Post Archive for March 2017

Haftaras Vayikra

This week’s haftarah concludes with the following passage (Yeshayah 41:14-16):
“Fear not, O worm-like Yaakov, O hosts of Yisrael – I am your helper,” says Hashem, “and your redeemer, the Holy One of Yisrael. Behold, I have made you like a threshing sledge, with freshly-sharpened teeth – you shall thresh mountains and grind them down fine, and you shall turn hills into chaff. You shall cast them up, and a wind shall carry them, and a storm shall scatter them, and you will rejoice in Hashem – in the Holy One of Yisrael you will glory.
The Maggid discusses this passage in his commentary on Eichah 3:39-41. He explains the comparison of the Jewish People to a worm as follows. The worm’s source of strength is its mouth. The worm’s mouth enables it to take on mighty mountains and grind them down finely. Similarly, the Jewish People’s source of power is their mouths – through prayer. [Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 450, expounding on our passage, makes this point.] The Jewish People’s prayers can stand up to anything that rises against them. Their prayers can push aside whatever stands in their way more effectively than any weapon of combat.
The Maggid then considers why Yeshayah compares the Jewish People specifically to a worm, and not to one of the predatory creatures, whose strength also is the mouth. There is a key difference between the worm and other species, which points to an important idea. With other species, an individual animal has the power to accomplish its goal even when it is alone, with no fellow creature helping out. Not so with the worm: an individual worm can do nothing. The worm manifests its great strength only when mounds of worms gather together. When many worms work in concert, no mountain can stand up against them, and their strength is incalculable. This idea is reflected in the Midrash in Tanchuma Nitzavim 1. The Midrash says that individually we are like sticks, thin and weak, but when we are gathered into a single bundle, then we are strong.
The Maggid then discusses the question of how we can gather ourselves together when we are scattered across all corners of the globe and cast about to all ends of the earth. The answer is that the matter does not depend on physical proximity, but rather on kindredness of spirit. We must all set our sights on a single target, and focus our efforts on a common appeal that concerns all of us together. As Yirmiyahu declares (verses 50:4-5): “‘In those days and in that time,’ says Hashem,’ the Children of Yisrael and the Children of Yehudah shall come together, going on their way with weeping, and they shall seek Hashem their God. They shall ask for Zion .…’” We can join forces even when we are scattered, some here and some there. Kindredness of spirit is our salvation.
If each person asks God only for what he individually lacks, and pleads for relief only from his own troubles, then our prospects will be limited. Because our entreaties are scattered and isolated, salvation will tend to elude us. But it is just the opposite when we turn to God together, with hearts in hand, as a unified contingent.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a fire breaks out in a certain house. If everyone in town puts aside his own concerns and all work together to put out the fire at its source, they will succeed. The fire will be extinguished quickly and easily; no one will have anything to fear. But this is not so if everyone busies himself with clearing his possessions out of his house and trying to guard them from the fire. Then everyone is at risk of a conflagration. Because people did not take steps to help put out the fire, the blaze will grow and consume all that surrounds it. Each individual’s efforts to protect his own self and possessions will be of no avail in the face of the ever-increasing blaze.
The parallel is as follows. Our current state of devastation, with the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple) gone and Zion desolate, is like the source-point of a fire. It sets the hand of judgment against us, threatening us with all sorts of calamities. We must therefore take action – by means of prayer – to put out the fire. If we do not, we bear the blame for the damage. As our Sages put it (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1):  “Each generation in whose time the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt is regarded by Scripture as having destroyed it.” A verse in Tehillim expresses the plea that we should make (Tehillim 14:7, 53:7): “If only Yisrael's salvation would come forth from Zion!” The end of the verse describes the outcome we can look forward to: “When Hashem returns the contingent of His people in captivity, then Yaakov shall jubilate and Yisrael shall rejoice.” If each of us concerns himself only with his own troubles, then the exile will stretch on longer and longer, God forbid. But if we all direct our attention to the source of the fire, then the fire will be put out once and for all, and we will gain relief.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaykhel-Pekudei

This week’s parashah describes the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its furnishings. The Torah relates (Shemos 37:1): “And Betzalel made the Ark of acacia [in Hebrew, shittim] wood.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 50:3):
It is written (Yirmiyah 30:17): “For I will provide for you a cure; from your wounds I will heal you.” Mortal men smite with a knife and heal with a dressing, but the Holy One Blessed Be He heals with the very thing with which He smites. Thus it is written (Shemos 15:23): “And they came to Marah, and they could not the drink water of Marah.” Why? “Because it was bitter” (ibid.). [The Torah relates later:] “He [Moshe] cried out to Hashem, and Hashem directed him to a tree; he threw [a branch of] it into the water, and the water became sweet.” [The Midrash presents various opinions about what tree branch Moshe threw into the water; the common denominator is that they all are bitter.] Thus it is written (Yirmiyah 30:17): “Through your wounds I shall heal you” [interpreting ממכותיך not in its plain sense of from your wounds, but rather in a homiletical sense, as meaning through your wounds]. … Thus, similarly, the People of Yisrael sinned in Shittim [Bamidbar 25:1], and were healed through shittim, as it is written: “And Betzalel made the Ark of shittim wood.” [The sin at Shittim occurred nearly 40 years after the construction of the Mishkan, but Maharzav explains that Hashem prepared the Torah, which the Ark contained, in advance so that the Jewish People could learn how to repent from the sin.]
In his commentary on this Midrash, the Maggid begins by noting that when Hashem says that “through your wounds I will heal you,” He is not simply saying that He heals us with the same instrument that He used previously to smite us. Rather, He is saying that the blow itself is the means through which He heals us. The Maggid then sets out to explain why it is important for us to know this fact.
He quotes the following Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 43:3):
“And Moshe pleaded” (ויחל משה) (Shemos 32:11, in the episode of the golden calf). Here, ויחל is a term denoting sweetening (חילוי). … When the People of Yisrael came to Marah … Moshe began to wonder: “This water, why was it created? What benefit is it to the world? It would have been better had it not been created.” … The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: “Don’t speak like that. Is this water not the work of My hands? Is there anything in the world that was not created for a purpose? Let Me tell you what you should say instead. Say like this: ‘Make the bitter sweet.’” How do we know that the Holy One Blessed Be He instructed him to speak this way? [The Midrash recounts the episode of the waters of Marah, stressing that the Torah does not say that Hashem showed (ויראהו) Moshe the tree, but rather that He directed him to the tree (ויורהו – a term denoting instruction, related to the word תורה).] When did Moshe make use of this teaching? When the People of Yisrael [committed the sin of the calf] and God sought to annihilate them, Moshe said to Him: “Master of the Universe! Do You seek to destroy the People of Yisrael and wipe them off the earth? Did You not teach me at Marah: ‘Plead, and say: “Make the bitter sweet”’? So now, sweeten (חלי) the People of Yisrael’s bitterness and heal them.”
Moshe asks what the bitter waters of Marah were created. The Maggid remarks that it is indeed a great wonder that Hashem brought the Jewish People to Marah, where they could not drink the water, so that it was necessary to sweeten them. Why did Hashem do this? Couldn’t He have brought them to a place where there was sweet water?
The Maggid explains as follows. The same question that Moshe raised about the waters of Marah could be raised about around half of all creation. The way the world appears to us, there are many more harmful creations than beneficial creations. Yet Shlomo HaMelech teaches us that Hashem “made everything beautiful in its time” (Koheles 3:11) and made everything “for His sake, even the evildoer for the day of retribution” (Mishlei 16:4). Everything in the world serves some beneficial purpose. Creations that we categorize as good are beneficial continually, and creations that we categorize as bad still provide benefit at the appropriate time, for example, when they are used as medicines.
The Torah concludes its account of creation by saying (Bereishis 1:31): “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Expounding on this statement, the Midrash presents a long list of creations that are generally very bad, but provide a wondrous benefit in certain circumstances. Included in this list is the evil inclination. The Midrash notes that were it not for the evil inclination, a man would not build a house or marry. But when the evil inclination is stirred at an inappropriate time, Hashem has to “sweeten” it for us and keep it from causing us harm. This is the lesson Hashem taught Moshe at Marah: When we encounter something we experience as bad, we should not wish that it had not been created. Instead, we should understand that it is beneficial in its time, and when we find it bitter we should ask Hashem to sweeten it for us. Hashem is always at our side to help us. Thus David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 121:5-7): “Hashem is your guardian; He is your shadow at your right hand … Hashem will guard you from all evil; He will guard your soul.”
Indeed, Hashem promised us that He will heal us from the harm the evil inclination causes us. The Gemara in Berachos 32a and Sukkah 52b mentions three verses without which the feet of the Jewish People would falter. In one of these verses, Michah 4:6, Hashem states that He will gather in those whom He has done evil. In this verse, Hashem admits to having caused us difficulties by creating the evil inclination and promises to relieve these difficulties. Now, this statement might deflect us from working to serve Hashem and perform mitzvos: We might think that since Hashem takes the blame, so to speak, for the havoc the evil inclination wreaks on us, and has taken it upon Himself to repair the damage, there is no point in our exerting ourselves to break the evil inclination. Far be it for a blessing from Hashem to turn into a curse!
It is in order to prevent us from making this error that Hashem led us to the bitter waters of Marah and sweetened them for us. At Marah He demonstrated to us the process of sweetening the bitter: He instructed Moshe to take a bitter branch and sweeten the bitter with bitter. This exemplifies how Hashem sweetens the bitterness of the evil inclination: He brings bitter afflictions upon us until we are sweetened, just as He brought awesome plagues on Pharaoh to sweeten him and turn him from bad to good. The same idea underlies the verse from Yirmiyah that the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 50:3 quotes: “For I shall provide for you a cure; through your wounds I will heal you.” Hashem will provide us a cure, but the cure will come through blows that Hashem will cast upon us. We thus can understand literally the statement in the Midrash that Hashem heals with the very thing with which He smites – the purpose of the blow is to heal. Through the demonstration at Marah, we learned that it is not in our best interest to sit and wait for Hashem to sweeten our evil inclination.
It is in this vein that the Torah concludes its account of the episode at Marah with the following words (Shemos 15:25-26):
There He established for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them. And He said: “If you will hearken diligently to the voice of Hashem your God, and do that which is just in His eyes, and give ear to His commandments and observe all His statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the ailments that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I am Hashem your Healer.
Hashem is telling us that we have in our hands a means of sweetening the evil inclination: Torah and mitzvos. As the Gemara in Kiddushin 30b says: “I created the evil inclination, and I created the Torah as a remedy for it.” If we fail to make use of this remedy, then Hashem has to step in and sweeten the evil inclination through afflictions. As the Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 4:2 says: “The book and the sword came down from heaven bound together.” And as Yeshayah teaches (verse 1:19-20): “If you are willing and you listen, you will eat the good of the land, but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured with the sword.” At Marah, Hashem set the choice before us: We can sweeten the evil inclination ourselves through the statute and ordinance that Hashem established for us, or we can let Hashem sweeten the evil inclination for us through the method of sweetening the bitter with bitter. If we embrace the first method, we will not need to endure the second. As Hashem says: “I will not bring upon you any of the ailments that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I am Hashem your Healer” – through the Torah, a sweet and pleasant remedy.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Parah

The special haftarah for Shabbos Parashas Parah begins with the following passage (Yechezkel 36:16-21):
The word of Hashem came to me, saying: “Son of man, the House of Yisrael has been dwelling on their land, and they have they defiled it with their way and with their acts. Their way before Me has become like the ritual impurity of a menstruating woman. So I poured out My fury upon them, because of the blood they had shed upon the land, and because they had defiled it with their idols. And I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed among the lands – according to their way and according to their acts I judged them. They came into the nations, into which they came, and they desecrated My holy Name, when it was said of them: ‘These are the people of Hashem, but they left His land.’ And I had pity upon My holy Name, which the House of Israel had desecrated among the nations into which they came.”
Kochav MiYaakov presents an explanation of this passage that builds on the observation that Hashem first speaks of “their way and their acts,” afterward speaks only of “their way,” and then speaks again of “their way and their acts.” The starting point is an analysis of the terms “their way” and “their acts” (עלילותם). We find that the term “way” can be used to refer to a patter on thought. Thus, Koheles 11:9 speaks of a person following the ways of his heart, and Yeshayah 57:17 speaks of a person going “waywardly according to the way of his heart.” A person’s thoughts and the musings of his heart set the foundation for his actions. But a person’s thoughts are hidden from other people and are known only to Hashem. Thus, when someone thinks an evil thought, Hashem is aware of it but other people are not. A person’s acts, on the other hand, are out in the open and can be seen by all. This fact is reflected in the word עלילות, which is related to the phrase בעליל לארץ, meaning clear to the world, in Tehillim 12:7.
Thus, there are two categories of sins: evil thoughts and evil acts. Yechezkel 14:5 describes Hashem saying that He will seize idolatrous Jews for what is in their hearts. The Gemara in Kiddushin 39b infers from this statement that a person can be punished for idolatrous thoughts. This category of sin includes not believing that Hashem watches over and runs the world, believing that the world was created or is run by multiple deities acting in partnership, disbelieving the words of the prophets, believing that the Torah can be changed, and other heretical thoughts. These sins all involve matters between a person and Hashem. In parallel with such offenses are sins involving matters between a person and his fellow man, such as theft, murder, evil speech, gossip, and so on. The sins in this second category all involve overt action and thus they are called עלילות.
In the passage from our haftarah, Hashem initially speaks of both categories of sins, referring to them with the terms “way” and “acts.” The term “way” refers to sins in matters between a person and Hashem that a person commits through thought, while the term “acts” refers to sins in matters between a person and his fellow man that a person commits through overt action. Hashem says that the Jewish People defiled Eretz Yisrael with both types of sin. Afterward, Hashem focuses on the sins consisting of evil thoughts. He likens these sins to the ritual impurity of a menstruating woman. Just as a menstruating woman’s state is known only to her husband, so, too, sins consisting of evil thoughts are known only to Hashem. To emphasize this point, Hashem describes these sins as being “before Me,” meaning that they are detectably present before Him alone and not before any mortal man. Hashem then continues by saying that He has poured out His fury upon the people, because of the blood they had shed upon the land and because of their having defiled it with their idols. Hashem mentions the bloodshed first and the idolatry afterwards. The message here is along the lines of a teaching in Menachos 41a: Although Hashem usually does not punish people for evading positive commandments, in a time of wrath He does. The outpour of Divine fury described in our passage was initially triggered by the overt sins involving evil acts that people committed against others. Had the people been guilty only of sins of thought, involving matters between each Jew and Hashem, an outpour of fury would not have resulted. But once the evil acts against others had triggered Hashem’s fury, in the process Hashem also exacted retribution for the sins of thought.
Hashem thus continues and says: “And I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed among the lands; according to their way and according to their acts I judged them.” Here, in mentioning both “way” and “acts,” Hashem is indicated that He is punishing the people both for evil thoughts and for evil actions. Hashem’s statement that He “scattered them among the nations” relates to sins consisting of heretical thoughts. Because the peoples’ faith in Hashem was faulty, involving distorted views of Hashem’s relationship with the world, Hashem scattered them among the nations and reduced His level of watchfulness over them, thus diluting His relationship with them. In parallel, His statement that the people were “dispersed among the nations” relates to sins involving evil acts against others. The Hebrew word for dispersed, נזורו, resembles the Hebrew word זר, meaning stranger. Because the people despised each other and treated each other like strangers, Hashem dispersed them among the nations and put them in the position of being strangers. Following His usual practice, Hashem tailored the punishments according to the sins, measure for measure.
Hashem then says further: “They came into the nations, into which they came, and they desecrated My holy Name, when it was said of them: ‘These are the people of Hashem, but they left His land.’” Although Hashem was forced, so to speak, to act toward the people the way He did because of their sins, the exile of the people produced a desecration of His Name. As Rashi explains in his commentary on our passage, the nations of the world thought that, far be it, Hashem did not have the power to save the Jewish People and their land from the calamity that came upon them. And so Hashem concludes by saying: “And I had pity upon My holy Name, which the House of Israel had desecrated among the nations where they came.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Tetzaveh

This week’s parashah begins with the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 27:20): “And you shall command the Children of Yisrael, that they shall take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for light, to kindle a lamp continually.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 36:2):
Hashem said: “It is not that I need these lights. Rather, it is so that you should provide light for Me just as I provided light for you. Why? In order to exalt you before all the nations of the world, that they should say that the People of Yisrael provide light for the One who provides light to all.”
We can explain with a parable about a sighted person and a blind person who were walking together. The sighted person said to the blind person: “Come, and I will support you.” Thus the blind person was able to walk along. When they entered the house, the sighted person said to the blind person: “Go and light the lamp and provide light for me, so that you will not be beholden to me because I accompanied you.” … The sighted person in the parable is the Holy One Blessed Be He, of whom it is written (Divrei HaYamim Beis 16:9): “For Hashem’s eyes roam throughout the land.” And the blind person in the parable is the People of Yisrael, of whom it is written (Yeshayah 59:10): “We grope the wall like the blind, and like the eyeless we grope; we stumble at noon as in the dark of night.” At the sixth hour of the day, they erred with the golden calf, and the Holy One provided light for them and guided them, as it is written (Shemos 13:21): “And Hashem went before them by day.”
So when they set out to build the Mishkan, Hashem called out to Moshe and told him: “They shall take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for light.” Said the People of Yisrael: “We have said (Tehillim 18:29), ‘for You light my lamp,’ and You are telling us to provide You light?” Hashem replied: “It is to elevate you, that you should kindle lights before Me, just as I provided light for you.”
The Maggid takes note of the double language in the verse from Yeshayah that the Midrash quotes: “We grope the wall like the blind, and like the eyeless we grope.” He explains that the purpose of the double language is to rule out both of the two possible ways a blind person can manage to make his way through the streets. One way is through enlisting the help of sighted people to guide him. The other way is through calling on his memory about the streets, from the time when he was able to see. Neither of these ways is available to a person who was never able to see and is now among people who are also blind. This is how the Jewish People describe themselves in Yeshayah’s prophecy. Their intent is to describe in expansive terms the severe blindness that the evil inclination imposes on the soul by cutting it off from light. Hashem, in His great kindness, guides us with His hand so that we do not fall into the traps that the evil inclination lays for us.  It is as David HaMelech says (Tehillim 37:32-33): “The wicked one watches for the righteous one and seeks to kill him, but Hashem will not leave him to his hand.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Terumah

This week’s parashah begins with Hashem telling Moshe to tell the Jewish People that “they should take Me a portion” (Shemos 25:2). The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 33:1):
“They should take (וְיִקְחוּ) Me a portion.” It is written (Mishlei 4:2): “For I have given you good counsel (לֶקַח, literally acquisition) – Do not forsake My Torah.” Do not abandon the possession that I gave you. Sometimes a person purchases an item which has gold but not silver. And sometimes a person purchases an item that has silver but not gold. But the possession that I have given you has silver … and it has gold …. Sometimes a person buys a tract that has fields but not vineyards. And sometimes a person buys a tract that has vineyards but not fields. But this possession has both fields and vineyards …. Also, have you ever seen a transaction where the seller sells himself along with the object of purchase? Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to the People of Israel: “When I ‘sold’ you My Torah, I ‘sold’ Myself to you with it, so to speak.” As it is written: “They should take Me [as] a portion.”
The Maggid expounds on this Midrash in his commentary on Esther 1:1 in Kol Yaakov. He links it to another Midrash that comments on the meeting between Yisro and Moshe after the Exodus. The Torah states (Shemos 18:8): “And Moshe told his father-in-law all that Hashem had done ….” The Midrash comments (Yalkut Shimoni I:268): “That He gave Torah to His People Israel.” [There is a difference of opinion among the authorities as to whether the meeting between Yisro and Moshe took place before or after the Torah was given. Evidently this Midrash follows the view that the meeting took place after the Torah was given.] The Maggid asks: How can the plural term all refer to the giving of the Torah, which is just a single specific event? He answers by saying that the Torah encompasses all there is. The Midrash on Shemos 25:2 quoted above conveys the same message.
The Sages teach (Avos 6:1): “Whoever involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things ….” The Maggid asks: What is the meaning of the phrase “many things”? What does it come to add beyond the specific things that the Mishnah enumerates immediately afterwards?
The Maggid answers by drawing an analogy between the Torah and the manna that the Jewish People ate in the wilderness. Our Sages tell us that each person tasted in the manna whatever he desired (Yoma 74b and Rashi ad loc.; see also Mechilta Yisro 1). Now, the effect of the manna depended on what the person eating it had in mind. If a person ate the manna with an a priori desire to experience the taste of a specific food – meat, for example – then the manna would reflect just that specific taste. If, however, a person ate the manna without anything particular in mind, he would taste in it all types of delicacies.
It is the same with the Torah. If a person involves himself in Torah in order to satisfy some particular desire, be it riches or honor or whatever, then he is granted the particular blessing that he wished for, but no more. But if a person involves himself in Torah purely for its own sake, without desiring to attain any material benefit, then it provides him with all the blessings in the world. This is what the Sages mean when they say that “whoever involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things.” 
David Zucker, Site Administrator