Post Archive for July 2017

Parashas Devarim

Sefer Devarim begins with the following statement: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael on the other [east] side of the Jordan ….” The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 1:7):
What is this like? Let us give a parable. A dyed wool merchant was outside calling out: “Here is dyed wool!” The king was peering outside and he heard the announcement, and he called the merchant over to him. He asked: “What are you selling?” The merchant replied: “Nothing.” The king exclaimed: “I heard you calling out, ‘Here is dyed wool,’ and you tell me you’re not selling anything?” The merchant responded: “My master, it is true that I’m selling dyed wool, but for someone in your high position it is like nothing.” Thus it was with Moshe and Hashem. When Moshe spoke to Hashem [at the burning bush, Shemos 4:10] he said, “I am not a man of words.” But in relation to the People of Yisrael, it is written: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael.”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He relates that he once asked the Vilna Gaon what the difference is between the first four books of the Torah and Sefer Devarim. The Gaon replied as follows. The words in the first four books were spoken by Hashem Himself, channeling His speech through Moshe’s throat. But the words in Sefer Devarim were like those spoken by the prophets who came after Moshe. With these other prophets, Hashem communicated His message to the prophet in a vision, and afterward the prophet conveyed the message to the people. Thus, at the time the prophet spoke to the people, Hashem was no longer speaking to him. Similarly, Moshe conveyed Sefer Devarim to the Jewish People on his own.
The Midrash expounds earlier (Devarim Rabbah 1:1):
It is written (Mishlei 15:4, homiletically): “The tree of life heals the tongue.” And the “tree of life” is none other than the Torah, as it is written (ibid. 3:18): “It [the Torah] is a tree of life to those who grasp it.” … Before Moshe acquired Torah, he declared: “I am not a man of words.” But after he acquired Torah his tongue was healed and he began to speak out words, as it is written: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael.”
Initially, the Maggid says, it was necessary for Moshe to have a speech impairment. In this way, when Moshe spoke words of Torah, and the words came out smoothly and clearly, the Jewish People would know that it was Hashem speaking. They could tell that it was not Moshe speaking, for the rest of the time Moshe was unable to speak smoothly. This state of affairs continued throughout the period in which Moshe presented the Jewish People the Torah for the first time. The situation is reflected in the Midrash with the parable of the dyed wool merchant. Moshe was able to present words of Torah clearly during this period, but from Hashem’s standpoint, Moshe was not purveying anything, for in fact He was the One doing the speaking. Moshe viewed himself as having nothing to offer, for he was not a man of words.
But now, when Moshe set out to present the Torah a second time, it was no longer necessary for Moshe to have a speech impediment. The people had already heard the entire Torah spoken by Hashem through Moshe’s throat, and they knew Hashem had been the speaker. Accordingly, Hashem healed Moshe’s tongue, and he was able to speak normally. And thus, when Moshe presented his review of the Torah, speaking on his own, the words came out smoothly.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Megillas Eichah

Given that we are now in the annual three-week period of mourning over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, I present some teachings from the Maggid’s commentary on Megillas Eichah (Lamentations), which we read on the fast of Tishah B’Av. In Eichah 3:23, it is written: “They come anew each morning – Your faithfulness is great.” The Midrash presents a comment on this verse by R. Shimon bar Abba (Eichah Rabbah 3:20): “From the fact that You recast [Your relationship with] us at the dawning of each major kingdom, we know that You can be firmly counted on to redeem us.” We can understand this comment by reflecting on why God sent us into exile. We have to understand that Hashem did not exile us out of anger, intending to make our souls languish. Far be it for Hashem to do evil – He intends only good for the Jewish People. His sole aim is to benefit us in the end. He afflicts us only because our condition requires it.
This idea is reflected in the following verse (Tehillim 77:11, homiletically): “On account of my sickness the Most High One’s right hand has changed over.” It is like a father who makes his son take bitter medicines because the son is sick. The medicine is meant to clear the son’s system of the disease and restore him to his former strength. The Maggid elaborates on this theme at length several times in his commentary on Eichah. The son initially will view his father as a total enemy whose intent is to aggravate him. But when he sees that the doctor sometimes tells the father to throw out the old medicines and prepare new ones in their stead, the son will then understand that the father is acting for his good. If the father wished merely to afflict him, why would he switch to a different medicine? Surely the original medicine, with its horribly bitter taste, would do the job well enough. Similarly, from the fact that Hashem sometimes cancels the old decrees and subjects us to new ones, we have clear evidence that His intent must be for our good. This is what the Midrash is telling us. We can draw encouragement from this teaching.
At the same time, we have to recognize that Hashem is in pain, so to speak, over the fact that He has to bring us suffering rather than the blessing that He wishes to bring us. In this connection, the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 2:5, expounding on Hashem’s conversation with Moshe at the burning bush, teaches as follows:
Said R. Yannai: “Just like with twins, if one has a headache, the other feels it. In the same vein, the Holy One Blessed Be He said (Tehillim 91:15), ‘I am with him in distress.’” Another point: What is the meaning of “I am with him in distress”? When they are in trouble, they call out only to the Holy One Blessed Be He. Thus it was in Egypt, as it is written (Shemos 2:23): “And their supplication rose up to God.” And thus it was by the sea, as it is written (ibid. 14:10): “And the Children of Yisrael cried out unto Hashem ….” There are many other such instances. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “Do you not sense that I am engulfed in pain when the People of Yisrael are engulfed in pain? You can know from the fact that I am speaking to you, so to speak, from amidst the brambles that I share their pain.”
On Tishah B’Av, as we lament the fact that we are in a state of exile, without the Beis HaMikdash, we should lament especially over the pain Hashem Himself feels because of this state of affairs.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Pinchas

Parashas Pinchas begins as follows (Bamidbar 25:10-13):
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen, turned My wrath away from the Children of Yisrael …. Therefore say: ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace ….’”
The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:1): “Said the Holy Only Blessed Be He, ‘It is fitting that he should collect his reward.’” Last year, we presented an explanation by the Maggid of the above Torah passage and this Midrash taken from Kochav MiYaakov, haftaras Pinchas. We now present another explanation that the Maggid offers, taken from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Pinchas.
The Maggid takes as his starting point another Midrash on our parashah (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:3):
“Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace” – that he is still alive. As it is written (Malachi 2:5, in a passage dealing with Kohanim): “My covenant was with him of life and peace.”
The Sages understand Hashem’s statement to Pinchas as a promise to grant him eternal life that would be accompanied by peace – freedom from the hazards that abound in the world.
In Iyov 3:19 (according to Rashi’s interpretation), Iyov declares that only after death does it become evident whether a person was great or small. The Maggid brings out the idea with a parable. A number of merchants were traveling together as a group with their merchandise. It was a difficult trip, involving travel across rivers, some sea travel, and travel across roads beset with marauders. During the trip, one of the wealthier merchants criticized one of the lesser merchants, and the second merchant started arguing back. The wealthy merchant remarked: “I would never have imagined that you would be so brazen, and refuse to accept direction from someone more eminent than you.” The other merchant replied: “As long as we are traveling, your assets are not really your own, for at any moment you might lose them because of some mishap; for instance, robbers might come and take everything. It is only when we arrive safely home with our merchandise and other possessions can we start talking about which of us is more eminent.”
Now, this world is a place of great spiritual danger. In general, as long as a person is alive, he faces a constant stream of spiritual threats, just as a ship at sea is under constant threat of being overtaken by raging waters. Thus, Hillel teaches (Avos 2:5): “Do not be assured of yourself until the day of your death.” The great saints among the Jewish People spent their entire lives in a state of fear and trembling, worried that they might falter. Even such giants as Yaakov Avinu and David HaMelech were constantly gripped by the fear of sin, as the Gemara in Berachos 4a relates. As long as a person is in this world, he is never free of the risk that he will be ensnared by the evil inclination, which wages constant war with him, growing stronger every day (Sukkah 52b), always inventing new schemes to lure him into sin. Thus, in Bereishis Rabbah 9:5, the Sages teach: “Why is there a decree of death on saintly men? As long as they are alive, they battle their evil inclination, and when they die, they rest. As it is written (Iyov 3:17): ‘There [in the grave] the weary rest.”
Thus, in granting Pinchas eternal life, it was essential for Hashem to grant him also the blessing of peace – freedom from hazards, particularly spiritual hazards. Had Hashem granted Pinchas only eternal life, but not peace, it would not have been a true gift, for he would have been in a state of eternal spiritual danger and fear. Hashem therefore granted him peace as well, and gave notice that He was doing so: “Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace.” Hashem freed Pinchas of spiritual hazards, so that his eternal life would be serene and pleasant. Through the covenant of peace, Hashem made it fitting for him to receive the reward of eternal life. Indeed, the grant of peace automatically entailed that he would live forever, for once he was freed from spiritual hazards, there was no reason that he should ever die.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Trust in Hashem – A Recurring Issue in Sefer Bamidbar, Part 3

We continue with the discussion of bitachon (trust in Hashem’s providence), taken from the Maggid’s Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaBitachon.
Chapter 4
The second major reason why people lack bitachon is that it is not part of a person’s inborn nature. By proper exercise of his free will, a person can implant bitachon in his heart, but it is not there from birth. Hashem deliberately created man without a built-in tendency toward bitachon, in order to advance His plan for running the world. Hashem wanted us to procure the bounty He emplaces within the world through the work of our own hands. The work we do is the final stage of an extensive process, whose other components are much more numerous and powerful – the heavens give forth rain, the earth provides its resources, oxen do plowing, and so on. But, nonetheless, our work plays the central role; without the work of human beings, the world would lie desolate. If a person does not plow his field or tend his orchard, no produce will come forth. Thus it is written (Bereishis 2:5): “No trees or shrubs of the field were yet on the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprouted, for Hashem, God, had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil.”
If bitachon were an inborn trait of man, we would disdain worldly endeavors and would not put exertion into them, since we would know with perfect clarity that the flow of sustenance we receive is not brought about by these endeavors, but rather by Hashem’s decree. And we would reason that even if we engaged only in the easiest worldly endeavors, Hashem, in His benevolence, would provide us our sustenance. A person would say: “Why do I need to exert myself with tiring labor, or travel long distances for business? Why do I need to put myself at risk of injury, illness, or death? Whatever Hashem decrees that I should have, He can bring to me without all this – I can stay at home and my portion will come to me there. Is He God only from a distance and not from nearby? [cf. Yirmiyah 23:23].”
Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishnah, in the preface to Seder Zeraim, says that if not for crazy people the world would be desolate. And indeed we see that certain items are made available only by people who lack bitachon. For example, some people deal in goods, such as precious stones, that have to be conveyed from place to place, and they go through wearying ordeals, sometimes putting themselves in danger, to acquire and sell their merchandise. It is part of Hashem’s master plan that people engage in such activities. He therefore did not instill us with bitachon, but rather left our level of bitachon to our own free choice. If a person arouses himself to cast away the tempestuous emotions that are part of ordinary human nature and implant firm bitachon into his soul, he can enjoy a life of serenity. Thus, there are saintly people who have seen the light of truth and refrained from engaging in any worldly endeavors that involve significant exertion, as a result of their high level of bitachon and their clear awareness that sustenance comes from Hashem alone. But many people have much less bitachon, and invest considerable effort in worldly endeavors.
Another aspect of Hashem’s master plan is that people have a natural liking for certain commodities, such as gems, pearls, and so on, even though they are not necessary for normal living. If not for this liking, people would exert themselves only for basic necessities such as bread. But Hashem did not create anything for naught. He wants all creations to continue in existence and be available to man; each creation has its own special qualities that make it important, even if we are unaware of what they are. He therefore implanted within us a natural liking for various commodities, so that we will be stirred to exert effort to acquire and maintain them. The harder a commodity is to acquire and maintain, the stronger the natural liking for it that Hashem implanted within us.
We see the same pattern in the love that parents have for their children. A parent has more natural affection for a younger child than for an older one. The affection that a parent has for a very young child is enormous, almost boundless. The affection diminishes and becomes measured as the child grows older. A parent may even come to hate a child. The reason the affection is so great when the child is young and diminishes over time is as we have described in connection with commodities – the level of affection that parents have for a child is proportionate to the effort they need to invest to care for him or her. The care of a young child involves a huge effort: the child has to be fed, dressed, carried, and taught. Hashem therefore implanted parents with a huge amount of affection for a young child.
At the same time, Hashem gave us the power to modulate our natural inclinations. We can decide for ourselves what we will put effort into. Thus, the Sages say (Bereishis Rabbah 13:7 on Bereishis 2:5): “Man was created to toil. If a person merits, he toils in Torah; if a person does not merit, he toils in the land. Well-off is one who toils in Torah.” It is true, as Rambam says, that without crazy people the world would be desolate. But we can each ask ourselves: “Why should you be one of those crazy people? You have before you the Torah, which spans the length of the world, more precious than pearls or the finest gold. Delight in your love of it!” 
David Zucker, Site Administrator