Post Archive for July 2016

A Thought for the Three Weeks

The Mishnah in Avos 6:4 states: “This is the way of Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, and sleep on the ground; live a life of deprivation, and toil in the Torah. If you do so, then ‘you are fortunate and have it good’ (Tehillim 128:2) – you will be fortunate in this world and have it good in the World to Come.” The Maggid discusses this Mishnah in his commentary on Eichah 3:17. He explains that there is a fundamental conflict between the physical and the spiritual, and so a person can develop a wholehearted love of Hashem only by separating himself from physical pleasures. Meat and wine, and similar pleasures, tend to lead a person away from Hashem. They clog up the soul and cloud the intellect. This conflict, the Maggid says, is due to our being in exile. Accordingly, in Eichah 3:17, Yirmiyahu laments: “My soul has given up on having peace; I have forsaken good.” There is no peace between the body and the soul, and so we must forsake the good things of the physical world in order to preserve our souls.   
In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, the situation was different. The altar, through the offerings, made peace between the spiritual and the physical. The fat and the blood would be brought upon the altar, while the meat would be eaten by the one bringing the offering, in a state of ritual purity and in holiness. Then we took delight in Hashem and rejoiced in all our blessings.
The pleasure experienced in conjunction with the offerings benefited both the body and the soul. The meat nourished the forces of the body and vitalized it. At the same time, the holiness associated with the offering nourished the forces of the soul and healed it from its maladies. Thus, the physical pleasure of eating the meat did not in any way compromise a person’s service to Hashem, but, on the contrary, served as a catalyst that activated the person’s desire to show his love of Hashem and serve him wholeheartedly. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Shir HaShirim 7:7): “How beautiful and pleasant you are, O love laden with delights!” When we are stirred to genuine love of Hashem through physical enjoyments, it is indeed good and pleasant.
On Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos, when the Jews presented themselves before Hashem in the Beis HaMikdash as the Torah dictates (Devarim 16), they experienced joy and pleasure unlike that of any other time. As it is written (Tehillim 42:5): “These things I remember, and I pour out my soul within me: how I passed along with the throng, walking with them with measured steps up to the House of God. It was a multitude in festive celebration, calling out with spirited song and praises.” Sincere love of Hashem and complete holiness prevailed. Thus the psalmist sings (Tehillim 84:2-3): “How beloved are Your sanctuaries, Hashem, Master of Legions! My soul yearns, indeed it pines, for the courtyards of Hashem. My heart and my flesh sing to the living God.” The added physical pleasure would intensify our love of Hashem. This enhancing effect is alluded to in Shir HaShirim 1:4, reading the verse homiletically: “We shall recall your love through wine” [reading מיין as meaning through wine rather than more than wine]. In a similar vein it is written (Devarim 26:11), “And you shall rejoice in all the good that Hashem your God has given you …,” with “all the good” referring to both physical and spiritual blessing. May we be privileged soon to see the Beis HaMikdash rebuilt, and experience the return to the days when body and soul are in complete harmony.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Pinchas

Parashas Pinchas begins as follows (Bamidbar 25:10-13):
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, turned My wrath away from the Children of Yisrael, since he was zealous for My sake among them, and I did not consume the Children of Yisrael in My jealousy. Therefore say: ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace, and there shall be unto him, and unto his descendants after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and atoned for the Children of Israel.’”
The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:1): “Said the Holy Only Blessed Be He, ‘It is just that he should collect his reward.’”
In Kochav MiYaakov, haftaras Pinchas, the Maggid analyzes these texts. He raises several questions. First, why did Hashem have to tell Moshe that Pinchas turned His wrath away from the Jewish People? The Torah tells us previously that Moshe and the entire Jewish People witnessed what Pinchas did. And everyone saw that afterward the plague that Hashem had cast upon the Jewish People for their misconduct came to an end. Second, and even more puzzling, why did Hashem, after telling Moshe how He was going to reward Pinchas, describe yet another time what Pinchas had done? Third, what exactly is the Midrash trying to teach when it reports that Hashem declared it just that Pinchas collect his reward?
The Maggid explains that Hashem’s message to Moshe was intended not only to state what Pinchas’s reward was going to be, but also to explain how the reward was perfectly matched to Pinchas’s act, as the Midrash indicates. Pinchas’s act had two beneficial consequences. The first was to stop the plague that Hashem cast upon the Jews of Pinchas’s generation. The second was to create a merit for the Jewish People that would bring them eternal benefit. Whenever the Jewish People suffer misfortune, the merit of Pinchas’s act serves to bring them salvation. This is in line with the principle, taught by our Sages, that the acts of our forefathers paved a path for us as a nation for all time (מעשה אבות סימן לבנים). In the same way, the salvation brought about in a given generation by a great act of righteousness creates a precedent for similar salvations in future generations. In general, Hashem tends to avoid introducing new phenomena into the world. Thus, it takes great merit to lead Hashem to bring about a salvation of a type He has not brought about before. But once Hashem has brought about a given type of salvation, He is prepared to do so again for a later generation, even if the people of that generation, on the basis of their own merits, do not deserve such a salvation. Our existence as a nation depends on this system, since our spiritual stature as a nation tends to decline over time, so that later generations need to rely on the merits of earlier ones.
In parallel with the two beneficial results that Pinchas brought about, as we just described, Hashem granted him, measure for measure, two types of reward. Hashem’s statement to Moshe that we quoted at the outset lays out each accomplishment and the corresponding reward. Hashem states first that Pinchas turned His wrath away from the Jewish People, so that He did not consume them in His anger. Here, Hashem is describing the beneficial result that Pinchas brought about for the Jews of his own generation. In reward for this accomplishment, Hashem granted Pinchas a “covenant of peace” that would benefit him in his own lifetime. Afterward, Hashem states: “There shall be unto him, and unto his descendants after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and atoned for the Children of Israel.” The atonement Hashem is referring to here is the atonement that Pinchas’s act set in place for the Jews of all future generations. In reward for this accomplishment, Hashem granted Pinchas an eternal reward, a covenant of eternal priesthood with him and all his descendants in all future generations. Reflecting the dual nature of Pinchas’s act and reward, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 106:30-31): “And Pinchas arose and executed judgment, and the plague was halted. It was accounted to him as a righteous deed, for all generations, forever.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Balak

Parashas Balak relates how Balak, King of Moav, hired the sorcerer Bilaam to curse the Jewish People. Hashem granted Bilaam the power of prophecy, but he directed it toward an evil end. The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:1):
The Jewish prophets warn the Jewish People against sin, but Bilaam created a breach to lead people to destruction. The Jewish prophets had compassion on both Jews and gentiles … and this fiend rose up to uproot an entire nation for no good reason.
The Maggid sets out to elaborate on this Midrash. He takes as his starting point another Midrash, which reads as follows (Bereishis Rabbah 39:6, Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 62):
It is written (Tehillim 45:8): “You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows.” R. Azariah interpreted this verse as referring to Avraham. When Avraham arose before Hashem to plead for mercy for the men of Sodom, he said (Bereishis 18:25): “Far be it from You to such a thing, to put to death the righteous along with the wicked, so that the righteous should be treated like the wicked. Far be it from You! The Judge of the entire world will not do justice?” … Said Hashem to Avraham: “‘You loved righteousness and hated wickedness. You loved righteousness (tzedek), to exonerate (l'tzadeik) My creations, and you hated judging them as wicked. Therefore I have anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows. Who are your ‘fellows’? The ten generations from Noach down to you. I did not speak with any of them – only with you.”
The Maggid also brings Tehillim 15 into the discussion. The psalm reads as follows:
A psalm by David: Hashem, who may sojourn in Your tent; who may dwell on Your holy mountain? He who walks with wholeheartedness and acts with righteousness, and speaks the truth from his heart. Who has no slander on his tongue, who has not brought evil on his fellow-man, nor brought disgrace upon his close one. … He who does thus will unto eternity never falter.
The Maggid now begins his explanation. The righteousness of a righteous person can arise, he says, in one of two ways. One way is for a person to be born holy, naturally imbued with good character traits, as was the case with Yirmiyahu (see Yirmiyah 1:5). The other way is for a person who is not born with any excellence of character to develop himself into a righteous person by persistent effort, learning from Torah sages and training himself steadily in the proper path, achieving progressively greater levels of fear of Hashem and commitment to the yoke of Torah and mitzvos.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Consider a great king with a vast treasury, which he did not earn himself as spoils of war, but inherited them from his powerful father, who had previously amassed all this wealth. This king cannot feel that his fortune is secure, free from risk of being plundered by invaders, for he grew up in comfortable circumstances and never had to go out to war. He may be unable to ward off enemies. And now, by contrast, consider a man who was born as a lowly pauper, and through diligent effort and a series of battles, built himself into a king with a large kingdom and a vast treasury. He can feel more secure that he will hold onto his wealth.
It is similar with the two types of righteous people that we described. The one who was born of good character and never had to battle his evil inclination during his formative years cannot be sure that his righteousness will hold up when a test comes his way. He may easily become ensnared. But the one who built himself into a righteous man through his own hard work, who acquired all his good character traits through fierce battle against his evil inclination, is well prepared to stand up to tests. He can have a measure of confidence that he will maintain his righteousness. This is the message of Tehillim 15. David presents a list of good character traits that make a person worthy of dwelling on Hashem’s holy mountain. He then concludes by saying: “He who does (עושה) thus will unto eternity never falter.” We can read the word עושה as meaning to make, and then we can understand David as saying that someone who makes himself into a person with good character traits will maintain his righteousness firmly and never falter.
With this background, the Maggid turns to the main part of his discussion. We know, he says, that if a person loves one thing then he hates its opposite. This being so, our human intuition would tell us that the more righteous a person is, the more he hates the wicked. But with Avraham we see just the reverse. Despite his lofty level, he maintained his compassion for all men, and pleaded with Hashem to show mercy to the debased people of Sodom. We might find this astonishing, but if we think more closely we can see that it is actually natural.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy similar to the one he presented before. If a person receives a large fortune from his father without having to work for it, then a penny means nothing to him. It is the opposite with a person who earned a large fortune through hard work. He remembers the toil he had to invest for each and every penny he acquired in the process of building his fortune. To him, a penny is important.
Now consider a person who built himself into a righteous person by battling his evil inclination persistently until he quashed it entirely. Obviously he loves what is good and right, and hates evil. At the same time, since he remembers how hard he had to fight his evil inclination, he is able to judge lowly people favorably. It is different with a person who was born with a strong tendency toward good. To him, it is natural to act uprightly and avoid evildoing, and he does not know what it means to really battle the evil inclination. He has no tolerance for those of a lower moral level than his, even average people, and all the more so the wicked, for he sees the evil inclination as no more than a hair.
This is the basic difference between Jewish prophets and Bilaam. The Jewish prophets built themselves into prophets by working hard to purify themselves and detach themselves from worldly matters. They therefore had compassion for both Jews and gentiles, for they recall how hard they had to fight for every inch of spiritual progress. But Bilaam was granted prophecy as a gift; he did not have to work for it at all. He therefore was cruel, without a drop of compassion for commoners.
We can now understand well the Midrash about Avraham based on Tehillim 45:8. Avraham, as a righteous man, loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Nonetheless, he loved to exonerate others, and hated judging them as wicked. From this attitude we can see that Avraham acquired his righteousness by working hard for it. Therefore Hashem anointed him with the oil of joyous consecration above his fellows. Hashem did not speak with the men of the ten generations from Noach down to Avraham, but only with Avraham. Since Avraham was a man of compassion who acted as an advocate for others, he was fit for prophecy. But Bilaam was cruel toward the Jews and sought to condemn them and bring about their destruction. His behavior showed that men of his kind are unfit to be prophets. Parashas Balak was included in the Torah to convey this message and explain why Hashem is selective in granting the gift of prophecy.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chukas

Parashas Chukas begins with the law of the red heifer, a classic example of a chok – a Torah law whose reason is hidden from us, and which we must simply accept as a Divine edict. The Torah introduces the topic by stating (Bamidbar 19:2): “This is the law (chok) of the Torah, that Hashem commanded, saying ….” The Maggid expounds on the concept of observing Torah laws that we do not understand. He takes as a starting point the following passage (Tehillim 119:4-5): “You have commanded Your ordinances, to observe diligently (מאד). I pray: May my ways be directed to observe Your statutes (chukecha).” He explains as follows. It appears at first sight that the mitzvos can be divided into two categories: those that can be understood by the human intellect and those that are pure edicts. For example, there are mitzvos such as the prohibitions on theft, robbery, and the like, that have a rationale that we can grasp, and we understand intellectually that it is proper to adhere to them. And then there are Divine edicts whose purpose is hidden from us and known only to Hashem. But this dichotomy is too simplistic. For if we reflect on the mitzvos that we regard as within our intellectual grasp, we see that there are many details that seem to run counter to our human intuition, and must be regarded as well as Divine edicts that are beyond our understanding.
For example, regarding theft, our intuition says that the punishment should depend on the circumstances of the specific case. If a rich person steals from a poor person, leaving him penniless and causing him to starve to death, we would say that the offender should be punished with death. And conversely, if a poor person steals a small sum from a rich person to get money for a single meal, with the rich person feeling no effect from the theft, we would say that the offender should get a light punishment. But the Torah dictates that the punishment for theft is the same irrespective of the circumstances. The same is true regarding murder. Our intuition would say that the punishment for murder should depend on the victim’s situation: the punishment for murdering a young man with a wife and children who depend on him should be more severe than the punishment for murdering a terminally-ill old man who has been lying inert in bed for a few years. But Mishnah Shabbos 23:5 says that someone who closes the eyes of a person who is about to die, thereby hastening his death, is considered a full-fledged murderer.
We thus have to say that even with the mitzvos whose basic purpose we understand, there are aspects whose rationale is hidden from us and known to Hashem alone. This is the idea that David HaMelech is expressing in the passage from Tehillim 119 quoted above. David first declares: “You have commanded Your ordinances, to observe מאד.” We can read מאד as meaning exceedingly, and interpret the verse as saying that Hashem is calling on us to observe much more than what we can understand. David then prays: “May my ways be directed to observe Your chukim.” Here, David includes all the mitzvos in the category of chok, because they all have an aspect of chok.
Now, when a person delves deeply into the Torah, Hashem grants him, if he is worthy, knowledge of some of the hidden aspects of Torah wisdom. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 2:1-6):
My child: if you accept My words, and store up My commandments within yourself, making your ears attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding: if only you call out to understanding, and lift up your voice to discernment – if you seek it out as [you would] for silver, and search for it as for hidden treasure – then you will understand fear of Hashem and find knowledge of God. For Hashem grants wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding. He stores up wise counsel for the upright; it is a shield for those who follow the straightforward path.
Similarly, Avos 6:1 teaches: “Whoever occupies himself with Torah for its own sake acquires many things … Torah secrets are revealed to him.”
However, while a Torah scholar may freely explain matters that are in the scope of the normal human intellect, such as the basic reason behind the prohibition on stealing, as a rule he may not share the unique understanding he has acquired of the Torah’s hidden wisdom. A passage in Chagigah 13a brings out this point. The Gemara relates that the elders of Pumbedisa asked R. Yosef to teach them the “Work of the Chariot.” R. Yosef replied: “Regarding this we have learned, ‘Honey and milk are under your tongue (Shir HaShirim 4:11)’ – the things that are sweeter than honey and milk should be kept under your tongue.’” The Gemara then presents R. Abbahu’s alternate way of deriving the prohibition. R. Abbahu says: “The prohibition on teaching the ‘Work of the Chariot’ is learned from the following verse (Mishlei 27:26): ‘Let the lambs ( כבשיםkevasim) be your clothing’ – things that are among the secrets of the world (כבשונו של עולםkivshono shel olam) should be kept under your clothing.” We can interpret the opening verse of the section of the Torah dealing with the red heifer as hinting at this principle. We can read the verse as follows: “This is the law of the Torah, that Hashem commanded to relate ….” Regarding mitzvos whose rationale is part of the hidden Torah wisdom, we are to teach the practical laws but not the hidden reasons behind them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator