Post Archive for April 2016

Pesach

Seder Night
The first day of Pesach always falls on the same day of the week as Tishah B’Av. In this connection, the Midrash states (Eichah Rabbah 3:5, end, expounding on Eichah 3:15): “Just as He sated me with bitters on the Pesach Seder night, so He filled me up with wormwood on Tishah B’Av night.” In his commentary on Eichah 3:15 in Kol Yaakov, the Maggid offers various explanations of this puzzling Midrash. Here we present a brief version of one of them.
The Torah exhorts us repeatedly to remember the Exodus from Egypt. There are several reasons why Hashem put such stress on this matter. One of them is so that we would maintain our faith and hope that He would redeem us in the future. This idea is reflected in the following verse (Habakkuk 3:2): “…Hashem, restore that which You wrought over the years … amid rage, remember Your mercies.” According to its simple meaning [cf. Rashi], this verse represents a plea for Hashem to restore the kindnesses and wonders He did for our forefathers in days of yore.
It is quite apt that the verse says “amid rage, remember Your mercies” rather than “amid rage, act with mercy” or “amid rage, show us mercy.” The verse may be viewed as saying: “Hashem! You may have hidden Your face from us out of rage. Our deeds may not make us worthy of new mercies and kindnesses. But at least remember Your former mercies which You showed our forefathers in days of yore. Let us be saved with these mercies.” By recalling Hashem’s virtues, His strength, and His wonders, we can merit to benefit from them anew.
The Midrash about the bitter herbs may be interpreted along these lines. Hashem sated us with bitters on the Pesach Seder night, exhorting us to reawaken our memory of the miracles He wrought in Egypt. At first we could not understand the reason for this, but now we understand. After the wormwood of Tishah B’Av night, we could easily fall into despair. Hence Hashem arranged to make sure that even then we will still recall the miracles of Egypt and hope for them. By recounting these miracles and praising Hashem for them, we gain the merit to be redeemed as our forefathers were.
Shir HaShirim
In Shir HaShirim 1:4, the Jewish People say: “Draw me along, and we shall run after You.” The Maggid notes that this request seems self-contradictory. When someone is being drawn along, this indicates that he does not want to go, and must be led by force. But when someone is running after another, this indicates that he wants to meet up with the one he is pursuing. The Maggid explains the matter as follows. We Jews are Hashem’s people, and our souls emanate from the Divine Spirit above. Our souls constantly yearn to cleave to Hashem and to serve Him wholeheartedly – the Divine emanation within us is drawn toward the source from which it came. But the evil inclination – the “yeast in the dough,” as the Gemara in Berachos 17a calls it – holds us back from improving our ways. Hence we entreat Hashem to pull us along – that is, to compel our evil inclination to acquiesce to the life of serving Him. Once the evil inclination is subdued, we will naturally run after Hashem, for our souls yearn dearly to cleave to Him.
Chag Kasher V’Sameach!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos HaGadol

One of the major themes of the upcoming Yom Tov of Pesach is the handing down of Jewish tradition from generation to generation. Accordingly, I present here a selection from Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, chapters 8 and 9, dealing with the role of tradition as a guide to how to serve Hashem.
One of the tactics that the evil inclination uses to lead a person astray, particularly with people who have distanced themselves from worldly pleasures and seek to serve Hashem faithfully, is to induce the person to serve Hashem in a manner that deviates from Jewish law. One type of deviation is inventing new forms of worship. The Maggid discusses this type of deviation in several of his essays, some of which we have presented previously. Another type of deviation is for a person to introduce his own innovations in his observance of established mitzvos. The evil inclination tells the person: “If you perform this mitzvah in such-and-such a manner, it will be much more beautiful and splendid. You will earn a straight ticket to the World to Come.” And if the person listens, it can lead to his downfall.
Hashem told us clearly in His Torah how He wants us to serve him. He conveyed His directives to Moshe Rabbeinu, and from that point on they have been communicated and passed down by the prophets and by the Torah sages of each generation. How can anyone step in after Hashem and His emissaries have given the word, and try to be smart and improve on the ways of serving Hashem that are specified by our Torah and tradition? How can anyone think of making even the slightest change in any of the laws that Hashem, our One and Only shepherd, gave us? We should realize that only He knows what effects the mitzvos produce.  It is out of place for us to dabble in matters of which we have no real understanding.
By analogy, consider a person lying sick in bed who is examined by a famous expert doctor. Suppose the doctor prescribed for him a set of medications to be taken in a specified manner. Would it make sense for the patient to tinker with the treatment plan, either to add a medication or drop one? Of course not. The doctor understands well the nature of the patient’s illness and the effects of the medications; the patient’s level of understanding is far lower.
Accordingly, a person should carefully consider every step he takes, and analyze whether it is in line with the laws of the Torah and the ways of our forebears. In this vein, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 119:100): “From the elders I gain understanding, so that I guarded Your ordinances.” David is saying: “When I wanted to analyze some step I planned to take, to see whether it was right or wrong, I examined the ways of the elders and pondered whether the path I had set for myself was in line with theirs. In this way, I was able to ensure that I guarded Hashem’s ordinances.” A person who is truly wise will not try to be clever, but instead will take a simple attitude and follow the Torah’s laws exactly as they have been handed down.
It is written (Shir HaShirim 1:5): “I am black, yet beautiful.” The Midrash expounds (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:35): “I am black as regards my own deeds, but I am beautiful as regards the deeds of my forefathers.” The Midrash is saying that when we choose a course of action on our own based on our own understanding, we are liable to act in an unseemly manner, but when we follow the path of our forefathers without deviating, then, and only then, can we be assured that “the desire of Hashem will success in his hand” (Yeshayah 53:10).
In the above vein, the Gemara in Chagigah 15b says that a person should choose for himself a Torah teacher who is like an angel. The basic nature of an angel is to do exactly as he is commanded, without making any changes. If a person serves Hashem in a straightforward, simple, and faithful manner, doing exactly as Hashem directed, he is worthy to serve as a Torah teacher. 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Tazria

This week’s parashah begins with a discussion of the laws pertaining to a woman who has given birth. In Vayikra Rabbah 14:4, the Midrash analyzes the process of birth. The Midrash builds on a discussion Hashem had with Iyov. Hashem said (Iyov 38:4-11):
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell, if you know understanding. Who set down its measures, if you know, or who stretched out the line upon it? Into what are its bases sunken, or who laid its cornerstone? … As He dammed in the sea with bolted doors, as its flow issued out of the womb … And I bounded it with My designated limits, and emplaced a bar and bolted doors. And I said, “Until here you will go and no further, and to here will be confined the majesty of your waves.”
The Midrash states:
And bounded it with My designated limits – this refers to the first three months of gestation. And emplaced a bar and bolted doors – this refers to the second three months. And I said, “Until here you will go and no further” – this refers to the last three months. “And to here will be confined the majesty of your waves (בגאון גליך). R. Aivu expounded homiletically: “The unsightliness of your filth (בעון גלליך). For when the infant exits the mother, it comes out covered with filth, and everyone embraces it and kisses it.”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He considers the contrast between spiritual pursuits and worldly pursuits. Spiritual pursuits – growth along the Torah path – involves wisdom, understanding, purity of heart, and a love of noble character traits. It is just the opposite with worldly pursuits, such feeding and clothing oneself, earning a living, defending one’s rights, and building a family. The drive to satisfy worldly needs involves a large measure of self-delusion: One must hunger for worldly pleasures and gains, such as food, marital relations, honor, and wealth, losing awareness of their temporary nature.
We can wonder how Hashem, who is a God of truth, could have fashioned a world that runs on such foolishness. Was it beyond His ability, far be it, to arrange for worldly needs to be satisfied in the same way that spiritual eminence is attained, through the exercise of wisdom? Of course not. Hashem in fact originally designed the world to run entirely on wisdom. And initially it was easy for man to tend to worldly matters. As the Gemara in Shabbos 30b indicates, originally the earth gave forth loaves and woolen robes. But Adam and Chavah’s sin brought an end to this state of affairs, causing childbirth to be fraught with pain and the earth to cursed, so that man must earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. Under this new regime, it is extremely difficult to tend to worldly matters. Man must therefore be infused with the type of self-delusion described above, so that he will be motivated to overcome the difficulties.
All this is reflected in Hashem’s words to Iyov. Hashem says: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Declare, if you know understanding.” Hashem is telling Iyov to reflect and recognize that spiritual pursuits are grounded in wisdom and nobility of character, just as they were when He laid the foundations of the world. Hashem continues: “Who set down its measures, if you know, or who stretched out the line upon it? Into what are its bases sunken, or who laid its cornerstone?” Here, Hashem is alluding to the line of confusion and the cornerstone of emptiness which Adam and Chavah’s sin introduced into the world. Hashem speaks as if He is amazed over what the world is like: “Look – the world is sunken into vanity and falsity! Who placed a stumbling block before man, the work of My hand? It is all due to the defilement that entered man due to the serpent’s enticement.”
The Midrash illustrates the extent of man’s self-delusion. An infant comes out of its mother’s womb covered in filth, yet everyone embraces it and kisses it. At birth, a human being is in its lowliest form; as it grows older, it becomes more refined. This being so, one would think that that the degree to which parents are attracted to their child would grow over time. But in fact, it is just the opposite: It is at the time of birth that the attraction is strongest. Through delusion, Hashem arranges for the attraction to be strongest when the need is greatest.
The Midrash also indicates how the need for this delusion arose: בעון גלליך – through the defilement that entered entered man due to the serpent’s enticement. Adam and Chavah’s sin introduced into the world the curse of “with pain you shall bear children.” Before the sin, human beings were born instantly and fully-grown, without any need for anyone to raise them; as the Midrash says (Bereishis Rabbah 22:2): “On that very day they were created, on that very day they cohabited, and on that very day they had offspring … two went up into the bed, and seven came down – Adam, Chavah, Kayin and his twin sister, and Hevel and his two twin sisters.” But after the sin, human beings are born as infants, and they need their parents’ compassionate care to survive and grow. Initially, the amount of care needed is very great, and so Hashem arranges for the parents to feel a very strong attraction toward their child. As the child grows, the need diminishes, and the attraction diminishes correspondingly.
By analogy, consider the damages a person must pay for striking someone else. If the victim is so badly injured that he cannot work, the attacker must pay the amount required to cover all his daily needs. If afterward the victim’s condition improves and he is able to work part-time, the amount the attacker must pay diminishes. And if still later the victim recovers entirely, the attacker is no longer obligated to cover any of his daily needs, for he can now work for himself.
Similarly, when a child is first born, the effect of Adam and Chavah’s sin, with the associated curse of “with pain you shall bear children,” is very strong – the child is a helpless infant – and so the parents must put a very large amount of effort into caring for the child. As the child grows, the effect of the sin diminishes – the child matures – and so the effort the parents must put into caring for him or her diminishes, since they are only compensating for the effect of the sin. Accordingly, the attraction the parents feel for him or her diminishes, as we explained above. Thus it is written: “And I said, ‘Until here you will go and no further, and to here will be confined גאון גליךעון גלליך.’” The intense attraction that parents feel toward a child is confined to the time during which the effect of עון גלליך is greatest, for that is when it is needed.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemini

This week’s parashah recounts the deaths of Aharon’s two sons Nadav and Avihu for offering a “foreign fire.” Afterward, the Torah lists the animals whose meat is kosher to eat. The Torah prefaces the list of kosher animals with a preamble (Vayikra 11:1-2): “And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon to say to them, ‘Speak to the Children of Yisrael, saying ….’” The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 13:1 states that the pronoun “them” in this passage refers to Aharon’s two remaining sons Elazar and Isamar. The Midrash expounds: “‘The ear that hears the reproof of life (תוכחת חיים) will abide in the midst of the wise’ (Mishlei 15:31). The ear that hears the reproof of life – this refers to Aharon’s sons. Will abide in the midst of the wise – they were at the side of death, and the gained the merit of having Hashem’s words directed toward them, their father, and their father’s brother.” The Maggid explains this Midrash through an analogy to two types of merchants: a merchant who deals in old, used clothes, and a merchant who deals in newly-made goods acquired directly from the craftsmen. These two types of merchants obtain their merchandise in different locales. A merchant of the first type travels to small towns and villages populated by poor people, whose dire state forces them to sell their clothes for cheap. A merchant of the second type, by contrast, travels to affluent commercial areas. Analogously, there are two ways of learning moral lessons, one less honorable and one more honorable.
Some people learn moral lessons by watching how Hashem punishes those who rebel against Him. As they see the wicked die, they are stirred to avoid evil ways. Others learn moral lessons and becoming God-fearing by observing the righteous and the wise, and contemplating their exemplary conduct. For example, the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 13:5 relates that when Alexander the Great saw Shimon HaTzadik, he exclaimed: “Blessed is Hashem, the God of Shimon HaTzadik!” Shimon HaTzadik represented a fulfilment of a verse about the eminence and moral influence of the Jewish People (Devarim 28:10): “And all the nations of the world will see the Name of Hashem written upon you, and they shall be fearful on account of you” [reading ויראו ממך homiletically as “shall be fearful on account of you” rather than “shall fear you”]. One can come to fear of God through observing a righteous person. Thus, a person who contemplates the ways of the righteous has no need to go watch the wicked die in order to learn moral lessons, for he acquires moral understanding as he watches how the righteous live.
This, the Maggid says, is the idea behind the verse from Mishlei that the Midrash quotes. We can read the verse as follows: “The ear that seeks live moral counsel will abide in the midst of the wise.” Read in this way, the verse clearly conveys the message presented above. In a similar way, Elazar and Isamar observed their brothers’ death and achieved spiritual elevation thereby, but afterward they were granted the opportunity to achieve spiritual elevation in a more exalted way by hearing the word of the living God. In a related vein, although reflecting on the mortality of man is one way of acquiring moral understanding, Kohanim are commanded not to have contact with the dead (other than close relatives) because their strong spiritual constitution enables them to acquire moral understanding in other ways.
David Zucker, Site Administrator