.
The Maggid comments further on the last verse that the Midrash quotes: “Hashem took me [the Torah] as the beginning of His path, preceding His works of yore.” The last phrase seems redundant, but the Maggid shows that it conveys an important insight.
The general rule in the formation of an entity, our Sages say, is that the subordinate elements emerge before the primary element. Thus, with a stalk of grain, the straw is formed before the grain, and, with a fruit, the peel is formed before the main part of the fruit. On a larger scale, at the time man came into being, the rest of the world had already been created, as the Zohar on Bereishis 1 discusses at length. As the saying goes, “what goes in first comes out last.” The first step of any activity is defining the goal, but the goal is reached only after preparatory work is done. In this vein, Hashem’s initial goal in creating the world was to reveal His Torah, but only after He created the rest of the world did He bring forth the Torah’s light.
Given the rule that the most important feature comes forth last, we are led to wonder why the Torah prides itself, so to speak, on “preceding His works of yore.” The Maggid explains the Torah’s stance with a parable. Two youths were quarreling, and one said to the other: “How dare you speak to me with such disrespect! Don’t you know that my father, from his early days, has been the head of our town?” His antagonist replied: “Well, these days, the area is crawling with bandits. In such times, lowly people are usually put at the head, so they can bear the burden of dealing with such hooligans.” The first youth retorted: “You fool! Is it just now that my father has been put at the head? Just take a minute, please, and remind yourself that my father was put at the head years ago, when the area was in peace. So, in truth, he is a great man, most worthy of his position.” Thus, the town leader, although he would not have been put in his position at the time this story took place, deserves double respect for having been appointed still earlier. The parallel is as follows. It is true that the world was founded under the rule that the least important emerges first and the most important last. But, before the world was created, the opposite applied. Thus, the Torah can well pride itself on coming into being before the creation of the world.
David Zucker, Site Administrator