Post Archive for 2017

Parashas Vayechi

This week’s parashah begins: “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years.” Several commentators remark that during these seventeen years Yaakov was able to “truly live,” in that he enjoyed a life of serenity, free from the ordeals he had suffered throughout his previous years. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 66:4 teaches that a righteous man initially suffers afflictions, but afterward, in the end, is granted serenity. We previously presented some of the Maggid’s discussion of this matter. Among other things, the Maggid says that the same pattern applies to the Jewish People as a whole. The Maggid expounds on this point at length, and here we present a portion of the Maggid’s discussion.
In Tehillim 142:6-7, David HaMelech declares: “I have cried out to You, Hashem. I have said: ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Hearken to my cry, for I have been brought very low.” And in Tehillim 13:2-4, David pleads:
Until when will You endlessly forget me? Until when will You hide Your face from me? Until when must I devise strategies for myself, to deal with what troubles my heart all day long? Until when will my enemy be exalted above me? Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.
In a similar vein, Yirmiyahu exclaims (Eichah 5:20): “Why do You endlessly forget us – forsake us for length of days?” The Maggid notes that since forgetting is something that happens unintentionally, it seemingly does not make sense to ask how long it will last. Also, there seems to be an inconsistency in the verse from Eichah. In the first half of the verse, Yirmiyahu speaks of a period of forgetting of unlimited duration, but in the second half he speaks of a period of time which, while long, does have a limit. The Maggid sets out to explain the idea behind the foregoing passages.
He brings out the point with a parable. An aging man had an only daughter, young in age. Before his death, he asked one of his friends to serve as his daughter’s custodian, managing all the assets that she would inherit from him. The friend agreed. The father instructed his friend emphatically to hold all these assets in safekeeping for the daughter’s marriage. He should not give her any of the money for food, clothes, or other living expenses; rather, the daughter should support herself by working.
Eventually the father died, and the daughter’s inheritance came into the hands of the custodian. Meantime, the daughter supported herself, as her father had directed. After some time, some of the relatives approached the custodian, reported to him that the girl was downtrodden because of the limited income she was able to earn, and told him he had to supplement her income with funds from the inheritance. The custodian replied that he could not do so, for the father had told him to hold the money for the girl’s marriage. Some time later, the relatives approached the custodian again. They reported to him that the girl was walking around barefoot and almost naked, but the custodian did not respond.
More time passed, and the girl was struck with a mortal illness. A considerable sum was needed to cover doctor fees and other medical expenses. The relatives approached the custodian once again to tell him to give the girl money, and the custodian again replied that he could not do so because of the father’s instructions. The relatives then berated the custodian, saying: “Let it be as you say. But if you hold back from giving her the money she needs for the medical expenses, who exactly are you going to marry off? The girl is close to dying. If you don’t give her money now, until when will you hold the money in safekeeping?”
The parallel is as follows. The Maggid explains in a previous segment of his discussion of our parashah’s opening verse (and elsewhere as well) that the eternal blessings we are due to receive in the end of days are the product of the afflictions we have been suffering during our long exile. Accordingly, Hashem cautioned us not to be anxious and try to hasten the redemption. Thus, Yeshayah declares (verse 28:16): “Let the believer not expect it soon.” In Shir HaShirim 2:7, it is written: “I adjure you, O daughters of Yerushalayim, by the gazelles, and by the hinds of the field, that you not awaken nor stir up love, until it please.” The Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:18 explains that Hashem is warning the Jewish People not to press for the end of the exile.
We can liken the blessing of the end of days to a growing fruit. So long as the fruit remains on the tree, it will continue to develop properly, and ultimately it will ripen well. Similarly, so long as the exile with its afflictions continues, the eventual blessing grows correspondingly, progressing to the state of completion it will reach when, in the words of Yeshayah 60:20, our days of mourning are completed. But we cry out to Hashem that our afflictions have grown too great to bear. We say that we are at the brink of death. How can we be comforted by the promise of ultimate blessing?
This is the idea behind David’s declaration: “I have cried out to You, Hashem. I have said: ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Hearken to my cry, for I have been brought very low.” David is saying: “When I cried out over the trials I am suffering, I would say to myself, ‘You are my refuge, my portion of in the land of the living.’ I would hope for the eventual blessing that would sprout from the afflictions. But now I can no longer bear the suffering. I have been brought very low. If not now, when?” The theme is echoed by the other passage from Tehillim that we quoted at the outset: “Until when will you endlessly forget me?”
We can explain along the seeming inconsistency in the two halves of the verse from Eichah. True, there is a limit to the duration of the exile, but if the exile goes on for too long, it will be as if all memory of us has died off and we are forgotten forever. Accordingly, in Tehillim 143:7: “Answer me soon, Hashem, my spirit is spent. Do not conceal You face from me, lest I become like those to descend into the pit.”

Parashas Vayiggash

This week’s parashah describes Yosef and his brothers making peace with each other. This prompts the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 95:1 to expound on the end of days, where peace and wholeness will prevail:
It is written (Yeshayah 65:25): “The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion, like the cattle, will eat straw.” Come and see how, in the end of days, the Holy One Blessed He will turn to those whom He smote in this world and heal them. The blind will be healed, as it is written (ibid. 35:5): “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened.” And the lame will be healed, as it is written (ibid. 35:6): “Then the lame will skip like the gazelle and the tongue of the mute will sing forth.” … And even the wild animals will be healed, as it is written: “The wolf and the lamb will graze together.”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash.
His starting point is another prophesy of Yeshayah about the peace that will prevail in the end of days (ibid. 11:6-9):
The wolf will dwell with the sheep, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; the calf, the young lion, and the fatling will [walk] together, and a young child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze, and their young will lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the cattle. The sucking child shall play by the hole of the viper, and the newly-weaned child will place his hand on the adder’s den. They will neither hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Hashem, as the waters cover the sea.
Yeshayah is saying that the spread of knowledge of Hashem throughout the world will automatically lead to peace among all creatures. We will explain why this is so. We know that the only reason Hashem created the world was to give us the opportunity to serve Him and to bring us good. Thus it is written (Tehillim 89:3): “The world is built upon kindness.” This being so, we are prompted to ask why creation is so filled with beings that cause distress and injury, from the destroying angels in heaven to the ravaging animals on earth. The answer is that everything Hashem created is for our benefit, including the harmful beings, and the purpose of these beings is to stir us to fear Hashem and keep us from straying. Thus, Hashem warns us that if we stray, He will “send the wild animals of the field against you, and they will leave you bereft of your children, decimate your livestock, and diminish you” (Vayikra 26:22).
Accordingly, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 3:14): “God made it [all of creation] so that He be feared.” Elsewhere Shlomo declares that “there is benefit to the world in everything, and the Midrash remarks (Koheles Rabbah 5:6): “R. Yehudah says: ‘Even the things within the world that you look upon as superfluous – these very things are among those that maintain the world in existence.’” Every element of creation plays a role in bringing creation as a whole to its perfection, even the beings that bring destruction, as we have explained.
In the world as we know it now, people are prone to sin due to the incitements of their evil inclination, and so the harmful beings are needed to maintain our fear of Hashem and keep us from sinning. But regarding the end of days, it is written (Yechezkel 36:26-27): “I will give you also a new heart, and a new spirit I will place within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from within your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit within you, and lead you to walk in My statutes, and You will keep Mine ordinances, and do them.” The evil inclination will be no more. As a result, there will no longer be any need for harmful beings. Accordingly, Hashem will strip these beings of their violent nature and make them docile and peaceful. This is the message of the prophesy of peace and harmony in Yeshayah 11.
The same message is conveyed in the Midrash with which we began. When the Midrash speaks of Hashem’s opening the eyes of the blind, it is speaking of His curing us from the blindness of the mind that results from the evil inclination’s efforts to confuse us and prevent us from seeing what is just and right. And when the Midrash speaks of Hashem’s healing the lame, it is speaking of His curing our legs and keeping them from straying from the proper path. Hashem smote us with the evil inclination, but in the end He will heal us of it. And when He does so, He will also cure the wild animals of their violent nature, for its purpose will have come to an end.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shabbos Chanukah

The special haftarah for Shabbos Chanukah begins as follows (Zechariah 2:14-15):
“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold I am coming and I shall dwell in your midst,” says Hashem. “Many nations will attach themselves to Hashem on that day, and will become unto Me as a people, and I shall dwell in your midst .…” And Hashem shall inherit Yehudah as His portion in the holy land, and He shall in addition choose Yerushalayim.
The Maggid asks: Why is the statement “I shall dwell in your midst repeated”?  He sets out to answer this question. The Maggid describes how the Jewish People, over the centuries, has safeguarded Hashem’s Torah and upheld His honor. As a result, in the end of days, light will shine upon all the nations of the world, and they will recognize clearly that Hashem alone is sovereign over all of existence, from the heights of the heavens to the depths of the earth. They will see clearly how Hashem has constantly watched over us and miraculously preserved us throughout the long exile, and they will behold the glory we will attain when Hashem reveals Himself openly to the world. And Hashem will surely reward us, the Maggid says, for the centuries during which we provided a home for Him and His Torah.
The Maggid then introduces a parable. A merchant arrived, with a large stock of merchandise, to a city where he had several impoverished relatives. He lodged in the home of one of these relatives and used it, for a considerable time, as a base for selling his merchandise. When he was ready to return to his own home, he gave each of his relatives a fitting allotment of his earnings. To the relative he stayed with he gave a larger allotment than he gave to his other relatives. However, he split the allotment into two portions, so that his relative would know that one portion was a gift that he received on an equal basis with the other relatives and the other portion was payment for lodging in his home.
We can now understand the double language in the passage from the haftarah. Hashem will come and dwell in our midst. As a result, many nations will attach themselves to Hashem. On this account, Hashem will intensify His presence among us. We will receive two portions of the Divine Presence. Hashem will take for Himself an estate in Yehudah, just as He will take for Himself an estate in the land of each of the other nations. And, in addition, He will choose Yerushalayim as an estate as well, as reward to us for promoting His honor.
For the complete recovery of my father, Pesach ben Sarah, who is now going through a serious illness. Please daven for him.

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