Post Archive for November 2016

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Bereishis 24:1): “And Avraham was old, advanced in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” The Maggid’s commentary on this verse brings out various facets of Avraham’s greatness. We present here a segment from this discussion. After Avraham prevailed in his war against the four kings, Hashem told him (Bereishis 15:1): “Do not fear, Avram, I am a shield for you – your reward is very great.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 44:4):
Avraham was afraid, for he thought: “I went into the fiery furnace [of Nimrod] and I was saved; I went to war against the four kings and was saved. Perhaps I have received my reward in this world, and I have nothing left for the world to come.” Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “Do not fear – I am a shield for you. All that I did with you in this world I did for you for nothing, and you have great reward in store for you in the world to come.” Your reward is very great, as it is written (Tehillim 31:20), “How great is Your blessing that You have hidden in store for those who fear You!” [The Midrash builds on the similarity between the word מָגֵן, meaning shield, and the Aramaic word מַגָן, meaning for nothing.]
The Maggid explains that Hashem was telling Avraham that the miracles He had done for him were not intended as reward, but rather as means to enable him to carry on with his sacred mission and accomplish still more good. The people of the world, having beheld the miracles that had occurred for Avraham’s benefit, would see that he was a true man of God, and they would then cleave to him and follow his word. In this way, Avraham would be able to lead masses of people onto the path of serving Hashem. Accordingly, these miracles served as the means through which Avraham would accrue “very great” reward.
It is with the same idea in mind, the Maggid says, that Hashem told Avraham earlier (Bereishis 12:2): “I shall bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” As a result of attaining a great name among the nations, Avraham would succeed in his holy endeavors, and would thereby gain eternal blessing.
On another occasion Hashem tells Avraham (Bereishis 17:1): “I shall set My covenant between Me and you, and I shall increase you very, very greatly (במאד מאד).” The Maggid notes that the prefix ב- in the phrase במאד מאד is unusual; the natural phrasing is simply מאד מאד. The Maggid ties the unusual phrasing into the above discussion. He explains that we can read the prefix ב- as meaning through, and interpret Hashem’s statement as follows: “Through the very great blessing that I put into your hands, you will attain a very great increase in blessing.” We can interpret in the same way the message Hashem sent to Avraham through the angel He sent to him at the time of the binding of Yitzchak: “Because you performed this deed … I shall surely bless you (אברך אברכך).” The double verb suggests repeated blessing, alluding to an initial grant of blessing being used to generate further blessing.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah opens as follows (Bereishis 18:1): “And Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.” Regarding Avraham’s location “at the entrance of the tent,” the Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 48:8):
A fine entranceway you have provided for the goers and comers; a fine entranceway you have provided for converts, for, were it not for you, I would not have created heaven and earth, of which it is written (Yeshayah 40:22): “And He stretched them forth like a tent for dwelling.”
Here, the Midrash is interpreting “entrance of the tent” as meaning “entranceway to heaven and earth,” which the quoted verse likens to a tent. The Midrash says that Avraham provided an entranceway for converts. The Maggid asks: Of what entranceway are the Sages speaking?
He explains as follows. Avraham had just finished performing bris milah on himself and the members of his household. Regarding bris milah the Gemara states (Nedarim 32a): “Great is bris milah, for, were it not for bris milah, heaven and earth would not remain in existence.” The mitzvah of bris milah, as we know, is one of the foundations of Torah observance. Hashem therefore arranged to ease the way to fulfillment of this mitzvah, so that it would not meet with resistance and be neglected, far be it. He commanded that a Jewish baby boy undergo a bris milah on his eighth day of life. The father, although he might hesitate in subjecting his son to circumcision out of a tenderhearted desire not to cause the baby pain, is expected to overcome this hesitation and do what Hashem commanded. The son, for his part, although he feels pain while he is being circumcised, is unable to protest or stop the circumcision from being carried out. This system ensures that every Jewish male will bear the holy sign of bris milah, much more easily that would be if Hashem has specified that the bris milah be performed in adulthood.
Now, the law is that someone can perform a bris milah on someone else only if he himself has undergone bris milah, as our Sages infer from the double verb המול ימול in the Torah passage presenting the mitzvah of milah. It logically follows that the first to undergo milah would have to perform it on himself in adulthood. After this first self-done milah, then, and only then, would the way be open for fathers to perform milah on their infant sons. Avraham was the one who opened the way, and for this we owe him tremendous thanks.
When the Midrash speaks of “goers and comers,” we can say that it is referring to the succession of generations, along the lines of Shlomo HaMelech’s saying that “a generation goes, and a generation comes” (Koheles 1:4), Avraham provided the opening for those of a new generation to be circumcised by those of the previous generation. He provided, as well, the opening for converts – those wishing to enter the covenant with Hashem as a member of the Jewish People – to be circumcised by a mohel rather than having to circumcise themselves.
With thanks to Hashem for His great kindness, I am happy to announce the engagement of my son Yosef to Tamar Rohb of Rishon L’Tziyon.

Parashas Lech-Lecha

The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 2:12 relates that Avraham saw an astrological sign showing that he would not be able to father children. Hashem then took him outside, told him to look up toward the heavens, and said: “In the very sign from which you see that you are not destined to father children, I am showing you that you will father children.” The Maggid remarks that this interchange is puzzling in two respects. First, given that Avraham was an expert at reading astrological signs, it is puzzling that he would have wrongly interpreted a sign as indicating that he would not father children. Second, Hashem’s response is puzzling – it is not clear what He means. In another discussion of our passage, the Gemara in Shabbos 156a-b reports that Hashem said to Avraham: “Set aside your astrologizing! The People of Israel are not governed by the planets and the stars. What are you thinking? That Tzedek (Jupiter) is situated in the west? I will turn it back and set it in the east.” But, if a reworking of the celestial system is what Hashem had in mind, we would expect Him to have said: “In the very sign from which you see that you are not destined to father children, I will show you that you will father children.” But, instead, He said: “I am showing you that you will father children.” It is puzzling that Hashem expressed the matter in this way, especially given that Avraham saw just the opposite.
In developing his explanation, the Maggid analyzes an interchange between Yeshayahu HaNavi and Chizkiyahu HaMelech. Chizkiyahu fell ill, and Yeshayahu told him: “Issue your final orders to your household, for you are going to die, and you shall not live.” The Gemara in Berachos 10a reports the discussion that ensued. After Chizkiyahu suggested a way he could remedy his sin and nullify the death decree, Yeshayahu told him that the decree was final. Chizkiyahu exclaimed: “Son of Amotz, stop your prophesying and leave! Thus I have it from my father’s father: ‘Even if a sharp sword is placed on a person’s throat, he should not refrain from pleading for mercy.’”
The Maggid explains this episode with a simple parable. A villager had a large collection of silver and gold vessels and jewelry. He was afraid to keep all these precious items in his own house. He therefore handed them over to a friend of his in a nearby town, to hide them away and keep watch over them. But, one night, this friend’s house was burgled, and all the gold, silver, and other precious items in the house were stolen. The next morning, the friend sent a special messenger to the villager to tell him what happened. The villager, upon hearing the news, immediately sent his entire household out onto the roads to search for the burglars. The messenger declared: “I think you should call off this expedition. Why waste your effort, and squander whatever assets you still have left?” The villager replied: “Why do you think my friend rushed to send you to me to tell me about the burglary in his house? He recognized that, with the resources at my disposal, I could catch these burglars. Your foolish advice runs counter to the very reason you were sent here.”
Similarly, when Hashem sends a messenger with a threat of calamity, almost always His whole purpose is to prompt a search for the failing that triggered the threat, so that the failing will be remedied and the threat can be withdrawn. In particular, this was the case when Hashem sent Yeshayahu to Chizkiyahu with the message “you are going to die, and you shall not live.” Chizkiyahu recognized Hashem’s intent, asked Yeshayahu to tell him the reason for the severe decree, and learned that he was being taken to task for not making an effort to bring forth children. Chizkiyahu then set out to remedy this failing: He asked Yeshayahu to allow him to marry his daughter. When Yeshayah responded by saying that the decree had already been cast, Chizkiyahu told him to stop his prophesying and leave. He was saying: “The whole reason you were sent to me was to prompt me to look into what I had done wrong. Now that I know, you can leave; I have the means to remedy the failing and nullify the decree. Indeed, if there were nothing I could do to nullify the decree, what point would there be in Hashem’s sending you to me to tell me about it?”
With this, we can understand the discussion between Hashem and Avraham. Hashem wanted Avraham to pray for children; as the Midrash states, He made the matriarchs barren because He “yearns” for the prayers of the righteous. Hashem needed a means to prompt Avraham to pray; since no prophets were on the scene, Hashem showed Avraham an astrological sign indicating that he would not have children. Avraham read the sign’s literal message correctly, but he misconstrued what Hashem meant by showing it to him. He incorrectly assumed that the destiny reflected in the sign was absolute and could not be changed. Hashem told him: “Set aside your astrologizing!” Hashem was saying: “You have misunderstood the import of the sign. You think it means that you absolutely will not have children, but in fact it means just the opposite.” Hashem then continued: “In this very sign I am showing you that you will father children. For if the sign meant what you thought it did – that you are destined not to father children and you have no power to change this destiny – what point would there have been in My showing it to you?”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Noach

In this week’s haftarah, Yeshayah tells the Jewish People (Yeshayah 54:14): “Establish yourself through righteousness, distance yourself from oppression and do not fear.” In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, chapter 1, the Maggid brings this exhortation into his discussion of fear of Hashem.
In describing the ideal form of fear of Hashem, the Maggid starts by quoting Mishlei 2:1-5:
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.
The Maggid raises two questions about this passage. First, the Mishnah in Avos 3:11 seems to present an opposite teaching. The passage above indicates that wisdom and knowledge are prerequisites to fear of Hashem. On the other hand, the Mishnah in Avos says: “With anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom endures, but with anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure.” This teaching indicates that fear of Hashem must precede the pursuit of wisdom. How do we resolve the apparent conflict? Second, what does Shlomo HaMelech mean when he speaks of finding “knowledge of God”? We cannot comprehend Hashem’s nature, so what is Shlomo saying?
The Maggid explains that there are two types of fear of Hashem. A person may fear Hashem because he recognizes that Hashem has total control over his fate, for good or for bad. He therefore keeps the mitzvos to gain reward and refrains from sin to avoid punishment. But the ideal form of fear of Hashem is that engendered by awe of Hashem’s greatness, where a person internalizes the fact that Hashem is infinitely lofty, and he is utterly humbled – to the point of shamefacedness (בושה) – in His Presence. It is like the feeling a one has in the presence of an exceptionally wise and saintly person – one is afraid to approach him, on account of his striking intellectual and moral stature, which makes him worthy of lavish praise. In this vein, in the Song of the Sea (Shemos 15:11), the Jewish People describe Hashem as “awesome in praise” (נורא תהילות) – He is awesome on account of His infinite capabilities and supremely noble traits, which make Him worthy of boundless praise (cf. Ramban ad loc.). Thus, in Shemos 20:17, Moshe tells the Jewish People that Hashem revealed Himself at Sinai with a staggering display of power “so that fear of Him should be upon your faces, and you shall not sin.” The Gemara in Nedarim 20a explains that Moshe is speaking of is shamefacedness. We can read Moshe’s statement [homiletically] as telling us the following: Even if we are free of sin and are certain that we are not at risk of punishment, nonetheless the fear of Hashem – in the sense of awe – should be on our faces.
Thus, in Tehillim 96:9-10 it is written: “Tremble before Him, everyone on earth. … Indeed (אף), the world is set firm so it cannot falter.” This verse hints to us that even if the world were arranged so that everything endured continually without ever buckling or suffering damage, we should bear the fear of Hashem on our faces on account of His glory [the word אף can also mean even]. Tehillim 34:10 conveys a similar message. David HaMelech declares: “Fear Hashem, O His holy ones, for there is no lack for those who fear Him.” The Hebrew word כי in this verse, which in the literal rendering means for, also bears the meaning of when. We can thus render the verse homiletically as follows: “Fear Hashem, O His holy ones, even when there is no lack for those who fear Him.” We can thus interpret David’s words as saying that even when we have everything we desire and suffer no lack, we should fear Hashem because of His powers and His nobility. The truly wise choose the path of Torah and mitzvos because they see that it is noble. As David HaMelech puts it in Tehillim 12:7: “Hashem’s words are pure words.” And they avoid sin because they consider it abominable, rather than because they wish to escape punishment. As it is written (ibid. 97:10): “O you who love Hashem, hate evil!” This is the message behind the verse from our haftarah: “Establish yourself through righteousness, distance yourself from oppression and do not fear.” Yeshayah is telling us that we should distance ourselves from oppressive conduct because we consider it vile, rather than out of fear of the punishment we may get for oppressing others.
But to attain the wisdom needed to reach the higher level of fear of Hashem, one must start with the lower level. This is what the Mishnah in Avos means when it teaches that fear of sin is a prerequisite to wisdom. Fear of punishment for sin paves the way for a person to stride the path of Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds. And then the door to the realm of wisdom opens for him, and he can enter and proceed to its innermost region. Immersion in wisdom leads a person to appreciate the sublimity and radiance of Hashem’s Presence. This is what Shlomo HaMelech means in the passage from Mishlei that we quoted, where he teaches that wisdom leads to fear of Hashem. By “knowledge of God,” Shlomo means recognition of Hashem’s greatness, through which a person becomes filled with awe of Hashem. He is then led to cling to Hashem and His Torah. He declares, as Tehillim 73:28 puts it: “Nearness to Hashem is what I find good.” Of such a person it is written (ibid. 112:1): “Praiseworthy is the man who fears Hashem, who greatly desires His commandments.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator