Post Archive for 2017

Parashas Vayeishev

In the opening section of this week’s parashah, Yosef says to his brothers (Bereishis 37:6-7): “Hear, please, this dream that I have dreamt: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, and – behold – my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and – behold – your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” Regarding the prefatory phrase “Hear, please,” the Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 84:10): “He [Yosef] said, ‘Thus will the prophets deliver their rebukes – “Hear, please, what Hashem says (Michah 6:1).”’” Afterward, Yosef has another dream, similar to the first, and he relates this dream to his brothers as well. The Torah states that Yaakov castigated him for doing so. The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 84:11): “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He, ‘Thus you will castigate your prophets, as it is written (Yirmiyah 29:27, rhetorically), “Why, then, have you not castigated Yirmiyahu of Anasos?”’” The Maggid sets out to analyze these Midrashim, showing that the first Midrash explains Yosef’s motive in relating his dream to his brothers and the second reflects the reaction of his brothers.
The Maggid begins by discussing Yosef’s motive. Yosef’s conduct is puzzling. It seems that he was pridefully raising himself above his brothers and waiting for the time when he would be king over them. But far be it from us to say such a thing – is this the way a saintly person behaves?
The Maggid explains the matter in terms of a basic principle regarding how Hashem acts toward us. Hashem does not act the way people act. When a person wishes to harm someone else, he conceals his plan so that his intended victim will not hear about it and find a way to escape. But, during the age of prophecy, when Hashem saw a need for punishment, He would inform the people, via a message conveyed by a prophet, about the calamity looming on the horizon. His goal in doing so was to give the people a chance to arouse themselves and find a means to protect themselves. A teaching in Shabbos 88a brings out this idea. It is written (Tehillim 76:9): “From heaven You made judgment heard; the earth feared, and quieted.” Our Sages expound (Shabbos 88a): “First fear, and afterward quiet.” And thus it was the way that a prophet would come forward and exhort: “Hear, please, what Hashem says.” The exhortation is framed as a plea: The prophet is urging us to pay attention and recognize that by repenting from our evil ways we can prevent the calamity from coming upon us. Similarly, Yirmiyahu exhorts (verse 2:25), “Keep your foot from being unshod,” meaning that we should take steps to prevent misfortune. Yirmiyahu is telling us to accept discipline through hearing rebuke, so that we will not need to be disciplined through misfortune.
The converse is reflected in Yeshayah 40:21 (homiletically): “Behold you knew, if you did not hear.” If we are unstirred the prophecy of calamity and fail to hear the warning, by necessity we will come to know of the calamity by experiencing it coming upon us. The same idea is reflected in Yeshayah 6:10: “Indeed you hear, but you do not understand; indeed you see, but you do not know.” If we hear the prophecy of calamity but fail to absorb the message and accept the verbal chastisement, by necessity we will come to see the calamity unfold before us.
Now, the Gemara in Berachos 57b says that a dream is like a sixtieth of prophecy; it is a message from heaven. Thus, when Yosef dreamt his dream, he sought to understand what message it conveyed. Surely the saintly Yosef was not so haughty as to think that Hashem deemed him superior to his brothers and worthy to rule over them, with his brothers being his servants. Rather, he surmised that the purpose of the dream was for him to relate it to his brothers and strike fear into their hearts, so that they would reflect on their ways and mend them. Accordingly, immediately after his dream he went to his brothers and said: “Hear, please, the dream that I have dreamt.” He was acting like a prophet, pleading with his brothers to accept the discipline that the dream conveyed and take it to heart so that the dream would not come to actual fulfillment. It is along the lines of the Gemara’s saying in Berachos 55b: “The discomfiture generated by a bad dream suffices [to accomplish the purpose of the dream, eliminating the need for what it depicts to actually happen]. This is what the Midrash is saying when it draws the link between Yosef’s words and the words of a prophet, as reflected in the verse in Michah.  
We now have a question: Why did Yosef’s dream in fact come true? Why wasn’t the dream nullified? The answer is that Yosef’s brothers felt no fear upon hearing the dream. They did not see a need for them to make a moral accounting in order to nullify the dream. They assumed that Yosef’s elation and haughtiness (of which they suspected him) would lead to the dream’s nullification, along the lines of the parallel saying in the Gemara in Berachos 55b: “The joy generated by a good dream suffices.” But in actuality Yosef did not feel any joy at all, because he regarded his dream as a prophecy that was meant to prompt repentance, as we explained above. Thus, the dream was not followed by any nullifying event, not joy on Yosef’s part and not discomfiture on the part of his brothers. The reaction of the brothers was not remorse over their deeds but rather hatred over what they perceived as aggrandizement. It is precisely the same reaction that the Jewish People would later have to the rebukes of the prophets. And thus the Midrash sees in Yaakov’s castigation of Yosef a hint to the way the Jewish People would castigate their prophets in later times.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah recounts Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav upon returning to Eretz Yisrael. In Bereishis 32:14, the Torah says that Yaakov “took, from what came into his hand, an offering of tribute to his brother Eisav.” The question arises: What is the point behind the phrase “from what came into his hand”? This phrase seems completely superfluous. The Midrash presents various interpretations, some of which Rashi mentions. The Maggid offers an approach that explains easily the import of the added phrase.
The Maggid brings out his explanation through a discussion of the mitzvah of tithing flocks. In Vayikra 27:32-33, the Torah says that the herdsman is not supposed to select on his own which animals will be sanctified, but instead is supposed to make the animals pass under his staff, and designate every tenth one as sanctified. The Gemara in Bechoros 58b elaborates on the procedure, teaching that the herdsman is to place the flock in a corral with a narrow opening, let the animals through one by one, and tap every tenth one with a paint-daubed stick to mark it as sanctified. What is the reason for this specific method? Why is does it not suffice for the herdsman to select the required number of animals however he wishes, based on the size of his flock, and designate the selected animals as sanctified?
The Maggid answers this question by means of the following principle: Whenever any object in this world, even in the inanimate, plant, or animal domain, is linked to some aspect of sanctity, the object is thereby elevated. The Maggid illustrates this principle with examples.
He begins with two examples from the inanimate domain. The first example comes from the episode of Avraham’s purchase of a field and a cave from the men of Cheis to use as a burial site. In Bereishis 23:17-18, the Torah states that through this purchase the property was secured unto Avraham, with the Hebrew term for secured being ויקם, which literally means that the property arose. Thus, the Torah is indicating that when the property passed into the ownership of our holy forefather Avraham it was elevated. In this vein, Rashi’s commentary on this passage, quoting the Sages, states that through the purchase the property achieved תקומה – it became an enduring entity. The second example comes from the episode of Yaakov lying down to sleep in Beis El, as described at the beginning of parashas Vayeitzei. The Torah tells us that Yaakov laid his head on a stone. Our Sages teach that several stones vied for the privilege of being the one upon which our holy forefather Yaakov would lay his head. Ultimately, Yaakov merged the stones together to form a single stone on which he placed his head, and the entire merged stone was thereby elevated.
The Maggid then presents an example from the animal domain. Melachim Alef 18 describes the famous showdown between the prophet Eliyahu and the false prophets of the idol Baal. Eliyahu told the prophets of Baal to bring two bullocks, choose one that they would try to offer to Baal, and give him the other one to offer to Hashem. The Midrash states that all of the 450 prophets of Baal who were present tried together to push the bullock they chose for Baal to get it to move, but the bullock did not budge until Eliyahu told it that, it, too, would be part of the sanctification of Hashem’s Name that was about to take place.
In view of the foregoing principle, the Maggid says, we can easily understand the reason behind the procedure for tithing flocks. Hashem did not want to put into the hands of the herdsman himself, with his limited human understanding, the momentous decision of which animals would be elevated by being invested with the sanctity of a tithe. With voluntary offerings (nedarim and nedavos), the initiative to bring the offering comes from the herdsman, so Hashem allows him to choose which animal to bring. But the tithe is an offering that Hashem demands, and so He insists on a process that puts in His hands the choice of which animals will be brought.
Similarly, when Yaakov was preparing the gifts for Eisav, he faced the issue of which animals would be removed from his holy sphere of influence and placed in the possession of his despicable brother. He knew he could not make this momentous choice himself. So he set up an automatic selection system of some sort, along the lines of that used for tithing, and whatever animals came into his hand through this system were the ones he gave to Eisav.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

This week’s parashah begins as follows (Bereishis 28:10-11): “And Yaakov departed from Beersheva and went toward Charan. And he encountered the place and spent the night there, for the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place and put them under his head, and he lay down in that place.” The place where Yaakov spent the night was the future site of the Beis HaMikdash, and the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 68:9 interprets the Torah’s statement that Yaakov “encountered the place” as meaning that he prayed there. The Midrash goes on to teach that Avraham instituted the morning prayer, Yitzchak the afternoon prayer, and Yaakov the evening prayer. In discussing this Midrash, the Maggid presents a lengthy essay on prayer. We presented previously one segment of this essay. We now present another.
In the Gemara, our Sages state (Sanhedrin 44b): “A person should always pray before trouble comes.” The Sages are teaching us that every person is obligated to pray to Hashem when he is tranquil, with a plea that He shield him from all misfortune. In this vein, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 69:14): “I offer my prayer to You, Hashem, in a time of favor.” David is saying that he does not wait until a time of wrath to pray to Hashem to save him, but rather he hurries to offer his prayer while Hashem still regards him with favor. In a similar vein, Yeshayah exhorts (verse 55:6): “Seek Hashem when He can be found; call upon Him when he is near.” We should pray to Hashem while we enjoy His closeness, and not wait for a time when He distances Himself from us.
Daniel set an example for us in the area of prayer.  The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 15:6):
Daniel pursued and prayed (שֹׁחֵר וּמִתְפַלֵל) to the All-Present One, as it is written (Daniel 6:11): “He had windows open in his upper story, facing Yerushalayim, and three times a day he fell to his knees and prayed and gave thanks before his God”—evening, morning, and afternoon. Why did he pursue and pray to Hashem? So that He would show compassion for His people. Regarding him, Shlomo said (Mishlei 11:27): “He who pursues good (שֹׁחֵר טוֹב) seeks favor.” And Hashem was present (נִמְצָא) for them when they faced a time of trouble, as it is written (ibid. 8:17): “I love those who love Me, and those who pursue Me shall find Me (וּמְשַׁחֲרַי יִמְצָאֻנְנִי).
The Gemara in Berachos 31a also discusses the verse describing Daniel’s practice of praying at three set times during the day. The Gemara initially suggests that perhaps Daniel began this practice only after the Jewish People went into exile in Babylonia. But afterward the Gemara concludes that he had begun the practice beforehand, drawing this conclusion from the end of the verse: “exactly as he used to do before then.” These teachings about Daniel’s prayers shed light on the three prayer services that our forefathers instituted. We may ask what the reason is for set prayer services, given that a person can always pray to Hashem for help whenever he is in distress. Our Sages are telling us that the purpose of set prayer services is to lead us, as they taught, to pray before trouble comes. The Gemara shows how Daniel’s prayer regimen illustrates this principle: The regimen was not prompted by the exile, but rather was established beforehand. The Midrash is along the same lines. The Midrash describes Daniel’s praying with the phrase שֹׁחֵר וּמִתְפַלֵל. The wordשֹׁחֵר , related to the word שַׁחַר (morning), points to how Daniel prayed early, before misfortune struck. The Midrash asks why Daniel acted this way, and it then answers: So that Hashem would show compassion for His people. Daniel was seeking, through his constant regular praying, to lead Hashem to constantly take a favorable attitude toward His people, and to spare them from misfortune to the maximum extent possible. Thus, the Midrash links Daniel’s praying to Shlomo’s statement that “he who pursues good seeks favor.” The Midrash draws a further link to the declaration by Hashem that Shlomo recorded: “I love those who love Me, and those who pursue Me shall find Me.” Here, Hashem is saying that those who pursue Hashem and approach Him in prayer before misfortune comes will find Him in their times of distress.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

This week’s parashah recounts the episode where Yaakov takes the blessing that Yitzchak meant to give Eisav. During the subsequent interchanges between Yitzchak and Eisav, Yaakov tells Eisav (Bereishis 27:35): “Your brother came with cunning and took your blessing.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 67:4): “He came using the wisdom of the Torah.” The Maggid asks: What does this mean? Seemingly, Yaakov did no more than mechanically follow his mother’s directions. What wisdom is the Midrash referring to?
The Maggid answers this question through close examination of the entire episode. He begins by raising some additional questions. First, why does the Torah first report Eisav’s outcry without any explanation, and only later, after relating Yitzchak’s response, report the reason for the outcry? Second, given that Yitzchak had already told Eisav that he had blessed Yaakov and that therefore Yaakov would indeed be blessed, what did add by saying that Yaakov came with cunning and took his blessing? Third, how could Eisav say that Yaakov “took” his birthright, when in fact he had willingly sold it to him?
To explain the interchange between Yitzchak and Eisav, the Maggid describes what Yitzchak had in mind when he decided how he would bless his two sons. Yitzchak had two types of blessings to grant: spiritual blessings, relating to the world to come, and material blessings, relating to this world. He decided it would be proper to grant the spiritual blessings to his firstborn son, i.e., Eisav, for the firstborn son has a special elevated status and is the one invested with responsibility for bringing offerings. Thus, when Yaakov approached Yitzchak and presented himself as Eisav, Yitzchak was poised to grant him the spiritual blessings. Yaakov sensed what Yitzchak wanted to do. After some reflection, he decided it would be better for him to receive the material blessings. He reasoned that since anyone can acquire a share in the world to come on his own by choosing to follow the proper path, and since he had in fact adopted this path and was wholehearted in thought and deed, he did not need Yitzchak to bless him with success in acquiring a share in the world to come. He therefore made a move to induce Yitzchak to grant him the material blessings. What move did he make? He told Yitzchak, in the guise of Eisav, that “he” had sold the birthright to “his brother.” And given that the birthright had passed from Eisav to Yaakov, it would be proper to grant Eisav the material blessings instead of the spiritual blessings. Yitzchak followed this reasoning, and, thinking that the person standing before him was Eisav, granted Yaakov the material blessings.
Now, when Yitzchak told Eisav afterward that “I blessed him – and, indeed, he will be blessed,” Eisav initially thought that Yaakov had not come with any cunning, but rather had simply overheard Yitzchak’s request for delicacies, had stepped in and brought them in order to satisfy Yitzchak’s need, and had received a blessing. Eisav assumed that Yitzchak was aware that it was Yaakov who had brought the delicacies. Eisav had also worked out in his mind, just as Yaakov had, that Yitzchak was planning to give him the spiritual blessings and Yaakov the material blessings. He thus concluded that Yitzchak had in fact given Yaakov the material blessings. He was devastated by this outcome, for he was interested only in worldly pleasures, and he had figured that – given his having sold the birthright – he would get the material blessings. He therefore let out an exceedingly great and bitter cry. Yet, at this point, Eisav did not state why he was upset. He was ashamed to tell his father that he was upset over having lost material blessings, for, over the years, he had constantly “trapped his father with his mouth” and passed himself off as saintly. How could he now make a big fuss over worldly pleasures? He therefore simply let out an inchoate outcry and pleaded: “Bless me too, Father.” He did not specify what blessing he wished to get.
Yitzchak responded by saying: “Your brother came with cunning and took your blessing.” Eisav assumed Yitzchak was referring to the spiritual blessings, which Yitzchak viewed as being “Eisav’s blessing” because Eisav was the firstborn. Eisav thus revised his initial reading of what had taken place, now surmising that Yaakov had slyly impersonated him before Yitzchak and taken the spiritual blessings. This is the “wisdom of the Torah” that the Midrash tells us Yaakov exploited: Yaakov exercised a Torah-based right to assume Eisav’s place – a right arising from Yaakov’s having bought the birthright from Eisav. At this point, Eisav calmed down and rejoiced inside, reasoning that since Yaakov had received the spiritual blessings, he would get the material blessings, which is what he wanted all along. It did not occur to him at all that Yaakov may have told Yitzchak about the sale of the birthright. So he said to Yitzchak: “It is fitting that his name is called Yaakov, for now he has taken me over me twice: He took my birthright, and, behold, now he has taken my blessing.” What he had in mind was as follows: “You made no mistake, Father. It was in full accordance with law that you granted him the spiritual blessings, for he took over the status of firstborn. And as for me, it is fitting me to grant me the material blessings.”
Eisav thus continues: “Surely you have reserved (אצלת) a blessing for me.” Expounding on the word אצלת, the Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 67:4): “A blessing from the leftovers (מן הנצלת).” Eisav was asking for material blessings, even though they are inferior blessings, because from the standpoint of law he had no right to ask for more than that. Yitzchak replied: “You have misunderstood. I gave Yaakov the material blessings – I made him a lord over you, I gave all his kin to him as servants, and I fortified him with grain and wine. What, then, my son, shall I do for you? I cannot give you the spiritual blessings – you are not entitled to them, since you sold the birthright to Yaakov.” At this point, Eisav raised his voice and wept, for he realized that he had been foreclosed – he lost the material blessing, which was his main desire. And then, as described in Devarim Rabbah 1:15, Eisav exclaimed: “Come and see what this ‘wholehearted one’ did to me.” It was Yaakov’s wholeheartedness that enabled him to succeed in his cunning takeover of Eisav’s blessing: If not for Yaakov’s wholeheartedness, Eisav would have taken steps to prevent such a takeover.

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates how Avraham sent his servant Eliezer to Aram Naharaim to search for a wife for Yitzchak. In the course of the conversation, Eliezer asks (Bereishis 24:5): “Perhaps the woman will not be want to follow me to this land; should I bring your son back to the land from where you came?” Avraham tells him no. Afterward Eliezer goes to Aram Naharaim, meets Rivkah and selects her to be Yitzchak’s wife, goes to Rivkah’s home, and relates the sequence of events to her family. In so doing, he mentions the issue that he raised in his conversation with Avraham (ibid. 24:39): “Perhaps the woman will not follow me.” Rashi expounds: “The word אֻלַי (perhaps) is written in incomplete form [without a vav, so that it could also be read אֵלַיto me]. Eliezer had a daughter, and he was a seeking a way to get Avraham to approach him to make a match between Yitzchak and his daughter.” On the other hand, in reporting Eliezer’s original statement to Avraham, the Torah writes אוּלַי in full spelling. Accordingly, many commentators have asked: Why would the Torah place the allusion to Eliezer’s hope in its report of his description of the events to Rivkah’s family, rather than in its report of his original statement to Avraham? Seemingly the allusion would be more aptly placed in conjunction with the original statement, when Eliezer was discussing the matter with Avraham himself, who was the relevant party. Indeed, the Midrash actually associates the allusion with the original statement. The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 59:9):
“And the servant said to him, [‘Perhaps the woman will not want to follow me’].” In this connection it is written: “Cnaan bears a false set of scales, to cheat the beloved one.” Cnaan is Eliezer [meaning either that Eliezer literally was Cnaan, the son of Noach’s son Cham, or that he was of Canaanite stock]. A false set of scales – he sat and weighed whether or not his daughter was fitting as a wife for Yitzchak. To cheat the beloved one – to cheat the beloved one of the world, Yitzchak. He said: “Perhaps the woman will not want to follow me, and I’ll give him my daughter.” Avraham replied: “You are cursed and my son is blessed, and the cursed cannot become attached to the blessed.”
It is natural, then, to analyze why Rashi associated the allusion with Eliezer’s narration of the statement to Rivkah’s family rather than with his original statement.
The key is to identify why Eliezer told Rivkah’s family about his prior statement to Avraham about the possibility that the woman he found for Yitzchak in Aram Naharaim might not want to follow him. The Maggid explains Eliezer’s intent with a parable. A certain merchant dealt in wares from a distant province. His fixed practice was to send an agent to the wholesaler in the other province to buy merchandise from him on credit, and after a set time he would send the agent back to the wholesaler to pay him for the previous purchase and make another credit purchase of new merchandise. The merchant maintained this practice for a long period. At a certain point, the merchant decided – in the manner of wicked men – to cheat the wholesaler by sending his agent to make a very large credit purchase, and then cutting off dealings with him without paying. When the merchant presented this plan to his agent, the agent was upset, and he tried to derail the plan. He told the merchant: “Maybe the wholesaler won’t agree to the deal.” The merchant replied brazenly: “This fellow has been selling to me on credit for years. Why would he now suddenly refuse?” The agent, feeling forced to follow his employer’s orders, made his way to the wholesaler. He said to him: “My employer asked me to go to you again to buy a large quantity of merchandise – on credit, as in the past. I pointed out that maybe you wouldn’t agree to the deal, but he told me to go anyway.” Sure enough, the wholesaler decided not to make the deal; the agent’s extra remark, tipping the wholesaler off to the merchant’s deceitful plan, induced the wholesaler to refuse.
Similarly, when Avraham sent Eliezer to Aram Naharaim to seek a wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer was upset; he wanted his daughter to marry Yitzchak. This hope led him to express reservations about the mission; he raised with Avraham the possibility that the woman he found might not want to follow him. And when he told Rivkah’s family about his discussion with Avraham, he was trying to lead them, or Rivkah herself, to suspect that some serious problem with the match lurked beneath the surface. Why else would a woman refuse to marry the son of the wealthy and famous Avraham? By raising doubts in this way, he sought to derail the match, so that Yitzchak would marry his daughter instead.
The Midrash associates the Torah’s allusion to Eliezer’s hope that his daughter would marry Yitzchak with his original statement to Avraham, for at the time he made this statement he already had the hope in mind. On the other hand, the incomplete spelling אֻלַי that prompted Rashi’s comment on the issue appears in Eliezer’s narration to Rivkah’s family, because it was at that point that his hope became clearly evident – the narration being a ploy aimed at bringing this hope to fruition.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah recounts, among other events, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. When Hashem was about to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, He said (Bereishis 18:17-19):  “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am going to do? But Avraham is firmly destined to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him. For it is known to Me regarding him – in order that he command his children and his household to follow him, that they observe Hashem’s way, to charity and justice, in order that Hashem may bring upon Avraham what He had spoken regarding him.” At first glance, it is not at all clear why the fact that Avraham was destined to become a great nation constituted cause for Hashem to tell him of His plans to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah. The Maggid provides an explanation based on the principle we presented in last week’s d’var Torah.
He brings out the idea with a parable. Two merchants were traveling on business, one young and the other elderly. They reached a major city, and they saw some clothing stores well stocked with high-quality suits. The elderly merchant said: “I’d like very much to buy one of these nice suits for my son, but I’m afraid that it will not fit him.” The young merchant declared: “I’m going to buy two or three.” His elderly companion asked: “What will you do if they do not fit your sons?” He replied: “You are right not to buy one of these suits, for you have only one son, born to you in your later years, and if the suit doesn’t fit him, you’ll have no one else to give it to. But my situation is different. Hashem has graciously granted me several sons of various ages. Also, since I’m still young, I’m likely to have more sons later. So my purchase of the suits will not go for naught. Eventually, I’ll be able to give them to my sons; whichever doesn’t fit one of them will fit another.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem deliberately led Avraham to pray for Sodom and Gemorrah. He knew that Sodom and Gemorrah ultimately would not benefit from this prayer, but, nonetheless, it would not be for naught. Rather, Hashem would hold it in store for the benefit Avraham’s descendants. This is what Hashem had in mind with His explanation of why He told Avraham of His plans: “Avraham is firmly destined to become a great and mighty nation.” He intended for Avraham’s prayer to benefit the great and mighty nation that would spring forth from him. A passage in Tehillim 102 hints at this idea. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 102:18-19): “He turned to the prayer of the barren one, and did not despise their prayer. Let this be put on record for the generation to come, and the newly-formed people shall proclaim Hashem’s praise.” We can read the appellation “barren one” (ערער) as alluding to Avraham, who, before being granted children, asked Hashem (Bereishis 15:2): “What can You give me, seeing that I go childless (ערירי)?” Even though Avraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gemorrah could not achieve its nominal goal, Hashem did not despise the prayer; rather, He put it on record on behalf of coming generations. And when the Jews of future generations are saved from distress, they will proclaim Hashem’s praise – they will thank Hashem not only for the salvation itself, but also for laying the groundwork through Avraham’s prayer.
The above discussion provides insight into the teaching in Yevamos 64a stating that Hashem yearns for the prayers of righteous men. On the surface, this teaching is perplexing. If a righteous man needs Divine aid, he surely will pray for it – Hashem does not need to yearn for his prayer. And if he does not presently have a specific need, why would Hashem wish for him to pray? But, in view of what we have just explained, we can understand the Gemara easily. Hashem, who has complete knowledge of the future, is aware of all future occasions in which the Jewish People will be in distress. And He recognizes that, on some of these occasions, the people of the generation will not have enough merit of their own to deserve to be saved. Hence, in His great kindness, He sets up situations that lead a righteous man to pray for Divine mercy, so that the benefits generated by this prayer will be available to all those who will need them in the future. This is, in particular, how Hashem capitalized on the exceptional piety of our holy forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. He induced them to pray, so that their prayers would benefit future generations of Jews of lesser spiritual stature. Hashem yearns for the prayers of righteous men because of this wondrous benefit.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

This week’s parashah describes several episodes in the life of Avraham Avinu. One of them is the war Avraham waged against the four kings to rescue his nephew Lot. Regarding this war, the Torah states (Bereishis 14:15): “And he and his servants divided up against them on that night.” If we read the words of the verse very literally, we obtain the following rendering: “And the night divided up on them.” Building on this point, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 43:3 remarks that just as Avraham went out to war at midnight, so too, Hashem smote the Egyptian firstborn at midnight. The Midrash relates: “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He, ‘Their father did good for Me at midnight, so I am going to do good for his children at midnight.’” Now, we would say that Hashem did Avraham a wondrous kindness by granting his small group of fighters victory over the mighty army of the four kings. But Hashem declared that Avraham did good for Him in the war against these kings. It is baffling. What did Hashem mean?
The Maggid builds his answer to this question on a Midrash. After the war, Hashem said to Avraham (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.]
This Midrash prompts two questions. First, why did Hashem save Avraham for free? Our Sages teach that, in general, Hashem does not dispense kindness and mercy indiscriminately. What made Avraham’s case different? Second, why was Hashem so expansive in His assurance? Avraham was concerned only that he had used up his reward. We would expect Hashem to respond simply by telling Avraham that his reward remained fully intact. Instead, He said that “your reward is very great,” indicating that Avraham gained added reward as a result of the episodes of the fiery furnace and the war against the four kings. Why did Hashem grant Avraham added reward?
We can understand Hashem’s intent by considering closely the ordeals our forefathers underwent. Avraham faced a series of ordeals, including being cast into a fiery furnace, suffering famine, and fighting a war against the four kings. Yitzchak, too, faced various ordeals. And Yaakov, the chief of the forefathers, was beset with troubles, without a moment’s rest, for almost his entire life. Why did our forefathers suffer all these ordeals?
Surely it was not in retribution for evil deeds; indeed, it would be a sacrilege to suggest so. Rather, the Maggid says, all the experiences that Hashem put the forefathers through were for the benefit of their descendants. Hashem foresaw that the Jews of future generations would face various troubles, and would be unable on their own merit to gain relief. He therefore put the forefathers through troubles of the same kind, to lead them to produce a reservoir of salvation from which their descendants could draw at all times. This key idea is the focal point of the prayer that sets the stage for the morning Amidah: “You were our forefathers’ aid in times of yore, a shield and a savior unto their children after them in each and every generation.” As we prepare to stand before Hashem to pray for His help, we draw on the reservoir of salvation that we inherited from our forefathers.
Now, when Avraham faced the war against the four kings, he himself reckoned that Hashem brought this hardship upon him because of some sin on his part – for it is the way of righteous men to regard Hashem’s dealings with them as just. Hence, after Hashem saved him from the four kings, he feared that his merits had been used up. Indeed, our Sages teach that when someone is granted a miracle, he incurs a deduction in his merits. But Hashem told Avraham not to fear. He said: “All that I did with you in this world I did for you for nothing.” He was telling him that the ordeal he suffered was “for nothing” – he had done nothing to deserve such suffering, but had been subjected to the ordeal so that he could produce reservoirs of salvation for his descendants, as we explained above. Accordingly, not only did Avraham not have his merits reduced due to the miraculous salvation he was granted, he actually earned great reward for going through the experience. And so Hashem told him: “You have great reward in store for you in the world to come.” The Sages conclude by quoting Tehillim 31:20. We suggest a homiletical reading: “How great is your blessing that you [Avraham] have put in store for the God-fearing ones who will descend from you.” By enduring the war against the four kings, Avraham produced great blessing, and put it in store for the Jews of future generations.
We can now understand very well Hashem’s view that, in Avraham’s war against the four kings, He had not done a kindness for him, but rather had received a kindness from him. Had Avraham deserved to suffer the war, the victory Hashem granted him would indeed have been a kindness on Hashem’s part to him. But since Avraham was in fact subjected to the ordeal “for nothing” – not on account of any sin on his part, but rather as a means of achieving Hashem’s goal of benefitting the Jews of future generations – it is apt to say that Avraham did a kindness for Hashem by going through the war.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shabbos Rosh Chodesh

This Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, and we therefore read the special haftarah for Shabbos Rosh Chodesh. The haftarah concludes with the following words (Yeshayah 66:23-24):
And it will be, that at every New Moon and on every Sabbath all mankind will come to prostrate themselves before Me, says Hashem. And they will go out and see the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me, for decay shall not cease and their fire will not be extinguished, and they will lie in disgrace before all mankind.
In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar Avodas HaElokim, Chapter 7, the Maggid quotes the second of these two verses in connection with a discourse on man’s place in this world. We present this discourse here.
A person must realize that man is not just another animal. For if he were, why would Hashem grant him special powers that no other creature possesses? Man has the powers of speech and intellect, and he has dominion over all the creations of the world. Hashem granted man these powers for a reason – so that he should exercise his intellect to recognize that he is a created being, the work of the One who created and maintains the existence of every object and being in the universe, and that the Creator created him, the premier of all creations, in order to serve Him and thereby connect himself to Him. Man’s task is to toil in the service of Hashem, with every deed that he does – every exercise of his physical or intellectual capabilities, every moment of his sojourn in this world – weighed in the scales of justice and morality, in accordance with the mission with which Hashem charged him.
Each person has his own mission, matched to the nature of his soul, and this mission is his lot in life, to perform his duty in this world and receive reward in the next world. Hashem put at man’s disposal a world full of blessing, enabling him to eat to satiation and clothe himself in honorable garb, so that with his service to Him, man may bring perfection to all of Creation, with everything it contains, and maintains it in existence. In this vein, the Mishnah in Avos 5:1 teaches that Hashem created the world with ten sayings in order to grant reward to the righteous who maintain the existence of the world that was created with ten sayings. Hashem takes no satisfaction in the strength of the horse or the swiftness of the deer; He takes satisfaction solely in those who fear Him and are anxious to carry out His will – as the Gemara in Berachos 33b says, “the Holy One Blessed Be He has nothing in His world except for a treasure of fear of Heaven.”
So each of us must cast his eyes upward and gaze at the heavens above, behold the heights of the heavens and the depths of the earth, and reflect on the purpose of it all. The entirety of Creation is meant for man, the premier of all creations, to use as a resource in serving Hashem. Man, although the last to be created, was the creation that Hashem first had in mind when He set out to create the world (סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה). How, then, can we allow ourselves to run loose and negate Hashem’s intent in creating us? How can we harden our hearts and keep ourselves from fearing Hashem? How can we refrain from carrying out the work Hashem assigned us, and detach and distance ourselves from Him? What will be of us in the end? How will we answer our Creator when He seeks an accounting from us and says to us: “Why did you rebel against Me? Behold, I prepared all the good of the world just for you. Why did you turn to evil deeds, and disdain the mission with which I charged you? What wrong did you see, that you distanced yourself from Me? And, when you rebelled against Me and cast Me aside, to what did you turn instead? What did you set your eyes on during your sojourn in the world? What did you spend all your days doing? For what did you abandon good, and cast Me over your shoulder?”
What happened to our wisdom, that we forgot our Creator? Woe to us in the end, when we see the accounting of our deeds, and all our hidden thoughts, in all their detail, are laid out before us. The righteous will sit with their crowns on their heads, beholding all their good deeds and enjoying their reward, and we will be sitting alongside them. They will rejoice with a glad heart, and we will cry out in pain. They will revel in Hashem’s greatness, and we will be struck with fright before Hashem’s wrath. The righteous will celebrate the downfall of the wicked, as it is written [the last verse in our haftarah]: “They will go out and see the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me, for decay shall not cease and their fire will not be extinguished, and they will lie in disgrace before all mankind.”
When we take all this to heart, we will be struck with fear. We will say: “What am I, that I should cast off the yoke of service to my Master? Woe to the servant who disdains serving his Master!” And we will incline our shoulder to what Hashem has placed upon us, and we will be like an ox bearing its yoke and a donkey bearing its bundle. We will subjugate ourselves and all our powers to the service of our Creator, who holds in His hand all the good of this world, and stretches His hand forth to grant good to His chosen ones who are faithful to His covenant.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Sukkos – Megillas Koheles and Parashas V’Zos HaBerachah

Megillas Koheles
In Koheles 8:8 it is written (rendered according to the Maggid’s commentary): “A man cannot control the spirit [of desire] to confine it, yet it has no power on the day of death. Nor is there discharge in war, and wickedness cannot save the wrongdoer.” The opening phrase of this verse teaches how Hashem granted man the freedom to choose between good and evil, with both options placed before him on equal footing. Hashem proceeded like an agent apportioning the contents of a house on an equal basis to several people. If one of them strongly desires a specific item and decides to take it, each of the others will take other items of the same value. In this way, all take an equal share, with no one getting an edge over the others. 
Hashem invested our physical drives with great power. Even if a person attains the wisdom to know that he should spurn evil and disdain all the vanities of this world, he cannot attain sufficient control over his physical drives to neutralize them completely. Indeed, Hashem did not create our physical drives for nothing: A certain degree of physical desire is necessary for a person to be prompted to take care of his bodily needs. In parallel, Hashem invested the intellect with comparable power, so that even if a person lives his entire life as a fool, the inclination for foolishness will have no hold on him on the day of his death. Thus, at the end of this book of wisdom, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 12:13): “The matter has ended, all has been heard.” Let us elaborate on what this statement means. 
At the beginning of the book, Shlomo declares (ibid. 1:3): “What gain does a man achieve from all his labor that he will labor beneath the sun?” Note that Shlomo does not say “that he labored,” but rather “that he will labor.” Here Shlomo is teaching us an important idea. As a person approaches death, he becomes like a man who is giddy with wine, and recoils from the thought of drinking. Not only does such a man regret his past drinking, but he has no desire to drink now. Even if he were given a free bottle of wine, he would not want to drink. It is the same with worldly pursuits. When a person nears his end, his eyes open up, and he sees that these pursuits have no substance: Not only is he left with nothing from his past labors, but he will gain nothing from future ones. He thus becomes disgusted with worldly pursuits, and loses all interest in them.
Parashas V’zos HaBerachah
In blessing the tribes of Zevulun and Yissachar, Moshe said (Devarim 33:18-19):
Rejoice, Zevulun, in your excursions, and, Yissachar in your tents. Peoples will be called to the mountain, there they will slaughter offerings of righteousness, for they [Zevulun] will be nourished by the abundance of the sea and the treasures sunken in the sand.
We can interpret this passage as follows. The Gemara in Yevamos 75a states that during the days of David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech converts were not accepted, because the Jewish People were very prosperous during that period and there was a concern that people might want to convert in order to get a share in this prosperity rather than solely out of a desire to serve Hashem faithfully according to the Torah. Now, the region of the tribe of Zevulun was a prosperous commercial center for an extended period. We can therefore surmise that gentiles in this region who sought to convert were handled with extra caution. Rather than being converted locally, they would be sent to Yerushalayim where they could be examined by the Kohanim and the prophets to determine whether their motivation for converting was pure or admixed with material considerations. This procedure is reflected in the Moshe’s statement that Zevulun would call peoples to the mountain. Here, the mountain referred to is the Temple Mount. The members of the tribe of Zevulun would have to send potential converts to the Temple Mount because they were blessed with great wealth, “the abundance of the seas and the treasures sunken in the sand.”
An additional homiletical interpretation was put forward by Rav Baruch Mordechai Lipshitz in the name of his father, Rav Yaakov Lipshitz. [It is not clear whether this segment is part of the Maggid’s commentary or was added by Rav Flamm, the redactor of the Maggid’s commentaries.] The Hebrew term used for treasures in this passage is שפוני, related to the word ספון. The word ספון means covered, as in the phrase roofed with cedar in Melachim Alef 7:3 and the phrase paneled houses in Chaggai 1:4. From this reason, the Hebrew word for ship is ספינה, since a ship must be coated on the outside by waterproof and airtight sealing material. Now, usually when a merchant ship goes out to convey merchandise from City A to City B, it takes other merchandise back from City B to City A; Hashem, in His wisdom, arranged for different commodities to be available in different areas in order to provide opportunity for commerce. Sometimes, though, a merchant ship does not take back other merchandise on the return trip. In this case, in order to maintain the weight necessary for the ship to travel safely across the sea, the ship will be loaded with sand, dirt, or stones.  Now, Moshe gave the tribe of Zevulun the blessing that they would nourished with the abundance of the seas. They would be blessed with all kinds of assets, lacking nothing. Thus, they would send out ships with merchandise to other lands, but would not take merchandise back. Instead, their ships, their ספינות, would be appropriately sunken partly into the sea by means of sand [rendering שפוני טמוני חול, treasures sunken in the sand, as ships {partly} sunken via sand].

Yom Kippur

We present here another selection from the essays on the Yamim Noraim by Rav Avraham Beirush Flamm, redactor of many of the Maggid’s commentaries, that appear in the last volume of Ohel Yaakov. This selection is from an essay entitled “Mussar (Moral Exhortation) Before Kol Nidre.”
We are now at the threshold of Yom Kippur. How should we approach this day? We can explain with a parable. A group of merchants decided to have a large ship built for them for sea travel. Obviously the building of the ship took place on land, close to the shore. Eventually the ship was finished and the time came to set it to sea. The ship had to be pushed into the water, gotten out of the shallow water where its bottom was still lying on the sea bed, and moved into the deep water. This process involved an enormous amount of toil and strain. Finally, the ship made it out into the heart of the sea. The younger seamen said: “Great, now we can relax.” One of the older seamen said: “Don’t be foolish! It is true that up to now you had to work very hard to get the ship out to sea. But you weren’t in any danger. But now that we are in the heart of the sea and subject to the rushing waves, we have to be extra careful. If we slacken now, we’ll be in really big trouble.”
So it is with us. On Rosh Chodesh Elul we began the process of repentance. We put in much effort. We performed a cheshbon ha-nefesh – a spiritual and moral accounting, a soul-searching, assessing our conduct over the past year. We pleaded profusely to Hashem for forgiveness. We gathered for the selichos services, where we all prayed to Hashem together for forgiveness – the Sefardim starting from the second of Elul and the Ashkenazim from the Motzoei Shabbos before Rosh Hashanah. Many of us rose early to go to shul to recite the selichos an hour or so before dawn, which is the most favorable time. Some of us fasted for a portion of the week before Rosh Hashanah and the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of us got worn down and developed some negative feelings toward these days on account of the extra prayers and afflictions. And now we have reached Yom Kippur, the awesome Day of Atonement, the last day of the Ten Days of Repentance. We no longer have to wake up extra early to squeeze in selichos amongst our regular daily activities. We might think that now we can relax. But the truth is just the opposite. The responsibility we bore in Elul, on Rosh Hashanah, and during the other days of repentance is modest compared to the responsibility we bear on Yom Kippur. We are in the depths of the sea now. As we say in the Unesaneh Tokef prayer, on Rosh Hashanah the decree is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
As we recited this prayer on Rosh Hashanah, we described how Hashem decrees who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, …, who will be poor and who will be rich, and so on. Yet there is a very big difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is like the difference between the time a baby is a fetus inside the mother and the time the baby is born and enters the world. So long as the baby is in the fetal stage, compositional changes can take place, but once the baby is born such changes cannot take place anymore. The days between Rosh Hashanah and erev Yom Kippur are like days of gestation. Rosh Hashanah is the day of conception; in our prayers on Rosh Hashanah we speak of the day as the day of the conception of the world. On Rosh Hashanah our decree is written, but during the remaining days of repentance it can be changed. On Yom Kippur, however, the decree is sealed. Yom Kippur is the day of birth; it is a day when the potential is actualized.
The prophet Tzefaniah exhorts (verses 2:1-3):
Examine yourselves, examine each other, O nation unshamed. Before the decree is born, the day you pass along like the chaff; before Hashem’s fierce anger comes upon you, before the day of Hashem’s anger comes upon you. Seek Hashem, all you humble of the earth who have fulfilled His law; seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you will be hidden on the day of Hashem’s anger.
Tzefaniah is telling us that we are not doomed to be shamed forever, with Hashem rejecting our prayers. Although our decree was written on Rosh Hashanah, we should not give up. Let us examine ourselves and examine each other. There is still time. The decree is not yet born. Hashem’s anger may be, so to speak, welling up, but right now it is only potential anger – we have not yet reached the day when Hashem’s anger becomes an actuality. We should repent and plead to Hashem fervently for forgiveness. If not now, when? 
David Zucker, Site Administrator