Post Archive for June 2016

On Anger

In the summer months, it is customary to study Pirkei Avos on Shabbos afternoon. Accordingly, I present here some remarks by the Maggid related to a Mishnah in Avos. The Mishnah says (Avos 4:23): “Do not appease your fellow man when he is angry.” In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaSinah, chapters 4 and 5, the Maggid discusses the topic of anger and quarreling.
Anger is an extremely bad trait. It is the characteristic trait of the nonkosher wild beasts and nonkosher birds, which ravage any creature that crosses their path. To borrow a phrase from Yeshayah 14:29, its progeny are a flying fiery serpent: revenge, grudge-bearing, embarrassing people in public, and the like. So many evils result from anger!
Our Sages condemned anger in extreme terms, saying (Nedarim 22a): “One who gets angry is like one who worships idols.” Even Moshe Rabbeinu was led to error because of anger (Vayikra Rabbah 13:1). Who among us is greater than Moshe, that he can say he is immune to the adverse effects of anger? And it is many times worse with a person who is naturally prone to anger. Just as a snake can find food anywhere (“dirt shall you eat”), so, too, a person with an angry nature can find something to be angry about in almost any situation. For example, if he hates a certain person, anything that person does can cause him to explode. And whatever the trigger may be, once he has broken out in a fit of anger, it is, as the Mishnah teaches, futile to try to appease him. Any attempt to do so will only spur him on to further anger, resulting in a raging fire that cannot be extinguished. Instead, you should leave the person alone, either by walking away from him or waiting until his anger has subsided. If you leave the angry person alone, he will thank you afterward, saying: “Bless you for staying quiet yesterday and keeping me from becoming violent.”
If you try to talk to a person who is in a fit of anger, you run a high risk of stumbling yourself into the sin of improper speech. The person will respond to you with a verbal assault, and most likely you’ll be unable to keep yourself from answering him back in kind, if not in words then with an insulting gesture or facial expression. As Shlomo HaMelech puts it (Mishlei 17:14): “The beginning of a quarrel is like releasing dammed-up water; before the argument comes out, abandon it.”
One should not be misled by what Shlomo says elsewhere (ibid. 3:30): “Do not quarrel with a person for no reason, if he has not done you (גמלך) wrong.” We might infer that there are situations where we may start a quarrel with someone else. But it is not so. For you have no justification for getting angry at someone, taking revenge or bearing a grudge, if he did not mean to wrong you, or if he meant to wrong you but did not cause you any actual harm. Now, if a person takes some action against you with intent to wrong you, but Hashem designed this action to be, one way or another, for your benefit, then the person has not done you actual harm. The term גמל that Shlomo uses denotes a person’s accomplishing what he planned to do; as in the phrase ויגמול שקדים in Bamidbar 17:23, it denotes a potential effect being actualized. But in the situation we just described, the person did not accomplish what he planned to do at all: He planned to harm you, but what he did actually benefitted you. Thus, Shlomo has in fact left us no opening to hate a person or get angry at him, for it is a basic tenet of the Jewish faith that everything that happens to us comes from Hashem, and is ultimately for our good.
An episode involving David HaMelech illustrates the proper attitude regarding actions that others take toward us (see Shmuel Beis 16). Shimi ben Geira hurled a fierce curse at David. One of David’s men, Avishai ben Tzeruyah, said: “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king. I will go on ahead and take off his head!” But David replied: “What does it matter to me or you, O sons of Tzeruyah? He is cursing because Hashem said to him, ‘Curse David.’ … Let him curse, for Hashem told him to do so.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shelach

Parashas Shelach recounts the episode in which a group of 12 spies gave the Jewish People a negative report about Eretz Yisrael, and the people panicked and refused to go out to conquer the land. Hashem punished them, declaring that they would have to remain in the wilderness for 40 years. Afterward a group of them set out to wage battle. Moshe told these people (Bamidbar 14:42): “Do not go up, for Hashem is not in your midst, and do not be stricken before your enemies.” The Midrash elaborates (Bamidbar Rabbah 17:3):
Moshe told them (Devarim 1:42): “Hashem said to me: ‘Do not go up and do not wage battle, for I am not in your midst.’ For you had said (ibid. 1:28): ‘To where should we ascend? Our brothers have melted our hearts.’”
The Maggid sets out to explain what Hashem had in mind. The key issue in the episode of the spies, he says, is the belief that Hashem watches over us and cares for us. Faith in Hashem’s watchful care is a cornerstone of the Jewish outlook. The prophets exhort us repeatedly to maintain firm faith in Hashem. The Gemara in Berachos 32b discusses the issue of faith in connection with prayer. The Gemara lists prayer as one of four areas in which a person must fortify himself constantly – the Gemara says that if a person’s prayers are not answered at first, he should not give up hope, but rather he should pray again. The Gemara derives this principle from a teaching of David HaMelech (Tehillim 27:14): “Hope in Hashem; strengthen and fortify your heart, and hope in Hashem.”
Now, a person can confidently assume that Hashem will save him only if he has firm faith in Him. The Jewish People of the wilderness generation were aware of this principle. And they recognized that their faith had been weakened by the spies’ negative report. They therefore reasoned that they no longer deserved Hashem’s help in conquering Eretz Yisrael. As a result, they panicked and said “To where should we ascend? Our brothers have melted out hearts.”
As Moshe recounted the episode, he recalled that he tried to fortify them, saying (Devarim 1:30): “Do not be broken and do not fear them.” Moshe was saying: “Don’t be broken now, and you won’t fear later.” He told them he knew they were worried that when they went out to battle they would be overtaken by fear and then they would lose. He encouraged them, promising that when they got to the battlefield they would be fortified, for they would see how all the inhabitants of the land melted before them, their hearts filled with fear and trembling.
But the Jewish People did not listen. They allowed the spies’ negative report to break their spirit, and they cried. Hashem then passed judgment on them, as we explained above, and afterward a group of Jews set out to wage battle. At Hashem’s command, Moshe told them not to go up, but they did so anyway. Moshe rebuked them, saying (ibid. 1:43): “You rebelled against Hashem’s word; you sinned deliberately and climbed the mountain.” Their mistake was that they forced themselves to go out to battle even though they still had fear in their hearts. Because of their fear and lack of faith, their effort was doomed to failure.
This idea is hinted at in the message Hashem told Moshe to give the people: “Do not go up and do not wage battle, for I am not in your midst.” The Maggid calls attention to the use of the phrase “in your midst” (בקרבכם) as opposed to “with you” (עמכם). One of the meanings of the term קרב is “innards” or “inner being,” as in the phrase וקרב איש ולב עמֹק (in the inner being of every man and deep in the heart) in Tehillim 64:7. In this vein, in expounding on Moshe’s statement that Hashem “took for Himself a nation from within the midst of a nation (גוי מקרב גוי)” (Devarim 4:34), the Midrash remarks (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 828): “In the way that a person extracts a fetus from the innards of an animal, thus did Hashem take the Jewish People out of Egypt.” When Hashem told the Jewish People that He was not בקרבכם, He was pointing out to them that they lacked in their inner being a firm awareness of His watchful protection. Because of this lack, it was inappropriate for them to go out to battle.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Journey of Faith on Sefer Bamidbar

Given that we’ve started reading Sefer Bamidbar, I’d like to recommend the book Journey of Faith on Sefer Bamidbar published by my friend Rabbi Yonason David Arenias. The aim of the book is to provide a clear overall picture of what’s going on in each of the parshios of Sefer Bamidbar. The book includes a new elucidated translation of the Torah text, overviews of the topics in each parashah, and in-depth insights. I have the book, and my wife and I have found it very illuminating. Below is a link to a PDF file containing a selection from the book, including the translation of the text, outlines, and chronologies. The book can be ordered in the US from Menucha Publishers.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behaalosecha — Correction

The following correction has been made to this week’s post: the rendering of Tehillim 78:36 was changed from “They beguiled Him with their mouths, and pledged to Him falsely with their tongues” to “They wooed Him with their mouths, and pledged to Him falsely with their tongues.” This rendering is more in line with the Maggid’s commentary, in that the word “woo” avoids the connotation of deceit conveyed by the word “beguiled.” The PDF file has also been corrected.

Parashas Behaalosecha

Parashas Behaalosecha recounts the episode of the assembled throng in the Jewish People’s midst who harbored a craving and clamored for meat. Hashem dispatched to the Jewish People’s camp a large amount of quail, enough to supply the entire nation with meat for a full month. Afterward, He smote the people for their inappropriate demand. The Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:24 and Tanchuma, Behaalosecha 16):
When the complainers were consumed, all the elders were consumed also. The punishment of the elders was like that of Nadav and Avihu, for the elders also acted with improper exuberance when they ascended Mount Sinai and beheld the Divine Presence. As it is written (Shemos 24:11): “They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” Did they really eat and drink at that time? Of course not. But they acted like a servant snatching bites of his master’s food out of the master’s hand. That is, they acted with an unseemly exuberance, as if they were eating and drinking. These elders, and Nadav and Avihu, deserved to be consumed at that very moment, but Hashem did not wish to disrupt the joy of the Giving of the Torah. … So, instead, Nadav and Avihu died when they entered the Tent of Meeting [offering a foreign fire], and the elders died along with the craving throng.
The Maggid prefaces his explanation of this Midrash with some background discussion. The first step a person must take, the Maggid says, if he seeks to attain spiritual greatness is to eliminate his negative tendencies and detach himself from worldly pursuits. In this vein, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 34:13-15): “Who is the man who desires life, who loves days of seeing good. … Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” David does not mean, far be it, that it is useless for a person to do good until he has rid himself entirely of evil. Hashem accepts good deeds even from those who are deeply soiled with evil. Still, the choicest good deeds are those a person does after detaching himself from evil, for when a person has done so, his pattern of good conduct will endure. The masters of moral teaching draw an analogy to dyeing a garment that got soiled. If someone tries to dye the garment as it is, the dye will take hold for a while, but eventually it will wear off. But if he first launders the garment thoroughly until it is completely free of any stain, the dye will be firmly absorbed into the garment and will remain intact permanently.
The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 42:7-8 records a dispute among the Sages regarding how long the Jewish People held onto the lofty level they attained at the time of the Giving of the Torah. R. Eliezer ben Yaakov said 29 days, R. Shimon bar Yochai said 11 days, R. Shimon ben Chalafta and R. Yonah said two days, and R. Yehudah bar Ilaui said one day. These opinions are all astounding, but R. Meir stated an opinion that is even more astounding. He said that the Jewish People did not attain true loftiness for even one day, but at the very moment they said “we will do and we will listen,” they had idolatrous thoughts in their hearts, as it is written (Tehillim 78:36-37): “They wooed Him with their mouths, and pledged to Him falsely with their tongues. Their hearts were not firmly with Him, and they were not steadfast in His covenant.” How could this possibly be?
The Maggid explains what happened via the idea presented above. The reason that revelation at Sinai did not take firm hold in the Jewish People’s hearts was that they left Egypt before the appointed time and had not been fully purged of evil tendencies. When the Jews said “we will do and we will listen,” they did not deliberately lie to Hashem, far be it. Rather, their promise stood on an unsteady foundation: the word יכזבו in Tehillim 78:36 should not be read as indicating deceit, but rather unsteadiness and predisposition to an eventual downturn, just as the expression כזבו מימיו is used to describe a spring whose flow eventually faltered (cf. Yeshayah 58:11). The final redemption will be without haste (ibid. 52:12), and then our spiritual position will be secure.
The Maggid now turns to the Midrash we quoted at the outset. He suggests that this Midrash may be explained as follows. At the time the elders beheld the Divine Presence, they were not at a high enough spiritual level to merit this privilege. They had not sufficiently detached themselves from the worldly realm; in the midst of their inner being they still harbored some craving for physical pleasures. Accordingly, when Hashem smote the Jews who expressed an inappropriate craving for meat, He smote the elders also, for the inappropriate physical craving they harbored while reaching for spiritual heights.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. A man had a wife from an ignoble family, and her behavior was thoroughly galling, but nonetheless he loved her. Eventually she died, and the man decided to remarry. He resolved to seek a God-fearing wife. He found what he was looking for, a pious and highly refined woman. He married her and was pleased with her. Once, while he was telling her how highly he regarded her, he said: “You should know, my love, that whenever I behold your splendor, I feel as if my first wife arose from her grave.” His wife was very irritated, and she said: “If you say that you love your wicked first wife, then you are showing that the love you displayed toward me is totally false, for she and I are complete opposites. If you truly love me because of my virtuous conduct, you should be expressing great hatred for your first wife because of her evil ways.”
The parallel is as follows. The elders derived great pleasure from beholding the Divine Presence, and it seemed to them as if they were eating and drinking. The way they felt showed that they still had some desire for eating and drinking, and thus were still entrenched in the physical world. It was therefore impossible for complete love for Hashem to abide within them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Naso

Parashas Naso includes a brief section on restitution for theft (Bamidbar 5:5-8). A person who steals must make restitution to his victim. If the victim is dead, he pays the debt to the victim’s heirs. If the victim has no heirs, he pays the debt to the Kohanim. The Gemara in Bava Kamma 109a states that the case of a victim with no heirs relates to a convert who had no children. Accordingly, in Bamidbar Rabbah 8:4, the Midrash discusses the seriousness of stealing from a convert. It is written (Shmuel Beis 21:1-2): “In the days of David there was a famine for three years, year after year. David inquired of Hashem, and Hashem said: ‘It is on account of Shaul and on account of the House of Blood, for having killed the Givonites.’” The Midrash explains that Hashem imposed the famine on account of two sins. The first was the failure to eulogize Shaul HaMelech properly. The second was the massacre of Nov, the city of Kohanim – the residents of Nov provided the Givonites, who were converts, with a living.
Now, Shaul HaMelech was the one who led the massacre of Nov. This being so, the Gemara in Yevamos 78b asks an obvious question: Can it be that Hashem exacted retribution from the Jewish People simultaneously for failing to honor Shaul with a proper eulogy and for participating in a massacre that Shaul himself instigated? The Gemara answers: “Yes! For Reish Lakish said: ‘What is the meaning of the verse, “Seek Hashem, all you humble of the land, who have fulfilled His ordinances” (אֲשֶׁר מִשְׁפָּטוֹ פָּעָלוּ) (Tzefaniah 2:3)? Where his judgment (מִשְׁפָּטוֹ) is, so is his achievement (פָּעָלוֹ).’” Rashi explains that when a person is being judged, his good deeds are recalled.
Rav Shlomo Kluger explained this Gemara based on an idea presented in the work Maon HaBerachos in the name of “a certain scholar.” (Rav Kluger, as we noted previously, was orphaned from his father while a child and subsequently raised by the Maggid.) Rav Flamm, the redactor of the Maggid’s commentaries on the Chumash, states that this scholar is in fact the Maggid, and the idea under discussion appears in the Maggid’s commentary on Shir HaShirim 8:6. This verse states: “Place me as a seal upon Your heart, as a seal upon Your arm – that love is as strong as death, that jealousy is as harsh as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire – the Divine flame.” The Maggid interprets this verse as bringing out a notable difference between mortal man and Hashem.
A mortal man cannot feel both strong love and strong hatred for another person at the same time. Suppose you come to love a person because of some worthy traits you saw in him, and afterward you see him exhibit some evil traits. The evil traits will engender within you some feelings of hatred toward the person, superimposed on your prior feelings of love. The feelings of love and hatred work will against each other, and eventually merge into an intermediate blend. You will take a middle-of-the-road attitude toward the person, neither loving him nor hating him. Hashem, however, is capable of simultaneously maintaining two diametrically opposing attitudes, with neither one dampening the other. As the Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah 8:6 (end) puts it: “It is like the fire of Heaven – the fire does not consume water, and water does not extinguish the fire.”
This difference between man and Hashem is reflected in the following Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 42:5):
When Moshe saw [that the Jewish People had made a golden calf], he said [to himself]: “There is no forgiveness [for this].” The Holy One Blessed Be He knew what was in Moses’s heart, and called to him to placate him. He said to him: “Did I not tell you, when you were at the [burning] bush, what they would eventually do?” As it is written (Shemos 3:7): “And Hashem said [to Moshe]: ‘I have indeed seen (ראה ראיתי) [the affliction of My people].’” [It does not say ראיתי, but rather ראה ראיתי, with a double verb.] Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe [at the burning bush]: “You see [only] one sight, but I see two sights. You see them coming to Sinai and accepting My Torah. And I see [in addition] that, after I come to Sinai to give them the Torah, and I descend in My chariot borne by four figures [a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle, as in Yechezkel 1:10], they will ponder it and extract one of them [the ox] and anger Me with it.” [Thus, Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt with the intent of maintaining a relationship with them even after the sin of the golden calf.]
At face value, Hashem’s statement seems odd. The only reason Moshe knew of the Jewish People’s eventual acceptance of the Torah is because Hashem informed him about it. Hashem could equally well have also informed him about the sin of the golden calf. So what kind of argument was Hashem trying to make, when He told Moshe that “you see only one sight, but I see two sights”? What shortcoming in Moshe was Hashem trying to point out?
In light of the idea brought out above, we can readily see what Hashem was saying. He was telling Moshe: “You feel love for the Jewish People on account of their eventual acceptance of the Torah. Were I to reveal to you clearly how they would later commit a grievous sin, a feeling of hatred would arise within you that would dampen your feeling of love. But with Me it is different. I feel consummate love for the Jewish People on account of their acceptance of the Torah, even though I know they will later commit a grievous sin. The hatred prompted by this sin does not dampen the love. The love stands on its own, and the hatred stands on its own.”
We now turn to Rav Kluger’s explanation of the Gemara in Yevamos. The Gemara asked: Can it be that Hashem exacted retribution from the Jewish People simultaneously for failing to honor Shaul with a proper eulogy and for participating in a massacre that Shaul himself instigated? The Gemara’s initial understanding was that even Hashem does not maintain opposite attitudes, such as love and hate, toward a given person at exactly the same time, but instead one attitude overshadows the other; that is, one attitude comes to the fore at certain times and the other comes to the fore at other times. The Gemara therefore had trouble with the notion that Hashem would take some action on account of both esteem for Shaul and anger at him. The Gemara then resolved the difficulty with Reish Lakish’s teaching: “Where his judgment is, so is his achievement.” Hashem indeed bears in mind simultaneously both a person’s merits and his faults, with neither overshadowing the other.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Bamidbar

The Midrash expounds on haftaras Bambidar as follows (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:15):
It is written (Hoshea 2:1): “It will come to pass that, instead of what was said to them – ‘You are not My people’ – it will be said to them: ‘You are the children of the living God.’” Said R. Yochanan: “Initially it is written (ibid. 1:2-9): ‘Hashem said to Hoshea: “Go, take for yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land is straying completely from following Hashem.” … And He said: “Call his name Lo-Ammi; for you are not My people, and I will not be yours.”’ But afterward it is written: ‘It will come to pass that, instead of what was said to them – “You are not My people” – it will be said to them: “You are the children of the living God.”’ …. Said Hoshea: ‘Nations of the world, what do you think? That because of what Hashem said – “Call his name Lo-Ammi, for you are not My people, and I will not be yours” – He is irreconcilably angry with them? See what He said right afterward: “It will come to pass that, instead of what was said to them – ‘You are not My people’ – it will be said to them: ‘You are the children of the living God.’”’
It is similar in a prophecy of Yeshayah. Initially he says (Yeshayah 1:2-4): ‘Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Hashem has spoken: “Children I have raised and exalted, but they have rebelled against Me. … Woe! They are a sinful nation, a people weighed down by iniquity, evil offspring, destructive children!”’ But afterward he says (ibid. 1:18):  ‘“Come now, let us reason together,” says Hashem. “If your sins are like scarlet, they will become white as snow; if they have become red like crimson, they will become like wool.”’
What is this like? It is like a prince who was told by his father to go to school, but instead went to the marketplace and started playing with other boys. When the father found out about this, he cursed his son and cast harsh words at him. But afterward he said, ‘Wash your hands and come sit down and eat with me.’”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He quotes a Gemara in Pesachim 87a-b expounding on Hoshea’s prophecy:
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Hoshea: “Your children have sinned.” … Hoshea replied: “Master of the Universe! The entire world is Yours. Replace them with another nation.” … Hashem told him: “‘Go, take for yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry.’” Later, after she bore two sons and a daughter, Hashem told him: “Separate yourself from her.” Hoshea replied: “Master of the Universe! I have children from her – I cannot send her away.” Hashem retorted: “Look, your wife is a harlot and your children are children of harlotry, and you don’t really know whether they are yours or someone else’s. Yet you will not send her away. The People of Yisrael are My children … one of the four acquisitions that I acquired for Myself in My world. … And you say I should replace them with another nation?”
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. Within a person’s household there are two basic relationships: the person’s relationship with his wife and his relationship with his children. These relationships differ in major ways. On the one hand, there is a unique closeness between a person and his wife, so much so that the Gemara says that a person’s wife is like his own self (אשתו כגופו – see, for example, Berachos 24a). On the other hand, in another respect, a person’s children have an advantage over his wife. If a person becomes deeply displeased with his wife, he can divorce her and put an end to their relationship. But a person cannot divorce his children – the relationship between a person and his children can never be severed.
Now, the Jewish People are called Hashem’s wife, as in Shir HaShirim. This description reflects a special closeness, with the Jewish People cleaving to Hashem. As it is written (Devarim 4:4): “But you who cleave to Hashem your God are alive – every one of you – this day.” But the Jewish People are also called Hashem’s children, implying, so to speak, that Hashem cannot sever His relationship with them. However, there is a dispute in the Gemara in Kiddushin 36a about the status of the Jewish People as Hashem’s children. R. Yehudah says that it is only when the Jews obey Hashem’s will that they are called His children, but when they disobey they are not called His children. R. Meir disagrees and says that either way the Jews are called Hashem’s children. According to R. Meir’s view, Hashem’s relationship with the Jewish People is indeed inseverable. But according to R. Yehudah’s view, if the Jewish People disobey He can sever the relationship.
The exchange between Hashem and Hoshea in the Gemara in Pesachim parallels the dispute between R. Yehudah and R. Meir. Hoshea held like R. Yehudah. He therefore suggested, upon hearing Hashem say that the Jews have sinned, that He replace them with another nation. Hashem, on the other hand, held like R. Meir. He sought to teach Hoshea a lesson. He therefore told him to take a harlot as a wife and have children with her, and afterward told him to divorce her. Hoshea replied: “I have children from her – I cannot send her away.” Hashem then told him: “I regard the Jewish People as My children, no matter what. So how can I separate Myself from them?” Hoshea understood Hashem’s point. He therefore admonished the nations of the world, telling them since Hashem regards the Jewish People as His children, He will never decide in anger to cast them away.
Likewise, in Yeshayah’s prophecy, Hashem declares: “Children I have raised and exalted, but they have rebelled against Me.” The Jewish People rebelled, but Hashem still called them His children and regarded them as such. He therefore turned to them in reconciliation: “Come now, let us reason together – if your sins are like scarlet, they will become white as snow; if they have become red like crimson, they will become like wool.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator