Post Archive for August 2016

Parashas Eikev

In this week’s parashah, Moshe tells the Jewish People (Devarim 8:2-5):
And you shall remember the entire way upon which Hashem your God led you these forty years in the wilderness. … Your garment did not wear out upon you, nor did your foot swell, these forty years. And you shall know in your heart that just as a man chastises his son, so Hashem your God chastises you.
Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 850, commenting on this statement, relates the following Rabbinic saying (also appearing in Berachos 5a): “If a person sees that afflictions are coming upon him, he should scrutinize his deeds, as it is written (Eichah 3:40), ‘Let us search and examine our ways, and return to Hashem.’” The Maggid explains that a person should not attribute any occurrence to chance, but instead should realize that everything he experiences is deliberately sent to him through Hashem’s wondrous providence. A person should therefore reflect on each occurrence he experiences to discern what message Hashem is sending him. Such reflection is called for not only regarding unusual events, but also regarding ordinary events such as clothes wearing out. Ordinary losses of this type are also due to our misdeeds. The proof is that during the entire forty-year period that the Jews spent in the wilderness, no one had his clothes wear out or his foot swell. From this we see that Hashem can prevent ordinary losses and impairments when He wishes. Accordingly, when a person suffers an ordinary loss or impairment, it is because Hashem deemed it necessary.
It is actually a tremendous act of graciousness on Hashem’s part, the Maggid says, that He sends us afflictions to stir us to mend our ways. For Hashem’s nature is to bestow blessing, and it is against His nature, so to speak, to impose afflictions. In this vein, David HaMelech declares before Hashem (Tehillim 16:2): “My good is not upon You.” David is saying that the punishments Hashem sends us for our good are not part of His natural mode of operation.
This idea is reflected in the following Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:2):
It is written (Iyov 1:21): “Hashem gave and Hashem has taken; may the Name of Hashem be blessed.” Whether Hashem is giving or taking, He always acts out of compassion. Moreover, when He gives, He does not consult with any being, but when He takes, He consults with His heavenly court.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. A rich storeowner had a poor relative. It was his regular practice, when this relative needed an item he sold in his store, to give it to him as a gift. And when his relative needed an item he did not have in his store, he would give his relative money to buy the item elsewhere, or he himself would go out to the marketplace to obtain the item. Here, the storeowner’s graciousness is truly impressive. For it is not so hard for a storeowner to give away some items he has on hand, but it involves special kindheartedness for him to go out and get items he does not have in order to give them away to someone else. Hashem is like the storeowner in this parable. It is His nature, as we said, to bestow blessing, as it is written (Tehillim 118:1): “Give thanks to Hashem for He is good, His kindness endures forever.” Blessing is the “merchandise” He keeps in His “store.” Yet, out of His great goodness, He created accusing angels that call men to justice in His heavenly court, leading Him to send us punishments to prompt us to return to the proper path, for our ultimate benefit.
In the era of the prophets, Hashem had less need to exercise His Attribute of Justice to chastise us with afflictions, for He would send us His prophets regularly to tell us what we needed to do to mend our ways, heal our spiritual maladies, and thereby save ourselves. But now, since we no longer have prophets among us, Hashem must take a different course. Now, when Hashem wishes to rebuke a person for evildoing, He sends him afflictions right away to prompt him to examine his deeds. And thus, Moshe tells us: “And you shall know in your heart that just as a man chastises his son, so Hashem your God chastises you.” That is, when a person feels anguish after undergoing afflictions, he should look into his heart to check whether he is anguished for the right reason and, if necessary, set his heart in the right direction. An afflicted person may feel anguish solely on account of the pain of the afflictions. But this is not the way of the wise. When a wise person suffers afflictions, he realizes that, in Shlomo HaMelech’s words (Shir HaShirim 5:2), Hashem is knocking at his door, trying to wake him up and get him to recognize his misdeeds. As our Sages say (e.g., Shabbos 55a), there is no affliction without sin. The wise person, too, feels anguish when he is afflicted, but his anguish is not on account of the pain of the afflictions, but on account of Hashem’s being displeased with his actions.
In this vein, Yirmiyahu declares (Eichah 3:39-40): “Over what shall a living man mourn? A bold man – over his losses?  [Rendering חטאיו as losses – cf. Melachim Alef 1:12.] Let us search and examine our ways, and return to Hashem.” Should a man mourn over a bodily injury or loss of money? Better he should mourn over his having strayed from the path that Hashem wishes him to follow, and then he should examine his ways and return to the proper path. 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeschanan

In this week’s parashah, Moshe continues with the discourse he delivered to the Jewish People just before his death, with the people on the verge of entering Eretz Yisrael under Yehoshua’s leadership. Moshe warns the people that if they stray from the proper path, and engage in idol worship and other evildoing, Hashem will expel them from the land and scatter them among the nations. Moshe then continues (Devarim 4:30): “In your distress (בצר לך), when all these things come upon you, in the end of days, you shall return up to Hashem your God and you shall hearken unto His voice.” I present here two of the Maggid’s explanations of this statement, which deal the same theme from two very different angles.
1. Sometimes Hashem casts at us only one form of affliction, such as exclusively famine or exclusively violent attacks. At other times, He surrounds us with multiple forms of afflictions, such as famine, violent attacks, and disease all at the same time. This state of multiple afflictions is referred to by the term distress – צרה – related to the term צר, meaning narrow. It is a state of being boxed in by afflictions. Regarding this state of affairs, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 142:3-5):
I pour out my supplication before Him, I relate before Him my distress (צרתי). When my spirit faints within me, You know my path: On this road that I walk they have laid a snare for me. Look to the right and see that I have no friend; escape is lost to me, no one seeks to save my life.
Now, suffering can come upon us for two purposes. One purpose is to cleanse us of our sins, as the Gemara says (Berachos 5a): “Just as salt improves the taste of the meat, so, too, afflictions cleanse away a person’s sins.” The other purpose is to induce us to pray to Hashem to gather us in from the four corners of the earth and return us to Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim. The Maggid presents a sign we can use to discern the purpose of a specific bout of afflictions. If Hashem casts at us only one form of affliction, then the reason for the suffering is probably to cleanse us of sin. If, however, He surrounds us with multiple forms of affliction, then the reason for the suffering is probably to induce us to pray to have Him redeem us from exile.
The Maggid draws an analogy to a person chasing after a slave who has fled from him. If the master approaches the slave from the front and tries to stop him from going further, he will not succeed, for the slave will turn to the right or to the left and keep running. The only way to force the slave to turn back is to get a group of people to surround him on all three sides, front, right, and left. Similarly, when Hashem wants us to turn back toward Eretz Yisrael, He surrounds us with a multitude of afflictions. Moshe’s statement reflects this idea. When we are in a state of צרה, in a state of being boxed in on all sides, then we can figure that Hashem is trying to get us to return to Him and yearn for the day when we will be resettled in Eretz Yisrael, basking in His Presence.
2. The Maggid’s second explanation is based on an analogy to the practices of produce merchants. Usually a produce merchant keeps the different kinds of produce separate and sells each kind in its own specific way with its own specific price. But when the end of the day comes, and the merchant has left only a small amount of each kind – a few apples, a few handfuls of nuts, and so on – he puts everything in one basket and sells it all to a child at a cheap price, in order to clear out all the leftovers and empty out all his bins.
Similarly, usually Hashem sends specific types of afflictions for specific sets of circumstances; as Shlomo HaMelech puts it in Koheles 3:1, “everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heavens.” In this vein, the Gemara in Shabbos 145b describes Hashem complaining: “It is not enough for the Bnei Yisrael that they sin before Me, but they trouble Me to know which evil decree I am going to bring upon them.” But in the end of days, Hashem will clear out His storehouse of afflictions. Moshe’s statement hints at this idea. When we see that Hashem is casting at us a conglomeration of many types of afflictions, it is a sign that clearing-out time has come and we are nearing the end of days, when Hashem will gather us all in and bring us back to Him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Megillas Eichah

In Eichah 2:19, Yirmiyahu exhorts: “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches! Pour out your heart before Hashem (נוכח פני ה') like water. Lift up your hands to Him over the lives of your young children, who are fainting with hunger at the head of every street.” I present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on this verse.
Our Prophets and Sages told us that there is constant lamenting in the heavens over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and the expulsion of the Jewish People into exile. This prompts us to ask: Why do the angels’ prayers and laments over the destruction and exile fail to help? Why doesn’t Hashem bring us back from captivity and re-establish the Beis HaMikdash? Why doesn’t Hashem answer the angels’ cries?
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. The prayer of main importance is the one we offer, and the prayer the angels offer is only an accompaniment. In this vein, the Gemara states that the ministering angels do not give forth song in heaven above until the Jewish People give forth song on earth below (Chullin 91b). Our song is the primary song. The song of the angels above serves only to beautify and uplift our song, so that it may rise up and gain Hashem’s favor. Similarly, the prayers offered above serve only to add beauty and splendor to our prayers, and to raise them up before Hashem. It is like bringing an offering to a mortal king in a pristine vessel: the prayers of the angels are just a receptacle for our prayers. Hence the prayers of the angels have no place until we pray first.
Thus, in the episode of R. Yose in the ruin (Berachos 3a), R. Yose did not hear the cooing voice from heaven until after he entered the ruin to fulfill his own duty of prayer. Only then was he enabled to hear the heavenly prayer. Only then did Eliyahu HaNavi come, as the Gemara recounts, to tell him what the Hashem exclaims hour after hour.
This insight serves to strengthen our hearts. We must not give up praying. We must not wonder whether our prayers are able to accomplish anything. We need only begin, and then the prayers offered in the heavens above will come to support us. This is reflected in the expression נוכח פני ה' in our verse. The word נוכח bears the meaning of opposite, which we can understand as meaning parallel. Yirmiyahu is telling us that our prayers should parallel those offered in the heavens above in content and form. We should pray over the destruction and the exile, for this is what they are waiting for in the heavens above.
I add here a thought from the Mabit in Beis Elokim, Shaar HaTefillah, chapter 17. We know that in past generations, many great tzadikim mourned over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and prayed fervently for its rebuilding, but the Beis HaMikdash was not rebuilt in their time. We might ask, then, given that we are of lower spiritual caliber than these great tzadikim of the past, how could our prayers be of any benefit. The Mabit gives two answers. One answer is that as we get closer to the final deadline that Hashem has set for the rebuilding, it becomes easier for us to hasten the rebuilding through our prayers. The other answer is that since the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash is such a major event, a large accumulation of prayer is needed to bring it about. Every prayer counts toward the necessary total, and when the total is reached the redemption will come.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Masei

In haftaras Masei, Yirmiyahu declares (verse 2:2): “Thus says Hashem, ‘What wrong did your forefathers find in Me, that they distanced themselves from Me and pursued insubstantiality, and became insubstantial?’” I present here an essay on this rebuke that appears in the commentary on the haftarah in Kochav MiYaakov. The bulk of the essay is taken from the work Shemen HaMor (first discourse, chapter 14, in the section Mor V’Ahalos) by Rav Avraham Beirush Flamm, who compiled this segment (as well as other segments) of Kochav MiYaakov.
It is a basic fact that everything that happens to a person is decreed and brought about by Hashem. As the Gemara says (Chullin 7b): “No man bruises his finger here on earth unless it was so decreed against him in heaven.” At the same time, we cannot claim, far be it, that Hashem does us evil. On the contrary, when blessing comes our way we should attribute it to Hashem, but when misfortune comes our way we should attribute it to ourselves.
Hashem bestows upon us a vast array of blessings that we could not possibly earn through our own efforts and merit. The Midrash brings out this fact with a simple example. Shlomo HaMelech asks (Koheles 1:3): “What gain does a man achieve from all his labor that he will labor beneath the sun?” In Vayikra Rabbah 28:1, expounding on this question, tells us that Hashem does not owe us anything on account of our laboring to perform good deeds, for it is enough that He causes the sun to shine down upon us. No amount of good deeds suffices to repay Hashem for the benefit He provides us through the sun. It is all the more so with all the many other benefits He provides us. The benefits we receive all come to us only through Hashem’s kindness, which he gladly extends to us, for He desires kindness (Michah 7:18).
By contrast, when Hashem punishes us He is acting against His desire. Thus, in Yechezkel 33:11, Hashem tells us that He does not desire that the wicked man die, but rather that he repent from his evil ways and live. Misfortune does not come upon us at Hashem’s initiative; we bring it upon ourselves through our sins. As David HaMelech puts it in Tehillim 9:17, the wicked man is ensnared through his own doing.
Hashem tells Avraham (Bereishis 12:3): “I will bless those who bless you, and those you curse you I will curse.” Rav Flamm presents an interpretation of this statement which he conveys in the name of a scholar he refers to as Rav Menachem Manish HaLevi. Note that in connection with blessing, Hashem mentions Himself first and afterward the target of His action, whereas in connection with curse, He mentions the target of His action first and afterward Himself. Now, as we explained above, when a blessing comes about, Hashem is the causal agent, granting good solely because of His desire to grant good, whereas when a curse comes about, bringing the curse on himself through his evildoing. Thus, the phrasing in Hashem’s statement to Avraham is natural, for, when an occurrence is reported, the causal agent is usually mentioned first and then the effect or the entity being affected.
Rav Menachem Manish HaLevi notes some additional instances of the same pattern. The pattern appears in Bereishis 4:4-5: “Hashem turned to Hevel and to his offering, but to Kayin and his offering He did not turn.” In regard to Hashem’s acceptance of Hevel’s offering, Hashem is mentioned first, for it is due to His graciousness that the interchange had a positive outcome. But in regard to Hashem’s rejection of Kayin’s offering, Kayin is mentioned first, because it was due to his inappropriately bringing an inferior offering that the interchange had a negative outcome. The pattern appears again in Malachi 1:2-3: “I loved Yaakov. But Eisav I hated.”
In Bamidbar Rabbah 2:16, the Midrash states:
Hashem said to the Jewish People: “I come first in connection with good and last in connection with bad. I come first in regard to good, as it is written (Hoshea 2:25): ‘I will say to Lo-Ammi [Not My People], “You are Ammi [My People], and he will say, “[You are] my God.”’ But I come last in connection with bad, as it is written (ibid. 1:9), ‘Call his name Lo-Ammi, for you are not My people, and I will not be yours.’”
This Midrash ties in with our discussion above. In regard to good, Hashem is mentioned first, because He is the causal agent. But in regard to bad, Hashem is mentioned last, because bad does not come about on His initiative, but rather is caused by our evildoing.
In the same vein, in Hoshea 13:9, Hashem tells Yisrael: “You have destroyed yourself, O Yisrael, for in Me is your help.” Here, Hashem is telling Yisrael that they themselves are the cause of the destruction that came upon them, for He brings them only aid and good.
The same idea underlies the rebuke the Yirmiyahu conveyed in the verse we quoted from the haftarah. We can read Hashem’s statement as follows: “What wrong have your forefathers found in Me, that they distanced themselves from Me? They pursued insubstantiality and became insubstantial.” Hashem is saying: “Is it because of some fault in Me that your forefathers distanced themselves from Me? No! It is because they pursued insubstantiality and became insubstantial. This is the reason they became distanced from Me.” It is like a sick person who rejects delicacies. The problem is not with the food, but rather with him – his illness has caused him to lose his sense of taste. Similarly, it is because of our forefathers’ engaging in futile pursuits that they lost interest in Hashem and drifted away from Him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator