Post Archive for May 2018

Shabbos Parashas Naso

This week’s parashah presents the threefold blessing that Hashem told the Kohanim to convey to the Jewish People. The third blessing is as follows (Bamidbar 6:26):
May Hashem lift (ישא) His countenance up toward you and grant you peace.
The Maggid notes two other verses in Scripture where the word ישא (which denotes lifting or carrying) appears in connection with the four-letter Divine Name (ה'):
1. Tehillim 24:5: He will bear a blessing from Hashem, and righteous kindness from the God of his salvation.
2. Devarim 28:49: Hashem will carry over upon you a nation from afar, from the end of the earth, like an eagle swoops – a nation whose language you will not understand.
He goes on to expound on these three verses as a group.
Consider how a teacher deals with his student, or a father with his son. If the teacher sees that the student listens and accepts discipline, he will occasionally admonish the student to stir him to greater diligence in his studies. But if the teacher sees that the student is like a deaf person and pays absolutely no attention to his studies, he will not bother to admonish him at all, because he knows that it will not help. Accordingly, Shlomo HaMelech advises (Mishlei 19:18, homiletically): “Discipline your child when there is hope” (homiletically rendering כי as when rather than because). When there is hope that the child will listen, it is right to discipline him, but if not, discipline is pointless.
Hashem deals with the Jewish People in the same way. In days of yore, when we were well settled in Eretz Yisrael, we had a system of Torah law courts with judges and enforcement officers to deal with violations of Torah law, including capital offenses. But when we strayed and were sent into exile, this system ceased to operate. Our sinning got so out of hand that the system of Torah justice was worn down. In this vein, the daughter of Zion laments (Yirmiyah 4:31): “Woe is me now, for my soul has been wearied from the killers.”
The three verses in which the word ישא appears in connection with the four-letter Divine Name reflects three modes through which Hashem deals with the Jewish People. The verse in Tehillim, which speaks of blessing, reflects how Hashem dealt with us in the days when the Beis HaMikdash was standing and we followed Hashem’s instruction and observed His commandments. During this period, Hashem handed blessing out for us to take. The verse from our parashah, which speaks of peace, reflects how Hashem dealt with us while we were still dwelling in Eretz Yisrael but began to stray from the Torah path and sin. Hashem then admonished us and punished us, either directly or by means of the prophets and the Torah courts. We were all clearly told what offense on our part prompted the discipline, and we were thereby led to take matters to heart and repent our evil ways. As a result, peace was restored between us and Hashem. The verse from Devarim, which speaks of oppression by a foreign nation, reflects how Hashem began dealing with us at the time the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. Our enemies killed many thousands among our people, but we no longer had prophets and judges to tell us clearly what we were being punished for. In the words of Mishlei 27:22, it was if we were ground in a mortar and pounded with a pestle, but our foolishness was not removed from us.
It is in regard to this situation that the Torah tells us that Hashem will carry over upon us a nation from afar, from the end of the earth, like an eagle swoops – a nation whose language we will not understand. Yirmiyahu conveys a prophesy describing the situation in similar terms (verse 5:15): “Behold, I am bringing upon you a nation from afar … a powerful nation … whose language you will not know, so you will not understand what they say.” We will not understand what message our oppressors are conveying to us, and we will not recognize what evil ways we have to mend. Our state will be like that of a sick person who is taking harsh medicines but is not under a doctor’s supervision. Who knows if he will be cured?
Yirmiyahu laments (verse 8:22): “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no doctor there? Why has the health of the daughter of my people not recovered?” We can interpret this verse homiletically as depicting the situation we have just described. Yirmiyahu marvels over the fact that we have undergone great afflictions but they had no effect on us. He then explains why: There is no doctor there. And then he describes the outcome: We have not recovered. Because we have no prophet to tell us why the afflictions have come upon us, we have not mended our ways.
In the first chapter of Mishlei, Shlomo HaMelech describes wisdom lamenting in the streets. And he presents the reason (verse 1:24): “For I have called out but you refused, I stretched forth my hand and no one listened.” On the surface, it seems that the two halves of this verse are saying the same thing in different words. In fact, however, there is no repetitiousness. The first half of the verse describes speech, while the second half describes an outstretched hand. Shlomo is describing the matters that we have discussed. Initially, the rebuke we received from the prophets was of great benefit, for it called to our attention the sins we had committed. The prophets admonished us with their mouths, not with their hands. But eventually we started refusing to listen, and then Hashem sent against us enemies who admonished us with their hands rather than with their mouths. No words were being said, and no one could hear why we were being subjected to the afflictions. As a result, no one was aroused to repent right away from his improper ways.

Shabbos Parashas Bamidbar – The Book of Ruth

With Shavuos coming right after this Shabbos, I present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuos. Naomi, Elimelech’s widow, and her daughter-in-law Ruth return from Moab destitute, and Ruth sets out to glean in the field behind the harvesters. We are told (Ruth 2:3‑5):
And her fate made her happen upon a plot of land that belonged to Boaz, who was of Elimelech’s family. And, behold, Boaz came down from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers: “May Hashem be with you.” And they said to him: “May Hashem bless you.” And Boaz said to the young man he had appointed over the reapers: “To whom does that young woman belong?”
Now, the main theme of the Book of Ruth is the great kindness Hashem showers upon those who come to take shelter in Him by converting to the Jewish faith – how He raises them up from lowliness. The Maggid remarks that the initial exchange of greetings between Boaz and his workers seems to have nothing to do with this theme. He then proceeds to explain how it actually helps to bring this theme out.
The key is to realize that the Hashem carefully guided all the events that the Book of Ruth records, with every event designed as a kindness to Ruth, who revered Hashem and placed her hopes on His compassion. Boaz’s query about Ruth might appear to be a mere natural occurrence, for it is common for someone who sees something new to ask about it. But in fact Hashem staged this event, just as He led Ruth to “happen upon” one of Boaz’s fields in the first place and led Boaz to come to this specific field precisely when Ruth was there. The whole chain of events was directed by Hashem for Ruth’s benefit. Hashem watched over Ruth with loving care, and led her to glean in the field of a righteous man, where the workers would not disturb her.
Our passage shows this strikingly. Let us think about how Boaz acted here. Usually, when an owner comes to inspect his property, he plans out what he wants to examine. His visit typically will be prompted by certain matters of major importance. While there he will also check on lesser matters that would not call for a special trip, but still are of concern to him. He might also ask, by the way, about some side matters that are of no special consequence to him.
But clearly not everything gets the same attention. The matters he made the trip for take first priority; he will deal with them right away. The lesser matters he will turn to later. And then, after he has taken care of all his business, he might chat over some inconsequential matters.
Thus, when Boaz came from Bethlehem to check on his field, we would have expected him to begin by asking about matters related to the reaping. But instead, the very first question Boaz asks, after greeting his workers, is a seemingly tangential one: “To whom does that young woman belong?”
This shows that, in Hashem’s plan, Ruth was actually the main reason for Boaz’s visit to the field. Hashem led Boaz to visit the field to take note of Ruth and show kindness to her. Thus, Boaz began by asking about Ruth, just as anyone on a business visit begins by asking about the matter for which he made the trip. The other matters were set aside for later, as being of lesser importance. Boaz’s greeting is recorded to show that the first thing Boaz asked about, right after greeting his workers, was Ruth. This proves that Hashem directed the whole episode. Hashem, the Master Planner, reversed the natural order of things for the benefit of Ruth, who had taken shelter in Him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Bechukosai

This week’s parashah presents the tochachah, the litany of curses that will befall us if we do not observe the Torah. One of the main punishments is exile. The Maggid asks why Hashem chooses exile as a means of punishment. Seemingly He could just let us stay where we are and punish us there; He surely does not lack the means to do so. The Maggid sets out to answer this question.
Two sets of verses set the background. The first set consists of the verses in our parashah that discuss the exile (Vayikra 26:33-35, 43):
And you I will scatter among the nations … your land will be desolate … then the land will be appeased for its sabbaticals … the land will be rid of them and it will be appeased for its sabbaticals, and they must gain appeasement for their iniquities, for they have rejected My ordinances and their souls have become disgusted with My decrees.
The second set of verses comes from Yeshayah 2:6-8 (on which we previously presented another perspective from the Maggid):
For You have abandoned Your people, the House of Yaakov, for they became filled with [idolatries of] the east [Aram], and with divinations, like the Philistines, and they involved themselves with the children of foreigners. Its land became filled with silver and gold … full of horses … their land became full of false gods – everyone bows down to the work of his hands, to what his fingers have fashioned.
Initially, Hashem placed the Jewish People in the Land of Israel because the people and the land were perfectly matched to each other, as our Sages state in Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 563 (expounding on the statement in Havakkuk 3:6 that Hashem measured the earth) and in Bamidbar Rabbah 23:6 (expounding on the statement in Tehillim 16:6 that “the inheritance suits me beautifully”). The Land of Israel is uniquely suited to Torah. Thus, Yeshayah declares (verse 2:3): “For from Zion will come forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Yerushalayim.” And in Bava Basra 158b, the Sages say that the air of the Land of Israel makes one wise. Thus, while the Jewish People dwelled in the Land of Israel, the people flourished in Torah and mitzvos, while the land benefited from the positive influences generating from the people’s observance of the agricultural mitzvos (“mitzvos dependent on the land”). So long as the people observed the Torah, the people and the land remained together in harmony.
But later the Jewish People strayed and developed an interest in the vain enjoyments and customs in fashion in other parts of the world. When this occurred, Hashem separated them from the land and exiled them to the lands where the pursuits they became interested in were practiced. Thus, expounding on the Torah’s statement above that Hashem will scatter us among the nations, the Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 7:10): “Since you want idol worship, I will exile you to lands where there is idol worship.” The separation between the people and the land was along the lines of the separation between a husband and wife who have become disgusted with each other and no longer wish to live together. In the passage from the parashah, the words תרץ and ירצו, rendered above respectively as it will be appeased and they must gain appeasement, can be rendered as desire or be contented with. Thus, we can read the verse where these words appear as follows: “The land will be rid of them and it will be contented with its sabbaticals, for they desired their iniquities.” The message here is that the people chose a wayward path, and so, correspondingly, the land chose to be rid of them and become desolate. The separation was appropriate for both parties.
The Maggid brings out the idea with a parable. A certain rich man had a sort of inn where he would invite guests in and treat them to a free meal. These meals were lavish, and everyone could eat their fill. The host had the practice of sizing up each guest and serving him the type of food they he guessed would fit the guest’s constitution, and seating the guests accordingly. One day a guest came who was dressed in a fancy suit and appeared to be a delicate fellow.  The host seated him near the head of the table, where the more delicate foods were served. The host placed at this part of the table a plate of rice, at the next part of the table a plate of pancakes, further on a plate with beans, and at the far end a plate with vegetables. The guest in the fancy suit looked at the rice and smelled it, and did not know what it was. Afterward, he saw the other plates being placed at the table, and he stretched his arm out to the other end of the table and took some of the vegetables. A bit later, he stretched out his arm in front of the other guests a second time to take some more vegetables. At this point, the host approached him and said: “My dear friend, how about you get up from here and sit down at the other end of the table?” The guest was very surprised, and he exclaimed: “Why are you, with all your graciousness, embarrassing me by telling me to move?” The host replied: “Far be it from me embarrass anyone. I want only to give all my guests exactly what they want. When you first came in, I sized you up to be a delicate fellow, so I seated you here where the more delicate foods are served. But now that I saw you reaching for the vegetables, I figured I’d move you to the other end of the table with the vegetables, so that you can help yourself to them easily.”
The parallel is clear. As indicated in the Midrash on the verse in Havakkuk, Hashem sized up all the lands and all the nations, and assigned each nation the land that suited him, in accordance with the special qualities of the particular land and the nature of the people of the particular nation. Hashem sized up the Jewish People as a people suited to Torah study and observance, and so He placed them in the Land of Israel, which is especially conducive to the Torah lifestyle and to spiritual experiences such as prophesy, Divine inspiration, and insight into the Torah’s secrets. But then, as indicated in the passage in Yeshayah 2:6-8 quoted above, Hashem saw the Jewish People turn their back on the Torah and become disenchanted with the holy duties that the Torah calls for. And He saw the people, from their place in Yerushalayim, stretch out their hands to other lands: to Egypt for horses, to Aram for sorcery, and so on. And He said to them, so to speak: “If this is what you are doing, what good is there in your living here, where you have stretch out your hands to other lands to get what you are looking for? Go out to these other lands, and the plate you want to take from will be right in front of you.” And accordingly, Hashem took the Jewish People out of the Land of Israel, sending each person to the land that was best tailored to the pursuits he desired.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Behar

Parashas Behar includes a section on caring for the poor. The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 34:9-10):
It was taught in the name of R. Eliezer: “Vengeance against Yisrael is at the hands of the poor, as it is written (Devarim 15:9), ‘And he [the pauper] will cry out against you to Hashem, and there will be a sin upon you.’ And vengeance against Edom is at the hands of Yisrael, as it is written (Yechezkel 25:14): ‘And I shall set My vengeance against Edom in the hands of My people Yisrael.’”
R. Abahu taught in the name of R. Eliezer: “We have to be grateful to the fakers among them [the beggars], for without these fakers, any time a beggar would ask a person for alms and be turned away, the person would be immediately punished by death. As it is written, ‘and he will cry out against you.’ And it is written (Yechezkel 18:4): ‘The soul that sins, it will die (הנפש החוטאת היא תמות).’”
The Maggid calls attention to the added wordהיא  in Yechezkel 18:4. This word could have been left out, and the verse would then read: “The soul that sins will die.” In the context of the original passage in Yechezkel, the import of the added word is very clear, for the passage is stressing that a son will not be punished for his father’s sins, nor a father for his son’s sin, but rather the sinner himself will be punished. But in the context of the Midrash, the import of the added word is not immediately clear. The Maggid sets out to explain the import of this added word.
The Maggid begins by analyzing the quotation from Devarim 15:9. The verse ends by saying “there will be a sin upon you” (והיה בך חטא). The Torah could have simply written וחטאת, and then the closing phrase would read, “and you will have sinned.” The word והיה bears a suggestion of something being already at hand, but it is not clear what.
To explain the matter, the Maggid refers us to his commentary on parashas Nitzavim, in a segment dealing with Devarim 29:17‑19. There he notes that in this world it actually happens quite often that the punishment for a sin falls on someone other than the sinner himself. This is in line with the principle that all Jews are responsible for each other; all Jews are, so to speak, guarantors for each other (כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה). It is common for the righteous and upright to bear the measure of punishment generated by the sins of their generation, and to be subjected to suffering, even though they are pure and innocent of any wrongdoing, and it is others who have sinned. In this vein, it is written (Yeshayah 53:4-6): “But in truth it was our ills that he bore and our pains that he carried … he was wounded on account of our rebellious sins and crushed on account of our iniquities … Hashem inflicted upon him the iniquity of us all.”
The message of the Midrash is along these lines. When the Midrash states that vengeance against Edom is at the hands of Yisrael, it is saying that Yisrael now suffers the afflictions that Edom deserves. In the end of days it will be different; as the Torah indicates in Devarim 30:7, the curses will then fall, as they should, on the sinners themselves. But now the pattern in force is as we have described. Similarly, when the Midrash states that vengeance against Yisrael is at the hands of the poor, it is saying that the poor among us suffer on account of the sins of the community at large.
We can now understand easily why it is incumbent on us to care for the poor.  Since the poor bear the yoke of suffering for our sins, it is only right that we bear the yoke of providing for them. Now, we might wonder why Hashem set up this system where some people suffer on account of other people’s sins. In fact, this system is an expression of Hashem’s wisdom and kindness, for it is designed to minimize the overall burden of punishment.
We can bring out the idea with a simple analogy. Suppose a person who owes money to several creditors runs away and disappears. If there was a guarantor on the loans, the creditors will turn to the guarantor. But the creditors will not insist that the guarantor pay the entire amount of the loans down to the last penny, for they realize that he received nothing from them. They will be satisfied if the guarantor pays a sizable percentage of the amounts owed. However, if the creditors manage to find the debtor himself, they surely will not be willing to forego anything. It is only with the guarantor that they will be lenient.
Similarly, Hashem set up a system where he releases sinners from punishment they deserve and imposes the punishment instead on others, in the capacity of guarantors, so that He can be lenient in dispensing the punishment. But this system works only if we are compassionate towards those who suffer, such as the poor. If we turn a blind eye to a pauper, he will cry out to Hashem, saying: “Why do I have to suffer more than others?” And then Hashem’s Attribute of Justice will be aroused to investigate the matter, so to speak, and it will come out that this pauper did not deserve the afflictions he suffered, but was subjected to them on account of someone else’s sin. This is what the Torah means when it says that the pauper will “cry out against you to Hashem, and there will be a sin upon you.” The sin the pauper is suffering from will be pinned on the person who actually committed it.
The Midrash goes on to say that we have to be grateful to the fakers among the beggars, for they give us an excuse for not giving charity. And then the Midrash describes the harsh treatment we would get if we did not have this excuse. If a person turned away a pauper who is suffering for a sin that the person himself committed, Hashem would reverse course and punish the person himself, and then the punishment would be in full measure – with no leniency, just as a creditor does not give to the debtor himself the leniency that he gives to guarantors.
This last point is reflected in the verse in Yechezkel that the Midrash quotes: “The soul that sins, it will die.” If a person commits a sin that carries the death penalty, Hashem might deflect the penalty from him and instead cast on another person the lesser suffering of poverty. If this happens, and then the sinner refuses to help the person who was made a pauper on account of his sin, Hashem goes back to the sinner himself. And once Hashem is dealing directly with the soul that sinned, it will die.