Post Archive for September 2016

Parashas Nitzavim

In this week’s parashah, it is written (Devarim 30:11-14): “For this commandment that I command you this day is not beyond you, nor is it far from you. … The word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may fulfill it.” This passage teaches that Hashem has made the Torah readily available to us, so that fulfilling it is not hard for us. The Maggid links the passage to the following verse (Tehillim 147:15): “The One who sends His word down to the earth; most swiftly His word runs.” He interprets this verse as referring to the Giving of the Torah. He brings out the idea with an analogy. If people in a certain city wish to obtain a certain commodity which is available only in a distant province, then they must a make a great effort to obtain it. But suppose the city’s mayor sends wagons to the distant province to bring back a large amount of this commodity, and puts the goods in a large store from which everyone in the city can buy. The people can then obtain the commodity without great effort. Similarly, Hashem brought the Torah down to us so that we can easily access it.
The Maggid continues by saying that if a person is exerting himself strenuously in an attempt to observe the Torah, then it must be that what he is attempting to observe is not the true Torah. This idea is reflected in Yeshayah 43:22: “It is not I whom you have called, Yaakov, for you have wearied yourself for Me, Yisrael.” The Maggid brings out the idea in one of his most famous parables. A person arrives home from a trip very late on erev Shabbos. He rushes toward the front door of his house, leaving his suitcase in the wagon, and telling the wagon driver: “I’m going into my house, and I’ll send someone out to get my suitcase.” He sends a boy out to get the suitcase. The boy goes out and returns shortly afterward. He approaches the master of the house, who is in an inner room, and says: “I’ve brought in your suitcase.” The master of the house notices that the boy is wiping sweat off his face with his sleeve, and is short of breath as he talks. He asks the boy where his suitcase is, and the boy replies that it is in the outer room. He responds: “What you brought into the house is not mine. Who knows whose it is?” The boy says: “Go into the outer room and take a look – surely it is yours.” The master of the house replies: “I don’t need to go and look. I see all the sweat on your face and I know you took the wrong suitcase. My suitcase is small and light, and carrying it would not make you sweat.” Similarly, if a person is sweating and worn out from trying to observe the Torah, he is following the wrong set of directives, for Torah observance does not require excessive exertion. As the parashah states, the Torah is very close to us, that we may fulfill it.
The Midrash states (Devarim Rabbah 8:7):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to the Jewish People: “See how dear you are to Me. No one in My palace is acquainted with the Torah, but I have given it to you. The Torah is, in the words of Iyov 28:21, ‘hidden from all living beings.’ But for you, it is ‘not beyond you … the word is very close to you.’”
The Maggid sets out to explain why the Torah is beyond the grasp of the angels but very close to us. He brings out the idea with another parable. A man had several sons who lived far off. He wrote to them asking them to come in for their youngest brother’s wedding. He asked each one to bring a fine suit to wear, in order to enhance the affair. One of the sons wrote back, saying: “Dear father, let me know what color suit you want me to wear, and to make you happy I’ll bring a suit of that color.” The father figured that this son must be very rich, that he could bring whatever color suit he asked for. But in fact it was just the opposite. This son was the poorest of them all, and he had no decent suit of his own. He was going to borrow a suit from one of his neighbors. This being so, he could pick whatever color he wanted. His brothers, on the other hand, were limited to what they were able to buy, based on the measure of wealth that Hashem had granted to each one.
The parallel is as follows. Each angel is granted from the outset its designated level of comprehension. The angel receives a fixed portion which cannot be added to. With man, the situation is different. Man is a being created from the earth, and when a person is born, he has almost no comprehension. A person gains Torah wisdom only by pursuing it diligently and pleading to Hashem, the One who graciously grants man knowledge, to instill it in him. Hashem, in His kindness, grants a person Torah wisdom, and He can do so in whatever measure He decides, with no limit. When a person seeks Torah wisdom and gains Hashem’s favor, Hashem grants him Torah wisdom in generous measure.
The Maggid stresses that a person is not granted Torah wisdom automatically, in the way he is given life regardless of whether or not he seeks it – as indicated in Avos 4:29, which states that life is forced upon a person. A person’s level of Torah wisdom depends on his own choice. As our tradition teaches, the crown of Torah is set down in a corner, and whoever wishes can come and take it. If a person seeks Torah, the Torah will be close to him; if not, it will be far from him.
Shlomo HaMelech states (Mishlei 4:1-2): “Hear, O children, a father’s discipline, and be attentive to know understanding. ‘For I give you good doctrine (לקח); do not forsake My Torah.’” A person cannot assume that the Torah will just come to him; he must direct his attention toward it. The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 33:1, discussing the second of the two verses we just quoted, describes the Torah as a commodity that Hashem has set before us, urging us to make it our acquisition (לקיחה) and not leave it sit. As in the analogy of the commodity in a distant province, when the commodity is brought into the city, anyone can get it easily, but to do so, a person must come to buy.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Ki Savo

In this week’s haftarah, it is written (Yeshayah 60:19-20):
The sun will no longer be for you for light in the day and for glow, and the moon will not shine light for you. Hashem will be an eternal light for you, and your God will be your splendor. Never again will your sun set, and your moon will not be withdrawn, for Hashem will be unto you an eternal light, and the days of your mourning will be completed.
The Maggid builds his explanation of this passage on the following Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 2:37, middle):
Said Yisrael: “Master of the Universe! This soul that sings praises to you, until when will it be set down in the dust?” [As it is written,] “For our souls are bowed down in the dust” (Tehillim 43:26). Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to them, “By your lives, the end will come and your souls will rejoice!”
The Maggid notes that Hashem’s answer seemingly does not match the question. The Jewish People were not asking whether their suffering would end, for they had firm faith that Hashem would ultimately redeem them. Rather, they were asking when the suffering would end. What, then, was Hashem trying to tell them?
The Maggid explains as follows. When a person is going through a period of joy that has a set duration, his joy is unavoidably tinged with sadness that increases day by day, for with each passing day the end of the rejoicing grows nearer. And similarly, when a person is going through suffering that has a set duration, with each passing day he grows happier, for he sees that the end of his suffering is growing nearer. By contrast, when a person experiences enjoyment of unlimited duration, even after a long time he remains happy. In this vein, regarding the end of days it is written (Yeshayah 35:10 and 51:11): “Those redeemed by Hashem shall return and come to Zion with exuberant song, with eternal joy upon their heads. They shall attain gladness and joy, and anguish and groaning shall flee.” Since the joy will be eternal, it will be completely free of any anguish or groaning. Similarly, when a person is going through suffering of unknown duration, and he suspects that the suffering will be permanent, he remains constantly in the same state of anguish.
This idea is reflected in the following Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 816):
When Hashem shows the prophets the misfortunes that will come upon the Jewish People, they rise up and protest before Him. We find this in Tehillim 77, a psalm concerning ידותון. What does “concerning ידותון” mean? It means concerning the edicts and the judgments (על הדתות ועל הדינין) destined to be cast upon the Jewish People, which Hashem showed to the prophets. When they saw these edicts and judgments, they lifted up their voices and cried out before Hashem, as it is written (Tehillim 77:2): “I lift up my voice to God and cry out.” Similarly in Havakkuk: “I stand upon my watch (verse 2:2), I cry out to You regarding violence (verse 1:2).” Why? “For there is yet another vision about the appointed time (verse 2:3)” [i.e., homiletically, another misfortune is in the offing].  Further in Tehillim 77 (verse 3): “My soul refuses to be comforted.” Why does my soul refuse to be comforted? Because it does not know how long the suffering will last. Tell me what duration You have set, and I will be comforted.
An analogy: A man sets out to whip his son, and he tells him, “You’re going to get ten whippings.” He whips him once and says: “Another nine.” He whips him a second time and says: “Another eight.” As the count of remaining whippings decreases, the boy is comforted more and more. When is he not comforted? When the father does not tell him how many whippings he will get.
Similarly, Knesess Yisrael says to Hashem: “My soul refuses to be comforted. Why? Because I do not know the end.” As it is written (Tehillim 39:5): “Inform me, Hashem, of when my end will be.”
It is exactly as we have described.
This phenomenon is one of the reasons why Hashem, in His wisdom, has hidden from us when our exile will end. He wants our mourning and pain over the exile to be at exactly the same level throughout the entire period of exile, from beginning to end, with no diminishment. The reason for this is that the suffering itself is what brings about the eventual salvation with its ensuing blessings. It would not be possible for the blessings to come if we did not undergo the suffering beforehand. And Hashem wants to make sure that we receive the full measure of suffering that He designated, so that afterward we can receive the full measure of blessing. He must therefore conceal from us when our suffering will end. For if we knew when the end would be, with each passing day we would feel less pain and more gladness upon seeing the day of redemption approaching, so that in the final days of exile we would feel no pain at all.
We can now understand the Midrash in Devarim Rabbah. The Jewish People ask Hashem when the end of the exile will be. Hashem answers: “By your lives, the end will come and your souls will rejoice!” Hashem is saying that He cannot reveal the end, for if He did, then with the approach of the end our souls would rejoice, and the quota of suffering would not be met.
With this, we turn to the passage from the haftarah. Yeshayah declares:
The sun will no longer be for you for light in the day and for glow, and the moon will not shine light for you. Hashem will be an eternal light for you, and your God will be your splendor. Never again will your sun set, and your moon will not be withdrawn, for Hashem will be unto you an eternal light, and the days of your mourning will be completed.
The final redemption that we await will not be like the previous redemptions we experienced. The previous redemptions were like the sun and the moon which eventually recede from the sky, but the final redemption will be everlasting. The days of our mourning must therefore be fully completed. When we meet the full quota of suffering, Hashem will grant us eternal blessing in full measure.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Seitzei

In this week’s parashah, the Torah says (Devarim 23:4-7):
An Ammonite or a Moabite may not enter into the congregation of Hashem; even to the tenth generation none of them may enter into the congregation of Hashem, forever. Because they did not greet you with bread and with water on the road, when you went forth out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Bilaam the son of Beor from Pesor of Aram-Naharaim to curse you. But Hashem your God refused to listen to Bilaam, and Hashem your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because Hashem your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace or their welfare, all your days, forever.
I present two of the Maggid’s commentaries on this passage.
1. The Maggid notes that seemingly the statement about Hashem’s turning Bilaam’s curse into a blessing is out of place in this passage, for it does not contribute to explaining the reason why Ammonites and Moabites are forbidden to become members of the Jewish People. He sets out to explain the role of this statement in the passage. He brings out the point with a parable.
A merchant was on his way home with merchandise he had bought in Leipzig, a major center of trade. He reached an area that was dangerous to pass through, so he decided to settle into an inn and rest. He spent the night in the inn. When morning came, and he got up to feed his horses, he found that his wagon, his horses, and all his merchandise were gone – a thief had come in the night and stolen everything. He cried bitterly over this great loss. Afterward, he decided he would start walking home, for he had no better course of action to take. He walked a short distance and saw his wagon up ahead, driven by a hired wagon driver. He raced toward the wagon and caught up with it. The thief recognized the merchant and gave him back the wagon and all the merchandise, and the merchant rejoiced profusely. Seeing how elated the merchant was, the thief audaciously demanded payment from him for getting the wagon through the difficult area. The merchant slapped the thief on the face and exclaimed: “Look, you are a thief. Was it for my benefit that you did what you did? You were trying to steal my wagon. You did me no good turn that I should pay you for. It is only because of Hashem’s kindness in arranging for me to get the wagon back that I gained a benefit.”
The parallel is as follows. Balak, King of Moav, hired Bilaam to curse us. Hashem turned the curses into blessings. Thus, Balak’s actions led to our receiving a benefit. The Moabites might claim that they deserve a reward for bringing about this benefit. But the Torah commands just the opposite – that we should not allow them to join us. For in truth the Moabites deserve no reward, because it was not for our benefit that they did what they did; on the contrary, they were trying to harm us. It is only because of Hashem’s kindness that a benefit resulted.
2. The Maggid asks why the Torah needs to give two reasons for barring the Moabites from joining the Jewish People: not greeting us with bread and water, and hiring Bilaam to curse us. He answers as follows. We might think that the reason the Moabites did not greet us with bread and water was because they did not have enough to share with others, or because they had a natural tendency toward hoarding. If this were the case, their offense would not be so heinous. The Torah therefore adds the second reason, the hiring of Bilaam. The Moabites offered Bilaam a fortune to curse the Jews, although they were not even sure he would succeed: “perhaps I will be able to smite it” (Bamidbar 22:8). Thus, they were clearly neither poor nor tight-fisted. Yet they still failed to offer bread and water to the Jews who were passing through. This failure reflects a fundamental character flaw, making Moabites unfit to join the Jewish People.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shoftim

In this week’s haftarah, which deals with the end of days, it is written (Yeshayah 52:12):
You will not go out in haste, nor will you proceed in a flight, for Hashem will go before you, and the God of Yisrael will be your rear guard.
The Maggid presents an explanation of this verse that he heard from the Vilna Gaon. The terms flight and haste refer to two different reasons for traveling speedily. The term flight (מנוסה) refers to running away from a threat approaching from behind, while the term haste (חפזון) refers to eagerly hurrying to reach an ardently desired destination that lies ahead.
Now, the Jews who left Egypt were hurrying for both reasons. On the one hand, they were fleeing in fear from the Egyptian pursuers. On the other hand, they were rushing to draw close to the Divine Presence and to attain the glory that Hashem had promised them when He told Moshe (Shemos 3:12): “You shall serve God on this mountain.”
By contrast, in regard to the future redemption, Yeshayah tells us that we will not need to travel speedily, neither to flee from an approaching threat nor to rush to gain a desired blessing. We will not need to rush to draw close to the Divine Presence, for “Hashem will go before you” – the Divine Presence will be right in front of us. And we will not need to flee from an approaching threat, for “the God of Yisrael shall be your rear guard” – Hashem will follow behind us to guard us from all pursuers.
The Maggid then offers an alternate explanation of the verse, building on the following Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 19:6):
In this world, when the Jewish People ate the Pesach offering in Egypt, they ate it in haste, as it is written (Shemos 12:11): “And thus you shall eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staves in your hands, and you shall eat it in haste – it is a Pesach offering unto Hashem.” The reason (Devarim 16:3): “For in haste you went out of the land of Egypt.” But regarding the end of days it is written: “For you will not go out in haste, nor will you proceed in a flight.”
What is this like? Here is an analogy: A merchant came to an inn to lodge. He stayed there all day. In the night he got up, took everything in the inn, and went on his way. The innkeeper got up in the morning and began to scream: “Look, this dealer got up in the night, and took everything I had and left!” The dealer heard this and said to himself: “What caused me to hear this screaming? It is because I left at night. So now I swear that I will never leave at night again.”
Similarly, the Jewish People prepared during the night to leave in the early morning. The Egyptians got up after they left and said: “Let’s chase after them, for they took everything we had!” As it is written (Shemos 14:9): “And Egypt pursued them.” Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “What caused you all this? The haste with which you left. But in the future, you will not go out in haste. In the past, I went ahead of you together with My court.” As it is written (ibid. 13:21): “And Hashem went ahead of them in the daytime.” [In Bereishis Rabbah 51:2, the Midrash states that whenever it is written “And Hashem,” it means Hashem and His court.] “But in the end of days I will go ahead of you alone.” As it is written: “Hashem will go before you, and the God of Yisrael will be your rear guard.”
The Maggid asks: What advantage is there in the fact that in the end of days we will not go out in haste? He answers by explaining that the haste with which we left Egypt was to our detriment. Hashem had told Avraham that we would be in exile for 400 years. But in the end Hashem took us out early, after only 210 years in exile, because we had fallen to such a dismal state that it was perilous for us to stay in Egypt for longer. Since we left prematurely, we had to make up for the lost years by going into exile again. But in regard to the end of days it is written (Yeshayah 60:20): “Your days of mourning will be completed.” Our sojourn in exile will completely fulfill its purpose, and there will be no further exile.
This is the message of the Midrash. In the verse from our haftarah, the term go out denotes departure from the place where we had been, while the term proceed denotes the process of traveling from our departure point to our destination. When we left Egypt, we proceeded (at least initially) in a flight, for the Egyptians were pursuing us. The Midrash says that the reason we were pursued is because we went out in haste. But the final redemption will not take place prematurely, but at its proper time. And we will be permanently freed from the bonds of exile the moment the time for the redemption arrives. Accordingly, our exit from the lands of our exile will not be in haste, and so we will not need to proceed in a flight.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Hashem’s Gracious Severeness

In last week’s d’var Torah, we discussed Hashem’s use of afflictions as a tool to stir us to mend our ways. The Maggid noted that Hashem’s taking this course is a tremendous act of graciousness on His part, because Hashem’s nature is to bestow blessing, and it is against His nature to impose afflictions. Here we present some additional ideas the Maggid put forward on the topic of afflictions, built around an interpretation of Tehillim 16. Below we render the verses in this chapter of Tehillim according to the Maggid’s commentary.
In Tehillim 16:2, David HaMelech declares before Hashem (Tehillim 16:2): “My good is not upon You.” As we noted last week, the Maggid interprets this declaration as meaning that the punishments Hashem sends us for our good are not part of His natural mode of operation. The Maggid views the declaration as a praise that the soul offers Hashem for imposing afflictions. And he poses a question: How is it that the soul regards afflictions as good? He then answers as follows. A person is made up of two opposite components. There is the soul, quarried from the heights of heaven. And there is the body, built from coarse physical material. These two components have opposing tendencies. The Maggid likens the melding of soul and body to a marriage between a boy from a genteel community and a girl from a village of coarse peasants. Whenever the husband and wife eat together, one or the other winds up suffering, for what the one finds pleasant the other finds detestable.
In Tehillim 16:3, it is written: “For the holy ones upon the earth and for the mighty ones who ‘embody all My desires.’” The Maggid interprets the phrase holy ones as referring to the elements forming the soul: נפש, רוח, נשמה. The soul came down from its lofty abode in heaven to dwell on the lowly earth, a place of darkness. Obviously, as in the analogy of the young couple, the soul derives no enjoyment from the physical pleasures the body enjoys. Indeed, the soul regards these pleasures as a thorn in its side. Accordingly, when the body is afflicted and subdued, the soul is fortified and elevated. Thus, Hashem’s subjecting us to afflictions is an act of love.
The Maggid then discusses the phrase mighty ones who “embody all My desires.” He interprets this phrase as referring to the extremely righteous. The Gemara in Bava Kamma 60a describes how Hashem pours out His wrath upon the righteous, stating: “Calamity comes upon the world only when there are wicked people in the world, and it always comes first upon the righteous.” The Maggid says that David HaMelech is explaining why Hashem occasionally sends extremely righteous people harsh afflictions that go beyond the loving discipline needed to fortify their souls.
He brings out the idea with a parable. A person had a faithful friend, whom he would greet warmly every day. Once he ran into his friend, and after the friend asked how he was doing, he started yelling at him and cursing him. The friend, out of love, kept quiet and went home, but he was taken aback over how the person had acted. The next day, the person ran into his friend again, and this time he gave him a big hug. The friend asked: “What was this outburst of anger you let out at me yesterday?” The person replied: “My dear friend, don’t be put off by how I acted yesterday. I’ll explain what happened. Yesterday I was fuming with anger at someone, but I couldn’t pour out my wrath at him, since I was afraid he would give it back to me twice over. Then I ran into you, and I decided to blow off my anger at you. I trusted in your good character and your love for me, and I knew you would let my outburst pass without saying anything. It was as if I had a precious item that I needed to deposit with someone for safekeeping, and I could give it over only to a trustworthy person who I knew would not do me wrong. Similarly, I had no one aside from you to hand off my anger to, for you were the only one I could trust to keep it firmly under wraps.”
The parallel is as follows. On occasion Hashem fumes, so to speak, with anger over the actions of a person of flawed character. If He would afflict him to prompt him to mend his ways, he would rail at Him for treating him badly, along the lines of Yeshayah’s statement (verse 8:21): “When he is hungry he will be angry and curse his king.” Now, as we explained before, it is a tremendous act of graciousness for Hashem to discipline a person through afflictions. And it is a dishonor to Hashem to do such a great favor for someone who will not appreciate it. So instead Hashem sends the afflictions to wholehearted men who love Him steadfastly, for He knows that out of their great love and attachment to Him, they will accept His discipline with love and good cheer. David HaMelech refers to such men as mighty ones who “embody all My desires.”
David then continues (Tehillim 16:4): “Their aggravation is multiplied, after another they rush.” The Maggid interprets this statement as describing a strategy Hashem uses to get even people of flawed character to accept His discipline cheerfully. He brings out the idea with an example. Suppose Hashem decrees on such a person a loss of $1,000. If He brought this loss on the person directly, by arranging for a thief to steal from him $1,000, he would get angry. So instead He brings the loss on him in an indirect way. He arranges for a thief to steal from the person $50,000 – the decreed loss multiplied 50-fold. The person then hires detectives to find the thief and get his money back. Hashem arranges for them to do so at the cost of $1,000, and the person is overjoyed with the outcome. In this way, Hashem carries out His decree and the person accepts it goodheartedly. 
David Zucker, Site Administrator