Post Archive for July 2018

Shabbos Parashas Vaeschanan

This week’s parashah begins with Moshe describing his (unsuccessful) prayers to Hashem to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. In connection with this, the Midrash presents a variety of teachings.  I present here the Maggid’s commentary on two of these teachings.
1. Our first Midrash relates specifically to Moshe. The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 2:2):
It is written (Tehillim 39:12): “You chasten man for iniquity by way of rebuke, and like a moth You wear away his desire; indeed, every man is futility. Selah.” On account of a single iniquity that Moshe committed – that he rebuked Your children [overly sharply] and said to them (Bamidbar 20:10), “Listen, now, O rebels” – You chastened him and rebuked him. The term “man” in our verse refers to none other than Moshe, of whom it is written (Bamidbar 12:3), “the man Moshe was very humble.” What does it mean, “Like a moth You wear away his desire”? You melted away all the desire that Moshe had to enter the land, like a moth that enters into clothes and causes them to rot. For Moshe, “his desire” was none other than Eretz Yisrael, of which it is written (Yirmiyah 3:19), “I shall give you a desirable land.” If such a fate befell the saintly Moshe, it is all the more so with other men, that they are destined for futility and destined for the day of judgment. Thus, “indeed, every man is futility.”
In truth, the Maggid says, this “all the more so” argument doesn’t seem valid, for the Gemara in Bava Kamma 50a teaches that Hashem is exacting with the righteous to a hairsbreadth. The Maggid explains the Midrash as follows. Hashem surely did not treat Moshe more strictly than he deserved. The reason we experience lighter treatment than Moshe is that Hashem treats us more leniently than we deserve on account of our lowly stature. The Maggid brings out the point through an analogy to how a creditor behaves. A creditor is aware of the financial state of the various people who owe him debts, and he modulates the degree to which he presses a given debtor for payment according to the debtor’s financial state. Suppose now that one of his debtors is a well-known pauper, and he doesn’t press him at all. And suppose that this pauper takes pride in the “special treatment” that the creditor is showing him. People would then chide him, saying: “What are you so proud about? The reason you are getting a break is your poverty and lowly stature.”
The Midrash interprets Tehillim 39:12 as speaking of Moshe. The verse describes Hashem’s chastening Moshe for iniquity. The intent here is that Hashem chastened Moshe to a degree exactly commensurate with his iniquity, and, far be it, not any more than he deserved. Now, if the saintly Moshe received such a severe punishment for such a small sin, then all the more so the rest of us, who are guilty of much more serious sins, deserve severe punishment. But, as the verse says, every man is futility – we all are of low stature – and therefore Hashem treats us more leniently than we deserve. This perspective should infuse us either with a feeling of fear or a feeling of humility and lowliness.
2. Our second Midrash deals with prayer in general. The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 2:11): “Said Moshe before the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘Master of the Universe! When You see Your children in pain and there is no one to ask for mercy toward them, answer them right away.’” Moshe is asking Hashem to answer us on the day of distress itself, without any delay – along the lines of David HaMelech’s statement in Tehillim 20:2 that “Hashem will answer you on the day of distress,” which is expounded on in a nearby segment in Devarim Rabbah. The Maggid links Moshe’s request with David’s plea in Tehillim 143:7: “Quickly, Hashem, answer me. My spirit is failing. Do not hide Your face from me, lest I become like those who go down into the pit.” He brings out the idea with a parable. A person suffered from an illness that affected his appetite. Usually he had no desire to eat at all. Only occasionally did he feel a desire to eat, and then only for a few minutes. Once he visited a large inn where there was a large crowd of people waiting to be served a meal. He called out to the innkeeper, saying: “Quickly, please, serve me first. For soon I will lose my appetite and I won’t be able to eat anything.” The parallel is as follows. In Eichah Rabbah 3 (letter ס), R. Yose ben Chalafta teaches that we should aim to offer our prayers at times of Divine favor. But this teaching applies only to those who have a strong fear of Hashem and are spiritually whole, and are therefore able to pray at any time. It is not so with us. Our hearts are tangled with worries and our souls are immersed in ruminations, and we are aroused to pray only on rare occasions – a moment here and there, sparsely scattered, when the clouds of anguish temporarily clear. When we experience such a moment of spiritual arousal we have to grab the opportunity to approach Hashem and plead to Him to help us. And we have to beg Hashem to answer us quickly and not hide His face, for soon our urge to pray will fade away.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Devarim – Megillas Eichah

The Midrash states (Eichah Rabbah Pesichasa 11):
Had you merited, you would have come across the verse (Shemos 3:7): “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt.” But now that you have not merited, you come across the verse (Eichah 1:20): “See, Hashem, how I am distressed ….”
In explaining this Midrash, the Maggid focuses on the fact that the bitterness and pain of the exile is not experienced in the same way by everyone. For the masses, the main cause of distress is the subjugation to other nations and the elusiveness of making a living without a homestead in the land where they live. When the ruling powers take something away from them, they feel miserable. And, vice versa, those who are successful, make a comfortable living, and have a lot of social influence do not feel the pain of exile at all. They think: “What difference does it make whether I am here or there?” But the righteous ones recognize that Eretz Yisrael is a much more hospitable environment for the soul. We all know that water-bound creatures are sustained by the water and face death when they leave it. In the same way, Eretz Yisrael is the only habitat that really sustains us effectively, and being taken out of our land is the greatest tragedy of all for us. For then we are like fish that have been captured in a net and taken out of the sea onto dry land. The worst of all the troubles we suffer in the exile is being forced to live in the impure environment of a foreign land.
In this vein it is written (Yeshayah 62:6-7): “Upon your walls, O Yerushalayim, I have set watchmen on vigil continually all day and all night – they shall not quiet. Do not fall silent, you who raise remembrance before Hashem. Give Him no peace until He establishes Yerushalayim and makes her praised within the world.” We should not quiet down from our lamenting even if we have an abundance of good that overshadows all pain and sorrow. Whatever our circumstances, we should not give ourselves respite until Hashem re-establishes Yerushalayim. Being prevented from attaching ourselves to Hashem’s estate is the ultimate source of anguish. There is no greater tragedy. [In our day, although many of us have the opportunity to live in Eretz Yisrael, we still lack the Beis HaMikdash and a Torah system of government, and thus we are spiritually in exile, in an environment that is far from the ideal that was attained in former times.]
The same theme is reflected in a verse dealing with the Egyptian enslavement (Shemos 2:23): “The Children of Yisrael groaned from the labor.” It does not say that the Jewish People groaned “from the hard labor,” even though the Torah stated earlier that the Egyptians “embittered their lives with hard labor” (ibid. 1:14). This implies that their groans were not directed against the difficulty of the work, with the hope that the work would be eased. Rather, they were groaning over the horrible degradation of being forced to live in the defiled land of Egypt and be enslaved to its inhabitants. Even had the work been light, they still would have groaned over the fact that they were servants of Pharaoh and not servants of Hashem. Hence (ibid. 2:23, end): “Their plea rose up to God on account [lit. from] their labor.” Their prayer found favor in Hashem’s eyes because it was on account of the mere fact of their enslavement. They were not just pleading that the weight of the work be lightened. Rather, they despised serving the Egyptians and wished to serve Hashem instead.
Accordingly, the Torah verse quoted in our opening Midrash states: “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt.” The Holy One Blessed Be He recognized that the main cause of the Jewish People’s downheartedness was simply that they were in Egypt and not in Eretz Yisrael. They understood the difference between the two lands so well that the mere fact that they were not in their own land was what pained them most of all. Hence their prayer was answered.
But it is not so now. Today we feel no pain over living in an environment that is spiritually deficient. We are concerned only about the worldly troubles that befall us. Our basic disability is so far removed from our consciousness that we are completely unperturbed by it. We do not really feel a need to pray to be healed of it. How, then, can our prayers be pleasing to Hashem?
We now can understand what the Midrash is telling us. Had we merited, we would have come across the verse: “I indeed saw the affliction ….” We would have been pained primarily over the mere fact that we live in a foreign land, and then our prayer would have been truly pleasing. But now that we have not merited, we come across the verse: “See, Hashem, how I am distressed ….” We pray only over the worldly troubles that burden us. If Hashem would bless us with great bounty, we would no longer feel any pain at all.
This is not the proper way. Indeed, it is written (Tehillim 137:6): “Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Yerushalayim above my greatest joy.” Even when we are satiated with blessing, we still must not harden our hearts and fail to remember Yerushalayim. In truth, what greater glory do we have than the glory of Yerushalayim? What can compare?
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Mattos-Masei

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 5
Now, my dear soul, walk about and survey your path, listen to what you say, ponder your deeds, and see how your actions contradict your words. You speak constantly of fear and love of Hashem, you serve your Master and pray to Him, but virtually all of this is falsehood. For your do not examine your service to Hashem, to judge whether it is true service or not; instead you act just like a horse or a mule with no understanding [cf. Tehillim 32:9]. For if you truly accepted upon yourself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, offered your prayers to Hashem earnestly, and poured out your supplications before Him, why do you show no signs of submission to Hashem, like a servant before his master? Consider how much fear and trembling come upon you when you stand before some government official, how carefully you obey his orders. Go take your service to Me and the honor you show Me and offer them to one of these officials! [cf. Malachi 1:8] How is it that your limbs remain firm when you come to pray before the King of Kings, to whom sovereignty truly belongs? How is it that you say “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe,” and you speak these words just like you speak to your children or your friends? You walk about secure and calm, like a person who owes no debts and has no demands on him. Where is your wisdom, your declaration that you fear God?
If someone would ask you about this world, you would say it is vanity of vanities, a deception. But you pursue worldly matters with all your strength and rejoice in your worldly attainments. And if you lose some money, you get upset and agitated. You put yourself in great risk for money, you travel across the seas. And all that for temporary pleasures. When Rosh Hashanah comes you recite aloud the words of the Unesaneh Tokef prayer: “Behold, the Day of Judgment! … On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on the fast day of Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many will pass on and how many will be born. Who will live and who will die ….” Yet your heart is secure, your inner strength is firm. Consider how you would act if you were in the forest and you heard the sound of a fierce wild animal. Think about how you would be struck with fear and trembling, how your limbs would virtually come out of joint, how you would be seized with panic – even though the danger you face threatens only the body. If you really took to heart what you are saying when you recite the Unesaneh Tokef prayer, that today is the Day of Judgment on all mankind, body and soul, and your life is hanging in the balance, your heart would sway like trees swaying in the wind.
In truth, your heart is devoid of any real awareness of these matters. The words you utter with your mouth are just words you accustomed yourself to say over the years. If you scrutinize yourself, you will recognize your foolishness, and you will see that you have not reached even the beginning of true intellect – you are virtually bereft of true human understanding.
So make a fresh start. Imagine you were created just today. Marvel over your existence, and over the existence of all that your eyes see. How did all this come into being? Marvel over it all, the way you marvel when you come upon something new. If you ponder the world in this way, you will guide yourself wisely to the true path and achieve true success. Learn to know in your heart that there is a great and awesome God who created and watches over the world. Then you will fear Him and be abashed before Him, and you will serve Him truly and wholeheartedly, with fear, love, and submissiveness. You will act the way a person acts in the presence of a king – heart melting like wax in the presence of fire. As David HaMelech puts it (Tehillim 2:11), as you rejoice in serving Hashem you will tremble.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Pinchas

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 4 (end)
There are two major differences between the system of natural drives and the intellect. First, the drives develop before the intellect. The drives begin developing and operating right after a person is born, whereas the intellect, although it is the key element that Hashem had in mind when He created man, develops only later. As the saying goes, סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה – it is the end product that was first in mind. We can draw an analogy to growing grain. Growing grain requires plowing, planting, and working the ground. It is on account of the grain that the farmer undertakes this long process. But the grain emerges only in the end, when the stalk is fully developed. Similarly, the intellect emerges only in the end, when a person’s soul-system is fully developed.
Second, the drives operate on a person by coercion. For example, a person might not want to eat at a particular moment, and might not be thinking about eating, but the drive of hunger prods him to eat. By contrast, an exercise of the intellect is an action that is possible for a person to carry out, but he is not compelled to do so. A person can choose to focus on a certain matter to understand it. But he can also choose to turn his mind aside from it, and then he will have no better grasp of it than an animal. This principle applies to everything a person sees, hears, or encounters. A person can see something a hundred times, but if he does not pay attention and endeavor to undertand it, he will not grasp it. The same is true of what a person hears.
The principle can even apply to a person’s own speech. A person can utter certain sentences solely out of habit, with the lips moving on their own while his mind is elsewhere. For example, most people mention with some frequency that they have been brought into existence by the Creator for a set period, and they do not know whether they will be alive at the same time tomorrow, but their hearts are oblivious to this fact. For if their words came from the depths of their hearts, and they had a true awareness of their mortality, they would immediately be filled with worry over their fate and they would give up their attachment to the myriads of trivial worldly pleasures. It is clear that when most people speak of death they do not really register what they are saying. Regarding this unattentiveness, it is written (Tehillim 49:14): “With their mouths [alone] they accept their destiny.” In a lament before Hashem, Yirmiyahu speaks in a similar vein, saying (verse 12:2): “You are close in their mouths, but distant from their thoughts.”
The Gemara in Shabbos 31b states: “Not only do the wicked not tremble and worry over the day of death, their hearts are as firm as an edifice.” We can bring out the idea with an analogy. There are three approaches a merchant can take in deciding how much money to take on a business trip. The first type of merchant takes more than he expects to need, bearing in mind than unexpected expenses may arise. The second type takes exactly the amount he expects to need. And the third type does not even take with him enough for normal hotel bills. Similarly, there are three approaches a person can take in relating to his mortality. The first type of person takes a cautious approach, choosing the secure path and following Shlomo HaMelech’s advice (Koheles 9:8): “Always make sure your clothes are white.” Even in his early years he bears in mind that death can come unexpectedly at any moment. The second type assumes that the length of his life will be as expected; it is only in his old age that he prepares himself for the next world and mends his behavior. And the third type takes a super-confident approach and acts as if he will never die. The Gemara is saying that the wicked not only reject the cautious approach, but they go to the other extreme and adopt the super-confident approach.
The reason people talk without paying attention to what they are saying is that the ability to speak does not depend on the ability to understand. A baby starts making speaking sounds before he understands what he is saying. He simply mimics what he hears, like a parrot that has been trained to say words. The parrot’s ability to say the words does not imply that it has the ability to understand what it is saying; after all, it is only a parrot, and it has no intellect.
The evil inclincation casts a cloak over a person’s mind, leading him into a state of being unaware of the import of his actions. It heaps a thick layer of mud even over very commonplace considerations, thereby keeping the person from properly recognizing them. Thus, a person fails to pay attention to his existence, how he came into being, his essence and his qualities, and his purpose. He does what he does only because this way of life was passed down to him by his parents. He saw what they did, and he does the same. But he acts without discernment and understanding, and he does not take care to carry out these actions in the correct manner with adherence to all the details.