Post Archive for June 2018

Shabbos Parashas Balak

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect)
Chapter 3
A habit is not a force that operates within a person from birth, and is not a pattern of behavior that his natural drives impose on him. Rather, Hashem placed within a person the power to habituate himself to a certain pattern of behavior or thought, even if it runs counter to his inborn tendencies, to the point where it becomes second nature to him. Habit makes it easy for a person to perform specific physical actions or engage in specific mental pursuits. A person can use habit to instill within his body or mind an inclination toward any activity he wishes. By repeated practice, a person can train himself in certain modes of behavior or thought until they become ingrained within him. For example, a person can train himself to avoid eating nonkosher food, or to shoot at a hair without missing. Nothing is beyond the influence of habit. Through habituation, a person can convert an activity for which he initially felt a natural distaste into an activity he enjoys engaging in. And it is within a person’s power, through repetition, to convert an activity that was initially beyond the pale for him into an activity that he performs easily. In this vein, the Sages say that if a person engages in a certain forbidden activity and then repeats it, he comes to regard the activity as permitted (Yoma 86b).
Habit is a powerful force, with the capacity to control all of a person’s tendencies. For example, a person may initially find it difficult to feel fear or love of Hashem, or exhibit certain other good character traits, but he can accustom himself to these traits until he finds them easy. In addition, a person may initially feel a strong attraction toward a certain food or item, and value it highly, but after he becomes accustomed to it, the attraction wanes, in the way that a fragrance fades. Eventually it becomes commonplace to him. A person may initially cherish a certain item and constantly take it out to use or handle, but over time he becomes less enamored with it, and takes it out only when he has guests.
Natural drives and ingrained habits are two important forces that strongly influence a person’s thinking and behavior in many areas. But an even more important force is the intellect, which we will focus on in the present section of this book.
Chapter 4 (beginning)
The intellect is an eminent attribute, with which man, the premier creation, has been crowned. It is what sets man apart from the animals and make him superior to them. Animals are not mentally aware of their existence. They have no intellectual understanding of their composition and nature, nor of their advantages and disadvantages relative to other creatures. Their behavior is completely dictated by natural drives. They are prompted by hunger to eat, by thirst to drink, and by fatigue to rest. They have no awareness of the fact that they were created from nothingness, or of the purpose for which they were created, or of the results of their actions. And it goes without saying that they do not know the difference between the upright and the crooked, or between the seemly and the contemptible, for these distinctions are exclusively in the realm of the intellect. There is no difference between the animals and the plants and inanimate objects, except for the capacity to move and feel physical sensations.
Man, however, by virtue of his intellect, can understand what his eyes see and his ears hear, and can recognize the features of what he perceives. He is aware that he exists and of how he came to exist. He has the capacity to intellectually examine all of his potential actions and assess whether they are upright and seemly, or crooked and contemptible. He can distinguish between the true and the false, the good and the bad, and the possible and the impossible. He can determine how he should act in every situation.
The seat of the intellect is the heart. Just as the heart is the hub of the body, providing sustenance to all its organs, so, too, the intellect that resides within it is the control center that governs a person’s behavior. The intellect sets a person’s path, directs his actions, and dictates his attitudes. What the intellect judges as good, the person loves, desires, and seeks. What the intellect judges as nice, the person enjoys adorning himself with. If a person’s intellect tells him that a certain individual is granting him benefit, he will love him, submit to him, and follow his directives. What the intellect judges as bad, the person will avoid and disdain.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Chukas

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 2
A person’s natural drives relate only to matters connected with the body, and not to matters connected with the soul. If a person refrains from studying Torah or praying to Hashem even for many years, he does not experience any natural feeling of hunger, thirst, or weakness. This is so even if he has in fact totally ravaged his soul. An injury to the body a tenth in magnitude would cause him great pain. But when a person suffers injury to his soul, he does not feel any pain. In this vein, Yirmiyahu declares (verse 17:9): “The heart is the most deceitful of all, and it is frail – who can know it?”
Now, although I just said that a person’s natural drives do not relate to matters connected with the soul, I meant only that these drives do not benefit the soul. But they can cause the soul great damage, to the point of destroying it. For if a person indiscriminately follows his drives, they can lead him to develop an affinity for all kinds of abominations that Hashem hates – to the point where he feels the greatest hankering for the worst abominations. Regarding affinity for illicit pursuits, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 9:17): “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread [eaten] in hiding is pleasing.” Leading a person to develop such an affinity is one aspect of the evil inclination’s conniving – it assaults him with sharp arrows and pelts him with hot coals, and claims that it was just playing. A person can come to believe that his evil inclination loves him and seeks his good, and allow his evil inclination to goad him to focus earnestly on sinful endeavors – until, in Shlomo HaMelech’s words (ibid. 7:23), the arrow slices his liver. Suddenly his day of downfall comes upon him. If a person is wise, however, he looks ahead and carefully weighs every action. He will say to himself: “Perhaps it is the evil inclination coaxing me with smooth words, in order to pursue me and swallow me.”
The Mishnah states (Avos 5:20): “Yehudah ben Teima says, ‘Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.’” Let us relate one of the ways this teaching has been interpreted. The Midrash tells us that it is a deer’s nature, as it runs, to keep looking back to see if it is being chased. Similarly, a person must examine and contemplate his ways, and constantly look back to see whether the evil inclination is chasing after him to fluster him and destroy him.
I believe this idea is reflected in Shlomo HaMelech declaration in Koheles 2:13-14: “I saw that the advantage of wisdom over foolishness is like the advantage of light over darkness. A wise man’s eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness.” Just as a person can see only where there is light, so, too, it is only by employing a certain wise stratagem that a person can keep himself on the proper path. What is this stratagem? “A man’s eyes are in his head.” A wise man ponders why his eyes are in his head rather than in some other part of his body. Through this pondering, he comes to recognize that Hashem, in His wisdom, deliberately created him this way, so that, as he proceeds along, he can turn his head around and look back to see if he is being chased. And then he realizes that, similarly, he must be constantly on guard against the wiles of the evil inclination. The fool, by contrast, walks in darkness – even the hazards that are right in front of him he is unable to see.
Let us now bring out another facet of Shlomo’s statement that “a wise man’s eyes are in his head.” We start with an analogy. Consider a merchant who is traveling for business, with his son tagging along just for the enjoyment of travel. The merchant gains satisfaction from noting how far he has traveled, for this represents his progress toward his destination. The son, on the other hand, gains satisfaction from noting how much further there is to go, for this represents how much further opportunity he has to experience the enjoyment of travel. Similarly, a righteous man gains satisfaction from reviewing his past, while a fool gains satisfaction by fantasizing about his future.
Specifically, a righteous man gains satisfaction by noting how long he has lived so far and reflecting on how much Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds he has amassed during this time. And he is apprehensive about the time he has left in this world, for he recognizes that he cannot know what the future will bring (see Koheles 8:7) and he is aware of the Sages’ teaching that a person should not believe in himself until the day of his death (Avos 2:5). Moreover, even regarding the past he makes a strict accounting, and if he finds his accomplishments in Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds inadequate, he becomes greatly pained, and makes a diligent effort to rectify his deficiencies.
It is different with the fool who spends his time reveling in temporary worldly enjoyments. The days of his past are of no value to him, for the enjoyments he indulged in during this period have faded and are no more. He gains no further satisfaction from them. He gains satisfaction only from noting how much time he has left to indulge in further enjoyments. As Yeshayah puts it (verses 56:11-12): “And the dogs are greedy; they do not know satiety. These are the shepherds who cannot understand; they have all gone off on their own way, each to his own corner, for his own gain. ‘Come, I will fetch wine, and we will guzzle liquor, and tomorrow will also be like this, and even much greater.’”
The contrast described above is reflected in Shlomo’s statement that “a wise man’s eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness.” The wise man realizes that Hashem put his eyes in his head so that he could turn back and take a look at his past life, to see whether it provides him satisfaction. He thus learns to use his time productively. But regarding the foolish and wicked, Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 12:7, homiletically): “The wicked turn back and are no more.” When the wicked man turns back to look at his past, he finds that there is no longer anything left. Accordingly, he is led to focus all his attention on the future. But since he cannot know what the future will bring, he is like a man walking in the dark.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Korach

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 1
There are three causes that lead a living being to act in a certain way and pursue a certain object until it is attained: (a) instinct, (b) habit, and (c) intellect. We begin with a discussion of instinct. Hashem implanted in the creatures of the world a number of drives that are common to them all: hunger, which serves as a signal to eat; thirst, which serves as a signal to drink; fatigue, which serves as a signal to rest and sleep; and so on. These various drives stand ready to prompt every living being to avail itself of the means that Hashem placed within the world to enable it to remain in existence. In addition, man is implanted with drives for enjoyments that, while not necessarily extravagant luxuries, go beyond what is needed for basic existence. For example, people have a drive to adorn themselves and a drive to stroll outdoors to take in fresh air and see the sights of nature. Man is the only living being implanted with such drives for indulgences Animals do not have them. On the other hand, the absence of such drives within the animals themselves is compensated for by the drives man has to adorn and pamper the animals he possesses, and to pride himself on the care he shows them. All the drives just described are included within the general heading of “natural instinct,” although they come in many different forms and vary from one creature to another, according to the way that Hashem, in His wisdom, dictated that the world should operate.
As a rule, it is beneficial to cater to these drives to a certain degree, but harmful to cater to them in excess. It is good for to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, and rest when tired, and meeting physical needs through such activities provides much pleasure. Now, as Rambam points out in Moreh Nevuchim, people are generally unware of the effects these activities have within the body. For example, in regard to eating, we have little awareness of the processes whereby the body propagates food through the digestive tract, holds it within the stomach, digests it, and eliminates the waste. It is similar with other activities we engage in to meet our bodily needs. Our system of drives is unaware of the purpose underlying these activities; it knows only that it is supposed to prompt us to engage in them.
In this respect our system of drives is like a servant who follows his master’s orders without knowing what he is accomplishing by doing so. Now, a servant who is doing an assigned task will not set an appropriate limit by himself on how much he does. If the master does not specify a limit, the servant will continue working on and on, even if the added work ruins the product. The servant cannot determine on his own how much he should work, because he does not know the goal behind what he is doing.
Thus it is with the bodily drives: They prompt us to eat and drink, but do not specify rules on what to eat or how much. We can actually harm ourselves by inappropriate eating, either by eating foods that are intrinsically harmful, or by overeating, or by eating at the wrong time or in the wrong place. The instinctual element within us is oblivious to how the food affects our body. We can feel a craving even for something as injurious as a knife in the back. In this respect, man differs from the animals; thus our Sages tell us (Avos D’Rabbi Noson 16:3): “Go and watch how a kid or a lamb turns back when it sees a pit, for there is no evil inclination in an animal.” But regarding human drives it is written (Mishlei 9:13): “The woman of foolishness clamors; she is an imbecile and knows nothing.” Each of our drives draws us incessantly toward the activity it is appointed to promote; it badgers us on and on without limit, and if we continue listening to it up to the very end, our ultimate fate will be bitter. As Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 5:3): “For the lips of the wanton woman drip honey, her palate is smoother than as oil, but in the end she is as bitter as wormwood and sharp as a double-edged sword.”
We must guard our drives with the utmost vigilance; we must weigh their demands and set proper limits on them according to our physical constitution and according to the times and circumstances. When one of our drives prods us too far, we must rail against it even though the urge is yet strong. If we do not do so – if, for example, if we keep eating or drinking until the urge to do so dies down – we do away with ourselves.
It is important to realize that, while our instinctual impulses are part of our inborn nature and initially operate upon us in a manner we do not pursue or control, in the long run it is in our power to decide whether or not to continue following them. As beings with free will, we can modify our impulses and modulate them as we choose, implanting within ourselves a new configuration of natural habits. We will elaborate on this matter in the coming chapters.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Shelach

Yeshayah declares (verse 40:3-8):
A voice calls out in the desert: “Clear the way of Hashem, forge in the desert a straight road for our God.” … The glory of Hashem will be revealed, and all flesh together will see that the mouth of Hashem has spoken. A voice says: “Proclaim!” … “All flesh is like grass and all its kindness is like a blossom in the field. … Grass withers and a blossom fades, but the word of our God shall abide forever.”
The last verse of this passage is quoted by a Midrash on our parashah (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:3) in connection with Hashem’s promise to give the Land of Israel to the Jewish People. We previously presented a segment of the Maggid’s commentary on the Midrash. We now present another segment, which focuses on the verses in the above passage.
The Maggid explains that the passage is expressing praise for the Torah and disdain for worldly matters. Hoshea exhorts (verse 10:12): “Sow for yourselves righteousness.” The message here, the Maggid says, is that we should invest our efforts in Torah and mitzvos. And the Maggid likens those who focus their efforts on worldly matters to the desert of which Yeshayah spoke – just as the desert does not absorb seeds and cause them to sprout, so, too, those who are immersed in worldly matters do not absorb the “seeds” of Torah and mitzvos and cause them to sprout.
The Maggid develops his point with a parable. After suffering a fall in fortune, a certain man left his country and traveled far away, eventually reaching a country on the other side of the sea. The people there were primitive, like wild beasts – they did not know how to work the land to cause it to yield produce. In addition, the country was laden with precious stones, and the people were unaware of their full value. The people sustained themselves through trading with merchants who would bring them grain and fruit in exchange for the precious stones. The man who had moved into the country bought a large field and cultivated it, producing an abundance of grain and fruit. And he began trading his grain and fruit for the precious stones. When the man approached the end of his life, he instructed his sons, saying: “My sons, you should know that I have another son through my first wife whom I married in my former country. Bring him down here and let him take a share in my estate. And let him choose which of my possessions to take, for he is dear to me, and a wise and refined person.”
The man’s sons heeded their father’s words. They brought over the other son and let him choose which of their father’s possessions to take. He chose the precious stones, and let the other sons take the grain and fruit. The other sons found this laughable, for in their eyes the produce was the most valuable part of their father’s estate, and they considered the precious stones trifling. And they were baffled by their father’s having said that this son was wise, for they thought he made a very foolish choice.
Some years later, a wise king came to the country and educated the populace. He taught them how to make farming tools and work the land. Everyone in the country began working the land, and they produced a tremendous crop. And they started transporting the precious stones to other countries and selling them at a high price, commensurate with their great value. Ultimately, grain and fruit in this country became very cheap, while precious stones became expensive. And then the man’s sons said to themselves: “We thought our half-brother was crazy and foolish, but now we see that our father was right when he said he was wise and discerning. He took the truly valuable part of our father’s estate and left us with the inconsequential part.”
The message is as follows. The Land of Israel has both material and spiritual advantages. On the material side, it is a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where we can eat bread without scarceness, a land which lacks no physical assets, whose stones are iron, and from whose hills we may quarry brass (Devarim 8:9). These material assets are great in quantity, but minute in quality. On the spiritual side, the land is infused with holiness, uniquely conducive to Torah, wisdom, sanctity, purity, and prophesy, and uniquely suited to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. In this vein, it is written (Yeshayah 2:3): “For from Zion will come forth Torah, and the world of Hashem from Yerushalayim.” These spiritual assets are present only in a minute quantity among the general population, but are of immeasurably great value to the wise and discerning.
As long as a person hankers for fleeting worldly pleasures, sets his heart on this world, and views this world as the ultimate good, the spiritual assets of the Land of Israel seem inconsequential to him by comparison. Indeed, in view of the peace and material success that prevailed in Shlomo HaMelech’s time, the spiritual assets seem utterly trifling. We can imagine people of a materialistic orientation saying that Avraham never enjoyed the assets of the land Hashem had promised him. After all, they would say, during Avraham’s time in the land, the Canaanites held dominion and he was only a sojourner. And such people would marvel over how Hashem seemingly did not fulfill the promise He made to Avraham. But in the end of days the truth will emerge and shine forth, and we all will realize that all the material assets of this world are like nothing, and Torah is the only asset of true value. And then, in retrospect, we will see that Avraham took a more than ample helping of the gifts the Land of Israel has to offer, for no one else attained his level of holiness, wisdom, and prophesy.
This is the message of the passage in Yeshayah that we quoted at the outset. He says: “Grass withers and a blossom fades, but the word of our God shall abide forever.” Material assets wither, decay, and fade, but the value of Torah is immeasurable and everlasting.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Behaalosecha

Last week’s parashah ended with an account of the offerings the tribal princes brought during the inauguration of the Mishkan. The beginning of this week’s parashah adds a postscript recalling the service of lighting the menorah in the Mishkan. Accordingly, in his commentary on the parashah, the Maggid discusses the service in the Mishkan in general in the unique features of the lighting of the menorah. Last year we presented a segment from this discussion (link). We now present another segment.
In the segment we presented last year, the Maggid explains that the Mishkan, and later the Beis HaMikdash, served as the conduit whereby our prayers would ascend to heaven and Hashem would send blessing down to us. The Maggid likens the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash to a road. In the present segment, the Maggid elaborates on this analogy.
If a person wants to get to a certain destination, the Maggid says, he must take the road leading to it. If he stays on the road, he will reach his intended destination. But if he strays from the road, he will end up someplace else. Similarly, if we worship Hashem in the way He specified, our acts of worship will rise directly up to Him, and He will send down blessing directly to us. But if we perform acts of worship that Hashem did not specify, thus taking a distorted course that resembles idolatry, He will convey blessing down to earth through a distorted channel, and instead of reaching us it will end up elsewhere. As hinted at in Yeshayah 65:1, read homiletically, Hashem will be forthcoming toward those who did not seek Him.
Thus, Hashem told Avraham (Bereishis 17:1-2): “I am Almighty God, walk before Me and be wholehearted, and I will set My covenant between Me and you, and I will increase you most exceedingly.” If we follow the proper path and direct our hearts to Hashem, Hashem will send down blessing through a channel that leads to us. Along these lines, in describing the special eminence of the Beis HaMikdash and the service we performed there, David HaMelech declares (Divrei HaYamim Alef 29:10-12):
Blessed are You, Hashem, the God of Yisrael our forefather, for ever and ever. Yours, Hashem, is the greatness, and the strength, and the splendor, and the triumph, and the glory, even everything in heaven and earth. Yours, Hashem, is the kingdom, and the sovereignty over every leader. Wealth and honor come from You ….
The Hebrew expression corresponding to for ever and ever is מעולם ועד עולם, which can be rendered as from world to world. David is speaking of a state of affairs where the heavenly realm and the earthly realm are aligned and unified – we direct all our praises and worship to Hashem alone, and carry out the service in the Beis HaMikdash in the manner He specified, and He blesses us with wealth and honor. We can elaborate on the phrase even everything in heaven and earth. Heaven is the source of bounty and earth is the source of service to Hashem by man through the proper exercise of his freedom of choice. When we send service to Hashem up to heaven, Hashem sends bounty down to earth, so that heaven and earth each contain everything – both worship and bounty.  This is the state of affairs that will prevail in the end of days. Thus, Yeshayah declares (verse 40:3): “A voice calls out in the wilderness: ‘Clear the way of Hashem, forge in the desert a straight road for our God.’” The voice is heralding the era when Hashem will make all necessary repairs to the conduit between heaven and earth, so that it will operate as before.
But now, on account of our sins the Beis HaMikdash remains in disrepair. In Yirmiyahu’s words (Eichah 1:4), the paths of Zion are desolate. Still, we rely on Hashem to sustain us. Thus David HaMelech entreats (Tehillim 25:6): “Remember Your mercies, Hashem, and Your kindnesses, for they are from times of yore.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 22:1): “Not [new] from now, but from times of yore.”  Given that the Beis HaMikdash is now in disrepair, we ask Hashem to keep sustaining us by reverting to the worldly means He employed in earlier times, before the Mishkan, the predecessor of the Beis HaMikdash, was built. In the same vein, in Vehu Rachum prayers that we recite as part of Tachanun on Mondays and Thursdays, we appeal to Hashem for His help, saying: “It is Your way to perform free kindnesses in each and every generation.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator