Post Archive for February 2017

Parashas Mishpatim

One segment of this week’s parashah deals with lending money, especially to the poor, and not taking interest. The Torah states (Shemos 22:24): “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a pursuing creditor; do not lay interest upon him.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 31:14):
Come and see: Anyone who lends with interest commits all the transgressions described in the Torah, and he cannot find anyone to raise points in his defense. What does this mean? When a person commits a sin and stands in judgment before the Holy One Blessed Be He, angels are present, some raising points in his defense and some raising points of indictment. As it is written (Divrei HaYamim Beis 18:18): “I saw Hashem sitting on His throne, and all the heavenly hosts were standing to His right and to His left.” But for someone who lends to a Jew with interest, none of them raise points in his defense, as it is written (Yechezkel 18:13): “[If he] lends with usury and takes interest, should he live? He shall not live!”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He builds on another Midrash that follows right afterward, which expounds as follows (Shemos Rabbah 18:15):
Come and see how all the Holy One Blessed Be He’s creations borrow from each other. The day borrows from the night, and the night from the day, and they do not litigate against each other as men do. … The moon borrows from the stars and the stars from the moon …. Light borrows from the sun, and the sun from light …. The Holy One Blessed Be He’s creations borrow from each other and make peace with each other without taking interest. But with man, one lends to another and seeks to swallow him up with interest and theft.
A person who lends with interest, the Maggid explains, is the type of person who will not do anything for someone else unless he will gain some benefit in return. In the heavenly court, they deal with him in the same way, in line with our Sages’ teaching that “with the same kind of measure that a person measures with, they measure out for him” (Mishnah Sotah 1:7). The angels could help him and raise points in his defense, but they hold back from providing him a benefit for free, just as he was unwilling to provide someone else a benefit for free.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Yisro

The Gemara (Shabbos 88b-89b) records that when Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Shamayim to receive the Torah, the angels balked. They said: “This secret treasure that You hid away 974 generations before the world was created, You plan to give to flesh and blood? ‘What is a mortal, that You are mindful of him – a man, that You take note of him? O Hashem, our Master! How mighty is Your Name throughout the world, You Who has set Your glory [the Torah] within the Heavens!’ (Tehillim 8:5,2).” We have previously presented three reasons the Maggid offered to explain why the angels protested even though it is clear from a straightforward reading of the Torah that its mitzvos are relevant only to man and not to the angels. Here we elaborate on one of the reasons, presenting the parable that the Maggid used to bring out the point.
The parable runs as follows. A certain great Torah scholar served as the rabbi of a big city for a number of years. As he reached old age, he decided to retire from this hectic position, which required him to attend to the many needs of the city’s large community and to adjudicate their many thorny legal disputes. He planned to seek an alternate post as the rabbi of a nearby small town. Since the community there was small, he would be able to live restfully. He called in the big city’s leaders, and asked if they would assent to his plan. They told him: “Rabbi, do whatever you feel is best.” So the rabbi wrote to the leaders of the small town, asking if they would accept him as their rabbi. The town leaders met and decided to accept him. They chose some people to take wagons and travel to the big city to bring the rabbi over, along with his family and his belongings.
When the wagons arrived at the big city, the city leaders gathered together and tried to stop the rabbi from leaving. The rabbi said to them: “I asked you beforehand and you assented to my plan. Why are you now trying to hold me back?” They replied: “Rabbi, far be it from us to do such a thing. The wagons are here – go with them as you wish.” But, as the wagon drivers hitched up the coach, the city leaders began to beat them fiercely. They unhitched the coach and shouted: “You came to take our esteemed rabbi out to your town? Well, you came for nothing!” The wagon drivers went to the rabbi’s house and told him what happened. The rabbi called in the city leaders and said to them: “Tell me, why are you fighting with these men? They are innocent, for they came in good faith, after you assented to my plan.”
The leaders of the city replied: “Rabbi, we deliberately staged this scene for your benefit. You wrote to the leaders of the nearby town, asking them to accept you as their rabbi. Who knows what the people there are thinking about this. Maybe they imagine that we became disgusted with you for some reason and decided to throw you out of here. If so, they will have low regard for you. They will say among themselves: “Who is this who has come to live here and act as a judge over us?”  Therefore we decided to act as we did, so that the people of the other town will see how much we honor and cherish you. They will see that we would not let you leave us except with great difficulty. And then they will know how careful they must be to treat you with proper respect. They will realize that the only reason we are letting you go is because you need some relief from the many concerns of a large community.”
The Maggid explains that a similar process took place when Hashem decided the time had come to convey the holy Torah to the Earth below, and give it to humans beings constituted from a fusion of physicality and spirituality.  The angels knew that the Torah was meant all along to be given to the People of Israel. Nonetheless, in order to show how much they cherished the beauty of Torah, they decided to stage a protest against giving it to man.
They had an important goal in mind in doing this. The angels, who appreciate the precious value of Torah more than lowly humans, were concerned that after the Jewish People received the Torah, they would fail to regard it with the proper respect. They would treat it, so to speak, as the natives of a country treat a foreigner. They would say to themselves: “If the Torah is so great, why did the heavenly hosts allow it to be brought down here?” Indeed, all the great wonders that Hashem performed for the Jewish People in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds were in order that the Jewish People would serve Him at Mt. Sinai and accept the Torah. There might be room to think: “If the Torah is such an obviously wondrous treasure, why was it necessary for Hashem to go to staggering lengths to impress the people who were supposed to receive it? Who would be foolish enough to turn away a princely treasure?”
Therefore, when Moses went up on high to receive the Torah, the angels attacked him and turned to Hashem with a heated argument against him: “Keep Your glory set within the Heavens! What is a mortal, that You are mindful of him – a man, that You take note of him?” The angels deliberately acted this way so that the Jewish People would know how much the Torah is cherished in the upper worlds, and that it was being passed on to the Earth below only so that the Jewish People could become purified. The Jewish People then would get the message that they must be careful to honor and glorify the Torah fittingly.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Beshallach

Parashas Beshallach begins with the following verse (Shemos 13:17): “And it was, when Pharaoh sent the people out, that God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines (דרך ארץ פלשתים), for it was near.” The Maggid examines a Midrash on this verse that builds on the fact that the Hebrew word ארץ can mean land or earth, and the phrase דרך ארץ is a standard Hebrew expression which is used (among other uses) to mean the way of the world (i.e., the way the world ordinarily operates). The Midrash states as follows (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 226):
It is the way of the world that water comes from above and bread comes from below. But here, bread comes from above, as it is written (Shemos 16:4), “Behold, I will cause bread to rain down from heaven for you,” while water comes from below, as it is written (Bamidbar 21:17), “Then Yisrael sang this song: ‘Rise up, O well’” [referring to the miraculous well that followed the Jewish People through their travels in the wilderness and provided them water].
The Maggid explains this Midrash in terms of two modes of operation that Hashem uses to provide us with our needs. The first mode is through our efforts in serving Hashem, particularly during the time when we were well settled in our land and had the Beis HaMikdash, where we brought offerings that generated closeness between us and Hashem, and caused blessing to flow down to us. The Maggid refers to this mode as “ordinary providence,” likening it to the situation of a father providing his son with a sum of money and teaching him the ways of business, so that he can support himself through his own efforts. The second mode is a mode of special compassionate care that Hashem puts into effect when we lack the means to sustain ourselves through our service to Him. The Maggid refers to this mode as “transcendent providence,” and likens it to the situation of a young child who lives in his father’s house and has all his needs provided for him by his father. We have previously presented an essay from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Vayeitzei where the Maggid discusses these concepts. Transcendent providence is the mode that was in effect while we were in the wilderness, before we settled into Eretz Yisrael and were in a position to obtain our sustenance through ordinary providence. And this is the mode that is in effect at present, when we are in exile and unable to serve Hashem at the level at which we served Him when we had the Beis HaMikdash.
Now, if we had gone through oppression in Egypt for the full length of time that Hashem initially designated, we would have gone directly into Eretz Yisrael and entered the framework of ordinary providence. But because we could not withstand the severe oppression that Pharaoh imposed upon us and the exposure to Egyptian decadence, Hashem was led to redeem us before the designated time. We were not yet worthy, however, of entering Eretz Yisrael. Accordingly, Hashem led us into the wilderness and cared for us through transcendent providence. We can understand in this vein our parashah’s opening verse. When Pharaoh sent the people out – Pharaoh caused us to leave Egypt before designated time, because he made the yoke of slavery extremely onerous – God did not lead them according to the way of the world – it was not possible for Hashem to deal us with through the mode of ordinary providence, but instead it was necessary for Him to care for us through the mode of transcendent providence.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo

Parashas Bo begins with Hashem telling Moshe (Shemos 10:1-2):
Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, so that I can present these of Mine in his midst of them, and so that you may relate in the ears of your son, and of your son’s son, about the way I toyed with Egypt and about My signs which I have done among them – so that you may know that I am Hashem.
The Maggid sets out to elaborate on this statement. Moshe might think it was pointless for him to go to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Jews go, since Hashem told him in advance that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart and he would refuse to comply. Hashem therefore explained the actual purpose behind the events He was orchestrating. His purpose in sending Moshe to Pharaoh was not to induce him to let the Jews go, and His purpose in sending the plagues was not to take revenge against Pharaoh for his disobedience. Rather, the purpose of the plagues was to instill the Jews with a recognition of His power and infuse their hearts with fear of Him, so that they would be prepared to receive the Torah.
In recounting the plagues, Moshe said (Devarim 6:22): “And Hashem cast signs and wonders, great and terrible, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon his entire house, before our eyes.” And elsewhere, speaking of the uniqueness of the Jewish People’s experience, Moshe said (ibid. 4:34): “Or has any god ever come miraculously to take for himself a nation from the midst of another nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, and with war, and with mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with greatly awesome acts, in the manner of all that Hashem your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” The phrase before our eyes in these two statements indicates that Hashem brought about all the awesome signs and wonders so that the Jews would behold them and understand clearly that Hashem is Master of the Universe – that the entire universe is His, and He rules over every element of it. This lesson was drilled into the Jews when they saw with their own eyes, time after time, how Hashem overrode the laws of nature with the plagues. Accordingly, Hashem began the Ten Commandments with the declaration (Shemos 20:2): “I am Hashem your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The wonders the Jews beheld in Egypt gave them knowledge of Hashem.
After relating the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds, the Torah reports (Shemos 14:31): “Yisrael saw the great hand that Hashem had inflicted upon Egypt, and the people feared Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in His servant Moshe.” This declaration is a summing-up of the onslaught against the Egyptians, just in the way that a merchant who has finished a business venture makes an accounting of his profits. The onslaught achieved its intended purpose – instilling fear of Hashem in the hearts of the Jewish People.
Based on the principle we just discussed, we can understand why Hashem gave Pharaoh a public warning before most of the plagues. The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. A man who committed some offense was tried before a judge. He realized that he was going to be convicted, and the judge would issue an order for some of his property to be confiscated. So he approached the judge secretly and said: “I’ll give you over in secret whatever you demand from me. But please don’t cause me public embarrassment by convicting me in court.” The judge replied: “Am I really interested in the property itself? The only reason I’m going to order that the property be confiscated is so that people will see and will be deterred from doing what you did. The more embarrassment you suffer, the stronger the deterrent effect will be.” The parallel is clear from what we discussed before.
The way we understand the reason behind the plagues makes a crucial difference. If the plagues were meant only to take revenge against Pharaoh, we would have no reason to remember the plagues and pass the story of the plagues down from generation to generation. Our redemption from Egypt and the revenge against Pharaoh would be over and done, and there would be no need to remember these events. But since, as we explained, the true purpose of the plagues was to instill within us faith in Hashem and fear of Hashem, we can see that recounting the story yields great benefit. As a person contemplates the miracles carefully, his faith in Hashem and fear of Hashem will be strengthened. Accordingly, the Torah mentions the Exodus from Egypt innumerable times, for every time we review the events their message is more deeply instilled within us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator