Post Archive for October 2017

Parashas Lech-Lecha

This week’s parashah describes several episodes in the life of Avraham Avinu. One of them is the war Avraham waged against the four kings to rescue his nephew Lot. Regarding this war, the Torah states (Bereishis 14:15): “And he and his servants divided up against them on that night.” If we read the words of the verse very literally, we obtain the following rendering: “And the night divided up on them.” Building on this point, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 43:3 remarks that just as Avraham went out to war at midnight, so too, Hashem smote the Egyptian firstborn at midnight. The Midrash relates: “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He, ‘Their father did good for Me at midnight, so I am going to do good for his children at midnight.’” Now, we would say that Hashem did Avraham a wondrous kindness by granting his small group of fighters victory over the mighty army of the four kings. But Hashem declared that Avraham did good for Him in the war against these kings. It is baffling. What did Hashem mean?
The Maggid builds his answer to this question on a Midrash. After the war, Hashem said to Avraham (Bereishis 15:1): “Do not fear, Avram, I am a shield for you – your reward is very great.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 44:4):
Avraham was afraid, for he thought: “I went into the fiery furnace [of Nimrod] and I was saved; I went to war against the four kings and was saved. Perhaps I have received my reward in this world, and I have nothing left for the world to come.” Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “Do not fear – I am a shield for you. All that I did with you in this world I did for you for nothing, and you have great reward in store for you in the world to come.” Your reward is very great, as it is written (Tehillim 31:20), “How great is Your blessing that You have hidden in store for those who fear You!” [The Midrash builds on the similarity between the word מָגֵן, meaning shield, and the Aramaic word מַגָן, meaning for nothing.]
This Midrash prompts two questions. First, why did Hashem save Avraham for free? Our Sages teach that, in general, Hashem does not dispense kindness and mercy indiscriminately. What made Avraham’s case different? Second, why was Hashem so expansive in His assurance? Avraham was concerned only that he had used up his reward. We would expect Hashem to respond simply by telling Avraham that his reward remained fully intact. Instead, He said that “your reward is very great,” indicating that Avraham gained added reward as a result of the episodes of the fiery furnace and the war against the four kings. Why did Hashem grant Avraham added reward?
We can understand Hashem’s intent by considering closely the ordeals our forefathers underwent. Avraham faced a series of ordeals, including being cast into a fiery furnace, suffering famine, and fighting a war against the four kings. Yitzchak, too, faced various ordeals. And Yaakov, the chief of the forefathers, was beset with troubles, without a moment’s rest, for almost his entire life. Why did our forefathers suffer all these ordeals?
Surely it was not in retribution for evil deeds; indeed, it would be a sacrilege to suggest so. Rather, the Maggid says, all the experiences that Hashem put the forefathers through were for the benefit of their descendants. Hashem foresaw that the Jews of future generations would face various troubles, and would be unable on their own merit to gain relief. He therefore put the forefathers through troubles of the same kind, to lead them to produce a reservoir of salvation from which their descendants could draw at all times. This key idea is the focal point of the prayer that sets the stage for the morning Amidah: “You were our forefathers’ aid in times of yore, a shield and a savior unto their children after them in each and every generation.” As we prepare to stand before Hashem to pray for His help, we draw on the reservoir of salvation that we inherited from our forefathers.
Now, when Avraham faced the war against the four kings, he himself reckoned that Hashem brought this hardship upon him because of some sin on his part – for it is the way of righteous men to regard Hashem’s dealings with them as just. Hence, after Hashem saved him from the four kings, he feared that his merits had been used up. Indeed, our Sages teach that when someone is granted a miracle, he incurs a deduction in his merits. But Hashem told Avraham not to fear. He said: “All that I did with you in this world I did for you for nothing.” He was telling him that the ordeal he suffered was “for nothing” – he had done nothing to deserve such suffering, but had been subjected to the ordeal so that he could produce reservoirs of salvation for his descendants, as we explained above. Accordingly, not only did Avraham not have his merits reduced due to the miraculous salvation he was granted, he actually earned great reward for going through the experience. And so Hashem told him: “You have great reward in store for you in the world to come.” The Sages conclude by quoting Tehillim 31:20. We suggest a homiletical reading: “How great is your blessing that you [Avraham] have put in store for the God-fearing ones who will descend from you.” By enduring the war against the four kings, Avraham produced great blessing, and put it in store for the Jews of future generations.
We can now understand very well Hashem’s view that, in Avraham’s war against the four kings, He had not done a kindness for him, but rather had received a kindness from him. Had Avraham deserved to suffer the war, the victory Hashem granted him would indeed have been a kindness on Hashem’s part to him. But since Avraham was in fact subjected to the ordeal “for nothing” – not on account of any sin on his part, but rather as a means of achieving Hashem’s goal of benefitting the Jews of future generations – it is apt to say that Avraham did a kindness for Hashem by going through the war.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shabbos Rosh Chodesh

This Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, and we therefore read the special haftarah for Shabbos Rosh Chodesh. The haftarah concludes with the following words (Yeshayah 66:23-24):
And it will be, that at every New Moon and on every Sabbath all mankind will come to prostrate themselves before Me, says Hashem. And they will go out and see the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me, for decay shall not cease and their fire will not be extinguished, and they will lie in disgrace before all mankind.
In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar Avodas HaElokim, Chapter 7, the Maggid quotes the second of these two verses in connection with a discourse on man’s place in this world. We present this discourse here.
A person must realize that man is not just another animal. For if he were, why would Hashem grant him special powers that no other creature possesses? Man has the powers of speech and intellect, and he has dominion over all the creations of the world. Hashem granted man these powers for a reason – so that he should exercise his intellect to recognize that he is a created being, the work of the One who created and maintains the existence of every object and being in the universe, and that the Creator created him, the premier of all creations, in order to serve Him and thereby connect himself to Him. Man’s task is to toil in the service of Hashem, with every deed that he does – every exercise of his physical or intellectual capabilities, every moment of his sojourn in this world – weighed in the scales of justice and morality, in accordance with the mission with which Hashem charged him.
Each person has his own mission, matched to the nature of his soul, and this mission is his lot in life, to perform his duty in this world and receive reward in the next world. Hashem put at man’s disposal a world full of blessing, enabling him to eat to satiation and clothe himself in honorable garb, so that with his service to Him, man may bring perfection to all of Creation, with everything it contains, and maintains it in existence. In this vein, the Mishnah in Avos 5:1 teaches that Hashem created the world with ten sayings in order to grant reward to the righteous who maintain the existence of the world that was created with ten sayings. Hashem takes no satisfaction in the strength of the horse or the swiftness of the deer; He takes satisfaction solely in those who fear Him and are anxious to carry out His will – as the Gemara in Berachos 33b says, “the Holy One Blessed Be He has nothing in His world except for a treasure of fear of Heaven.”
So each of us must cast his eyes upward and gaze at the heavens above, behold the heights of the heavens and the depths of the earth, and reflect on the purpose of it all. The entirety of Creation is meant for man, the premier of all creations, to use as a resource in serving Hashem. Man, although the last to be created, was the creation that Hashem first had in mind when He set out to create the world (סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה). How, then, can we allow ourselves to run loose and negate Hashem’s intent in creating us? How can we harden our hearts and keep ourselves from fearing Hashem? How can we refrain from carrying out the work Hashem assigned us, and detach and distance ourselves from Him? What will be of us in the end? How will we answer our Creator when He seeks an accounting from us and says to us: “Why did you rebel against Me? Behold, I prepared all the good of the world just for you. Why did you turn to evil deeds, and disdain the mission with which I charged you? What wrong did you see, that you distanced yourself from Me? And, when you rebelled against Me and cast Me aside, to what did you turn instead? What did you set your eyes on during your sojourn in the world? What did you spend all your days doing? For what did you abandon good, and cast Me over your shoulder?”
What happened to our wisdom, that we forgot our Creator? Woe to us in the end, when we see the accounting of our deeds, and all our hidden thoughts, in all their detail, are laid out before us. The righteous will sit with their crowns on their heads, beholding all their good deeds and enjoying their reward, and we will be sitting alongside them. They will rejoice with a glad heart, and we will cry out in pain. They will revel in Hashem’s greatness, and we will be struck with fright before Hashem’s wrath. The righteous will celebrate the downfall of the wicked, as it is written [the last verse in our haftarah]: “They will go out and see the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me, for decay shall not cease and their fire will not be extinguished, and they will lie in disgrace before all mankind.”
When we take all this to heart, we will be struck with fear. We will say: “What am I, that I should cast off the yoke of service to my Master? Woe to the servant who disdains serving his Master!” And we will incline our shoulder to what Hashem has placed upon us, and we will be like an ox bearing its yoke and a donkey bearing its bundle. We will subjugate ourselves and all our powers to the service of our Creator, who holds in His hand all the good of this world, and stretches His hand forth to grant good to His chosen ones who are faithful to His covenant.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Sukkos – Megillas Koheles and Parashas V’Zos HaBerachah

Megillas Koheles
In Koheles 8:8 it is written (rendered according to the Maggid’s commentary): “A man cannot control the spirit [of desire] to confine it, yet it has no power on the day of death. Nor is there discharge in war, and wickedness cannot save the wrongdoer.” The opening phrase of this verse teaches how Hashem granted man the freedom to choose between good and evil, with both options placed before him on equal footing. Hashem proceeded like an agent apportioning the contents of a house on an equal basis to several people. If one of them strongly desires a specific item and decides to take it, each of the others will take other items of the same value. In this way, all take an equal share, with no one getting an edge over the others. 
Hashem invested our physical drives with great power. Even if a person attains the wisdom to know that he should spurn evil and disdain all the vanities of this world, he cannot attain sufficient control over his physical drives to neutralize them completely. Indeed, Hashem did not create our physical drives for nothing: A certain degree of physical desire is necessary for a person to be prompted to take care of his bodily needs. In parallel, Hashem invested the intellect with comparable power, so that even if a person lives his entire life as a fool, the inclination for foolishness will have no hold on him on the day of his death. Thus, at the end of this book of wisdom, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 12:13): “The matter has ended, all has been heard.” Let us elaborate on what this statement means. 
At the beginning of the book, Shlomo declares (ibid. 1:3): “What gain does a man achieve from all his labor that he will labor beneath the sun?” Note that Shlomo does not say “that he labored,” but rather “that he will labor.” Here Shlomo is teaching us an important idea. As a person approaches death, he becomes like a man who is giddy with wine, and recoils from the thought of drinking. Not only does such a man regret his past drinking, but he has no desire to drink now. Even if he were given a free bottle of wine, he would not want to drink. It is the same with worldly pursuits. When a person nears his end, his eyes open up, and he sees that these pursuits have no substance: Not only is he left with nothing from his past labors, but he will gain nothing from future ones. He thus becomes disgusted with worldly pursuits, and loses all interest in them.
Parashas V’zos HaBerachah
In blessing the tribes of Zevulun and Yissachar, Moshe said (Devarim 33:18-19):
Rejoice, Zevulun, in your excursions, and, Yissachar in your tents. Peoples will be called to the mountain, there they will slaughter offerings of righteousness, for they [Zevulun] will be nourished by the abundance of the sea and the treasures sunken in the sand.
We can interpret this passage as follows. The Gemara in Yevamos 75a states that during the days of David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech converts were not accepted, because the Jewish People were very prosperous during that period and there was a concern that people might want to convert in order to get a share in this prosperity rather than solely out of a desire to serve Hashem faithfully according to the Torah. Now, the region of the tribe of Zevulun was a prosperous commercial center for an extended period. We can therefore surmise that gentiles in this region who sought to convert were handled with extra caution. Rather than being converted locally, they would be sent to Yerushalayim where they could be examined by the Kohanim and the prophets to determine whether their motivation for converting was pure or admixed with material considerations. This procedure is reflected in the Moshe’s statement that Zevulun would call peoples to the mountain. Here, the mountain referred to is the Temple Mount. The members of the tribe of Zevulun would have to send potential converts to the Temple Mount because they were blessed with great wealth, “the abundance of the seas and the treasures sunken in the sand.”
An additional homiletical interpretation was put forward by Rav Baruch Mordechai Lipshitz in the name of his father, Rav Yaakov Lipshitz. [It is not clear whether this segment is part of the Maggid’s commentary or was added by Rav Flamm, the redactor of the Maggid’s commentaries.] The Hebrew term used for treasures in this passage is שפוני, related to the word ספון. The word ספון means covered, as in the phrase roofed with cedar in Melachim Alef 7:3 and the phrase paneled houses in Chaggai 1:4. From this reason, the Hebrew word for ship is ספינה, since a ship must be coated on the outside by waterproof and airtight sealing material. Now, usually when a merchant ship goes out to convey merchandise from City A to City B, it takes other merchandise back from City B to City A; Hashem, in His wisdom, arranged for different commodities to be available in different areas in order to provide opportunity for commerce. Sometimes, though, a merchant ship does not take back other merchandise on the return trip. In this case, in order to maintain the weight necessary for the ship to travel safely across the sea, the ship will be loaded with sand, dirt, or stones.  Now, Moshe gave the tribe of Zevulun the blessing that they would nourished with the abundance of the seas. They would be blessed with all kinds of assets, lacking nothing. Thus, they would send out ships with merchandise to other lands, but would not take merchandise back. Instead, their ships, their ספינות, would be appropriately sunken partly into the sea by means of sand [rendering שפוני טמוני חול, treasures sunken in the sand, as ships {partly} sunken via sand].