Post Archive for September 2017

Rosh Hashanah

The last volume of Ohel Yaakov, the collection of the Maggid’s commentaries on the parashios of the Torah, contains a series of essays about the Yamim Noraim. These essays were composed by Rav Avraham Beirush Flamm, the redactor of Ohel Yaakov, and they consist of Torah insights of Rav Flamm interlaced with Torah insights of the Maggid. I present here a selection from one of these essays, which is labeled as a drashah (sermon) for erev Rosh Hashanah.
1. It is written (Amos 3:1-6):
Hear this word that Hashem has spoken regarding you, O Children of Yisrael …, saying: “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will take account of you regarding all your iniquities. Do two people walk together, if they have not met? … Does a trap lift off the ground without making a catch? Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?”
This passage gives insight into the effect that the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah has.
Every Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar. In Vayikra Rabbah 29:3, our Sages teach that in the merit of our shofar blowing Hashem rises from the Throne of Justice and sits on the Throne of Mercy and Compassion. Yet we see that every year people suffer misfortunes; some suffer health problems, others suffer monetary losses, and so on. Now, each year, one member of the congregation blows the shofar for everyone. We might think, therefore, that everyone should have the same kind of year; if Hashem was pleased with the shofar blowing, everyone should have a good year, and if not, everyone should have a hard year. And we might wonder why this is not so.
The reason is as follows. Hashem put into the shofar the power to shock the Adversarial Angel and neutralize him in all the areas in which he operates, both in luring people into sinning and in indicting them in the heavenly court. But the power that the shofar has to benefit a specific person in this way depends on how the person chooses to relate to the shofar blowing. A person can choose to focus on the shofar blasts and make an effort to instill fear of Hashem in his heart, or he can choose to let the shofar blasts pass him by. And, as our Sages teach in Bamidbar Rabbah 9:24, a person’s portion is measured out in the same way that he himself measures. If a person lets the shofar blasts penetrate his heart and make him feel humble and broken in spirit, the shofar blasts will also break the Adversarial Angel’s power to harm him. And if person is unaffected by the shofar blasts, the Adversarial Angel power will also be unaffected.
This idea is reflected in the last two verses in the passage from Amos: “Does a trap lift off the ground without making a catch? Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?” The first verse reflects our perspective. The shofar is supposed to eliminate evil like a trap is supposed to catch game, and we wonder why it doesn’t work. The second verse gives the answer: The shofar is supposed to cause us to tremble, but we do not allow it to do so.
In the second to last sentence in the Shofaros section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amidah, we say: “For You hear the sound of the shofar and give ear to the staccato blasts, and there is none like You.” There is none like Hashem who can see into the hearts of the people who hear the shofar blasts and discern how the blasts affect them.
Consider trying to light something. In lighting a candle, for example, if the wick has been previous lit and has been charred, it is easy to light again; a slight touch of the flame will cause the wick to catch the flame and burn steadily. But if the wick has not yet been charred, it will be hard to light. And if you try to light something that is not flammable, you can hold the flame there all day and nothing will happen. It is similar with a person’s heart.  Some people are like David HaMelech, who said (Tehillim 55:5): “My heart trembles within me.” Such a person’s heart is filled with fear all year long. Whenever he sees any misfortune come upon anyone, he is taken aback. So when he hears a frightening sound, he trembles seven times over and his heart melts. Others are like those of whom it is written (ibid. 73:4): “There are no fetters to their death, and their robustness is sound.” They are unperturbed by the most horrible tragedy. Certainly they are not stirred by the shofar blasts, which are just the sounds of a horn.   
Thus, earlier in the passage in Amos, it is written: “Do two people walk together, if they have not met?” Suppose two people come across each other on the street. If they are strangers, they will not join up. But if they had dealings with each other previously, they will join up and walk together. So it is with the shofar. If a person has a sensitive heart and an attentive ear, the shofar blasts will arouse within him a feeling of fear and he will be stirred to repentance, and the shofar will protect him from the Adversarial Angel. But if a person has never felt fear before, the shofar blasts may very well have no effect on him, and then they will not protect him.
2. In many communities it is the custom during the Ten Days of Repentance to recite Tehillim 130 in the Shacharis service after the Pesukei D’Zimrah section. The psalm begins as follows (verses 1-2): “A Song of Ascents: Out of the depths have I called to You, Hashem. Hashem, My Lord, hearken to my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. We can bring out the idea behind these verses with a parable. A rich man came to a certain town, and found there many members of his family, all of them poor and downtrodden. He sent out word to them that they should come to him, and he would grant them what they ask. Each of the relatives consulted with the members of his household about what would be most pressing to ask for. One of the relatives was utterly destitute; he had nothing in his house, no food and no clothing. In addition, he was sickly and depressed. He couldn’t figure out how to decide what he should ask for. So he just went to the rich visitor and cried, without saying anything. The rich man said: “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you.” The hapless fellow answered: “It won’t help me to make a specific request; that will just make you think that that’s the only thing I need.” Similarly, we are so beset with troubles that turning to Hashem with specific requests will not lead us to a state of peace. The only choice we have is approach Hashem and let out a general cry for help.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Nitzavim-Vayeilech

I present here two short selections from the Maggid’s commentary on Parashas Nitzavim.
1. The Torah states (Devarim 29:28): “The hidden things are unto Hashem our God, but the revealed things are for us and for our children forever, to carry out all the words of this law.” In connection with this statement, the Maggid quotes Yeshayah 48:16: “Not at the start did I speak of the hidden” (homiletical rendering).  He explains as follows. The Torah encompasses an unfathomably great treasure of esoteric wisdom. But when Hashem brought the light of the Torah into our world, He did not begin with the esoteric teachings, but rather with the revealed and openly accessible teachings. The revealed part of the Torah is easily understood by everyone. Indeed, all the nations of the world appreciate the Torah’s laws; Moshe describes the nations praising us for our laws (Devarim 4:6): “Therefore safeguard them and perform them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” When a person has internalized the revealed Torah, Hashem then conveys to him the hidden Torah. [The Maggid explains elsewhere, for example in Kol Yaakov in the commentary on Song of Songs 4:9 and the end of the commentary on Ruth, that when a person faithfully fulfills the directives of the revealed Torah, Hashem grants him access to the hidden Torah.] We should take a similar approach in learning Torah from others. We should not accept the words of anyone who comes along and offers us teachings of the hidden Torah. Only when a person has given us extensive instruction in the revealed Torah and has proven to us his expertise in this area can we believe that he is knowledgeable in the hidden Torah and accept hidden teachings from him. If a person whom we have not verified to be an expert in the revealed Torah makes various statements with the claim that they are hidden Torah teachings, we should turn away.
2. The Torah states (Devarim 30:1-3): “And it will come to pass, when all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have set before you, and you take it to heart amidst the all the nations among which Hashem your God has dispersed you, that you will then return to Hashem your God … And then Hashem your God will bring back your captivity ….” The Torah speaks here of our being stirred to repent specifically through witnessing both blessing and curse. If we observe only a curse, for example a drought, we might think it is just happenstance – that we have just reached one of the low points in the changing tides of life. But when we see that all the other nations are enjoying blessing while we alone are beset by curse, we then realize that Hashem has orchestrated the circumstances deliberately in order to arouse our hearts, and so we will be stirred to repent.
In truth, though, even when the whole world is subject to curse, it is a mistake to think that the misfortune came about through happenstance. In this vein, Yeshayah declares (verse 40:28, rendered according to the Maggid’s commentary): “Did you not know? Behold, you did not pay heed. Hashem is the God of the world (אלוקי עולם), the Creator of the ends of the earth.” Yeshayah is telling us: “Did you not know what you did when you did not pay heed to Hashem’s command to obey the laws of His Torah? You caused Hashem to change His mode of operation, on a world-wide scale, from the Attribute of Mercy and Compassion, which is associated with the Divine Name ה', to the Attribute of Justice, which is associated with the Divine Name אלוקים!” Indeed, in a famous teaching, often quoted in the period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our Sages say (Kiddushin 40a-b):
A man should always regard himself as though he were half guilty and half meritorious: If he performs one mitzvah, he is fortunate for tipping his scale to the side of merit; if he commits one sin, woe to him for tipping his scale to the side of guilt, as it is said (Koheles 9:18): “But one sinner destroys much good” – that is, on account of a single sin which he commits much good is lost to him. R. Elazar ben R. Shimon said: “Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of deeds, good or bad], if he performs one good deed, he is fortunate for tipping his scale and that of the whole world to the side of merit; if he commits one sin, woe to him for tipping his scale and that of the whole world to the side of guilt, as it is said, ‘But one sinner …’ – on account of the single sin which this man commits he and the whole world lose much good.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Savo

This week’s parashah presents the declaration that a person is supposed to make to testify that he has properly performed the mitzvah of separating and distributing tithes from his produce. Previously, in parashas Re’eh, the Torah discusses the mitzvah of giving charity. We present here the Maggid’s discussion, in his commentary on the two parashios, on the difference between these two mitzvos.
The Maggid begins his discussion with a parable. A person committed a crime and was sentenced to pay a heavy fine. The court authorities went to his house and confiscated some of his belongings as security for payment of the fine. A few days later, the head of a yeshivah came to visit the town. The town leaders wanted to give him a respectable contribution, and they started discussing where they would get the money from. One of them offered a clever suggestion: “We have on hand all these items that we recently confiscated from a criminal offender as security for payment of a fine. Let’s tell him that he must redeem these items now, or else they’ll be sold to someone else.” Having no choice, the offender came forward and paid the fine. But he was upset with the visitor and cursed him vehemently, blaming him for causing him misfortune. It was only because of the visitor that the town leaders pressed him to pay the fine so soon, and he felt that if the visitor had not come, they might even have decided to give him his belongings back.
Now suppose that the sequence of events was reversed – that early in the day the town leaders sent word to the offender that he had to redeem the security items immediately, and afterward the visitor came and the town leaders gave him the money that the offender had paid. The offender would then bless and thank the visitor profusely, and he would be glad that the money he had paid had found its way into the hands of a distinguished Torah scholar. He would think to himself: “If not for this visiting scholar, there’s no telling what they would have done with my money.”
The Maggid then explains as follows. With charity, it is the pauper’s visit to a person’s house that leads him to part with a specific sum of money. The person could thus become upset that the pauper came, thinking that if he had not come he would not have had to part with the money. By contrast, with tithes of produce, the moment a person smooths over a pile of grain, the grain becomes forbidden until he separates the tithe from it. After separating the tithe, he puts it in a designated place in his house.  Afterward, when the Levite comes to his house and asks if he has any tithes to give, he says to him: “It’s good you came. I have some produce that I set aside as tithe that has been sitting here a few days now. Come in and take it.” And he blesses the Levite profusely. In this vein, Sifrei comments that the declaration regarding tithes carries an implicit message: “I have rejoiced and caused others to rejoice on account of this.” When tithes are delivered, both the giver and the recipient rejoice.
With charity, the designation of a specific sum of money as charity and the delivery of the money to the recipient occur at the same time. But with tithes, the designation of the produce and its delivery to the recipient are carried out as separate steps. This fact is reflected in the declaration the Torah commands a person to make regarding tithes (Devarim 26:13): “I have removed the sanctified things from the house, and I also have given it to the Levite, to the proselyte, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to the commandment that You commanded me.” In this declaration, both steps are mentioned.
There is one other respect in which tithing has an advantage over giving charity. With charity, the giving is praiseworthy but there is nothing praiseworthy about ceasing to give. But with tithing, since the Torah specified a set amount, ten percent, that a person is supposed to give, it is proper to give exactly that amount, no less and no more. Thus, when the portion set aside reaches ten percent and the owner stops setting produce aside, the stopping is also a mitzvah. Accordingly, it is specifically when a person finishes dispensing his tithes that the Torah directs a person to declare that he has done as Hashem commanded.
David Zucker, Site Administrator