Post Archive for 2017

Parashas Shelach

At the end of this week’s parashah, the Torah presents the mitzvah of tzitzis (fringes): Any four-cornered garment that a Jewish man wears must have fringes on each corner. (It is standard practice for a Jewish man to wear a four-cornered garment regularly in order to fulfill this mitzvah.) The Torah explains the reason for this mitzvah, saying (Bamidbar 15:39-14): “And they shall be unto you as fringes, that you may look upon them and remember all the commandments of Hashem and fulfill them … I am Hashem your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God – I am Hashem your God.” The Midrash comments (Bamidbar Rabbah 17:6):
We can draw an analogy: A person fell into the sea, and the ship’s captain passed him a rope and said, “Grasp this rope in your hand and don’t let it go. If you let it go, your life is lost.” Similarly, the Holy One Blessed Be He said to the Jewish People: “As long as you cling to mitzvos, you will remain alive.” As it is written (Devarim 4:4): “But you who cling to Hashem your God, you all are alive this day.” And similarly it is written (Mishlei 4:13): “Hold fast to moral counsel, do not let up. Guard it, for it is your life.” … The Holy One Blessed Be He said further to the Jewish People: “In this world, because of the evil inclination, you separate yourselves from the mitzvos. But in the end of days I will uproot it from you.” As it is written (Yechezkel 36:27): “And I will place My spirit within you, and I will make it so that you will follow My statutes and observe My ordinances and fulfill them.”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. His explanation revolves around our basic obligation to study Torah and serve Hashem. We serve Hashem by performing the mitzvos in their proper time and place. The obligation to study Torah, however, is not limited to a specific time. We are commanded to study, teach, and ponder the Torah day and night, in order to guard it and fulfill it. Thus, the Gemara states (Berachos 17a):
A pearl of wisdom regularly heard from R. Meir’s mouth: “Study with all your heart and all your soul, to know My ways and keep diligent watch at My Torah’s doors. Safeguard My Torah in your heart, and let the fear of Me be before your eyes. Guard your mouth from all sin, and purify and sanctify yourself from all wrongdoing and iniquity, and I shall be with you everywhere.”
Here, R. Meir describes Hashem exhorting us twice regarding the Torah: Hashem tells us to “keep diligent watch at My Torah’s doors” and to “safeguard My Torah in your heart.” The Maggid explains the double language as follows. Our obligation to perform the mitzvos necessarily entails an obligation to study their laws. We have to learn and know what we are supposed to do, when, how, and in what amount. But to perform the mitzvos, it is enough for us to study the laws of a mitzvah when the time comes to fulfill it – to study the laws of Pesach when Pesach is at hand, and so on. Moreover, it is enough for the people of each community to appoint a communal Rabbi to teach them the laws of the mitzvos, delivering lectures and answering questions about the mitzvos, each one in its time.
However, beyond fulfilling mitzvos, it is an obligation in its own right for us to pore over the Torah day and night. The realm of Torah study includes even study of laws that we cannot practice today, such as the laws of offerings and other acts of service in the Beis HaMikdash, and the laws of ritual purity and impurity. Such study is called “keeping diligent watch” – shekeidah. The Hebrew word shekeidah bears a connotation of hastening, as in the following passage (Yirmiyah 1:11-12): “And the word of Hashem came upon me, saying, ‘What do you see, Yirmiyah?’ And I said, ‘I see a staff of an almond tree (shahked).’ And Hashem said to me, ‘You have seen well, for I shall hasten (shohked) in doing what I have said.’” Studying the laws of mitzvos that will be practiced only in a future era can be viewed as hastened study. Such hastened study necessarily entails a need to remember and safeguard in our hearts the laws we have learned until the time comes to put them into practice.
Proper Torah study requires that a person review what he has learned many times, so that he will retain the material firmly in his mind. In this vein, the Gemara relates a saying (Kesuvos 77b): “Well-off is one who comes here with his learning in hand.” And, as we said just above, we are obligated to study diligently – with appropriate review – even the laws the laws that we will fulfill only at a later time. We should be as familiar with these laws as with the laws of the mitzvos we perform all the time, such as the mitzvos of tzitzis and tefillin. Now, we do not know the full extent of what we accomplish by studying the Torah’s laws, including laws not currently practiced. Only those in Hashem’s inner circle, the angels, possess this knowledge. The Gemara in Shabbos 88b relates that when Moshe came before Hashem to receive the Torah, the angels battled him and sought to smite him. They cried out to Hashem, in the words of Tehillim 8:2: “Keep Your glory [the Torah] set within the heavens.” The angels wanted to keep the Torah with them in heaven, even though they have no connection to the practical fulfillment of mitzvos. It must be that Torah study in itself brings about wondrous effects, beyond providing the knowledge needed to perform mitzvos.
As we said, we do not really know what these effects are. Nonetheless, it is fitting for us to try to gain some understanding, within our limited power of comprehension, of why Hashem obligated us to study diligently and keep firmly in our memory the laws that will be practiced only in the era of Moshiach. What is the rationale for such study and what benefit do we gain through it?
The Maggid answers as follows. As a general matter, we are obligated to act toward Hashem the same way He acts toward us. Now, when we were slaves in Egypt, we were not fit to serve as Hashem’s holy ministers. Thus, when Hashem told Moshe to tell Pharaoh to free us, Moshe asked (Shemos 3:11): “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Yisrael out of Egypt?” Moshe saw that we were bereft of good deeds, and, as the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 3:4 explains, he was asking Hashem what merit we had that made us deserve being taken out of Egypt. Hashem responded (ibid. 3:12): “For I shall be with you – and this is your sign that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” That is, Hashem, in His great goodness, freed us on account of what He knew we would do later – that we would accept the Torah. In the same way, it is our duty to study diligently the mitzvos that we are unable to fulfill now on account of the fact that Hashem will later redeem us from our state of exile and grant us the opportunity to fulfill these mitzvos. Thus, in the passage in the Torah that presents the mitzvah of tzitzis, which is meant to remind us of the mitzvos in general, Hashem concludes by saying: “I am Hashem your God, who took you out of Egypt, to be a God unto you.” Hashem is saying: “Just as I took you out of Egypt on account of the fact that you would later accept Me as your God and pledge to serve Me, so, too, you must act toward Me, and act in anticipation of what I will do for you later.”
The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 17:6, which we quoted initially, explains what benefit we gain by studying sections of the Torah dealing with laws that we will fulfill only later. The Midrash tells us that the Torah is what gives us life, and to stay alive we must hold on to it without letting up. We must cleave to Torah, and we can do so fully only if we study all of it diligently, including the sections dealing with laws that we will fulfill only in the end of days, and safeguard it firmly in our memory. The Midrash goes on to conclude by saying that in this world we occasionally separate ourselves from the mitzvos, because the evil inclination prevents us from appreciating them, but in the end of days Hashem will uproot the evil inclination from within us, and we will then be able to see the wondrous benefit we derive from them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behaalosecha

Parashas Behaalosecha begins with a passage restating the mitzvah to light the menorah in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The passage ends as follows (Bamidbar 8:4): “And this was the making of the menorah – a beaten work of gold, from its base to its flowers it was beaten work; according to the image that Hashem had shown Moshe, thus he made the menorah.” The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:4): “It is not written ‘thus Moshe made the menorah,’ but rather ‘thus he made the menorah,’ without specifying who made it. And who actually made it? The Holy One Blessed Be He.”
Further on, in Bamidbar Rabbah 15:6, the Midrash comments on the fact that the passage about the menorah appears right after the account at the end of parashas Naso of the offerings the twelve tribal princes brought during the Mishkan’s inauguration ceremony. The Midrash relates that Aharon was upset that his tribe, the tribe of Levi, did not have the chance to bring an offering in this ceremony. He was worried that some flaw in him caused the tribe of Levi to lose out. Hashem responded by telling him that his lot is better than that of the princes. He went on to explain that the practice of bringing offerings would continue only while the Mishkan or Beis HaMikdash stood, but the menorah would abide forever. In addition, the mitzvah conveyed to Aharon and his descendants to bestow on the Jewish People a special set of blessings (Birkas Kohanim) would also abide forever. We presented previously one of the Maggid’s explanations on this Midrash, where the lighting of lights on Chanukah is regarded as an extension of the lighting of the menorah in the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash. Here we present another explanation, which links this Midrash to the one we quoted in the previous paragraph.
The Maggid’s starting point is Yaakov’s dream about the ladder extending from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. The Maggid explains that the angels ascend to transport our prayers and acts of service to Hashem from earth to heaven, and then descend to earth with the blessing that our prayers and acts of service generated. In the early stages of Jewish history, the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash served as the focal point of this system, and so it will be again in the end of days when the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 15:12 says that on the day that Moshe erected the Mishkan on earth, a corresponding Mishkan was erected in heaven. The Maggid explains that as the service was performed in Moshe’s Mishkan, using the service vessels made by Betzalel and his staff, the spiritual elements of the acts of service rose up to the Mishkan in heaven and went through a parallel process of service there.
We consider now the inauguration of the Mishkan. The Hebrew term for inauguration, chinuch, bears the meaning of preparing something for its intended use. In connection with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the Maggid draws an analogy to a road. In the Maggid’s time, a new road that had not yet been used was hard to travel upon. The road would become suitable for general travel only after it had been broken in by people with strong wagons bearing heavy loads. The path linking the Mishkan to heaven had to undergo a similar breaking-in process. This process was accomplished through the inaugural offerings of the tribal princes, who were men of awesome spiritual stature, whose offerings bore great spiritual weight.
Now, in general, the acts of service in Moshe’s Mishkan came to completion only when their spiritual elements reached the Mishkan in heaven and went through the service performed there. There was one exception: the lighting of the menorah. As the Midrash teaches, the menorah in Moshe’s Mishkan was not the work of man – it was made by Hashem Himself. Consequently, once Aharon lit the menorah in Moshe’s Mishkan, the service of lighting the menorah was complete, without need for the spiritual elements of the service to travel up to the Mishkan in heaven for further processing.
The Maggid brings out the idea with analogy. When a person buys on credit, usually he makes a small down payment on the spot, and then pays the rest later. The down payment constitutes a preliminary stage of the transaction. But if a buyer pays the full price on the spot, the transaction is completed immediately. Similarly, all the acts of service in the Mishkan had to undergo an inauguration process, except for the lighting of the menorah. As we explained, the act of bringing an offering did not reach completion until the spiritual elements of the offering were offered in the Mishkan in heaven. Accordingly, as reported in Sifra, Shemini 15, when Moshe completed the building of the Mishkan, he prayed (Tehillim 90:17): “May the sublimity of our Master, our God, come down upon us. Our handiwork, establish for us; our handiwork, establish it.” He was praying that the acts of service performed in the Mishkan would undergo the full process of completion in the Mishkan in heaven. But the act of lighting the menorah came to completion immediately.
Accordingly, with the menorah there was no need for an inauguration procedure; there was no need to break in a path to convey the spiritual elements of the menorah lighting to the Mishkan in heaven. Thus, when Aharon felt upset at not participating in the inauguration of the Mishkan, Hashem reassured him by explaining to him the fundamental difference between the lighting of the menorah and the rest of the service performed in the Mishkan. Aharon’s lot was greater than that of the princes, for the lighting of the menorah was a uniquely lofty component of the service. Moreover, the practice of bringing offerings would continue only while the Mishkan or Beis HaMikdash stood, but the menorah would abide forever.
The Maggid goes on to describe the eternal aspect of the menorah. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 119:89): “Forever, Hashem, Your word stands firm in heaven.” Just as Hashem is eternal, so, too, His works are eternal. Accordingly, the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 15:10 relates when the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, the menorah was not destroyed, but rather was hidden away. The Midrash lists five things were hidden away when the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed – the Holy Ark, the menorah, the fire, the spirit of Divine inspiration, and the keruvim (cherubs). The Midrash states that they will all be restored when the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt in the end of days.
The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 15:6 concludes by saying that Hashem told Aharon that the blessings with which he and his descendants would bless the Jewish People would also abide forever. In this vein, in connection with Birkas Kohanim, the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 11:2 expounds:
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to the Jewish People: “Even though I told the Kohanim to bless you, I stand along with them and bless you.” Therefore, the Kohanim spread out their hands, to indicate that the Holy One Blessed Be He is standing behind them. Thus it is written (Shir HaShirim 2:9): “He watches through the windows; He peers through the shutters.” He watches through the windows – from between the shoulders of the Kohanim. He peers through the shutters – from between the fingers of the Kohanim.
Like the lighting of the menorah, Birkas Kohanim did not have to undergo any inauguration process. Because Hashem plays a direct part in the bestowal of the blessings, the service of bestowing the blessings came to completion immediately, without any need of any transfer between earth and heaven. For the same reason, Birkas Kohanim continues to be practiced over the entire course of time.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Naso

The last segment of this week’s parashah describes the offerings that the tribal princes brought as part of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). On each of the first twelve days of Nisan, one of the princes brought an offering. The first to bring his offering was Nachshon ben Aminadav, prince of the tribe of Yehudah. The Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:14):
Nachshon began and brought his offering according to the order of the kingship, for Yehudah’s father Yaakov had designated him to be king over his brothers. As it is written (Bereishis 49:8-11): “Yehudah, your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down before you. … The scepter will not depart from Yehudah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until the arrival of Shiloh [Moshiach], and unto him will be the obedience of the peoples.” … And there was a tradition in the hands of the tribe of Yehudah, their sages and leaders, passed down from our father Yaakov, regarding what would happen to each tribe up to the time of Moshiach. And similarly, there was a tradition in the hands of each tribe, passed down from Yaakov, regarding what would happen to that tribe up to the time of Moshiach.
In recounting the blessings that Yaakov gave each of his sons just before his death, the Torah states that Yaakov assembled his twelve sons together, and then goes on to relate the specific blessing that he gave to each of his sons. The Torah concludes by saying (Bereishis 49:28): “All these are the twelve tribes of Yisrael, and this is what their father spoke to them and blessed them – each one according to his blessing he blessed them.” The Maggid explains that this verse is telling us why Yaakov’s blessings to his sons were lengthy. These lengthy blessings stand in contrast with the blessings that the Torah directs the Kohanim to pronounce upon the Jewish People, as recorded in our parashah right before the account of the princes’ offerings. These blessings are brief, although they surely encompass all good things for the entire Jewish People. The Maggid sets out to elaborate on the reason for the length of Yaakov’s blessings to his sons.
Sefer Shemos begins as follows (Shemos 1:1-5): “These are the names of the sons of Yisrael, who came to Egypt with Yaakov …. Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehudah; Yissachar, Zevulun, and Binyamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. And all the souls who came forth from the loins of Yaakov were seventy souls, and Yosef was in Egypt.” The Midrash remarks (Shemos Rabbah 1:7): “Although Yosef gained sovereignty, he did not pride himself over his brothers and his father’s house. Just as he was small in his eyes at the beginning, when he was a slave in Egypt, so was he small in his eyes after he became king.” This description characterizes the general attitude taken by Jewish leaders. They take no greatness for themselves, not even as much as a hairsbreadth. Indeed, they regard the eminence and honor extended to them as a burden.
Shaul HaMelech, for example, shied away from the kingship; during the ceremony in which Shmuel HaNavi was going to designate him as king, he hid himself among the baggage (Shmuel Alef 10:22). And when Aharon was annointed as Kohen Gadol, he worried that he might have improperly taken satisfaction in this honor, thereby embezzling the annointing oil (Horayos 12a). All the great Jewish leaders regarded it as a serious prohibition to derive benefit from the things of this world, from their wealth and their eminence, beyond the extent necessary for their service to Hashem. David HaMelech summed up the matter by declaring (Divrei HaYamim Alef 29:11-12): “Yours, Hashem, is the greatness, and the strength, and the splendor, and the triumph, and the glory, even everything in heaven and earth. Yours, Hashem, is the kingdom, and the sovereignty over every leader.” Here, David is saying that eminence belongs to Hashem alone.
In the same vein, Yosef attributed no eminence to himself on account of his position. Regarding Yosef, it is written (Bereishis 42:6): “Now Yosef, he was the ruler over the land; he was the one who apportioned provisions to all the people of the land.” The Torah is telling us that Yosef’s rulership over Egypt consisted solely of his being the one who apportioned provisions among the people of Egypt – in effect, he was working as a servant of the people. His attitude was exactly in line with that which the Torah would later prescribe for Jewish kings (Devarim 17:20): “… he will not become haughty toward his brethren, and will hold back from turning away from the commandments either to the right or to the left.” But we are left with a question: How did the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah see an allusion to Yosef’s humble attitude in the Torah’s simple statement that “Yosef was in Egypt”?
The Maggid builds his answer to this question on a statement that Moshe made to the Jewish People shortly before his death. Moshe declared (Devarim 29:9): “You are standing, all of you, this day before Hashem your God.” Seemingly the phrase “all of you” is superfluous, especially since Moshe goes on to list all the different segments of the Jewish People. But the phrase is needed in conjunction with what Moshe says later (ibid. 29:13-14): “Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this admonition, but with him who stands here with us this day before Hashem our God, and with him who is not here with us this day.” Moshe was saying that the covenant being made encompassed all Jews of all time, for each Jew who was physically present at the assembly represented all the future generations of Jews who would descend from him. Moshe stressed that “all of you” – all the living members of the Jewish People – were present at the time of the making of the covenant, for if any Jew were not present, the covenant would not encompass all Jews of future generations: Those who descended from the Jews who were not present would not be included.
In a similar vein, Mishnah Pesachim 10:5 states that on Seder night each Jew must see himself as if he personally went out from Egypt. For the First Commandment says (Shemos 20:2): “I am Hashem your God Who took you out of Egypt” – with the word you written in singular form. Our ability to fulfill the law in the Mishnah depends on the premise that at the time of the Exodus all the Jews in the world were subjugated in Egypt. For if there were Jews who were not subjugated in Egypt, a Jew of today might be in doubt as to whether his ancestor was among the Jews who were subjugated in Egypt or was one of those who were not. We thus have to say that Yosef, along with the rest of the seventy members of Yaakov’s family, was in some sense subjugated by Egypt. Now, since Yosef was viceroy of Egypt, it is very odd to say that he was among those subjugated. Yet, when describing Yaakov’s family at the beginning of Sefer Shemos, the Torah counts Yosef in with the rest of the family. Accordingly, the Sages were led to conclude that Yosef regarded himself as a slave for his entire stay in Egypt.
The Maggid now returns to Yaakov’s blessings to his sons. These blessings were lengthy because they encompassed all the events that would occur to his sons, and their sons, and all the actions they would take, for good or for bad, throughout all the generations. Thus, as Rashi notes in his commentary on the blessings, the blessing to Dan included a prophesy about his descendant Shimshon, and the blessing to Shimon includes a prophesy about his descendant Zimri ben Salu. The blessings that Kohanim pronounce on the Jewish People, on the other hand, are brief, since they are meant to cover only the Jews of the present generation. To reflect the far reach of Yaakov’s blessings, the Torah concludes its account of the blessings by saying: “All these are the twelve tribes of Yisrael, and this is what their father spoke to them and blessed them.” The Torah adds the word all at the beginning of this statement to indicate that Yaakov’s sons represented all the Jews who would walk the earth up to the time of Moshiach, and that Yaakov’s blessings encompassed everything they would do and everything that would happen to them. This point is emphasized in the final phrase of the Torah’s statement: “Each one according to his blessing he blessed them.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bamidbar

Parashas Bamidbar describes how the Jewish People encamped during their sojourn in the wilderness, “each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers’ households” (Bamidbar 2:1). The Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:4):
Holy and lofty were the Jewish People in their formation marked with banners. And all the nations of the world looked upon them in wonder and declared (Shir HaShirim 6:10): “Who is this who gazes down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, clear as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?” They said to the Jewish People (ibid. 7:1): “Turn aside, turn aside, O Shulammite.” They beckoned to them: “Cleave to us, come be with us, and we will make you rulers, commanders, officers, prefects, and governors.” They continued (continuing in the verse): “Turn aside, turn aside, so that we can look you over.” Here, “look you over” means to identify people for positions of power. As Yisro said to Moshe (Shemos 18:21): “And you look over all the people and appoint able men.”
The Jewish People replied (continuing in Shir HaShirim 7:1): “What will you see in the Shulammite, like the dance of the camps (מחולת המחניים)?” They were saying: “What greatness are you proposing to give us? Could it be the greatness of מחולת המחניים? Could you possibly bestow upon us greatness like that which God bestowed upon us in the wilderness, where we had the banner of the camp of Yehudah, the banner of the camp of Reuven, the banner of the camp of Dan, and the banner of the camp of Ephraim? … Could you possibly bestow upon us greatness like that which God bestowed upon us in the wilderness, where whenever we sinned, God would forgive (מוחל) us and say to us, ‘your camp shall be holy’ (Devarim 23:15)?”  
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. We know, he says, that the power of one who brings merit to the public at large is great beyond measure. Regarding such a person, the Sages say in Avos 5:18 that the merit of the public at large is attributed to him. The opposite is true of a person who leads the general public to sin. If a person commits a sin, and others see him and commit the same sin, it is a serious matter – this is one of the things that, as the Mishnah says, precludes repentance. It is, in Shlomo HaMelech’s words (Koheles 1:15), a “perversion that cannot be remedied,” like the case discussed in Yevamos 22b of a person who cohabits with another man’s wife and produces thereby a child who is a mamzer. For what will it help for the person to repent if his sinning has borne the bitter fruit of similar sinning by others?
It is in this vein that Torah exhorts (Devarim 23:15): “Your camp shall be holy, so that he will not see a shameful thing among you.” That is, your neighbor in the tent next to yours should not see you do a shameful thing and be led to do likewise. [In the context of Devarim 23:15, the word “he” refers to Hashem, but the Maggid is reading it homiletically as referring to one’s neighbor.] We must be exceedingly careful not to sin in the sight of others, lest our sinning propagate among the community. A parenthetical note in the commentary adds a further point: If a person wishes to involve himself with the general public, to lead them in the ways of serving Hashem, he must take care first to perfect himself and make himself trustworthy and wholehearted in his own conduct and service to Hashem. Thus, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 26:12): “My foot is set on the straight path; in assemblies I shall bless Hashem.” A person must first set his foot on the straight path, and only then can he promote Hashem’s honor among the multitudes.
In Shir HaShirim 7:1, the nations of the world beckon to us to cleave to them and assume positions of power, saying that our exemplary conduct will inspire them to adopt our good ways, and thereby we will earn the great merit of bringing merit to the public at large. We decline the invitation, out of fear that the errors we make will lead them astray, making it hard for us to gain Hashem’s forgiveness for these errors. This is what the Midrash means when it describes us as asking the nations: “Could you possibly bestow upon us greatness like that which God bestowed upon us in the wilderness, where whenever we sinned, God would forgive us?” We mention how Hashem warned us to make sure that “your camp shall be holy,” and that no one should see us commit any improper act. And we ask the nations: “What will you see in the Shulammite? Will you focus on the good deeds we do and learn from them, or will you be led astray by the errors we commit in your presence?”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behar-Bechukosai

Parashas Bechukosai contains the first of the two Torah passages called tochachah, rebuke, which present a long litany of curses that will befall those who stray from the Torah path. In the middle of the litany of curses in our parashah we find the following verse (Vayikra 26:42): “And will I remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham will I remember, and I will remember the land.” The Maggid raises two questions about this verse. First, why are the forefathers listed in reverse order? Second, why does this verse, which seems to present good tidings, appear in the middle of the litany of curses?
The Maggid answers these questions by means of a parable. Two men were arrested for stealing. When they were brought into court, the judges inquired into their background. The first thief replied: “I’m from Mudville. I’m the son of Donald Black.” One judge said: “Ah, Donald Black, we know him well. He spent time here in jail. He is a thief, his father was a thief, and his grandfather was a thief.” Afterwards, the judges turned to the second thief and asked: “And you, who is your father?” The thief replied: “David Cohen, the rabbi of the town of Pleasantville.” The judges asked further: “And your grandfather?” The thief responded: “Moshe Cohen, the rabbi of the city of Megatropolis.” The judges gave the first thief a light sentence and the second one a heavy sentence. The second thief asked: “Why is my sentence so much heavier than this other thief?” One judge replied: “This other fellow is the son of a thief, from a community of thieves. So he is not so much to blame for his stealing. But you grew up in the house of a saintly and upright man. How did you come to steal?” A second judge continued: “Ah, I know your grandfather, and he is also a saintly and upright man.” The third judge added: “I know your great-grandfather, and he is a saintly and upright man as well. You come from a line of saintly and wholehearted men. It does not befit you to steal. So you deserve a very severe sentence.”
This is the idea behind the verse from our parashah. The verse appears in the middle of the litany of curses because it bears a penetrating rebuke. Hashem is comparing our conduct with the splendid conduct of our saintly forefathers. In the same vein, the Gemara in Shabbos 89b tells us that in the end of days, Hashem will come to us and say: “Go to your forefathers, and they will rebuke you.” In the verse from our parashah, Hashem is telling us that He will say to us: “I remember your father Yaakov, with whom I had a covenant. And I remember as well your grandfather Yitzchak, with whom I also had a covenant. And furthermore I remember your great-grandfather Avraham, with whom, too, I had a covenant. So glorious is the stock you come from! How could you fall so low? In addition, I remember the land. I brought you into a lofty land, and you sinned against it. And so you will go into exile, and the land will be rid of you.”
We can compare Hashem’s approach toward us to the way a tutor treats his students. When a dull student learns poorly, the tutor treats him leniently, for he knows the student cannot do much better. But when a bright student learns poorly, the tutor disciplines him severely, for he knows that his poor performance does not befit him.
In the Zichronos (Remembrances) section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer, we say: “And the binding of Yitzchak remember for his descendants this day in mercy.” We plead with Hashem that His remembrance of our forefathers should serve to lead Him to treat us with compassion, rather than serving as an indictment against us. Similarly, when praying to Hashem on our behalf after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe asks Hashem to recall our forefathers for our benefit, as a reason to show us mercy (Devarim 9:27): “Remember Your servants, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; do not look upon the stubbornness of this people, nor to their wickedness, nor to their sin.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Emor

This week’s parashah includes a review of the festival cycle. In connection with Yom Kippur, it is written (Vayikra 23:32): “It shall be for you a day of consummate rest, and you shall afflict yourselves; on the ninth day of the month in the evening, from evening to evening, you shall rest on this day of rest.” The Gemara comments (Berachos 8b): “But is it on the ninth that we fast? It is on the tenth that we fast. Rather, whoever eats and drinks on the ninth, Scripture regards him as having fasted on the ninth and the tenth.” The Maggid notes that it is odd for the Torah to present the mitzvah of eating and drinking on the ninth of Tishrei under the rubric of afflicting ourselves. No other mitzvah is presented in such an oblique way; rather, the Torah states straightforwardly what we are supposed to do or refrain from doing. So here the Torah should have written simply that we shall eat and drink on the ninth and afflict ourselves on the tenth. The Maggid sets out to explain the reason for the oblique presentation.
He brings out the idea with a parable. A rich man had a son who liked to indulge himself through eating. Every day on his way to school, while passing a marketplace where fruit and nuts were sold, he grabbed some out of the baskets, popped them into his mouth, and ran away. After this had gone on day after day for some time, the merchants assembled at the rich man’s house to complain about the boy, describing the mischief he was doing. The father was embarrassed. He reprimanded his son, but to no avail; the boy continued with his deplorable behavior.
The father pondered what he could do to get the boy to stop, and he came up with an idea. The next morning, he called to his son and said: “My dear son, I’m troubled over the fact that you walk to school alone. How could a boy so exemplary and so dear to my heart as you be left to walk to school alone? You should be escorted to school in an honorable way. Wait a bit, and I’ll get a band to come accompany you and play music as you walk to school, so that you’ll make your way there with great pomp, like the sons of noblemen. The boy was thrilled with the idea, so the father arranged for the band to come. As the boy walked to school, the band played festive music and the bandleader declared: “Here comes the splendid, outstanding boy Adam, of the illustrious Smith family – we’re escorting him to his teacher, the famed Dr. Black.” Amidst all the honor and praise with which the boy was escorted to school, he didn’t dream of grabbing from the baskets of fruit and nuts as he had done before. How could he taint his honor with such lowly behavior?
The parallel is as follows.  In regard to man, it is written (Bereishis 8:21): “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” People are naturally strongly drawn toward physical pleasures and other worldly vanities. So if the Torah had stated in explicit terms the mitzvah to eat and drink on the ninth of Tishrei, who knows what would happen? People would get caught up indulging themselves in eating and drinking, perhaps even getting drunk. Who knows if there would be a minyan in shul in the evening for Kol Nidre?
Hashem, in His great wisdom, therefore presented this mitzvah in a veiled manner, couching it in the rubric of afflicting ourselves, and telling us that it would be as if we would be fasting on both the ninth and the tenth. The mitzvah would then be accompanied with an atmosphere of great holiness similar to that of a fast, and it would indeed be as if we were fasting on the ninth as well as on the tenth. As a result, we would easily discern the proper way to eat and drink on erev Yom Kippur. We should not be eating and drinking in excess in order to indulge ourselves. Rather, we should be eating and drinking solely to fulfill Hashem’s command. By doing so, we honor the mitzvah with the glory of holiness, in a spirit of awe and humility, recognizing that as we eat and drink we are sitting before Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Acharei Mos – Kedoshim

The last segment of parashas Acharei Mos discusses forbidden unions. The Torah concludes this discussion with the following exhortation (Vayikra 18:26-30):
And you shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither the born Jew nor the proselyte who lives among you … that the land will not vomit you out when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations, the people who do so shall be excised from among their people. So you shall keep My charge, to shun these abominable practices, which were done before you, and not defile yourselves through them: I am Hashem your God.
The Maggid raises two issues regarding this passage. First, he suggests that instead of “the land will not vomit you out when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you,” the Torah should write “the land will not vomit you out, as it vomited out the nation that was before you, when you refrain from defiling it.” This phrasing would be more appropriate, for the Torah’s apparent intent is to promise us that if we keep its laws and refrain from transgression, the land will not vomit us out. Second, why does the Torah state a penalty of excision for engaging in a forbidden union, when apparently it states just before that the punishment for doing so is expulsion from the land?
The Maggid explains the Torah’s intent through a parable. A rich man had an only son. He brought into the house an orphan boy so that his son would have a close friend, like a brother, and a learning companion in his studies with the household tutor. After the orphan became accustomed to his foster home and, well-fed and well cared for, came to consider himself part of the family, he began to belittle the tutoring. He started taking daily strolls in the gardens and orchards, avoiding the lessons. When the rich man found out about this, he threw the orphan out of the house.
Some time later, the rich man’s son began acting the way the orphan had done. When the father found out, he took his son into a room and gave him a severe beating. A few hours later, when the father’s anger had settled down, the son approached him and said: “Let me at least understand why you treated me, your only son, worse than the orphan boy who was living here. When he did what I did, you didn’t do anything to him. You just threw him out of the house. You should have done the same with me, rather than subjecting me to an outpour of harsh anger and a horrible beating.”
The father replied: “Listen, I am not the father of this other boy. It is only because he seemed well-behaved and obedient that I brought him into the house and kept him here to be a companion to you. When I saw him misbehaving, I threw him out. But you are my son. How can I send you away from me? If you misbehave, I have no choice but to beat you until you straighten out and listen. I’ll never let go of you; I’ll keep disciplining you until I get you onto the road to success.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem warned us not to act like the Egyptians, whose land we had left, or like the Canaanites, who land we were entering (ibid. 18:3). He told us not to defile ourselves with the abominable practices the Canaanites had engaged in, which led Him to cast them out from before us and cause the land to vomit them out (ibid. 18:24-25). And He told us not to think that if we stray from Him and engage in the Canaanite abominations, He will simply cause the land to vomit us out as He had done with the Canaanites. He declared: “The land will not vomit you out when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Rather: “For whoever commits any of these abominations, the people who do so shall be excised from among their people.” The punishment for engaging in these abominations is not expulsion, but rather the ignominy and pain of being excised from the community. As a result, Hashem told us, we will behave ourselves: “You shall keep My charge, to shun these abominable practices, which were done before you, and not defile yourselves through them.” Hashem ended His exhortation by explaining why He will treat us differently from the Canaanites: “I am Hashem your God.” Hashem was telling us: “I am Hashem your God. How, then, can I possibly cast you away from Me and abandon you? Surely I will not do so. Rather, I will keep My chastisement going until you straighten out and keep My charge.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Tazria-Metzora

This week’s double parashah deals with nigei tzaraas: leprous-like skin lesions that would come upon a person for evil speech and certain other offenses (the Gemara in Arachin 16a lists six others – murder, false swearing, immoral relations, haughtiness, theft, and stinginess). The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 15:4):
It is written (Mishlei 19:29): “Judgments are prepared for scoffers, and beatings for the backs of fools.” A parable: A matron entered a king’s palace, and when she saw whips and clubs hanging there she was struck with fear. The king said: “Don’t be afraid. These are for the servants. But I mean for you to eat, drink, and rejoice.” Similarly, when Jews heard the laws of nigei tzaraas they were struck with fear, but Moshe told them: “Don’t be afraid. … I mean for you to eat, drink, and rejoice.”As it is written (Tehillim 32:10): “Many are the agonies of the wicked, but with one who trusts in Hashem, kindness surrounds him.”
In explaining this Midrash, the Maggid takes as his starting point the following verse (Koheles 7:20): “For there is no righteous man on earth who does [only] good and never sins.” In line with this teaching, the Gemara says (Chagigah 5a): “It is written (Devarim 31:17): ‘Then My anger shall be kindled against them on that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them.’ R. Bardela bar Tavyumi said in the name of Rav: ‘To whomever “hiding of the face” does not apply is not one of [the Jewish People].” For each Jew is precious to Hashem like a cherished son, and, as Shlomo teaches in Mishlei 13:24, one who loves his son takes care to discipline him. And no one can say that he has cleansed his heart completely and is in no need of discipline. But the manner in which Hashem hides His face from a person varies from case to case. Sometimes Hashem strikes a person to the point where he becomes poor, racked with pain, and bedridden. On other occasions, He just withholds from the person some minor pleasure or gain, or brings upon him a minor loss.
Thus the Gemara teaches (Arachin 16b): “How far does affliction reach? It is taught: Even to someone putting his hand into his pocket to take out three coins and taking out two.” The Maggid remarks that seemingly it should not matter what kind of affliction Hashem brings on a person; whatever causes the specific person distress will do the job. He then goes on to explain as follows. Since, as Shlomo says, no one is completely free of sin, no one is completely free of afflictions, which Hashem brings on a person to straighten him and raise him spiritually level by level until he approaches spiritual perfection. But Hashem tailors the afflictions to the person. Less severe afflictions are needed with a person who is seeking to serve Hashem properly than with one who is not. In disciplining with a righteous person with a high degree of awareness, it is not necessary for Hashem to dramatically reduce his measure of blessing, beat him with a hammer, or strike him with disease or pain. A minor irritation, as in the example of the coins, is sufficient to arouse him.
This is the idea behind the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah. Shlomo says: “Judgments are prepared for scoffers, and beatings for the backs of fools.” Coarse people need a beating to arouse them. But for the typical Jew, a beating is not necessary. Whips and clubs are not meant for him.
The Maggid brings out the point further with a parable. A simple butcher took it upon himself to raise an orphan boy. The boy was very bright and was conversant in several areas of knowledge. When the boy wanted to carry out mathematical calculations, the butcher gave him a bunch of bones to use for this purpose. Eventually the boy reached the age of marriage, and a rich man took him as husband for his daughter. In the manner of a man of the upper class, the boy’s new father-in-law provided him a nice wardrobe and supplied him with everything he lacked. Once the boy and his father-in-law were out on a stroll together, and they passed a garbage dump. The boy saw some bones there and ran over to the dump to collect them. The father-in-law asked him: “Why are you rooting around in a filthy garbage dump to collect bones?” The boy explained: “I need these bones for doing calculations.” The father-in-law replied: “You needed bones for calculations when you were growing up in a poor man’s house, but now you are a member of a rich man’s family, and you can do your calculations with gold and silver coins. I’ll be happy to give you as many as you need.”
The king’s statement to the matron in the parable presented in the Midrash is along the same lines. Just as the boy had no need anymore to use coarse bones for his calculations, the matron had no need to worry about coarse punishment with whips and clubs. These, the king said, are for servants. But with you, if from time to time I get angry at you, it is enough for me to withhold one course from your meal. Similarly, with a righteous Jew, Hashem has no need to administer coarse punishment; it is enough to subject him to a minor irritation or a small loss.  
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemini

Parashas Shemini begins with an account of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the forerunner of the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple).  Correspondingly, one of the Midrashim on parashas Shemini discusses the era of the third Beis HaMikdash in the end of days. The Midrash, expounding on Mishlei 9:1, reads as follows (Vayikra Rabbah 11:2):
“Wisdom built its house” (Mishlei 9:1) – this refers to the [third] Beis HaMikdash …. “It hewed out its seven pillars” (ibid., end) – these are the seven years of Gog. …. These seven years are the preliminary feast of the righteous before the future era, as indicated by the saying: “Those who dine at the pre-wedding feast will dine at the wedding feast.”
In a previous d’var Torah, we presented the Maggid’s commentary on this Midrash.
Afterward in his commentary on the parashah, the Maggid examines a nearby Midrash that expounds on the same verse in Mishlei in a different vein. The Midrash relates (Vayikra Rabbah 11:3):
Bar Kappara expounded: “‘Wisdom built its house’ – this refers to the Torah …. ‘It hewed out its seven pillars’ – this refers to the seven books of the Torah.” [The Midrash goes on to explain that Bar Kappara regards the Torah as composed of seven books since he considers the passage in Bamidbar 10:35-36, which is bracketed in the Torah scroll on each side by an inverted letter nun, as a separate book.]
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. The verse in Mishlei speaks of a house. A person needs a house to serve as his permanent dwelling. Typically he leaves his house in the morning, usually to go to work, sometimes to run an errand or go on an excursion, but in the evening he returns to his house. The house serves as a place where he can sit in contentment and as a shelter against hazards. A person who has no house, or who is temporarily outside, is subject to the elements and sometimes to attack.
Similarly, the mind of a Jew has a sturdy “house” that serves as its permanent dwelling place. This house is the Torah. Torah wisdom lays out for the Jew the proper outlook on life and provides a domain where his soul can sit in contentment. Other forms of wisdom are referred to in traditional Jewish sources as “outside wisdom,” because when a Jew engages in non-Torah intellectual pursuits he is like a person who is outside his house. In particular, certain types of non-Torah wisdom, especially in the area of philosophy, pose a hazard to the Jew’s soul. In this connection, the Maggid quotes from Sefer HaYashar, Gate 3:
Bad thought systems can devastate a person whose faith lacks firm grounding. An example is the heretics and philosophers who disbelieve the holy Torah because of their occupation with bad thought systems. When occupation with bad thought systems combines with a bad heart and lowly character traits, a person’s faith will be destroyed entirely. For a lack of love of Hashem does not result from a bad heart alone; rather, a key role is played by study of bad thought systems. Such study causes bad notions to crop up in the person’s heart, which devastate the source-point of love of Hashem within him, so that it becomes a spoiled source, a spring polluted with mire. And when a lack of love of Hashem combines with bad thought systems, all the person’s faith will be lost.
The Torah is the life force of a Jew’s soul, the sustenance that satiates it with good. The Torah straightens his soul and crowns it with wisdom and understanding, and clothes it with glory and splendor – all of the various good character traits, pure God-fearingness, and proper views on life. It purifies his soul of bad traits – of all bad views, false fantasies, and bad ways of reasoning. And when the soul is purified of all these negative elements, it is surely properly prepared to absorb all true forms of wisdom.
It is in this sense that the Midrash teaches that when Shlomo HaMelech says that “wisdom built its house” he is referring to the Torah. The Torah serves a Jew as a fortress, a solid shelter. This is not so of outside wisdom. Shlomo writes (Mishlei 1:20): “Wisdom cries out on the outside; in the squares it gives forth its voice.” When a Jew is empty of Torah wisdom and engages in outside wisdom, wisdom cries out, saying: “What place do I have here? Why am I standing outside and in the squares?” Shlomo continues (ibid. 1:21-23):
It calls out at the head of noisy throngs, at the entrances of the gates, in the city, it speaks out its words: “How long, O simpletons, will you love folly? How long will scorners desire scorning and fools hate knowledge? Turn toward my reproof! Behold, I will express my spirit unto you; I will make known my words unto you.”
When a person is engaged in outside wisdom, he can easily fall into a trap. For outside wisdom does not have the power to impose proper rule on a person’s soul. It can only address matters outside the realm of the soul, be they matters pertaining to bodily needs or other aspects of the physical world. By contrast, regarding the Torah it is written (Tehillim 19:8): “Hashem’s Torah is perfect, restoring the soul.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shabbos HaGadol

On Shabbos HaGadol, the Shabbos before Pesach, we read a special haftarah from Sefer Malachi. In this haftarah, we find the following statement (Malachi 3:16):
Then those who fear Hashem spoke one to another, and Hashem paid heed and heard (ויקשב ה' וישמע), and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear Hashem and those who give thought to His Name.
 The Maggid raises three questions about this verse:
1. Why does the verse begin with the word then, which in context is seemingly nonessential?
2. Why is the Hebrew term for spoke not the usual form דברו but rather the unusual form נדברו, which is suggestive of passive voice?
3. In the phrase ויקשב ה' וישמע, what is the import of the word ויקשב, which bears a connotation of waiting, as in Rashi’s commentary at the beginning of Berachos 6a?
To answer these questions, and clarify the nature of the book of remembrance which the verse describes, the Maggid turns to a teaching in Sukkah 21b. The Gemara states that even the casual conversation of a Torah scholar calls for study, citing as a source David HaMelech’s statement in Tehillim 1:3 that a person who devotes himself to Torah is like a tree whose leaf never withers.
In explaining this teaching, the Maggid discusses two scenarios involving someone coming to a rich man’s home. In the first scenario, the host sets out food for the visitor, the visitor asks whether he needs to perform a ritual handwashing and recite the berachah of hamotzi over the bread sitting on the table, and the host tells him that he needs to do so. In the second scenario, the visitor comes while the rich man is in the middle of a meal with numerous guests at the table, and the host tells him to perform a ritual handwashing, sit down at the table, and recite the berachah of hamotzi. In the first scenario, the host’s directive can be regarded as Torah, for the host is stating the halachah that the visitor should follow. But in the second scenario, the host’s directive is not Torah, for it was not a halachic response to a halachic question; rather, it was just an invitation to join the meal.
A statement similar to that of the host in the second scenario appears in the first Mishnah in the second chapter of Sukkah. The Mishnah begins with the law that a person who sleeps under a bed inside the sukkah has not fulfilled the mitzvah of sukkah. Later, the Mishnah says further:
R. Shimon said, “There was an incident where Tavi, the slave of Rabban Gamaliel, was sleeping under a bed [on Sukkos] and R. Gamaliel said to the elders, ‘You have seen Tavi my slave, who is a Torah scholar, and knows that slaves are exempt from [the mitzvah of] sukkah, so he sleeps under the bed,’ and by the way we learned that one who sleeps under a bed has not fulfilled his obligation.”
We noted above the teaching in Sukkah 21b that even the casual conversation of a Torah scholar calls for study. The Gemara presents this teaching in the context of Rabban Gamliel’s statement about his servant Tavi. The Gemara in Sukkah 21b relates:
It has been taught: R. Shimon said, “From the casual conversation of Rabban Gamaliel we learned two things. We learned that slaves are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah, and we learned that one who sleeps under a bed [in a sukkah] has not fulfilled his obligation.” But why does he not say, “From the words of Rabban Gamaliel” [rather than “from the casual conversation of Rabban Gamliel”]? He was informing us by the way of something else, along the lines of what R. Acha bar Adda (some say R. Acha bar Adda in the name of R. Hamnuna) said in the name of Rav: “How do we know that even the casual conversation of Torah scholars calls for study? From what is written (Tehillim 1:3), ‘And whose leaf does not wither.’”
The statement of Rabban Gamliel that R. Shimon quoted was not meant as a halachic ruling, for the elders he was speaking to surely knew the halachos that a servant is exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah and that one who sleeps under a bed in a sukkah does not fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah. Rather, it was just casual conversation, with Rabban Gamliel taking pride over Tavi’s knowledge. Nonetheless, the statement does convey the above halachos about the mitzvah of sukkah.
What did Hashem do with Rabban Gamliel’s statement? He did not accept it as a Torah statement, for, as we said, it was not meant as a Torah ruling. Instead, He stored the statement for later. He knew that in future generations a doubt would arise about sleeping under a bed in a sukkah. So He waited with Rabban Gamliel’s statement until the question about sleeping under the bed in a sukkah would be asked.
We can now explain the verse in the haftarah:
Then those who fear Hashem spoke one to another, and Hashem paid heed and heard (ויקשב ה' וישמע), and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear Hashem and those who give thought to His Name.
The word then indicates the passage of time from the moment when the God-fearing men spoke to each other. The use of the unusual form נדברו indicates then the men were not speaking with deliberate intent to present a Torah teaching; rather, some words of Torah came out in the course of a casual conversation between them. Hashem waited with these words of Torah, and marked them down in a book of remembrance, in the way one does with matters that have not yet come to a conclusion. After some time passed and the appropriate moment arrived, Hashem “heard” these words – that is, He registered them as part of the corpus of Torah.
Note: the d’var Torah I presented last week is actually not on the haftarah of parashas Vayikra, but rather on the haftarah of parashas Lech-Lecha, in a nearby chapter in Sefer Yeshayah. But still it is a fine example of the Maggid’s wisdom.
David Zucker, Site Administrator