Post Archive for May 2017

Parashas Bamidbar

Parashas Bamidbar describes how the Jewish People encamped during their sojourn in the wilderness, “each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers’ households” (Bamidbar 2:1). The Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:4):
Holy and lofty were the Jewish People in their formation marked with banners. And all the nations of the world looked upon them in wonder and declared (Shir HaShirim 6:10): “Who is this who gazes down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, clear as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?” They said to the Jewish People (ibid. 7:1): “Turn aside, turn aside, O Shulammite.” They beckoned to them: “Cleave to us, come be with us, and we will make you rulers, commanders, officers, prefects, and governors.” They continued (continuing in the verse): “Turn aside, turn aside, so that we can look you over.” Here, “look you over” means to identify people for positions of power. As Yisro said to Moshe (Shemos 18:21): “And you look over all the people and appoint able men.”
The Jewish People replied (continuing in Shir HaShirim 7:1): “What will you see in the Shulammite, like the dance of the camps (מחולת המחניים)?” They were saying: “What greatness are you proposing to give us? Could it be the greatness of מחולת המחניים? Could you possibly bestow upon us greatness like that which God bestowed upon us in the wilderness, where we had the banner of the camp of Yehudah, the banner of the camp of Reuven, the banner of the camp of Dan, and the banner of the camp of Ephraim? … Could you possibly bestow upon us greatness like that which God bestowed upon us in the wilderness, where whenever we sinned, God would forgive (מוחל) us and say to us, ‘your camp shall be holy’ (Devarim 23:15)?”  
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. We know, he says, that the power of one who brings merit to the public at large is great beyond measure. Regarding such a person, the Sages say in Avos 5:18 that the merit of the public at large is attributed to him. The opposite is true of a person who leads the general public to sin. If a person commits a sin, and others see him and commit the same sin, it is a serious matter – this is one of the things that, as the Mishnah says, precludes repentance. It is, in Shlomo HaMelech’s words (Koheles 1:15), a “perversion that cannot be remedied,” like the case discussed in Yevamos 22b of a person who cohabits with another man’s wife and produces thereby a child who is a mamzer. For what will it help for the person to repent if his sinning has borne the bitter fruit of similar sinning by others?
It is in this vein that Torah exhorts (Devarim 23:15): “Your camp shall be holy, so that he will not see a shameful thing among you.” That is, your neighbor in the tent next to yours should not see you do a shameful thing and be led to do likewise. [In the context of Devarim 23:15, the word “he” refers to Hashem, but the Maggid is reading it homiletically as referring to one’s neighbor.] We must be exceedingly careful not to sin in the sight of others, lest our sinning propagate among the community. A parenthetical note in the commentary adds a further point: If a person wishes to involve himself with the general public, to lead them in the ways of serving Hashem, he must take care first to perfect himself and make himself trustworthy and wholehearted in his own conduct and service to Hashem. Thus, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 26:12): “My foot is set on the straight path; in assemblies I shall bless Hashem.” A person must first set his foot on the straight path, and only then can he promote Hashem’s honor among the multitudes.
In Shir HaShirim 7:1, the nations of the world beckon to us to cleave to them and assume positions of power, saying that our exemplary conduct will inspire them to adopt our good ways, and thereby we will earn the great merit of bringing merit to the public at large. We decline the invitation, out of fear that the errors we make will lead them astray, making it hard for us to gain Hashem’s forgiveness for these errors. This is what the Midrash means when it describes us as asking the nations: “Could you possibly bestow upon us greatness like that which God bestowed upon us in the wilderness, where whenever we sinned, God would forgive us?” We mention how Hashem warned us to make sure that “your camp shall be holy,” and that no one should see us commit any improper act. And we ask the nations: “What will you see in the Shulammite? Will you focus on the good deeds we do and learn from them, or will you be led astray by the errors we commit in your presence?”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Behar-Bechukosai

Parashas Bechukosai contains the first of the two Torah passages called tochachah, rebuke, which present a long litany of curses that will befall those who stray from the Torah path. In the middle of the litany of curses in our parashah we find the following verse (Vayikra 26:42): “And will I remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham will I remember, and I will remember the land.” The Maggid raises two questions about this verse. First, why are the forefathers listed in reverse order? Second, why does this verse, which seems to present good tidings, appear in the middle of the litany of curses?
The Maggid answers these questions by means of a parable. Two men were arrested for stealing. When they were brought into court, the judges inquired into their background. The first thief replied: “I’m from Mudville. I’m the son of Donald Black.” One judge said: “Ah, Donald Black, we know him well. He spent time here in jail. He is a thief, his father was a thief, and his grandfather was a thief.” Afterwards, the judges turned to the second thief and asked: “And you, who is your father?” The thief replied: “David Cohen, the rabbi of the town of Pleasantville.” The judges asked further: “And your grandfather?” The thief responded: “Moshe Cohen, the rabbi of the city of Megatropolis.” The judges gave the first thief a light sentence and the second one a heavy sentence. The second thief asked: “Why is my sentence so much heavier than this other thief?” One judge replied: “This other fellow is the son of a thief, from a community of thieves. So he is not so much to blame for his stealing. But you grew up in the house of a saintly and upright man. How did you come to steal?” A second judge continued: “Ah, I know your grandfather, and he is also a saintly and upright man.” The third judge added: “I know your great-grandfather, and he is a saintly and upright man as well. You come from a line of saintly and wholehearted men. It does not befit you to steal. So you deserve a very severe sentence.”
This is the idea behind the verse from our parashah. The verse appears in the middle of the litany of curses because it bears a penetrating rebuke. Hashem is comparing our conduct with the splendid conduct of our saintly forefathers. In the same vein, the Gemara in Shabbos 89b tells us that in the end of days, Hashem will come to us and say: “Go to your forefathers, and they will rebuke you.” In the verse from our parashah, Hashem is telling us that He will say to us: “I remember your father Yaakov, with whom I had a covenant. And I remember as well your grandfather Yitzchak, with whom I also had a covenant. And furthermore I remember your great-grandfather Avraham, with whom, too, I had a covenant. So glorious is the stock you come from! How could you fall so low? In addition, I remember the land. I brought you into a lofty land, and you sinned against it. And so you will go into exile, and the land will be rid of you.”
We can compare Hashem’s approach toward us to the way a tutor treats his students. When a dull student learns poorly, the tutor treats him leniently, for he knows the student cannot do much better. But when a bright student learns poorly, the tutor disciplines him severely, for he knows that his poor performance does not befit him.
In the Zichronos (Remembrances) section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer, we say: “And the binding of Yitzchak remember for his descendants this day in mercy.” We plead with Hashem that His remembrance of our forefathers should serve to lead Him to treat us with compassion, rather than serving as an indictment against us. Similarly, when praying to Hashem on our behalf after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe asks Hashem to recall our forefathers for our benefit, as a reason to show us mercy (Devarim 9:27): “Remember Your servants, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; do not look upon the stubbornness of this people, nor to their wickedness, nor to their sin.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Emor

This week’s parashah includes a review of the festival cycle. In connection with Yom Kippur, it is written (Vayikra 23:32): “It shall be for you a day of consummate rest, and you shall afflict yourselves; on the ninth day of the month in the evening, from evening to evening, you shall rest on this day of rest.” The Gemara comments (Berachos 8b): “But is it on the ninth that we fast? It is on the tenth that we fast. Rather, whoever eats and drinks on the ninth, Scripture regards him as having fasted on the ninth and the tenth.” The Maggid notes that it is odd for the Torah to present the mitzvah of eating and drinking on the ninth of Tishrei under the rubric of afflicting ourselves. No other mitzvah is presented in such an oblique way; rather, the Torah states straightforwardly what we are supposed to do or refrain from doing. So here the Torah should have written simply that we shall eat and drink on the ninth and afflict ourselves on the tenth. The Maggid sets out to explain the reason for the oblique presentation.
He brings out the idea with a parable. A rich man had a son who liked to indulge himself through eating. Every day on his way to school, while passing a marketplace where fruit and nuts were sold, he grabbed some out of the baskets, popped them into his mouth, and ran away. After this had gone on day after day for some time, the merchants assembled at the rich man’s house to complain about the boy, describing the mischief he was doing. The father was embarrassed. He reprimanded his son, but to no avail; the boy continued with his deplorable behavior.
The father pondered what he could do to get the boy to stop, and he came up with an idea. The next morning, he called to his son and said: “My dear son, I’m troubled over the fact that you walk to school alone. How could a boy so exemplary and so dear to my heart as you be left to walk to school alone? You should be escorted to school in an honorable way. Wait a bit, and I’ll get a band to come accompany you and play music as you walk to school, so that you’ll make your way there with great pomp, like the sons of noblemen. The boy was thrilled with the idea, so the father arranged for the band to come. As the boy walked to school, the band played festive music and the bandleader declared: “Here comes the splendid, outstanding boy Adam, of the illustrious Smith family – we’re escorting him to his teacher, the famed Dr. Black.” Amidst all the honor and praise with which the boy was escorted to school, he didn’t dream of grabbing from the baskets of fruit and nuts as he had done before. How could he taint his honor with such lowly behavior?
The parallel is as follows.  In regard to man, it is written (Bereishis 8:21): “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” People are naturally strongly drawn toward physical pleasures and other worldly vanities. So if the Torah had stated in explicit terms the mitzvah to eat and drink on the ninth of Tishrei, who knows what would happen? People would get caught up indulging themselves in eating and drinking, perhaps even getting drunk. Who knows if there would be a minyan in shul in the evening for Kol Nidre?
Hashem, in His great wisdom, therefore presented this mitzvah in a veiled manner, couching it in the rubric of afflicting ourselves, and telling us that it would be as if we would be fasting on both the ninth and the tenth. The mitzvah would then be accompanied with an atmosphere of great holiness similar to that of a fast, and it would indeed be as if we were fasting on the ninth as well as on the tenth. As a result, we would easily discern the proper way to eat and drink on erev Yom Kippur. We should not be eating and drinking in excess in order to indulge ourselves. Rather, we should be eating and drinking solely to fulfill Hashem’s command. By doing so, we honor the mitzvah with the glory of holiness, in a spirit of awe and humility, recognizing that as we eat and drink we are sitting before Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Acharei Mos – Kedoshim

The last segment of parashas Acharei Mos discusses forbidden unions. The Torah concludes this discussion with the following exhortation (Vayikra 18:26-30):
And you shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither the born Jew nor the proselyte who lives among you … that the land will not vomit you out when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations, the people who do so shall be excised from among their people. So you shall keep My charge, to shun these abominable practices, which were done before you, and not defile yourselves through them: I am Hashem your God.
The Maggid raises two issues regarding this passage. First, he suggests that instead of “the land will not vomit you out when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you,” the Torah should write “the land will not vomit you out, as it vomited out the nation that was before you, when you refrain from defiling it.” This phrasing would be more appropriate, for the Torah’s apparent intent is to promise us that if we keep its laws and refrain from transgression, the land will not vomit us out. Second, why does the Torah state a penalty of excision for engaging in a forbidden union, when apparently it states just before that the punishment for doing so is expulsion from the land?
The Maggid explains the Torah’s intent through a parable. A rich man had an only son. He brought into the house an orphan boy so that his son would have a close friend, like a brother, and a learning companion in his studies with the household tutor. After the orphan became accustomed to his foster home and, well-fed and well cared for, came to consider himself part of the family, he began to belittle the tutoring. He started taking daily strolls in the gardens and orchards, avoiding the lessons. When the rich man found out about this, he threw the orphan out of the house.
Some time later, the rich man’s son began acting the way the orphan had done. When the father found out, he took his son into a room and gave him a severe beating. A few hours later, when the father’s anger had settled down, the son approached him and said: “Let me at least understand why you treated me, your only son, worse than the orphan boy who was living here. When he did what I did, you didn’t do anything to him. You just threw him out of the house. You should have done the same with me, rather than subjecting me to an outpour of harsh anger and a horrible beating.”
The father replied: “Listen, I am not the father of this other boy. It is only because he seemed well-behaved and obedient that I brought him into the house and kept him here to be a companion to you. When I saw him misbehaving, I threw him out. But you are my son. How can I send you away from me? If you misbehave, I have no choice but to beat you until you straighten out and listen. I’ll never let go of you; I’ll keep disciplining you until I get you onto the road to success.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem warned us not to act like the Egyptians, whose land we had left, or like the Canaanites, who land we were entering (ibid. 18:3). He told us not to defile ourselves with the abominable practices the Canaanites had engaged in, which led Him to cast them out from before us and cause the land to vomit them out (ibid. 18:24-25). And He told us not to think that if we stray from Him and engage in the Canaanite abominations, He will simply cause the land to vomit us out as He had done with the Canaanites. He declared: “The land will not vomit you out when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Rather: “For whoever commits any of these abominations, the people who do so shall be excised from among their people.” The punishment for engaging in these abominations is not expulsion, but rather the ignominy and pain of being excised from the community. As a result, Hashem told us, we will behave ourselves: “You shall keep My charge, to shun these abominable practices, which were done before you, and not defile yourselves through them.” Hashem ended His exhortation by explaining why He will treat us differently from the Canaanites: “I am Hashem your God.” Hashem was telling us: “I am Hashem your God. How, then, can I possibly cast you away from Me and abandon you? Surely I will not do so. Rather, I will keep My chastisement going until you straighten out and keep My charge.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator