Post Archive for March 2016

Haftaras Tzav

This week’s haftarah consists of a prophecy of rebuke from Yirmiyah 7 and some verses of moral counsel from Yirmiyah 9. The selection from Yirmiyah 7 ends as follows (verse 34): “I will abolish from the cities of Yehudah and from the streets of Yerushalayim the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a ruin.” The Maggid asks what role is played in this verse by the phrase “voice of.” In another prophecy of rebuke, Yirmiyahu states similarly (verse 16:9): “Behold I am abolishing from this place, before your eyes and in your days, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.” Again, we can wonder about the role of the seemingly superfluous phrase “voice of.” Moreover, the phrase “before your eyes” also seems superfluous, so we need to figure out the role of this phrase. Similarly, in a parallel prophecy of redemption, Yirmiyahu states (verses 33:10-11): “Again will be heard … the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.” Here once again, we can wonder what is added by the phrase “voice of.” We only wish that Hashem would bless us so that in our hearts we would always be filled with joy.
The Maggid answers his questions as follows. Typically, when a person experiences a happy event, the degree to which he expresses his joy depends on the circumstances of the people around him. If the people around him are happy, he can rejoice openly, making noise like the crash of cymbals, and it will not seem out of place to others. But if the people around him are in sorrow, he cannot rejoice openly, but instead must keep his rejoicing private. This is the idea underlying Yirmiyahu’s use of the phrase “voice of.” In the prophecies of rebuke, Yirmiyahu warns the Jewish People that if they continue in their sinful ways, Hashem will beset them with a period of calamity. During this period, individuals may sometimes experience happy events, so that joy will not be completely eliminated, but it will be necessary to refrain from expressing joy in public – before the eyes of others. And correspondingly, in the prophecy of redemption, Yirmiyahu promises that a time will come when it will be possible to rejoice in the open. In a similar vein, Yirmiyah states elsewhere in Hashem’s Name (verse 31:3): “I will yet rebuild you and you will be rebuilt, O Maiden of Yisrael; once again you will adorn yourself with your drums and go forth in the dance of merrymakers.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Zachor

The haftarah for parashas Zachor recounts Shaul HaMelech’s war against Amalek. Hashem told Shaul to eradicate all the Amalekites and all their possessions. Shaul deviated from Hashem’s command, however, sparing the life of the Amalekite king Agag and saving the choice livestock to bring before Hashem as offerings. Shmuel HaNavi rebuked him, saying (Shmuel Alef 15:22-23): “Does Hashem desire burnt offerings and peace offerings as heeding the voice of Hashem? Behold, to obey is better than an offering, to listen than the fat of rams. For rebelliousness is like the sin of sorcery, and insistence is like the perverseness of idolatry.” The Maggid, in his commentary on the haftarah in Kochav MiYaakov, sets out to analyze this rebuke.
The Torah often describes offerings as producing a “pleasing aroma unto Hashem.” This phrase is used several times, for example, in this week’s parashah. Accordingly, Shaul thought that the offerings he would bring with the livestock he saved would produce a “pleasing aroma unto Hashem,” more so eradicating them as Hashem had told him to do. Shmuel told Shaul that his thinking was misguided. Does Hashem desire offerings? Do they have any effect on Him? Do they benefit Him in any way? Hashem does not derive any benefit from any of the mitzvos we perform. As the Midrash puts it (Bereishis Rabbah 44:1): “Does it make a difference to Hashem whether a person slaughters an animal at the throat or at the back of the neck?” Likewise, Hashem is not affected in any way by whether we eat kosher or nonkosher food, or by whether or not we sit in a sukkah or fulfill the mitzvah of the four species on Sukkos. And if a person violates a mitzvah, this does not cause, far be it, any loss to Hashem.
Among the positive mitzvos, it is in regard to offerings that a person is particularly prone to make the mistake of believing that Hashem derives some benefit from the mitzvah, because of the Torah’s use of the phrase “pleasing aroma unto Hashem.” Shaul made this mistake and Shmuel rebuked him, telling him that even if someone brings a nice, fat animal as an offering, he does not benefit Hashem in any way. The only thing that Hashem gains from an offering is the “satisfaction” He derives from having His word obeyed. This principle is reflected directly in Shmuel’s words, for the phrase שְׁמֹעַ מִזֶּבַח טוֹב, to obey is better than an offering, can also be read as meaning obedience is the [sole] good derived from an offering (reading the prefix מ- as meaning from rather than better than). It is the adherence to Hashem’s word in bringing an offering, and this alone, that constitutes the “pleasing aroma” that the offering produces.
And among the negative mitzvos, it is in regard to the prohibition on sorcery and idolatry that a person is most prone to make the mistake that violating the mitzvah causes Hashem some harm or loss. This is why Shmuel mentions these sins specifically in his rebuke, as opposed to other sins such as Shabbos desecration or failure to perform a circumcision. This matter calls for in-depth examination.
The Gemara in Chullin 7b describes sorcery as an act that “overturns the heavenly council.” In his commentary on this Gemara passage, Rashba explains that the term “heavenly council” refers to the system of laws of nature that Hashem built into the world. The Torah forbids sorcery because it is Hashem’s wish that the world be left to run without interference according to the regular laws of nature that He instituted. Ramban expounds on this idea in his commentary on the passage in Devarim 18:9-13 discussing the prohibition on sorcery and similar activities. Ramban also expounds on this idea in his commentary on Vayikra 19:19 regarding the prohibitions stated there on cross-breeding different species of animals, planting in one place a mixture of seeds of different types, and wearing clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen. He explains that the common denominator behind these prohibitions is Hashem’s wish that we not tamper with the natural order of the world – for when a person does so, it is if he is saying that the world Hashem created is unsatisfactory and in need of improvement.
Thus, the evil associated with sorcery lies not in that it causes Hashem harm, far be it, but rather in that it constitutes an effort to controvert Hashem’s will. This is what Shmuel is teaching in his rebuke. Shmuel says: חַטַּאת קֶסֶם מֶרִי. This statement is usually understood, as we rendered it at the outset, as saying that rebelliousness is like the sin of sorcery. But the statement can also be read, more easily in fact, as saying that the sin of sorcery is rebelliousness – the sin consists simply of a desire to overturn Hashem’s will. Shmuel continues by saying: וְאָוֶן וּתְרָפִים הַפְצַר. This statement is usually understood as saying that insistence is like the perverseness of idolatry, but it can be read alternatively as saying that the evil associated with perverseness and idolatry is insistence. Insistence involves applying pressure to get a person to do something he does not want to do. That is, it is an effort to overturn the person’s will. Shmuel is teaching that, similarly, idolatry involves an effort to overturn Hashem’s will – and this alone is the evil it produces.
In short, in his rebuke to Shaul, Shmuel is saying the following: “When someone performs a mitzvah, even one as precious as bringing an offering, he provides Hashem no benefit aside from adherence to His will. And when someone commits a sin, even one as severe as sorcery and idolatry, he causes Hashem no harm aside from controverting His will. All that Hashem seeks from us is to obey His will. Why, then, did you save the Amalekites’ animals to bring as offerings rather than obey Hashem’s command and eradicate them?” 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Pekudei

This week’s parashah describes the building and setting up of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 52:3 relates how some people scoffed at Moshe saying, “Is it possible that the Divine Presence will come to rest upon the work of the son of Amram?” But in the end Moshe had the last laugh, for the Divine Presence indeed came to rest upon the Mishkan. The Midrash draws a link between this event and one of Shlomo HaMelech’s statements about the woman of valor (Mishlei 31:25): “Strength and majesty are her attire, and she will merrily rejoice over the last day.” In the process, the Midrash recounts another event which it links to this statement. The Midrash relates that when R. Abbahu was on his deathbed, he saw a vision of all the good awaiting him in the World to Come. He rejoiced, saying: “All this for Abbahu? ‘But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and vanity. Indeed my right is with Hashem and my recompense with is my God”’” (Yeshayah 49:4). The Maggid expounds on this story in a lengthy essay, a portion of which we presented last year. We briefly summarize this discussion, and then present the concluding portion of the Maggid’s essay.
In the previous part of his essay, the Maggid discussed the two aspects to serving Hashem: turning aside from evil and doing good. A person spends most of his effort avoiding evil. Doing good is less of a struggle, especially since Hashem aids those who seek to do good. Yet it is man’s doing that the evil inclination entered his inner being. Initially, Adam HaRishon brought about this result through his sin. With the Divine revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Jewish People regained Adam’s original pure state, but with sin of the golden calf, the evil inclination re-entered their inner being. R. Abbahu thought that since man was responsible for turning the avoidance of evil into such a great struggle, Hashem probably would not pay much reward for the great effort involved in avoiding evil. He was therefore happily surprised when he saw the reward awaiting him.
The Maggid concludes his essay by expounding on the following Gemara passage (Sukkah 52a):
In the end of days, the Holy One Blessed Be He will bring the evil inclination and slaughter it before the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will look like a towering hill, and to the wicked it will look like a strand of hair. Both groups will weep. The righteous will weep saying, “How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!” The wicked also will weep saying, “How is it that we were unable to overcome this strand of hair!” And the Holy One Blessed Be He will also marvel along with them, as it is written (Zechariah 8:6), “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, ‘If it be wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be wondrous in My eyes.’”
It is puzzling, the Maggid notes, that the righteous will weep; given that they succeeded in overcoming the evil inclination, we would think that they would rejoice profusely rather than weeping. But the Maggid’s previous discussion provides a way to explain the weeping. As noted in the previous discussion, the main effort that a person invests in observing the Torah – the area he wearies himself with – is avoiding evil. And Hashem, in His kindness, pays a person reward for this effort. Now, the Gemara tells us that in the end of days Hashem will show the righteous that the evil inclination is like a towering hill. And later the Gemara remarks that the evil inclination puts more and more pressure on a person every day and seeks to kill him, and were it not for Hashem’s help a person would be unable to subdue it (ibid. 52b). As the righteous behold the towering hill and recognize fully the evil inclination’s towering strength, they will see clearly that it is an opponent they could not possibly have overcome on their own; it will be starkly apparent that it was only because of Hashem’s help that they succeeded in doing so. And they will weep, saying: “We are left with nothing! We earned no reward, neither for doing good nor for avoiding evil. Obviously it was Hashem who held the evil inclination at bay when it confronted us. There is no way we could have done it ourselves. So what reward do we deserve?”
The Maggid explains Hashem’s response with a parable. A person felt compassion for a certain pauper and wanted to give him some money, but the pauper did not want to take a gift. So the person devised a clever plan. He lent the pauper a sum of money to buy some merchandise to sell, and then secretly told his all friends to go buy from the pauper and pay a high price. In this way, the pauper made a nice profit. The pauper went to his benefactor to pay the loan, and he said with great amazement: “I had no idea you could make so much money as a merchant!” The benefactor expressed amazement as well, concealing the ruse he employed to help the pauper.
Hashem will take a similar approach with the righteous at the end of days. It will be along the lines of the principle that when a person ascribes a positive outcome to someone else’s merit, Hashem ascribes the positive outcome to the person’s own merit (Berachos 10b). Hashem will be aware, of course, of what the righteous will be thinking when they become fully aware of the evil inclination’s strength. And in His great compassion for them, He will act as if He doesn’t know what happened, and marvel along with them over their success.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayakhel

Parashas Vayakhel begins with a passage dealing with Shabbos (Shemos 35:1–2):
Moshe assembled the entire congregation of the Children of Israel, and he said to them: “These are the things that Hashem has commanded, to do them – ‘On six days, work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy unto you, a day of complete rest unto Hashem.’”
In connection with this passage, the Maggid expounds at length on the nature of Shabbos and the Yamim Tovim (festivals). We previously presented a portion of this discussion; now we present another portion.
The Bible uses far-flung language when speaking of Shabbos and the Yamim Tovim, more so than with other mitzvos. On the positive side, the Torah exhorts us to “remember” and “observe” Shabbos (Shemos 20:7, Devarim 5:11). We are enjoined not only to comply with the laws of Shabbos, but also to sanctify it by proclaiming the great loftiness of the day – a requirement we do not generally find with other mitzvos. On the negative side, when speaking of improper conduct on Shabbos and the Yamim Tovim, the Bible uses extremely harsh terms. In particular, Yeshayah declares in Hashem’s Name (Yeshayah 1:14): “My soul loathes your new moons and your festivals – they have become a burden to Me; I have grown weary of bearing them.”
We can understand the far-flung language by reflecting on the different ways people relate to Shabbos and the Yamim Tovim. The spiritually lofty person wishes to focus as much as possible on Torah and mitzvos. On ordinary weekdays, he cannot devote as much time as he would like to these spiritual pursuits, for he must bear the burden of working for a living. On Shabbos, he is free from this burden, and he can devote himself intensively to Torah study and prayer. Even his meals are sanctified; when he partakes of delicacies, he does so for the sake of honoring Shabbos. By contrast, the person of low spiritual caliber wishes to spend as much time as possible indulging in worldly pleasures – meat, wine, and frivolous amusements. He, too, is held back on ordinary weekdays from doing what he wishes, for he, too, must work for a living. For him, too, Shabbos is a day of respite, but unfortunately he spends the day carousing.
In presenting the holy days of the Jewish year, the Torah states (Vayikra 23:2): “Hashem’s appointed times that you are to designate as holy convocations – these are My appointed times.” Hashem does not call Shabbos and the Yamim Tovim “your holidays,” but rather “My appointed times.” He did not establish Shabbos and the Yamim Tovim to be days of carefree relaxation. Just the opposite – on these days, Hashem wants us to serve Him with greater intensity than on ordinary weekdays. He wants us to infuse these days with sanctity and strive to reach a state of spiritual perfection.
Hashem looks forward, so to speak, to Shabbos and festival days, to see us attain a higher level of purity and holiness. So when we spend these days on empty worldly pleasures, He laments: “My soul loathes your new moons and your festivals.” He is displeased when we turn “My appointed times” into “your new moons and festivals” – when we turn special days that He set aside for us to serve Him with added devotion into days we spend on our own worldly agendas. Thus, Hoshea declares in Hashem’s Name (Hoshea 2:13): “I will terminate all her rejoicing, her festivals, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all her appointed seasons.” When we make Shabbos and festival days “ours” to exploit for our own purposes, Hashem is led to terminate them.
The Maggid brings out the point further with a parable. A rich man had several sons, all of whom were sickly. He brought a doctor into his household to provide them constant care. He cherished the doctor greatly, for the medicines the doctor prescribed saved his sons’ lives time and again. Once, however, the sons contracted a very dangerous illness but refused to take the medicines the doctor gave them. This led the father to show a sour face to the doctor. The doctor asked him: “My master, what do you have against me if your sons won’t take the medicine I give them?” The father replied: “I realize you’re not at fault, but, still, having you around adds to my anguish over my sons’ condition. If I had no doctor nearby who could treat my sons, I would naturally give up on them and put them out of my mind. But now, when I see right in front of me an astute doctor like you, I am reminded that my sons would be cured if only they would take their medicine, and as a result my heart is deeply pained.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem gave us Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim as a remedy for our souls for spiritual maladies we contract during the ordinary weekdays due to engaging in various worldly affairs. Therefore, when He sees that we do not want to avail ourselves of the remedy, the Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim bring Him sorrow, so to speak, and He laments that they have become a burden to Him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator