Post Archive for February 2018

Shabbos Parashas Tetzaveh – Sefer HaMiddos

Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 2
We previously quoted R. Chananiah ben Akasha’s teaching: “The Holy One Blessed Be He wished to bring merit to Yisrael, therefore He gave them an abundance of Torah and mitzvos. As it is written: ‘Hashem desired, for the sake of his [Yisrael’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious.’” We explained that this teaching relates also to matters of basic human decency: Hashem took the code of honorable conduct that we inherited from our holy forefathers and included it as part of the Torah, so that we could receive reward for adhering to it. At the same time, in one sense, there would have been an advantage in not including this code in the Torah as a command. For then the evil inclination would not militate against it, so that we could maintain a firm hold on it, like an inheritance passed down from our ancestors. The moral code would be second nature to us, as if it were implanted within us from birth. But now that the moral code has been included in the Torah, the evil inclination fights to cause us to stray from it.
Let us return now to the Midrash we presented previously. Yeshayah declares in Hashem’s Name: “It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov, for you have toiled for Me, Yisrael.” The Midrash expounds: “All day they engage in business and do not get tired. They do their work and do not get tired. Yet when they recite the prayers they get tired! Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘“It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov.” Would it be that I had not come to recognize you, Yaakov! Why? Because “you toiled for Me, Yisrael.”’” Given what we have explained, we can grasp a key facet of what the Midrash is saying.
We can bring out the point with a parable. In a certain city, one of the community leaders, a wealthy and generous man, would regularly give lavish gifts to the community Rabbi on Jewish holidays and other special occasions. In time, the Rabbi’s daughter reached marriageable age. The Rabbi approached a matchmaker and asked him to check whether the rich man had a sharp-witted son whom he would be willing to match with his daughter. The matchmaker approached the rich man with the proposal and the matter was settled. Soon afterward the wedding was made. The Rabbi was extremely happy. He thought to himself: “My son-in-law’s father spent a lot of money on me even before his son married my daughter. Now that we are related through marriage, he surely will be generous toward me.” But in the end the opposite happened. A strife developed between the young couple, and eventually the rich man and the Rabbi came to hate each other intensely. So when the time came when the rich man usually would send the Rabbi a gift, he sent the Rabbi nothing. The Rabbi lamented: “If only I hadn’t made a match between this fellow’s son and my daughter! Then he would continue giving to me generously as he was accustomed to do. But now he has turned into my enemy.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem says to us: “I gained honor and greatness from the fine character traits you displayed while you were in your original status of ‘Yaakov.’ But now that I have given you the Torah and elevated you to the status of ‘Yisrael,’ you consider honorable conduct a burden. Would it be that I had not come to recognize you, Yaakov! Perhaps it would have better had I not included the glorious code of conduct that you followed as part of the Torah.” We can understand similarly Hoshea’s declaration in Hashem’s Name (Hoshea 8:12): “I wrote for them the great principles of My Torah, but they were regarded as something foreign.” Hashem is saying: “I gave them Torah and mitzvos in order to bring them merit, with their adherence to their regular moral code now being an act of obedience to My command for which they would receive reward. But afterward, the opposite happened. Their previous moral code is now foreign to them, and they have become estranged from Me, more distant than they were before. Would it be that I had not come to recognize you, Yaakov!”
The Rambam, in the sixth of his Eight Chapters, discusses the difference between the mitzvos that a person can understand with his own intellect and those that a person becomes aware of only through a Divine communication. Regarding the first set of mitzvos, it is fitting for a person to reflect on them and gain an understanding that it is just and right to observe them, simply on account of his being a member of the human race. By contrast, with the second set of mitzvos, a person should take the attitude that he is observing them only because Hashem commanded him to do so. Thus, in Sifra, Kedoshim (quoted by Rashi on Vayikra 20:26), our Sages teach: “A person should not say, ‘I don’t want to eat pork.’ Rather, he should say, ‘I want to eat pork, but what can I do? My Father in heaven has decreed against it.’” There is no such teaching regarding the prohibitions against murder or stealing. A person can understand with his own intellect that he should avoid murder, stealing, robbing, lying, and so on, even if he were not commanded to avoid these acts. Similarly, a person can understand with his own intellect that he should be kind, compassionate toward others, modest, and patient and tolerant, and should conduct himself honorably in all respects.
In light of what we have explained, we can understand a rebuke that Moshe directed toward us in Hashem’s Name (Devarim 32:21): “They provoked Me with no god, aggravated Me with their absurdities. So I shall provoke them with a non-nation, and with a vile people I shall aggravate them.” When Hashem declares that we provoke Him with no god, he is saying that we provoke Him through acts that we should realize are wrong even without God telling us not to engage in them. And when He says that we aggravate Him with our absurdities, He saying that we anger Him through acts that we should recognize on our own as absurd and counter to common sense. And Hashem continues by saying that He will deal with us measure for measure: Just as we departed from the ways of decent human beings, He will provoke us with a non-nation – with a vile assemblage of people that does not fit the description of a normative nation.

Shabbos Parashas Terumah — Sefer HaMiddos

Preface
Since there are some parashios for which I have already presented all of the Maggid’s commentaries that are available, I will begin presenting selections from the Maggid’s Sefer HaMiddos (Book of Noble Character Traits), starting from the beginning and continuing in order. Sefer HaMiddos is the only work among the Maggid’s published teachings that was put in the form of a written text by the Maggid himself. The Maggid prepared a draft of the book, and the book was then edited and published by Rav Avraham Beirush Flamm, who also redacted the Maggid’s commentaries on the parashios of the Torah (Ohel Yaakov) and the haftaros (Kochav MiYaakov).
The structure of Sefer HaMiddos is patterned after that of Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart), a leading work on Jewish piety written by in Arabic in 1040 by Rav Bachya Ibn Pekudah and translated into Hebrew about a century or so later (other translations have been produced subsequently). The book consists of a Prologue and eight sections, called “gates”:  Intellect, Fear of God, Love of God, Service to God, Trust in God, Haughtiness, Hatred, and Prayer. Each section is divided into several chapters.
We begin with the Prologue, the first part of which has a connection with this week’s parashah, parashas Terumah, which presents Hashem’s instructions for the building of the Mishkan. The Holy Ark, containing the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, representing the Torah (especially the written Torah) was built with a crown on its top. The Prologue beings with a teaching in Yoma 72b relating to this crown. In this connection, a friend of mine who is also interested in the Maggid’s teachings pointed out to me that the Maggid’s family name, Kranz, is Yiddish for crown or wreath.
Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 1
In Yoma 72b [in connection with the crown on the Holy Ark in the Mishkan], R. Yochanan expounds: “It is written זר and read זֵיר – if a person is worthy, the Torah becomes a crown (זֵיר) for him, and if not it becomes a stranger (זָר) to him.” R. Yochanan is presenting a teaching here which is related to a Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 457. It is written (Yeshayah 43:22): “It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov, for you have toiled for Me, Yisrael.” The Midrash expounds: “All day they engage in business and do not get tired. They do their work and do not get tired. Yet when they recite the prayers they get tired! Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘“It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov.” Would it be that I did not come to recognize you, Yaakov! Why? Because “you toiled for Me, Yisrael.”’”
In the blessing over the Torah, we say: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah. Blessed are You, Hashem, Giver of the Torah.” Hashem did not decide to give us His precious Torah based on drawing lots. Rather, He gave us the Torah because He saw that we were worthy to receive it. How did He reach this conclusion? It must be that He saw in us a merit predating our observance of the Torah’s laws and statutes – something coming before Torah. What comes before Torah? The answer is given in the traditional saying, derived from Vayikra Rabbah 15:3, that basic human decency comes before Torah. Basic human decency encompasses the spectrum of noble character traits, such as perfect honesty and compassion for others. In Yevamos 79a, the Gemara list three traits that typify the Jewish People: compassion, humility, and readiness to perform acts of kindness. R. Yochanan contrasts a worthy person who learns Torah with an unworthy person who learns Torah. When a person makes himself worthy by developing noble character and afterward learns Torah, he is like a person in fine clothes who bears a crown on his head. But when a contemptible person learns Torah, he is like a person in tattered clothes who bears a crown on his head; the crown looks out of place. This is what R. Yochanan means when he says that if a person is unworthy, the Torah is a stranger to him.
Mishnah Makkos 3:16 and Avos D’Rabbi Noson, chapter 41 (end) present a teaching of R. Chananiah ben Akasha: “The Holy One Blessed Be He wished to bring merit to Yisrael, therefore He gave them an abundance of Torah and mitzvos. As it is written (Yeshayah 42:21): ‘Hashem desired, for the sake of his [Yisrael’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious.’” Hashem included in His Torah many things that we would do of our own accord even if He had not commanded them, such as refraining from eating disgusting things such as insects and mice. Hashem included these things among the mitzvos of the Torah in order that we could receive reward for them as well, for, as the Gemara in Kiddushin 31a states, “one who is commanded to do something and does it is greater than one who is not commanded to do something and does it [of his own accord].” The evil inclination has the power to test us only in areas relating to a commandment of the Torah. In this light, we can understand what the Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni is saying. The fact that we do not get tired when engaging in business or doing our work is a sign that we do not experience great resistance in engaging in pursuits that the Torah does not require. It is only in regard to mitzvos that the evil inclination fights against us, causing us to feel weary. We can say that R. Chananiah ben Akasha’s teaching relates also to matters of basic human decency: Hashem took the code of honorable conduct that we inherited from our holy forefathers and included it as part of the Torah, so that we could receive reward for adhering to it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mishpatim

Parashas Mishpatim deals with civil laws. The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 30:1, expounding on Tehillim 99:4), it is written: “You established uprightness for Your beloved ones – through the laws that You gave them, they enter into disputes with one another, and go to have them adjudicated, and [thereby] they make peace.” The Maggid explains that when devoted Jews bring a court case, it is not out of love of money, but rather out love of uprightness and justice. Both parties in the case are concerned that they may be taking something that is not theirs, and wish to have the matter properly resolved.
Avos 1:18 states: “On three things the world stands: on justice, on truth, and on peace. As it is written (Zechariah 8:16): ‘Truth and judgment of peace are you to adjudicate in your gates.’” Yerushalmi Taanis 4:2 comments: “All three are one: when justice is done, truth is established and peace is made.” The Maggid explains this teaching by noting a key difference between a court case that is brought because one party is trying to take or withhold something unrightfully from the other from the other party and a court case that is brought by upright men who are unsure about what the law is in a certain matter and wish to have the issue properly clarified. If someone brings a case in an attempt to take what is not rightfully his, the court will set the matter straight, and as a result the person who brought the case will go home upset, because he did not get what he wanted. By contrast, when two parties bring a case to court out of a desire to clarify what the law dictates, and one of the parties is told that he has been holding something that is not rightfully his, he will give it over right away and will not want to have it in his hands anymore, and he will go home glad that the court saved him from doing an injustice to the other party. In this vein, the Gemara says (Sanhedrin 7a): “Let one who leaves a court that has taken his cloak from him sing his song and go his way.” Moreover, the one who was judged to be in the wrong will appease the other party and apologize over making him go through the trouble of going to court. And thus, after the case is decided, there will be peace and friendship between the two parties.
From the Mishnah in Avos, we might have thought that justice, truth, and peace are three separate things, but the Yerushalmi, after quoting the Mishnah, states that they are all one unit. In the verse in Zechariah, truth comes first, and then justice and peace. If the initial reason for seeking a court judgment is the desire to arrive at the truth, then after the judgment the parties will be at peace with each other, and they both will thank the court profusely for guiding them to the proper outcome. But if the initial reason for seeking a court judgment is a need for someone to retrieve something that was wrongfully taken from him, then the opposite will result: After the judgment the losing defendant will hate both the plaintiff and the judges.
The Midrash states that the Torah’s laws lead Jews to enter into disputes with one another. The Midrash is saying that the reason the Jews go into court is a desire to uphold the Torah’s laws and reach a resolution that is true and just. Accordingly, after the matter is adjudicated, the parties are at peace with each other.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Yisro

This week’s parashah recounts the giving of the Torah. The Maggid discusses a difficulty in the Torah’s account that is raised in Shabbos 87a. In Shemos 19:8, the Torah reports that the Jewish People declared their readiness to obey Hashem’s word, and states afterward that “Moshe brought back the words of the people to Hashem.” In the very next verse, the Torah states: “Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem.” The account thus seems unnecessarily repetitive, for between these two statements there is no indication of any further interchange, aside from a declaration that Hashem directed to Moshe himself. It does not appear that Hashem was asking Moshe to relay a second message to the people, so as to create a need for Moshe to come back to Hashem with another response. What, then, was the point of the repetition?
The Maggid suggests a possible explanation based on a Midrash. It is written (Shir HaShirim 1:2): “Kiss me with the kisses of Your mouth, for Your affections are more pleasing than wine.” The Midrash comments as follows (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:14, slightly paraphrased):
R. Yochanan interpreted the verse as referring to the time when the People of Israel went up to Mount Sinai. It is like a king who was seeking to marry a certain woman from a good family of distinguished lineage. He sent a messenger to speak with her. She said: “I do not think I am worthy [even] of being his maidservant. I want to hear it from his mouth.” When the messenger returned to the king, he had a grin on his face, but his report to the king was garbled.
The king, who was sharp-witted, said to himself: “Since he has a grin on his face, it looks like she accepted. But since his report to me was garbled, it looks like she said that she wants to hear it from my mouth.”
At the time of the Giving of the Torah, the People of Israel was the woman from the good family, the messenger was Moshe, and the king was the Holy One Blessed Be He. It is written (Shemos 19:8): “And Moshe brought back the word of the people to Hashem.” What, then, is meant by the statement (ibid. 19:9): “And Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem”? We see that when Hashem said, “Behold, I am going to come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people will hear as I speak with you, and will also believe in you forever,” then “Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem.” He said to Him: “Thus they demanded [to hear the message directly from Your mouth].”
This Midrash implies that the statement “Moshe brought back (וישב) the words of the people to Hashem” and the statement “Moshe related (ויגד) the words of the people to Hashem” are both referring to the same message, but conveyed in two different ways. Initially, when Moshe came before Hashem, he was embarrassed to say outright that the people had demanded to hear Hashem’s message directly from Him. Only from Moshe’s reticence, in combination with his grin, was it recognizable that he was holding something back. This is hinted at in the statement, “Moshe brought back (וישב) the words of the people to Hashem.” Moshe was holding the people’s words within himself like a person bringing something back in a container. It was as if Moshe brought back the words themselves and simply presented them before Hashem, rather than conveying the message orally. Afterwards, when Hashem said, “Behold, I am coming to you … in order that the people will hear as I speak with you,” Moshe was led to tell Hashem explicitly that the people had demanded to hear from Him directly. When our passage states that “Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem,” it is referring to this latter explicit report.
David Zucker, Site Administrator