Post Archive for January 2016

Parashas Yisro

This week’s parashah opens as follows (Shemos 18:1): “And Yisro, priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe and for Yisrael His people, how Hashem had brought Yisrael out of Egypt.” Shortly afterward, the Torah states (ibid. 18:7-8): “And Moshe went out to meet his father-in-law … and Moshe told his father-in-law all that Hashem had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt for Yisrael’s sake, all the travail that had come upon them on the way, and how Hashem saved them.” An obvious question arises: If Yisro had already heard what happened, what did Moshe tell him? The Maggid offers two answers to this question. We previously presented one of them; now we present the other.
Yisro apparently thought, in view of Moshe’s greatness, that all that Hashem did for the Jewish People was primarily in his merit, with the Jewish People being a secondary beneficiary. This view is reflected in the opening verse of the parashah, which mentions Moshe before Yisrael. But in fact the opposite was the case: Hashem had acted primarily for the Jewish People’s sake, with Moshe being a subsidiary figure. Indeed, when the Jewish People committed the sin of the golden calf while Moshe was at the top of Mount Sinai, Hashem told him to descend, and the Midrash relates that He explained to Moshe (Shemos Rabbah 42:2): “It is not on account of your honor that you came up here, but rather on account of My children’s [the Jewish People’s] honor. I showed their forefather [Yaakov] a vision of a ladder with angels ascending and descending upon it, and I told him, ‘when your children are righteous, they ascend, and their representatives ascend with them, and when they falter, they descend, and the representatives along with them.’” Moshe recognized from the start that Hashem’s main focus was on the Jewish People, not on him, and when he found that Yisro mistakenly believed otherwise, he corrected him, stressing that what Hashem “had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt” was “for Yisrael’s sake.”
To prove to Yisro that this was so, Moshe told him about the “travail that had come upon them on the way,” i.e., the Amalekites’ assault upon them. The Maggid explains how this fact proved the point, illustrating the matter through a parable. A young man visited his father-in-law’s home and saw there an impressive array of valuable gold and silver items. When he visited again some time later, the valuable items were gone and his father-in-law looked distraught and embarrassed. He asked him why he was so uneasy, and in the course of doing so he also asked about the valuables. The father-in-law replied: “It is because of these valuables themselves that I feel embarrassed, for I had to pawn them to get a loan.” The son-in-law responded: “You don’t need to feel embarrassed about this. On the contrary, I’m glad to hear your story, because I thought that the valuables might not really be yours, and now I know that they are.”
The parallel is as follows. When Hashem is granting a person blessing on account of someone else’s merit or for some other reason, the blessing will continue even if the person sins. In this vein, Ramban on Bereishis 15:6 explains that Avraham had concluded that Hashem’s promise to grant him many descendants was an act of pure kindness, and not a recompense for his good deeds, and he was therefore confident that the promise would be fulfilled even if he sinned. Along similar lines, the Gemara in Berachos 7a teaches that when we see wicked person who has it good, this is because he is the son of a righteous man (רשע וטוב לו רשע בן צדיק). But when Hashem is granting a person blessing on account of his own merit, a sin on his part will lead Hashem to reduce or halt the flow of blessing. It is if the blessing has been pawned to cover the deficit generated by his sin. Now, when Hashem performed great miracles for the Jewish People in Egypt, a person hearing about what Hashem had done might be uncertain about why. But what happened to them on the road made it clear. They started to lapse, complaining and testing Hashem, and they were immediately punished with an attack from the Amalekites – their greatness was pawned. From this it can be seen that Hashem had blessed them with greatness on account of their own merit.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Beshallach

This week’s parashah recounts the miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The Jewish People are trapped, with the Egyptians chasing them from behind and the sea in front of them, and they are terrified. Moshe says to them (Shemos 14:13-14):
Do not fear! Stand fast and behold the salvation by Hashem that He will bring about for you today, for as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them ever again. Hashem will wage war for you; you remain silent.
The Maggid sets out to explain this statement. He builds on a passage in Tehillim (106:7-14):
Our forefathers in Egypt did not reflect on Your wonders; they were not mindful of Your abundant kindnesses, and they rebelled at the sea, the Sea of Reeds. And He saved them for the sake of His Name, to make known His might. … Swiftly they forgot His deeds; they did not await His counsel. And they craved a craving in the wilderness, and they tested God in the desert.
He develops his explanation through a parable. A rich nobleman happened to come across the son of a certain pauper. He saw that the young man was of exceptionally fine character, and he chose him as a husband for his daughter. On the wedding day, the nobleman decked him out with a splendid suit and a gold chain, in the manner of men of the upper class. He invited to the wedding all the dignitaries in his family. For the wedding feast, he set the table with expensive tableware and a lavish array of delicacies. He did all of this to impress the groom and make him aware of his august stature, his wealth, and his distinguished lineage. But the groom, accustomed to being in a state of hunger, focused only on eating and paid no attention to all the magnificence. Some time later, the idea arose in the young man’s mind to inquire into his father-in-law’s financial condition and family background. The father-in-law was incensed. He roared at his son-in-law: “Why did you not pay attention at the wedding, where I set before you glory of the kind neither you nor anyone in your family ever saw?”  
The parallel is as follows. At the time Hashem redeemed the Jewish People from Egypt, He knew in advance all the doubts and questions they would later raise about Him, and how they would test Him to ascertain His might. Accordingly, in the process of redeeming them, He performed for them an array of awesome miracles, in order to show them what He is able to do. He explained His intent to Moshe (Shemos 10:1-2):
Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, and his servants’ hearts, so that I might set these signs of Mine in their midst, and so that you may relate in the ears of your son, and of your son’s son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have placed among them, so that you may know that I am Hashem.
But the Jewish People, because of the foolishness they suffered from at the time, did not reflect on these awesome acts, but concentrated only on their being released from Egypt. The Gemara puts the point as follows (Berachos 9b): “It is like a person who was in prison, and people told him: ‘Tomorrow they are taking you out of prison and giving you a large sum of money.’ He replied: ‘I beg of you, take me out today, and I’ll ask for nothing more.’” Consequently, when they were in the wilderness, the idea arose in their minds to test Hashem to determine His nature and capabilities. Hashem was incensed. He exclaimed (Bamidbar 14:11): “How long will they fail to believe in Me, with all the signs that I have wrought in their midst?” And shortly afterward He declared (ibid. 14:21-23): “As I live … all the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tested Me these ten times and have not heeded My voice – if they will see the land that I swore to give to their forefathers! And all who angered Me will not see it.” Hashem is expressing His anger over the fact that the Jewish People did not take notice of the wonders He performed at the time He performed them, but afterward sought pretexts to test Him to gain an understanding of Him. The passage from Tehillim quoted above describes the Jewish People’s lapse: “Our forefathers in Egypt did not reflect on Your wonders.” That is, they did not arouse their minds to contemplate and learn from the wonders Hashem performed. As a consequence, “they tested God in the desert.”
We can now understand the statement by Moshe quoted at the outset. As the Jewish People approached the sea, Moshe warned them: “Do not fear!” As we well know, fear interferes with a person’s ability to reflect on what he observes. By way of analogy, if a person is running away in fear, he will not notice any valuable items lying on the ground for the taking; in his rush, he will not see even items lying right in front of him. Accordingly, Moshe exhorted the people: “Stand fast” – confidently, without trepidation – “and behold the salvation by Hashem that He will bring about for you today.” And then Moshe explained to the people why it was essential for them to reflect on the miraculous salvation they were about to experience: “For as you have seen Egypt today” – the awesome wonders and the great might that Hashem directed against the Egyptians at that point in time – “you shall not see them ever again.” Moshe was telling the people: “Later you will seek to test Hashem to induce Him to display His power, but you will not be privileged to behold wonders of the kind He is performing now. So you must pay careful attention to what is going to take place before you.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator


On some weeks, such as this one, I am unable to get the weekly posting out until late Thursday night, and so those who are receiving the posts through a RSS or Feedburner feed may not receive the post on Friday. If this happens, please check the website for the post; you will probably find it there. I hope you all continue to enjoy the divrei Torah.

Parashas Bo

This week’s parashah recounts the Exodus from Egypt. Hashem said to Moshe (Shemos 11:1-2): “One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that, he shall send you forth from here. … Please speak in the ears of the people, ‘Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow vessels of silver and vessels of gold.’” The Gemara expounds (Berachos 9a-b):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe, “Please go and tell the Bnei Yisrael, ‘Please request from the Egyptians vessels of silver and vessels of gold, so that righteous man [Avraham] will not say, “The words ‘they will serve them and they will torment them’ He fulfilled with them but the words ‘and afterward they will go out with great wealth’ He did not fulfill with them.”’”
The great Torah commentators raise an obvious question: Even if Avraham would not have lodged this complaint, wouldn’t Hashem still be bound to fulfill His promise “and afterward they will go out with great wealth”? The Maggid sets out to answer this question.
He explains the matter through a parable. Two kings were at war with each other. After the war had gone on for a long time, they arranged to settle their conflict without further massive bloodshed. Each side would choose a champion, the two champions would duel against each other, and whichever side’s champion won would take over the other side’s country. A deep pit was dug, and the duel consisted of each champion trying to cast his opponent into the pit. The two kings stood on the sideline watching the duel to see who would win. One of the champions grabbed the other and carried him over to the edge of the pit. Suddenly the other champion turned the tables and flung his opponent into the pit. As agreed, the winner’s king took over the other king’s country. Afterward, the victorious king approached his champion and said: “I won’t deny that you fought well, but still I must point out that you caused trouble when you let your opponent grab you and carry you to the edge of the pit, because when I saw this happen my heart pounded within me, and I was struck with fear of doom.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem told Avraham that his descendants would be strangers in a foreign land, and that the people of this land would enslave and torment them, and He promised that afterward they would go out with great wealth. Now, the Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:54, expounding on Shir HaShirim 1:11, tells us that the booty the Jews took from the Egyptians when they left Egypt on the 15th of Nisan was nothing compared with the booty they collected shortly afterward, on the 21st of Nisan, at the Sea of Reeds. This being so, it was not necessary for Hashem’s fulfillment of His promise that the Jews take booty from the Egyptians, for the promise would be fulfilled through the booty they collected at the Sea of Reeds. (This reasoning is particularly apt when we consider one of the Maggid’s other comments on the parashah: He says that the redemption came to full fruition only on the 21st of Nisan, when the Egyptians reached the quota of evildoing that would make them worthy of being destroyed, but Hashem had to take the Jews out of Egypt earlier, on 15th, because they could not tarry a moment longer. Thus, when the Jews left Egypt, the time had not yet come for Hashem’s promise of wealth to be fulfilled.) But Hashem was concerned that if Avraham saw the Jews leaving Egypt without great wealth in hand, he would say: “The words ‘they will serve them and they will torment them’ He fulfilled with them but the words ‘and afterward they will go out with great wealth’ He did not fulfill with them.”’” He therefore directed Moshe to tell the Jews to request precious items from the Egyptians, so that this objection would not be made.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeira

This week’s parashah recounts the initial phases of the process through which Hashem freed the Jewish People from Egypt. The daily Shacharis and Maariv prayers include a berachah praising Hashem for redeeming us from slavery in Egypt and other plights; the berachah concludes with the words, “Blessed are You, Hashem, who redeemed Yisrael.” Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 111:1 states a halachah calling for an uninterrupted juxtaposition of the Amidah to these concluding words (smichas geulah l’tefillah). Yerushalmi Berachos 1:1 (quoted by Rashi on Berachos 4b) finds an indication for this practice from a juxtaposition of verses:
1. Tehillim 19:15: “May the words of my mouth and the mediations of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, My Rock and My Redeemer.”
2. Tehillim 20:1-2: “For the conductor, a psalm by David. May Hashem answer you on the day of distress; may the Name of the God of Yaakov fortify you.”
We previously presented the Maggid’s discussion of this halachah in his commentary on the parashah. The Maggid explains that we are saying to Hashem: “Just as You preserved us in the past, please preserve us and care for our needs now.” The Maggid continues by explaining the opinion that holds that smichas geulah l’tefillah is not absolutely essential on Shabbos as it is on weekdays (Rema on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 111:1). In the weekday Amidah, we pray for the things we need to continue in existence, without which the final redemption would not be possible. Hence, it is fitting to juxtapose without a break the berachah praising Hashem as our Redeemer to the Amidah, for the topics of the two prayers are directly related. But in the Shabbos Amidah, we appeal to Hashem’s generosity and ask for joy, pleasure, contentment, and tranquility. Since these requests go beyond what we need to survive to the final redemption, they are not so closely related to Hashem’s role as our Redeemer, and thus do not call so strongly for smichas geulah l’tefillah.
We now present a parable that the Maggid puts forward to bring out this point. A man needed to travel to a foreign country, whose language he did not know. Before approaching the border, he sought someone who spoke both his language and the language of the other country to serve as an interpreter. He came across a young boy, the only son of a pathetic widow, who spoke both languages. He asked the widow to let him take her son along with him. She insisted that he give her a firm promise that if he did not bring her son back safely, he would give her everything he owned. He made the promise, and he took the boy along. He guarded the boy like the apple of his eye from all the hardships of the trip. When they encountered a high hill or a deep valley, he supported him almost to the point of carrying him. The boy imagined that the great care the man extended to him was out of love and high regard for him.
At one point in the trip, they stopped at an inn. The man ordered for himself a lavish meal, and for the boy he ordered bread, soup, and some vegetables. The boy, having thought that the man cherished him, was astonished that he ordered for him such a miserable meal. Unable to hold himself back, he asked he man: “Why is it that you treat me so well while we are on the road but here at the inn you are so stingy with me?” The man replied: “You are bright enough to understand that all the attention I give you on the road is not because I love you so much, but because I promised your mother that I would either bring you back safe or give her everything I have. So, until I bring you back home, I guard you with the utmost care from everything that might threaten your life or cause you harm but I don’t provide you fancy meals, since you can survive quite well on simple food.”
The parallel is clear. In the weekday Amidah, we ask Hashem to provide us what we need to survive and to protect us from harm. We therefore take care to juxtapose the Amidah to the berachah praising Hashem as our Redeemer, for what we are asking for are things that the final redemption depends on. This idea is reflected in the juxtaposition of the two verses in Tehillim: Since Hashem is our Redeemer, and He plans ultimately to grant us a complete redemption, He must save us from all distress. But the added comforts we ask for in the Shabbos Amidah are not things that the final redemption depends on, and therefore on Shabbos there is not the same intrinsic connection between the things we ask for and Hashem’s role as our Redeemer.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shemos

The haftarah for parashas Shemos, according to the Ashkenazic custom, consists of Yeshayah 27:6-28:13 and 29:22-23. Yeshayah declares (verses 27:6-8, rendered according to the Maggid’s commentary):
Days are coming when Yaakov will take root; Yisrael will bud and blossom and fill the face of the earth like produce. “Is it with the blow that he struck him that He struck him? Is it as he slew those that he slew that He slew him? According to the appropriate measure as she was sent out He assaulted her, stripping her barren with His harsh wind on the day of the east wind.
The Maggid explains this passage with a parable. A town leader got angry at a certain resident of his town to the point where he slapped him on the face. After some time, this leader grew poor and lost his position, while the man whom he slapped grew rich and was appointed as town leader. The new leader convened an assembly and lodged a complaint against the man who had slapped him, saying: “How could this lowly person slight my honor and slap me on the face?” The townspeople heard this complaint and imposed a severe punishment on the one who had done the slapping. The offender exclaimed: “Did I raise my hand against a town leader? At the time, this man was a rank-and-file citizen like I am now, and I was the town leader!” The judges of the case replied: “We have to carry out justice according to the way we see the picture now. The man you slapped was worthy enough to rise to the position of town leader, while you are of such low caliber that you wound up sliding down into the lower class. How could you have dared to slap this person? The offense is intolerable!”
The parallel is as follows. Initially the Jewish People were in a very lowly state, dominated by the Egyptians. But ultimately, when they left Egypt, they reached a high level, with Hashem designating them as “a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation” (Shemos 19:6). Hashem, in His wisdom, did not call the Egyptians to justice while the Jews were in a lowly state. Instead, He waited until they rose to greatness. The Midrash expounds on the greatness they attained (Shemos Rabbah 20:2):
It is like an orchard owner who was approached by someone who asked to buy it, and he sold it for the low price of 1 maneh, unaware of what the orchard contained. A group of people asked him: “How much did you sell the orchard for?” He replied: “A maneh.” They told him: “The orchard has olive trees worth 100 manehs, grapevines worth 100 manehs, pomegranate trees worth 100 manehs, fragrant herbs worth 100 manehs, and various other types of trees and plants, 100 maneh’s worth of each type.” … It is written (Shir HaShirim 4:13): “Your most arid ones are like a pomegranate orchard laden with luscious fruit, henna and spikenard.” When Pharaoh sent the Jews out, he regarded them as worthless, but his ministers told him: “What have you done? Even if they had only the spoils that they took here, it would have been quite enough. … See how many rich men are among them, how many wise men, how many craftsmen!”
It was when the Jewish People reached this state that Hashem passed judgment on the Egyptians. He declared: “Against whom did you raise your hand? Against lofty people – holy ministers!” And He saw fit to punish them severely.
This is the message behind the passage in the haftarah. Yeshayah declares: “Days are coming when Yaakov will take root; Yisrael will bud and blossom and fill the face of the earth like produce.” Hashem waited for the Jewish People leave Egypt, bloom, and become “like a pomegranate orchard laded with luscious fruit,” and then He punished on the Egyptians for oppressing them. Yeshayah goes on to describe the punishment. Yeshayah asks: “Is it with the blow that he [the Egyptians] struck him [the Jewish People] that He struck him? Is it as he slew those that he slew that He slew him?” When Hashem punished the Egyptians for smiting the Jews, did He measure out the punishment to the low level that the Jewish People held when they were being smitten? Yeshayah then answers: “According to the appropriate measure as she was sent out He assaulted her.” It was according to the measure of the Jewish People’s worth when they were sent out of Egypt that Hashem measured out the punishment. And therefore He punished the Egyptians severely, “stripping her barren with His harsh wind on the day of the east wind.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator