Post Archive for March 2018

Pesach – Shir HaShirim

On Pesach, we read Shir HaShirim, so I present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on Shir HaShirim in Kol Yaakov. It is written (Shir HaShirim 8:1): “Would that you would be like a brother to Me …. I shall find you in the open, I shall kiss you – and I shall not be mocked.” Rashi and other commentators interpret this verse as a statement by the Jewish People to Hashem, but the Maggid interprets the verse as a statement by Hashem to the Jewish People. He develops one of his explanations of the verse from a Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 39:1:
“And Hashem said to Abram: ‘Go you forth from your land’” (Bereishis 12:1). R. Yitzchak spoke up [quoting Tehillim 45:11]: “Hear, O daughter, and see. Incline your ear and forget your people and your father’s house.” [The Midrash expounds on this verse and then continues:] “For the King desires your beauty, for He is your master” (ibid. 45:12). “For the King desires your beauty” – to beautify you within the world.
The end of this Midrash indicates that Hashem desires to adorn a righteous man with lavish worldly blessings. Yet we know that certain righteous men suffer. The major Torah commentators all deal with the question of why this is so.
They answer that Hashem imposes suffering on a righteous man when he cannot resist the temptation to chase after luxuries, which cause spiritual harm. Hence a completely righteous man, who is immune to this risk, is granted a life of blessing. The completely righteous man partakes of his worldly bounty only to the extent needed to sustain himself; he has no hankering at all for luxuries. We know of supremely pious men who were blessed with great wealth, but drew from it only the minimum required to satisfy their basic needs.
For example, our holy teacher Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi raised his ten fingers upward just before his death and declared (Kesubos 104a): “Master of the Universe! It is revealed and known before You that I toiled in Torah with my ten fingers and I took no benefit [from material blessings] even with my little finger.” Hashem knew that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi would not be harmed by wealth, for he would make use of it only to the extent necessary, without indulging in luxuries. Hence Hashem granted him great wealth, in order to increase his fame.
The Midrash we quoted above brings out this idea. The Midrash begins by quoting Tehillim 45:11: “Hear, O daughter, and see. Incline your ear and forget your people and your father’s house.” This verse is telling us to cast off our inborn physical desires. If we do so, then we merit the blessing indicated in the verse that follows, Tehillim 45:12: “For the King desires your beauty, for He is your Master.” Hashem will adorn us with wealth and honor, for we will be immune to the spiritual harm that such blessing can cause.
Our verse brings out this idea as well. Hashem exclaims: “Would that you would be like a brother to Me!” Hashem exhorts us to subjugate our drives under the rule of our intellect: to totally cast off our hankerings for illusory worldly pleasures, so that our every move is dictated solely by intellect. If we do so, Hashem tells us, then: “I shall find you in the open, I shall kiss you – and I shall not be mocked.” Hashem is saying: “When you fortify yourselves spiritually, I will be able to shower you with material blessing. I thus will be able to dispose of the cynical claim of the wicked, that I hate righteous men and therefore grant them only a bare minimum of material good. They will be forced to admit that I love righteous men, and seek only to promote their welfare. The wicked will see that I withheld material blessing from the righteous only out of a desire to protect them from spiritual harm. It is only when the righteous were not yet spiritually strong enough to handle material blessing that I held it back. But when they became strong enough, I granted them blessing in great abundance.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos HaGadol

Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 5 (conclusion)
Shlomo HaMelech asks (Koheles 1:3): What benefit does a man gain from all his labor that he will labor beneath the sun?” We can explain what Shlomo is saying as follows. Admittedly a person’s labor generates benefit, in the form of various possessions that he acquires. And people work like crazy to acquire their possessions; as the Rambam puts it in his introduction to his commentary on Mishnah Seder Zeraim, were it not for crazy people, the world would be desolate. Moreover, people put great effort into safeguarding their possessions. But in the end, we all depart this world and leave our possessions behind. This being the case, what real benefit does the person himself gain from all his labor? The world benefits, but the person himself does not really benefit. As we stated in our commentary on Koheles 1:3 in Kol Yaakov, a person who spends his entire life toiling for worldly possessions as like a worker who earns only enough to feed himself, with nothing to bring home.
Accordingly, I [the Maggid] chose a different path, for the benefit of my soul, and the souls of other humble people like me, to take moral counsel and learn the ways of character development, from the bottom up, as we explained earlier based on Hoshea’s exhortation to return up to Hashem. And all is presented with clearly reasoned arguments, illustrated by parables, for parables have great power. Thus the Midrash teaches (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:8): “Do not regard parables lightly, for it is through parables that a person gains understanding of the Torah’s words.” In Eruvin 21b, the Gemara says that Shlomo came and made “ears ” for the Torah. My understanding of this teaching is as follows. It often happens that a person encounters a wise scholar and listens to him speak, but when he is asked later what the scholar said, he says: “I didn’t hear him.” You may point out to him that he was standing right next to the scholar. He will reply: “I didn’t pay attention.” But when a scholar begins his lesson with a parable, people open up their ears to hear everything he says. This was the approach Shlomo took in Sefer Mishlei: He fashioned parables and epigrams relating to what he wished to teach, and in this way “he made ears for the Torah” – that is, he stirred people to open up their ears and listen to his message.
Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect)
Our holy prophets have expounded profusely on the importance of the trait of mindful behavior – using intellectual knowledge as a guide to action – so much so that they have identified this trait as the foremost among the character traits needed to attain spiritual perfection. David HaMelech commanded his son (Divrei HaYamim Alef 28:9): “And, you, Shlomo, my son, know the God of your father” (see chapter 6). Shlomo, in turn, completed the message, saying (Mishlei 1:7): “Fear of Hashem is the source of knowledge.” Yeshayah’s opening rebuke to the Jewish People in begins by stressing the importance of activating the intellect (verse 1:3): “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey his master’s trough, but Yisrael did not know, My people did not ponder.” And our Sages teach (Berachos 33a): “Great is knowledge, which is mentioned in between two invocations of a Divine Name.” They say further (Nedarim 41a): “If you have acquired knowledge, what do you lack? And if you lack knowledge, what have you acquired?” Shlomo HaMelech, near the beginning of Sefer Mishlei – his book of ethical teachings in the form of proverbs – declares (Mishlei 1:22): “Until when, O simpletons, will you cherish silliness. Scoffers hanker for satire, and fools hate knowledge.” I therefore decided to begin this book with a discussion of mindful behavior, with an in-depth explanation of its essence, its nature, its eminence, and its benefits. Before we enter into our main discussion of this precious trait, however, we first explain the difference between the animals and man, the foremost creation, in regard to how their actions are driven.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vayikra

In the section of this week’s parashah that discusses the offerings a person must bring when he sins, the word the Torah uses for person is נפש – soul. The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 4:7‑8 – see Berachos 10a for a similar teaching):
In Tehillim 103 and 104, David HaMelech uses the expression “Bless Hashem, O my soul” five times. Why did David choose his soul to express his praise to Hashem? He reasoned: “… Let the soul, which fills the body, praise Hashem, who fills the world. … Let the soul, which bears the burden of the body, praise Hashem, who bears the burden of the world. … Let the soul, which outlives the body, praise Hashem, who outlives the world. … Let the soul, which is unique within the body, praise Hashem, who is unique within the world. Let the soul, which does not eat, praise Hashem, who does not eat. … Let the soul, which sees but is not seen, praise Hashem, who sees but is not seen.  … Let the soul, which is pure within the body, praise Hashem, who is pure within the world. … Let the soul, which does not sleep, praise Hashem, who does not sleep.”
A person’s soul rules over his entire body, and the body cannot make any move without the agreement and cooperation of the life force that the soul provides. Indeed, as the Torah says in Bereishis 2:7, the body comes from the earth, and it is only when Hashem breathed into it the soul of life that man became a living being. The soul is unique in that it is the only source of true life within man, while the body is merely a servant of the soul, putting its physical capabilities into operation to carry out the soul’s wishes. We have explained in Sefer HaMiddos, in Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect) and elsewhere, that the will of the intellect rules over a person’s desires and aspirations. It is therefore fitting for the soul to praise Hashem for all of the components of the body.
The Midrash also expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 4:4): “Ten things serve the soul: the food pipe for food, the windpipe for voice, the liver for anger, the lungs for absorbing liquids, the intestines for grinding, the spleen for levity, the stomach for sleeping, the bile for jealousy, the kidneys ponder, and the heart decides.” A similar list appears in Berachos 61b; there it is stated that the kidneys advise and the heart understands. Let us understand what function the kidneys serve that leads the Sages to say that they “advise,” and what our Sages mean when they say the heart understands. We build on the statement in the Midrash that “the soul is pure.” We know that people occasionally do evil deeds or think evil thoughts. But we must not think that the soul initiates these evil deeds or thoughts. Rather, all evil within man stems from the organs of the body. Thus, as the Midrash says, the liver is the seat of anger, the spleen is the seat of levity, the bile is the seat of jealousy, and so on. The role that the soul plays is to decide whether or not to heed the negative impulses that arise from the body. Thus the Torah states (Devarim 30:19): “Behold, I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.”  
Given this explanation, we can understand well the Torah takes such a severe stance toward those who incite others to evil. As explained in Maseches Sanhedrin, the general practice in Torah death penalty cases is for the court to aid the accused in raising defenses, but the inciter does not receive such aid. At first, it seems a wonder that the Torah puts such great blame on the inciter. Is the inciter a greater danger than a person’s natural evil inclination? Let us explain the reason for the Torah’s position. The soul directs a person’s actions according to intellect and analysis, and according to the Torah, which spells out what person should and should not do. The soul is guided toward the right choice by written Torah works and the teachings of Torah scholars. And, as we said above, the source of the evil inclination is the body. The Torah’s deeper teachings classify a person’s evil impulses into two root categories: desire for pleasure and anger. These two root categories branch out into a great multitude of emotions and impulses, such as love of people or things that bring pleasure, coveting, hatred, ill-will, and so on.
The impulses that arise from the body generate specious fantasies. Each fantasy comes before the heart with its “advice,” so to speak, and the heart forms a response according to its inclinations. If the heart fortifies itself when the fantasy first comes upon it, it can easily reject it. But if the heart “understands” accepts the fantasy and allows it to enter its inner chamber, it will be hard afterward for the heart to weed it out and cast it away. And the fantasy highjacks the person’s intellectual powers, and sets them to work on developing ways to obtain the ephemeral benefit that it portrays.
Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 9:1-13): “Wisdom has built her house …, she also has set her table. She has sent out her maiden to announce from the city heights: ‘Whoever is a simpleton, let him come here. …’ The woman of foolishness croons, the simple-minded one who knows nothing.” When wisdom seeks to lead a person to do a good deed, it calls out to the person with the Torah’s sublime words, conveyed to us by Hashem Himself, addressed to our intellect. Not so with the evil inclination, which emanates from the body. The evil inclination does not stem from a trustworthy source, and it does not present reasoned arguments. It does not approach us with words, but rather with simple-minded fantasies.
We can now see how the inciter is worse than the evil inclination. The evil inclination tries to lead us astray through fantasies, while the inciter tries to lead us astray through words and reasoned arguments. And Shlomo teaches (ibid. 27:9, homiletically): “Oil and incense gladden the heart, and so does the sweetness of one’s fellow from the counsel he gives to the soul.” Words can have more power to seduce than fantasies that pop into a person’s imagination, and therefore it is crucial to do away with inciters.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vayakhel-Pekudei

Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 4
[In the previous selection from Sefer HaMiddos, we presented the Maggid’s teaching that a person must first bring his conduct in line with the dictates of human decency and only afterward seek to perfect his service to Hashem. The Maggid is not saying that a person should not perform any other mitzvos until he has perfected his character. Certainly a person should make an effort to observe all mitzvos at a basic level. Rather, the Maggid is saying that as between perfecting one’s character and perfecting his observance of other mitzvos, perfecting one’s character takes precedence. We now continue with the Maggid’s discussion.]
We can bring out the point with an analogy. A man had a running dispute with his wife about what to do with assets she received from her father. One day, the man got severely sick and had to be confined to bed. While on his sickbed, he continued to argue with his wife about the assets. His wife said: “Why are you arguing with me while you are still so sick? First you should get yourself in proper shape, and then we can continue the discussion.”
Previously we quoted Hoshea’s exhortation (Hoshea 14:2): “Return, Yisrael, up to (עד) Hashem your God.” We noted that Hoshea does not tell us to return to Hashem (לה' or אל ה'), but rather to return up to (עד) Hashem. We can explain the exhortation as telling us that a person must perfect himself on all levels, starting from the level of basic human decency, progressing level by level, and aiming eventually to the heights of closeness to Hashem.
Accordingly, I [the Maggid] felt it fitting to compose a work that would benefit me and those like me in the process of character development. We could study from it every day of our sojourn on earth, examine our character traits, and assess whether they are in line with what a thinking man would view as proper, keeping in mind that Hashem is in our midst. Now, great luminaries of earlier times have composed works on character perfection, which have been circulated among the Jewish People. But in our times, a different kind of work is needed. The previous works on character perfection present finely-reasoned philosophical discussion. Those versed in philosophy were able to see the great wealth of wisdom buried within these works’ brief words. But what will be with simpler people, who have never delved in philosophy? Moreover, the earlier works are available to most Jews only in translation [Chovos HaLevavos and similar works were written originally in Arabic], and a translation cannot fully bring out what the author meant to express. Language is the quill of the heart and the agent of the author’s conscience, and no translation can reproduce the author’s message with perfect accuracy. This point has been discussed by various translators, such as Yehudah Ibn Tibon in his preface to his translation of Chovos HaLevavos.
Further, I saw that sainted authors who preceded me described in great depth and breadth the ideal level of service of Hashem which is the ultimate goal. But we have already noted that there is much work that a person must do before setting out to perfect his observance of all the mitzvos. We have already quoted the teaching that “basic human decency comes before Torah.” And we are in a constant struggle against our evil inclination, so that Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 6:4-5): “Do not let your eyes sleep or your eyelids slumber; save yourself like a deer from the hand [of the hunter] and like a bird from the hand of the trapper.” Shlomo teaches further (ibid. 4:19): “The way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know on what they stumble.” Over the course of their entire lives, the wicked are madly racing about at the instigation of their evil inclination, and they forget who put them here and why they are here. Nailed into their hearts from youth is the drive to toil and sweat for worldly assets, which they cannot hold onto permanently, but must leave over to their heirs when their life in this world ends. A person must bear in mind where he is headed to after he departs from this world. Thus, the Mishnah teaches (Avos 4:16): “R. Yaakov says, ‘This world is like a lobby before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the lobby, so that you may enter the banquet hall.’”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Ki Sissa

On the parashah
This week’s parashah recounts the sin of the golden calf. Accordingly, the Midrash on the parashah discusses the evil inclination. The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 41:7, end):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “At present, when they have the evil inclination within them, they engage in idolatry, but in the end of days I will uproot the evil inclination from within them and give them a heart of flesh.” Thus it is written (Yechezkel 36:26): “I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh.”
In explaining the Midrash, the Maggid presents a lengthy discourse. We previously presented a synopsis of one segment of this discourse. We now expand on a portion of it.
The Maggid takes another Midrash as his starting point. The Jewish People declare (Shir HaShirim 1:5): “I am blackened, yet beautiful, O daughters of Yerushalayim – [I am] like the tents of Kedar, [yet also] like the curtains of Shlomo.” The Midrash expounds (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:38):
Just as Shlomo’s curtains get soiled and are laundered, and then get soiled and are laundered again, so too it is with the People of Yisrael. Although they soil themselves with sin throughout the year, Yom Kippur comes and atones for them.
The Maggid explains as follows. The primary basis for our faith that Hashem will cleanse our souls in the end of days is not the belief that we will earn this cleansing, but rather our reliance on Hashem’s compassion and kindness. Because of these attributes, we understand that ultimately Hashem will take pity on us and, as an act of free grace, will purify and sanctify us. In the words of Devarim 30:6, He will circumcise our hearts, meaning that He will purge from within us the defilement of the evil inclination. Now, when the people who are deeply entrenched in idolatry, in one form or another, see Hashem granting us this cleansing, they might ask Hashem to do for them the same kindness. But it will not be possible to do so.
The difference between a person who, while beleaguered by his evil inclination, has a connection to Hashem and His law and a person who is deeply entrenched in idolatry is like the difference between a sick person and a dead person. A person may be extremely sick, even close to death, but so long as he is still alive it is possible for a doctor to cure him and restore him to his original state of health. But if a person is dead, there is no way to restore him – he is like an inert stone. Similarly, if a person is in essence a good person – if he has a connection to Hashem and His law, with the power of discernment which that entails – then even though he is infected with the evil inclination and thereby prone to sin, Hashem can cure him and restore him to his natural state of goodness. Thus, Hoshea declares in Hashem’s Name (Hoshea 14:5): “I shall cure them of their waywardness.” But if a person’s basic essence is evil, it is impossible to bring him to a state of true goodness.
The Midrash likens the Jewish People to curtains that get soiled and are laundered. If a cloth is itself black, laundering will not remove the blackness. But if a cloth is itself white, then even if it gets soiled with black stains, one can launder it and restore it to its original whiteness. In this vein, Yechezkel declares in Hashem’s Name (Yechezkel 36:25-26): “I shalll sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean …. I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh.”
Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 3
Hoshea exhorts (Hoshea 14:2): “Return, Yisrael, up to (עד) Hashem your God.” Note that Hoshea does not tell us to return to Hashem (לה' or אל ה'), but rather to return up to (עד) Hashem. Hoshea is teaching us that when we seek to repent, to direct our actions to good and mend our ways, we should divide the task into stages. Thus, Yeshayah exorts in Hashem’s Name (Yeshayah 1:15):
“Cleanse yourselves, purify yourselves – remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease turning to evil. Learn to do good and seek justice; vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow. Come now, let us reason together,” says Hashem, “if your sins are like scarlet they will become white as snow; if they have become red as crimson, they will become [white] as wool.
A person must first adjust his behavior so that it is in line with the type of conduct befiting a member of the human race. He must act as dictated by uprightness and honest exercise of his intellect. Afterward he can take the next step and adorn himself with the role of being a holy minister to Hashem. Hashem exhorts (Vayikra 19:2): “Be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy.” On account of Hashem’s being our God and our being His people, it is fitting that we serve our holy God and make ourselves holy. But our role as ministers to Hashem is not what makes it incumbent on us not to steal, extort, or commit other crimes of this nature – this would be incumbent on us even if were not ministers to Hashem, on account of our being men and women rather than animals. Thus, Yeshayah tells us first to cleanse ourseves by learning to do good and seeking justice, and only afterward tells us to avoid sinning by being derelict in our duty to serve Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator