Post Archive for October 2016

Parashas Bereishis

Bereishis Rabbah 1:1 teaches that the Torah mapped out the plan of creation. The starting point for the teaching is the following verse (Mishlei 8:30): “I [the Torah] was then His ward – I was then His rapture every day, playing before Him at all times.” Building on the similarity between the between the word אָמוֺן for ward, and the word אֻמָן for artisan or architect, the Midrash expounds:
The Torah says, “I am Hashem’s architect.” When a man builds a palace, he consults an architect. And the architect consults his files of blueprints to work out how to construct the building. Similarly, Hashem consulted the Torah, and afterward He created the world. The Torah then declared: “On the basis of ‘the beginning,’ God created the heaven and the earth.” And “the beginning” is none other than the Torah, as it is written (Mishlei 8:22): “Hashem took me [the Torah] as the beginning of His path, [preceding His works of yore].”
The Maggid comments that this teaching is bewildering. What does it mean to say that Hashem consulted the Torah to see how to create the world? Does Hashem need guidance? Besides, the Torah itself is His creation. And when the Midrash describes the Torah declaring, “On the basis of ‘the beginning,’ God created heaven and earth,” what is the Midrash trying to say?
To explain the Midrash, the Maggid turns to Shlomo HaMelech’s teaching in Koheles 3:14: “I realized that everything God will do endures forever – it cannot be augmented or diminished – and God made it so that He be feared.” There is a message, the Maggid says, in Shlomo’s choice of the phrase “will do” rather than “has done.” The phrasing stands out as unusual. The Maggid explains it as follows. We know the creations of the world are perishable. Man and his various material assets all have a finite lifespan, and all are vulnerable to damage and decay. But, Shlomo says, we must not think that Hashem made the world this way due to an inability to do otherwise. The phrase “will do” tells us that Hashem has the potential to make His creations enduring, if He so chooses. It must be, then, that Hashem deliberately chose to make His creations perishable.
Why did He do so? Shlomo tells us: “So that He be feared.” When man notes that he and his assets are vulnerable, he feels fear of Hashem. And why did God want man to feel such fear? In order that he be careful to follow the Torah scrupulously. Thus, God designed the world with the specific goal of firmly emplacing the Torah within it. When the Midrash says that Hashem created the world “on the basis” of Torah, it is teaching us this lesson.
The Maggid comments further on the last verse that the Midrash quotes: “Hashem took me [the Torah] as the beginning of His path, preceding His works of yore.” The last phrase seems redundant, but the Maggid shows that it conveys an important insight.
The general rule in the formation of an entity, our Sages say, is that the subordinate elements emerge before the primary element. Thus, with a stalk of grain, the straw is formed before the grain, and, with a fruit, the peel is formed before the main part of the fruit. On a larger scale, at the time man came into being, the rest of the world had already been created, as the Zohar on Bereishis 1 discusses at length. As the saying goes, “what goes in first comes out last.” The first step of any activity is defining the goal, but the goal is reached only after preparatory work is done. In this vein, Hashem’s initial goal in creating the world was to reveal His Torah, but only after He created the rest of the world did He bring forth the Torah’s light.
Given the rule that the most important feature comes forth last, we are led to wonder why the Torah prides itself, so to speak, on “preceding His works of yore.” The Maggid explains the Torah’s stance with a parable. Two youths were quarreling, and one said to the other: “How dare you speak to me with such disrespect! Don’t you know that my father, from his early days, has been the head of our town?” His antagonist replied: “Well, these days, the area is crawling with bandits. In such times, lowly people are usually put at the head, so they can bear the burden of dealing with such hooligans.” The first youth retorted: “You fool! Is it just now that my father has been put at the head? Just take a minute, please, and remind yourself that my father was put at the head years ago, when the area was in peace. So, in truth, he is a great man, most worthy of his position.” Thus, the town leader, although he would not have been put in his position at the time this story took place, deserves double respect for having been appointed still earlier. The parallel is as follows. It is true that the world was founded under the rule that the least important emerges first and the most important last. But, before the world was created, the opposite applied. Thus, the Torah can well pride itself on coming into being before the creation of the world.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Haazinu

In years like the present one, when there is a Shabbos between Yom Kippur and Sukkos, parashas Haazinu is read on this Shabbos, and the haftarah is the song David HaMelech composed to praise Hashem for delivering him from his enemies (Shmuel Beis 22, also appearing, with a few slight differences, as Tehillim 18). David HaMelech declares (Shmuel Beis 22:36): “You have given me the shield of Your salvation, and Your humility has made me great.” The version in Tehillim 18:36 contains an additional phrase; after the word salvation it is written, “Your right hand supported me.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 48:1): “You have given me the shield of Your salvation – this relates to Avraham. Your right hand supported me – in the fiery furnace, in the period of famine, and in the war against the kings.” In last year’s d’var Torah, we presented one of the Maggid’s comments on this Midrash. We now present a follow-up, taken from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Toldos.
Just before Yaakov left home to go to Charan, Yitzchak granted him the “blessing of Avraham.” The Maggid discusses the nature of this blessing. He describes two modes that Hashem employs in providing a person with his needs. The first method is through direct support, by miraculous means, as if the person were a child sitting at his father’s table. The second method is through an endowment, whereby the person receives the means to procure his support “on his own” through natural effort.
Initially, Avraham was supported through miraculous means. The Midrash reflects this fact, listing some instances in which Hashem performed a miracle for Avraham. One instance was the episode of the fiery furnace: Hashem performed a miracle to enable Avraham to emerge from the fire unscathed. A second instance was in the period of the famine: Avraham went to Egypt to escape the famine, Pharaoh abducted Sarah, and Hashem afflicted him with a miraculous sickness to induce him to release her. A third instance was the war against the kings: Hashem performed a miracle to enable Avraham’s small contingent to defeat the large combined army of the four kings. But later, when Avraham reached old age, Hashem blessed him with “everything,” handing over to him the mechanism for generating blessing through natural effort, and enabling him, so to speak, to tend to his needs on his own.
Avraham passed this mechanism on to Yitzchak, and Yitzchak passed it on to Yaakov. But when Yaakov had to flee to Charan to escape Eisav, it was no longer appropriate for him to be “on his own” – rather, he would need to be under Hashem’s direct support, as Avraham had been previously. Thus, just before Yaakov departed, Yitzchak blessed him: “May He grant you the blessing of Avraham” – the blessing of direct Divine support.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeilech / Yamim Noraim

This d’var Torah continues the theme of last year’s d’var Torah on parashas Vayeilech. The Maggid notes that the prayers we recite on the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) include a range of requests. Some parts of the prayers involve a plea that Hashem establish His sovereignty over the world. Thus, on Rosh Hashanah we pray: “Our God and God of our forefathers, reign over the entire world in Your glory; be exalted over the entire earth in Your grandeur ….” And on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we pray: “And so, Hashem our God, instill fear of You over all You have made … cause all creations to bow down in homage before You ….” Other parts of the prayers involve requests for physical needs: We ask Hashem to “remember us for life” and inscribe us in the “book of life, blessing, peace, and prosperity.”
The more spiritually lofty among us focus on the passages expressing requests of the first type, reciting these passages with a broken heart, pouring forth the words of supplication and weeping profusely over the fact that the glory of Hashem and His Torah are subdued. Many of us, however, focus on the passages expressing requests of the second type, with these passages being the ones that prompt an outpouring of the soul. In Megillas Eichah, Yirmiyahu laments over situations where our attention is riveted on physical needs. Describing such situations, he declares (Eichah 1:11): “All her people groan, seeking bread.” And further on (ibid. 2:11-12): “My eyes failed through tears, my innards churned, my liver spilled on the ground – over how the daughter of my people was broken, as young children and sucklings fainted in the city squares. To their mothers they said ‘Where is bread and wine?’ as they fainted as if dying in the city squares ….”
In the Unesaneh Tokef prayer that we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we say: “Man comes from earth and ends as earth. With his soul he brings in his bread.” The Maggid interprets this passage, homiletically I would say, as a lament along similar lines. He expounds as follows. Both the body and the soul need sustenance during a person’s sojourn in this world. The ideal situation is one in which the body gains its sustenance mainly through physical labor such as working the land, while the soul gains its sustenance by toiling in Torah study and prayer. The soul should be only minimally involved in gaining sustenance for the body, for the only reason Hashem sent the soul into this world was to engage in spiritual pursuits. This ideal was realized when we were well-settled in Eretz Yisrael. But now circumstances are different. Most of us no longer gain our physical sustenance through the work of our bodies. Rather, we have to invest our hearts and minds in activities devoted to sustaining our bodies, such as business and similar pursuits. Our minds and hearts are immersed in such activities from morning to evening, and sometimes even into the night, leaving little or no room for spiritual pursuits.
The relationship between the body and the soul now is very odd. Usually when someone comes to a town as a temporary visitor, he does not put one of the townspeople to work. But with the body and the soul, this is exactly what is happening. The body is temporary – it comes from the earth and ends as earth – yet it puts the soul, the contemplative side of man, to work. The mind and heart toil to meet the body’s needs, and they are muddled by worldly worries.
This state of affairs is reflected in Yeshayah’s exhortation (Yeshayah 51:21): “Therefore, hear this now, O impoverished one, drunk, but not from wine.” Wine muddles a person. Poverty also muddles a person; the Gemara in Eruvin 41b says that poverty drives a person out of his mind. There is a key difference, however. When a person is drunk from wine, his faculties of thought are knocked completely out of commission. As Hoshea puts it (verse 4:11): “Wine and fresh wine take the heart captive.” It is different with poverty. A person who is consumed with the worries of poverty cannot speak straight, but he can hear and understand what someone else tells him. If he has gone astray, and someone rebukes him saying, “hear this – …,” he can listen to the rebuke and accept it. He can say, as Shlomo HaMelech puts it (Shir HaShirim 5:2): “I am asleep, but my heart is awake.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator