Post Archive for April 2017

Parashas Tazria-Metzora

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

Parashas Shemini

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

Haftaras Shabbos HaGadol

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