Post Archive for January 2018

Parashas Beshallach

Parashas Beshallach begins with the following verse (Shemos 13:17): “And it was, when Pharaoh sent the people out, that God did not lead them (לא נחם) by the way of the land of the Philistines, for it was near.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 20:12):
Even though Pharaoh sent them out, the Holy One Blessed Be He was not comforted (לא מתחם). What is this like? It is like the following parable: A king’s son was taken captive by bandits, and he went out, rescued him, and killed the bandits. The son would tell his father: “Such-and-such they did to me. In such-and-such a way they beat me and subjugated me.” Even though the king killed the bandits, he was not comforted, but said: “Such-and-such they did to my son.” [The Midrash goes on to present the parallel: Even though Hashem cast ten plagues upon the Egyptians and forced them to release the Jews, He was not comforted until He drowned them in the sea.]  As it is written (Yoel 4:19): “And Egypt will become a wasteland.”
The Maggid notes that, that in the parable, the king hears his son describe what his captors did to him only after he rescued him. He notes also that it appears from the quotation of the verse from Yoel that the Midrash is saying that Hashem harbors an eternal grudge against the Egyptians for what they did to the Jews. The Maggid sets out to explain the underlying idea.
The Maggid builds his explanation on a principle he discusses elsewhere. Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 3:7): “I have indeed seen (ראה ראיתי) the affliction of My people who are in Egypt.” The double language here indicates that the Egyptians afflicted the Jews in two different ways: physically and spiritually. The Jews were afflicted physically through the hard work the Egyptians forced them to do. And they were afflicted spiritually by being exposed to the Egyptians’ idolatrous practices, with their associated abominations. This exposure influenced the Jews, along of the lines of the statement in Tehillim 106:35 that the Jews “mingled with the nations and learned their deeds.” Regarding the enslavement in Egypt, the Torah states (Devarim 26:6), “And they did evil unto them, and afflicted them.” Again, the double terminology delineates the two forms of affliction: The phrase they did evil unto them refers to the spiritual affliction, while the phrase afflicted them refers to the physical affliction. Accordingly, Hashem’s message of redemption involves a corresponding double language (Shemos 3:16): “I have indeed remembered (פקד פקדתי) you and what was done to you in Egypt.” Here, the word you refers to the Jews’ inner spiritual essence, which was impaired during their stay in Egypt, while the phrase what was done to you refers to the physical suffering.
At this point, the Maggid presents a parable. A skilled craftsman was put in jail, where he was subjected to beatings and other physical torments. In addition, the prison staff forced him to lend them his tools, and they used them inappropriately and damaged them. When the craftsman was released from jail, he no longer had to suffer the physical torments, and he had no lasting pain over them. With the damage to his tools, however, it was just the opposite. While he was in jail, he knew his tools were being damaged, but he didn’t feel the effects of the damage, for he wasn’t practicing his craft in jail, and he wasn’t using his tools at all. But when he was released from jail and started to practice his craft again, he came to a full realization of the extent of the damage. Every time he picked up a tool, he saw what bad condition it was in. As time went on, he felt the effects of the damage more and more.
The parallel is as follows. When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, they underwent severe physical suffering. When they were released, the suffering ended. On the spiritual plane, the opposite occurred. While in Egypt the Jews did not feel the insidious effects of being exposed to Egypt’s corrupt idolatrous culture, for during this time they were not engaged in spiritual pursuits. But after they were released and they began to involve themselves with Torah and mitzvos, they realized the severity of the spiritual harm they suffered. Anytime they undertook to perform a mitzvah that involved exercising a noble character trait, they felt a strong inner resistance, and they realized how badly their souls had been tainted. In the same way that in the parable in the Midrash the king fully realized how much his son had suffered only after he had rescued him, so, too the Jews fully realized the extent of their spiritual corrosion only after they left Egypt, and as time went on they felt the damage more and more.
In speaking of how He would redeem the Jews from Egypt, Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 6:7): “And I will take you unto Me as a people, and I will be a God unto you, and you will know that I am Hashem your God who is taking you out from under the sufferings of Egypt.” Hashem is indicating to the Jews that after He takes them unto Him as a people and they begin ministering to Him, they will know how much spiritual affliction they suffered in Egypt and recognize the true reason why Hashem redeemed them – not to relieve them from their physical suffering, but rather to benefit their souls.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo

In connection with Pharaoh, the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah quotes the following verse (Mishlei 27:3): “A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool’s vexation is heavier than both.” The Maggid explains the connection as follows. A large stone and a large pile of sand are both heavy and hard to move. Yet there is a difference between the two. A heavy stone can be carried by a person who is very strong, even if it is too large for him to hold on all sides. Since a stone is a solid object, it can be carried even without a complete hold. For example, a strong person can lift the stone onto his shoulder and hold on to the front of it, and in this way he will be able to carry it. It is different, however, with a pile of sand, which is not a solid object, but rather a mass consisting of many small unconnected particles. If a person tries to carry the pile without a complete hold on all of it, he will fail, for the sand will spill out.
The stone and the sand correspond to the two types of people we discussed in last week’s d’var Torah: the tough-hearted type and the irresolute type. It is difficult to get a tough-hearted person to accept a claim, but if the person making a claim has strong proofs, he will be able to convince a tough-hearted person to accept his claim, and from then on he will maintain his belief in the claim forever. But it is impossible to convince a fool definitively of anything. Just as a pile of sand is made up of small particles that are completely unconnected, what a fool thinks today and what he thinks tomorrow are almost completely unconnected. The only way to get a fool to maintain his belief of a claim is to keep repeating the arguments to him constantly. As we said last week, Pharaoh had the disadvantages of both the tough-hearted and the irresolute type, and so the verse about the stone and the sand provides an apt portrayal of him.
The Jewish People, by contrast, are of tough-hearted stock. They don’t believe anything until they have investigated it through and through. But once they accept something, they maintain their belief forever. In Shemos 32:9, the Jewish People are described as a “stiff-necked people.” In Shemos Rabbah 42:9, the Midrash remarks that this appellation is not a criticism, but rather a praise; the Jew declares: “Either I’ll live as Jew or be hanged.” A similar message underlies the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 3:12, which relates that when Moshe argued before Hashem that the Jewish People would not believe him, Hashem replied by saying that they are “believers, sons of believers.” On the surface, it seems that Hashem’s view of the Jews was the opposite of Moshe’s. But we can explain as follows. Moshe knew that the Jewish People were tough-hearted, that it was hard to convince them of a claim. He therefore presumed that they would not believe him. But Hashem told him that the Jews’ tough-hearted nature was not a liability, as he thought, but rather an asset. Indeed, it is a basic tenet of the Jewish faith that one should not believe someone who conveys prophecies without rigorously checking his reliability. But, Hashem told Moshe, once the Jews accept a claim, their belief in the claim is firmly implanted in their hearts like a peg in solid ground. By contrast, the wicked are difficult because they believe one thing today and something else tomorrow. In regard to Jewish People’s devotion, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Shir HaShirim 8:7): “A multitude of waters cannot extinguish the love, and rivers shall not wash it away.” The Jewish People’s faith and love of Hashem hold firm forever.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeira

This week’s parashah discusses the first seven of the ten plagues that Hashem cast upon Egypt. In regard to several of the plagues, the Torah relates that while the plague was in progress Pharaoh promised he would let the Jews go, but after the plague ended he reneged. The Midrash comments (Shemos Rabbah 12:8): “Thus it is with the wicked – when they are struck with calamity they humble themselves, but after the calamity passes they return to their wicked ways.”
In discussing this Midrash, the Maggid describes two types of people: those who are hard-hearted and slow in accepting what they are told, and those who are soft-hearted and simple-minded. The hard-hearted person is a shrewd person who does not believe anything anyone says until he investigates the matter thoroughly and verifies that the assertion is true. The simple-minded person is a person who is easily swayed by anyone who talks to him and accepts whatever he is told without discernment. As Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 14:15): “A fool believes anything, but a shrewd person discerns correctly.”
Now each of these types has an advantage and a disadvantage. The hard-hearted person is hard to convince, but once he accepts a statement he maintains his stance firmly and is not moved by people trying to lead him to reverse his stance. The soft-hearted person, on the other hand, is easy to convince, but is liable to being talked out of what he previously accepted. The two types are described in Avos 5:15, which speaks of the person who is slow to learn and slow to forget, and the person who is quick to learn and quick to forget.
Pharaoh had the disadvantages of both of the above types. Initially, when Moshe first came to him bearing Hashem’s word, he did not want to believe him – he said (Shemos 5:2): “Who is Hashem, that I should heed His voice to send Yisrael out? I do not know Hashem, and I will not send Yisrael out.” Afterward, Moshe provided clear proof of Hashem’s existence and control over the world through the plagues, until Pharaoh recognized Hashem and admitted, after the plague of hail, that “Hashem is the righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked ones” (Shemos 9:27). But despite the clear recognition of Hashem that Pharaoh gained, once the plague of hail ended, Pharaoh and his servants immediately changed their stance and denied Hashem and Moshe.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemos

In this week’s parashah, Hashem tells Moshe to gather the elders of the Jewish People and inform them of Hashem’s intent to redeem the Jews from Egypt and bring them to Eretz Yisrael. This prompts the Midrash, in Shemos Rabbah 3:8, to expound on the merits of the elders of the Jewish People, saying: “The elders always preserve Yisrael …. Whoever takes counsel from the elders never falters.” The Midrash goes on to recount and episode in Melachim Alef 20 involving the Aramean king Ben-Hadad and Achav, king of the Kingdom of Yisrael. Ben-Hadad demanded the Jews’ silver, gold, and best women and children, and Achav agreed. Afterward, Ben-Hadad said further that he would send his men to take “everything precious in your eyes.” Achav consulted with the elders regarding this second demand, and, based on their advice, refused to comply. According to the Sages, in Shemos Rabbah 3:8 and Sanhedrin 102b, the phrase “everything precious in your eyes” refers to the Torah. The Midrash states: “What is ‘everything precious in your eyes’? It is that which is precious within precious – the Torah. For in Tehillim 19:11, the words of the Torah are described as ‘more precious than gold, even much fine gold.’” The Maggid analyzes this Midrash, focusing on two points. First, he seeks to provide insight into how the Sages came to the conclusion that the phrase “everything precious in your eyes” refers to the Torah. Second, he seeks to bring out the meaning of the phrase “precious within precious.”
He builds on an idea that he brings out in his commentary on Eichah 1:7 in Kol Yaakov. The Gemara teaches (Berachos 40a, Sukkah 46a-b): “Go and see how the nature of the Holy One Blessed Be He is not like the nature of a mortal man of flesh and blood. A mortal man can put his wares into an empty vessel but not into a full one, while the wares of the Holy One Blessed Be He are put into a full vessel but not into an empty one.” The Gemara is contrasting worldly pleasures with the Torah. A person regards a worldly pleasure as desirable only while he has not yet attained it. After he attains it, its appeal to him wears off. Similarly, rare items are considered precious, while commonly available items are considered insignificant. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 27:7): “The satiated soul loathes the honeycomb.” But one who learns Torah never tires of it. On the contrary, the more Torah a person acquires, the more he values Torah. Thus the Gemara teaches (Eiruvin 54b): “Why are words of Torah likened to a breast? Just as with a breast, however long the baby sucks he takes in milk, so, too, with words of Torah, however long a person meditates on them, he finds relish in them.” The more a person delves into Torah, the more the Torah gives over to him. Therefore, the more a person persists in learning Torah, the more appeal it has for him.
This is the idea behind David HaMelech’s statement that the Torah’s words are “more precious than gold, even fine gold.” David is comparing the preciousness of Torah to the preciousness of an abundance of gold. When gold or silver is abundant, its preciousness diminishes. Thus, Melachim Alef 10:21 states that in the days of Shlomo HaMelech, silver was of no worth because of its abundance. But with Torah, even if the entire world were filled with Torah wisdom and everyone were Torah scholars, the Torah would still be valued and cherished; indeed, it would be even more valued and cherished. In this vein, our Sages compared Torah scholars to fish in the sea: Although they are always in the water, they still crave the falling raindrops (Bereishis Rabbah 97:3). All of this is reflected in Gemara’s comparison, quoted above, between a mortal man’s wares and Hashem’s wares.
Imagine a commoner visiting the home of a nobleman. The house is filled with beautiful and splendid items, and the visitor is awestruck. But the members of the nobleman’s household are not moved at all, for they see these items all the time and are accustomed to them. But with Torah, it is the opposite. If you visit a community of people who study Torah regularly, you will see how much they cherish it. They are, in Shlomo’s words, intoxicated with their love of Torah (Mishlei 5:19). As an example, the Gemara in Eiruvin 54b describes how R. Elazar ben Padas would sit and learn Torah in the lower market of Sepphoris, while his linen cloak lay in the upper market of the town. A person who has never learned Torah before does not have even a thousandth of this liking for Torah; since he has never learned Torah, he has not tasted its sweetness.
We can now easily understand what the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 3:8 is saying about the Torah. When Ben-Hadad said that his men would take “everything precious in your eyes,” he could not be referring to anything other than Torah. If he were referring to worldly treasures, which are admired more by one who has never seen them before than by one who sees them constantly, he should have said that his men would take “everything precious in their eyes” – that is, in the eyes of those who would come and take them, not in the eyes of the Jews who possessed them. It must be that he was referring to Torah, which is “precious from within precious” – whose preciousness increases level by level the more a person studies it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator