Post Archive for May 2016

Parashas Bechukosai

The second half of parashas Bechukosai deals with arachin, a certain category of pledges. This prompts the Midrash to expound on the topic of pledges. In particular, the Midrash teaches (Vayikra Rabbah 37:4, end):
Whoever makes a pledge and pays it gains the merit that he will pay his pledge in Yerushalayim, as it is written (Tehillim 116:18-19): “My vows to Hashem I will pay …” – Where? – “in the courtyards of Hashem’s house, in the midst of Yerushalayim – Halleluy-h.” And it is written (ibid. 118:1): “Give thanks to Hashem for He is good – His kindness endures forever.”
Rav Flamm, the redactor of the Maggid’s commentaries on the Chumash, presents an explanation of this Midrash based on an idea that the Maggid develops elsewhere. Rav Flamm raises two questions about the Midrash. First, it is puzzling that the Midrash starts out by saying that the person paid his pledge, but afterward speaks of a later payment. If the person paid his pledge, why would he need to pay again? Second, what does the verse from Tehillim 118 have to do with what the Midrash discussed before?
Rav Flamm answers these questions in the context of the passage in Tehillim 116 from which the Midrash quoted. He notes that the passage poses some difficulties, and that the intent of the Midrash is to clarify its meaning. Let us quote the passage in full (ibid. 116:12-19):
How can I repay Hashem for all His beneficence toward me? I will lift up the cup of salvation, and proclaim Hashem’s name. My vows to Hashem I will pay, in the presence, now, of His entire people. Difficult in Hashem’s eyes is the death of His devout ones. I beseech You, Hashem, for I am Your servant – I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid; You have undone my bonds. I will present You an offering of thanksgiving, and I will proclaim Hashem’s name. My vows to Hashem I will pay, in the presence, now, of His entire people – in the courtyards of Hashem’s house, in the midst of Yerushalayim – Halleluy-h.
The general structure and flow of this passage is hard to grasp. The passage is repetitious. Also, the statement in the middle about the death of Hashem’s devout ones being difficult in Hashem’s eyes seems to have no connection with the rest of the passage. Rav Flamm sets out to explain what David HaMelech is saying.
He builds on an idea that the Maggid developed in one of his commentaries, which we presented previously, on parashas Tzav. The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 9:1 teaches: “‘With the presentation of a thanksgiving offering they shall honor Me’ (Tehillim 50:23). It is not written ‘sin-offering’ or ‘guilt-offering,’ but rather ‘thanksgiving offering.’ Why? Because sin-offerings and guilt-offerings are brought on account of a sin, but a thanksgiving offering is not brought on account of a sin.” The Maggid explains this Midrash in terms of two types of kindness that Hashem extends to us. Hashem grants us blessings over which we can rejoice, such as the birth of a son, or success in marrying off a son, or success in business. And Hashem also rescues us from bad situations. When we sin, He allows us to gain atonement through sin-offerings and guilt-offerings. And when we are in distress – for example, if we are severely ill or imprisoned – He comes to our aid. Both types of kindnesses, blessing and rescue, call for us to praise Hashem, but it is a greater honor to Hashem to be praised for granting blessing.
Now, David HaMelech had many occasions to experience Hashem’s kindness in rescuing people from bad situations, for he went through many episodes of being pursued. During such episodes, David pleaded with Hashem to save him, and vowed to sing praises to Him and present offerings to Him upon being saved. The first three verses in the passage in Tehillim we are discussing reflect this pattern. David praises Hashem for granting him salvation, and promises to pay the vows he made while in the throes of distress.
But then David presents Hashem with a question. David notes: “Difficult in Hashem’s eyes is the death of His devout ones.” Implicitly, David is asking Hashem: “Given that the death of Your devout ones is difficult in Your eyes, why do You put me in the position of being pursued, making it necessary for me to make vows, with the heavy responsibility this entails?” (Vayikra Rabbah 37:1 describes the calamities that can come upon a person for delaying the payment of a vow.) David beseeches Hashem to spare him from such situations. He asks Hashem to bring him blessings instead, so that he will be able to present Hashem with offerings in gratitude for these blessings, rather than having to pay off vows made in times of distress.
Thus David says: “I will present You an offering of thanksgiving, and I will proclaim Hashem’s name. My vows to Hashem I will pay, in the presence, now, of His entire people.” Here, David expresses his yearning to have to opportunity to make and pay vows in gratitude for blessings received. David then declares that he will pay his vows “in the courtyards of Hashem’s house, in the midst of Yerushalayim.” We can explain this statement by turning to another teaching in the same section of the Midrash as the one we quoted at the outset (Vayikra Rabbah 37:1): “Even better … is one who does not make vows to be paid later at all, but instead brings his sheep to the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash, consecrates it there, and slaughters it on the spot.” This is the type of offering that David seeks to make.
We can now explain the teaching we quoted at the outset. The Midrash is saying that if a person pays a vow he made in a time of distress, then in this merit he will have the opportunity to pay vows made in Yerushalayim in the manner we have just described. The Midrash ends with the quote from Tehillim 118: “Give thanks to Hashem for He is good – His kindness endures forever.” We can bring in another teaching of our Sages to see how this quote fits with the rest of the Midrash. In Vayikra Rabbah 9:7, our Sages teach that in the end of days, all types of offerings will cease except for the thanksgiving offering, and all types of prayer will cease except for praises of thanks. In the end of days, Hashem will eradicate all evil from the face of the earth – as we say in the Amidah of the Yamim Noraim, all evil will dissipate like smoke. No longer will Hashem have rescue us from of bad situations; no longer will we have to bring sin-offerings and guilt-offerings to atone for sin or pay vows made in times of distress. It will remain only for us to bring thanksgiving offerings for blessings Hashem grants us, for His generosity is everlasting.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behar

Parashas Behar contains a section on caring for the poor. The Torah states (Vayikra 25:35): “If your brother becomes downtrodden among you and his means falter in your midst, you shall bolster him – convert or resident – so that he can live among you.” In connection with this topic, the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 34:1 quotes the following verse (Tehillim 41:2): “Fortunate is he who pays mind to the needy; on the day of trouble Hashem will deliver him.” The Maggid offers two interpretations of this verse.
The first interpretation is based on the following re-rendering of the verse: “Fortunate is he who pays mind to the needy on the day of trouble – Hashem will deliver him.” Reading the verse this way, we can interpret it as a praise of one who pays mind to the needy even when he himself is also going through hard times. It is not so surprising for a person to be generous toward the poor when he is doing well; indeed, Shlomo HaMelech remarks (Koheles 5:10): “As the blessing grows great, so does the number of those who consume it.” But when a person cares for the poor when he himself is in straits, this shows real thoughtfulness. The person looks beyond his own hardships and reasons: “I have it hard now, but my poor neighbor surely has it many times worse.” For example, during a food shortage, the rich man has to worry about how to get food, but the poor person has to worry both about how to get food and about how to get the money to pay for it.
In the verse from the parashah quoted above, the Torah speaks of the situation where “your brother becomes downtrodden among you.” The situation the Torah is discussing is one where you are downtrodden along with your neighbor. The Torah is saying that even in such a situation, you still should care for your poor neighbor. And this message, the Maggid says, is what the Midrash seeks to teach us in linking the verse from the parashah with the verse from Tehillim.
The Maggid’s second interpretation is based on the usual reading of the verse from Tehillim. He brings the point out with a parable. A certain pauper was in such dire straits that he became an informer. Once he encountered a group of merchants importing merchandise illegally. He approached them and said: “Have pity on me, for I am very poor.” Some of the merchants were astute and noticed that the pauper had his eye on the merchandise, so they gave him a respectable donation and he blessed them. The others offered him a few coins. He protested: “It is not in line with my honor to accept such a piddling amount.” They ridiculed him and beat him. He then went to the authorities and informed on them, and the police arrested them and confiscated their merchandise. The imprisoned merchants pleaded with the pauper, saying: “Have mercy on us and get us out of jail, and we’ll give you a nice donation, one you’ll be pleased with.” The pauper replied: “The matter is out of our hands now; you have lost your merchandise.”
The parallel is as follows. The Gemara teaches (Bava Basra 10a):
Just as a man’s earnings [for the year] are determined on Rosh Hashanah, so his losses [for the year] are determined on Rosh Hashanah. If he is worthy, then it will be “deal out your bread to the poor” (Yeshayah 58:7), while if he is unworthy, he will “bring the outcast poor to his house” (ibid., end). [Rashi on Bava Basra 9a states that the phrase “outcast poor” alludes to the Roman tax collectors. Maharsha points out that the word מרודים for “outcast” is grammatically related to the verb לרדות, meaning “to rule.”]
When a pauper approaches a rich person and pleads for charity, the rich person can react in two ways. If he is wise and understands that he is bound to lose a certain amount one way or the other, he will give the pauper a donation willingly and show him great honor. But if he is a fool, he will yell angrily at the pauper: “What are you to me? Do we have any dealings with each other?” And then the pauper will go home and cry to Hashem over what happened. It is similar to the situation in the parable about the informer, along the lines of the following Torah passage (Shemos 22:24-26):
When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a pursuing creditor; do not lay interest upon him. If you take your fellow’s garment as a pledge, you must return it to him before sunset, for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin – in what will he sleep? And it will come to pass, when he cries out to Me, that I will hear, for I am gracious.
In the end, the rich man will fall ill, and in his straits he will curry favor with the pauper and pay him a nice sum to say Tehillim and pray for him. But at that point the matter is not in the pauper’s hands anymore, for it has already been handed over to the heavenly court. Had the rich man given the pauper a donation when the pauper approached him, he would have had advocates in the heavenly court to argue in his favor. In this vein, David HaMelech says: “Fortunate is he who pays mind to the needy; in the day of trouble Hashem will deliver him.” If a person is wise enough to foresee at the outset what will ultimately come to pass, and accordingly is charitable toward the poor, Hashem will deliver him on the day of trouble.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Emor

In this week’s parashah, after discussing the counting of the omer, the Torah moves on to Shavuos, saying (Vayikra 23:21): “And you shall call an assembly (u’krasem) on that very day – it shall be a holy assembly unto you.” The Maggid expounds on the four verses in Tanach in which the word u’krasem appears, and interprets them as conveying a message about prayer. We previously presented a synopsis of this essay. We now present a segment of the essay that deals with the exile.
Yeshayah exhorts (verses 52:1-5):
Awaken, awaken! Don your strength, O Tziyon; don your garments of splendor, O Yerushalayim, the holy city …. Shake the dust off yourself – arise, and sit down, O Yerushalayim …. For thus said Hashem: “You were sold for nought ….” Thus said my Lord, Hashem/Elokim: “My people went down to Egypt in days of old to sojourn there …. So now, for what am I here,” says Hashem, “seeing that My people has been taken away for nought?”
The Maggid explains this passage through a parable. Two people lived next to each other, both in splendid houses. One was rich, the other poor. The rich man, together with his family, moved to a village to sojourn there for a few years. He rented his house to someone for this period, charging a hefty rent. The pauper, seeing what his neighbor had done, decided also to leave town temporarily. He said to his family: “Why should we continue living here, impoverished and starving? Let us travel around the province to seek sustenance, until Hashem grants us blessing and enables us to return home and live in comfort.” The family all agreed. They then asked him: “What will we do with our house while we are away?” He replied: “If I knew how long we’ll be away, I’d rent the house just as our neighbor did. But I have hopes that Hashem will send us blessing quickly, and we’ll be able to return soon. If the house is occupied by a tenant under a contract, what will we do? So I have decided instead to let someone board in the house for free during the time we are away, on condition that he will immediately vacate the moment we return, whenever that may be.” And thus he did.
The family wandered from place to place for a long time, but remained completely destitute. The pauper was exceedingly embittered. He said to his family: “You should understand that this bitter exile and wandering is undoubtedly a decree from Hashem. We should not complain about our lot; we are obliged to accept everything cheerfully. But one thing saddens me deeply – that a stranger has been living in our house for so long for free. Had I known we’d be away so long, I would have rented the house, and thereby collected a nice sum of money. It is only because I felt sure we’d return quickly that I allowed this fellow to board in our house without paying rent. But now we have been away for so long, and all this time he has been living in our house for free. Over this I am greatly pained.”
The parallel is as follows. In days of old, Hashem decreed that we be exiled in Egypt under Pharaoh’s subjugation. The exile was for a set time. Hashem therefore regarded it proper that we not be enslaved for free, but rather that the Egyptians should support us at a high standard [see Shemos 16:3, where the Jewish People recall the fleshpots they partook of in Egypt]. But with the present exile it is different – those who rule over us do not provide for us, and we are in constant worry over how we are going to sustain ourselves. Hashem deliberately arranged it this way, for the exile has no set time – the moment we repent and serve Hashem as we should, the exile will come to an immediate end. As it is written (Tehillim 95:7): “For He is our God and we can be the nation He pastures, the flock in His charge – even today, if you would but hearken to His voice.” But our sins have caused the exile to stretch on. Throughout this long period we remain unsettled; Moshiach, the exalted descendant of David, has not yet come. Given this state of affairs, Hashem is saddened, so to speak, and laments the fact that He allowed us to be taken away for nought.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Kedoshim

In this week’s parashah, the Torah commands (Vayikra 19:17): “Do not hate your brother in your heart; you must surely rebuke your fellow man, and do not bear sin on his account.” In last year’s d’var Torah on this parashah, we presented the bulk of the Maggid’s commentary on this command. Here we present a segment that we omitted earlier.
The overall theme of the Maggid’s commentary is that reflecting on misdeeds we see others commit naturally helps us learn how not to act. This principle, the Maggid says, sheds light on a puzzling teaching in Pesachim 113b. The Gemara says that the wicked Canaan commanded five things to his sons: (1) love each other, (2) love theft, (3) love lewdness, (4) hate your Master, and (5) don’t speak the truth. The last four items are all patently evil traits. The first item seems completely out of place. But we can explain why Canaan included this item as follows. Typically, when a thief sees another person stealing (especially if it is from him that the the person is stealing), he is led to hate and despise the person. It is the same with other forms of evildoing such as lewdness. The experience of watching someone steal or engage in lewdness leads a person to recognize well the despicability of this behavior. Accordingly, had Canaan included only the last four items in his list of commands, his sons might eventually have ceased to heed his bidding – each son, seeing his brothers’ wicked behavior, might have come to despise such behavior and stop engaging in it himself. Therefore, Canaan added the command that his son’s should love each other, so that they would be unperturbed by each other’s evildoing.
David Zucker, Site Administrator