Post Archive for August 2018

Shabbos Parashas Ki Savo

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 6 (continued)
Consider: Where did you come from? How were you brought into existence? How do you get your life force? How is your soul kept in existence? For what purpose were you brought into existence and placed in this world? Do not be misled by your familiarity with yourself and the world, to which you have been accustomed from the time you were born. Consider an analogy. Suppose you owed someone a certain sum of money, and you had been unable to pay him back for a long time, and finally you got the money. Would you hold back from repaying him now, just because you had not paid him for such a long time? It is the same with the person who up to now had not put his mind to ponder and understand Hashem’s handiwork, and then Hashem aroused his soul to do so. Such inspiration from above should lead you to imagine that you were just now brought into existence from nothingness. You are amazed at what you behold, and you are led to wonder. You have a yearning to understand, just as a hungry person has a yearning for food.
And after you ponder your having come into existence from nothingness, you come to realize three basic facts about your existence, which form the foundation of belief in the Creator. First, you realize that you did not come into existence out of your own volition and through your own power. You did not make a reckoning and decide to bring yourself into existence. You did not even pray to some being that preceded you to bring you into existence, for the very fact that you did not exist implies that you could not do so. Second, you realize that just as you were brought into existence by a force outside yourself, so, too, your existence is being maintained now by an outside force. You are like a stranger to yourself. All the parts from which you are formed, all your organs and limbs – your heart, your brain, your kidneys, and so on, and all the forces that operate within you are all being maintained by an outside force; you are not the one maintaining them and controlling their operation. You cannot ensure your own continued existence. You barely have a trace of understanding of your nature, how your various organs and limbs are constructed and connected together, and how the various forces that operate within you work and maintain your existence. And if you do come to gain some understanding of these things, it is only through a process of investigation in which you examine yourself as if from the outside, in the way you come to know a friend.
[In this vein, the Mishnah states (Avos 4:22): “Independently of your will you were created, independently of your will you were born, independently of your will you live, independently of your will you will die, and independently of your will you are destined to give an account before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He.”]
Now, it is true that you tend to your body in various ways, which its natural forces lead it to demand of you. You eat, you drink, you eliminate bodily wastes, you put on clothes, you rest, and you sleep. But you know clearly that the way you tend to your body is like the way a servant tends to his master, pouring his cup and ministering to him in other ways – not out of his own volition but rather on account of his master’s command. You are not like the head of the house who rules over his house as he pleases. You tend to your body only because of bodily forces that compel you to do so. The force of hunger prompts you to eat, the force of thirst prompts you to drink, and so on. Just try to “rebel” and hold back from obeying your body’s commands, and see what happens. Your body will press you fiercely until you appease it. You may even get sick and be forced to undergo medical treatment.
Third, through pondering the above, you come to realize your lowly stature. You have minimal control over what happens to you at any given moment. All the more so, you do not know what will happen to you in the future, even just at the very next moment. You are like a blind man who cannot see what is in front of him and is being led by a sighted man, held by the hand. Similarly, your life hangs in the balance before you, until you are granted the life force that enables you to survive the next moment.
After your mind has grasped these truths, you will realize and recognize with clear knowledge that that they imply that there is a Creator. Certainly your existence is not something that necessarily must be; you know you are not keeping the world going, so it is certainly possible to imagine a world in which you do not exist. In addition, you did not bring yourself into existence out of your own volition and power, and you are not maintaining yourself in existence. It therefore must be that there is another being that willed that you exist, brought you into existence, and maintains your existence. What need do you have for outside proofs? The facts we have described above are facts of which you have innate knowledge – your knowledge of these facts comes from within your own self, and you are sure they are true. And from these facts it follows immediately that there is a Creator.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Ki Seitzei

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 6 (beginning)
Knowledge and recognition of the true nature of something comes in three forms: innate knowledge, knowledge through hearing, and knowledge through intellectual investigation. Innate knowledge comes from within a person’s own being and is implanted within him. It includes knowledge of things he himself made, actions he himself performed, and ideas he himself conceived. It includes also knowledge of his own native faculties and of the data they convey to him. Knowledge through hearing consists of information a person knows only because he heard it from others. Knowledge through intellectual investigation consists of knowledge that comes neither from within the person’s own being or from a report from another person, but instead is acquired through logical reasoning, whereby the person infers from what he knows something he did not know before.
Innate knowledge is very strong – it is certain, and therefore holds up forever. Knowledge through hearing can be of various strengths, depending on the trust a person has in the source from which he heard the information. We will discuss later the means though which this type of knowledge is acquired and contradicted. Knowledge through intellectual investigation is like a quarry of precious gemstone, for it is built up through deep, clear, and straight thinking.
In regard to processing information heard from others, there are three types of people. The first type is the person who believes and accepts everything he is told, without evaluating the information reported and the source reporting it to determine whether it is worthy of belief or not. This is the way of simpletons and fools, as Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 14:15): “A simpleton believes everything.” It is not the proper way. In particular, the holy Torah warns us not to believe someone who seeks to contradict something that it states, even if the person has good credentials – for example, if he has performed signs and wonders. Thus it is written (Devarim 13:4): “Do not listen to the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of a dream, for Hashem your God is testing you to know whether you love Hashem your God with all your heart and all your soul.” 
The second type is the stiff-necked person who does not believe anything. An example is Pharaoh, who hardened his heart even after seeing great signs and wonders; only when his masses were ravaged and his glory was cut down did his uncircumcised heart submit and accede to belief in Hashem. This type of stubbornness is a very bad trait. Such people are called “strong-hearted” (Yeshayah 46:12). Another example of this type of person is Achaz, king of Yehudah. Yeshayah told him (verse 7:11): “Request a sign for yourself from Hashem your God, either in the depths or in the heights.” But Achaz replied (ibid. 7:12): “I will not request; I will not test Hashem.” The reason for this response was described earlier in the passage (ibid. 7:9): “If you do not believe this, it is because you lack faith.” Believing in everything and believing in nothing are both very bad, and readily lead to sin.
The third type is the person who is a straight thinker with a wise heart, who believes what is worthy of belief and rejects what deserves to be rejected. Criteria for being worthy of belief include being consistent with the senses and being reported by a reliable person in whom we have never seen any crookedness or deceit, and who has no vested interest in the matter. Sometimes we have to believe something that goes against nature, because of the stature of the person reporting the information. But the statement must not contradict the Torah. We must not believe anything that is at odds with any detail of any mitzvah in the Torah, even if the person who said it satisfies all the criteria for reliability. If someone comes to nullify anything in the Torah, turn away from him and pass him by.
We will now elaborate on the three forms of knowledge that we identified at the outset. We begin with innate knowledge. In Avos 3:1, Akavya ben Mehallalel lists three things we should bear in mind to keep ourselves from coming to sin. The first is to know where we came from. An important message is being conveyed here. It is human nature for a person who encounters something he has never seen before and of whose nature he knows nothing to have a burning desire to comprehend it. Even if the matter in question has no bearing on him at all, a person still desires to know. All the more so, a person should have a desire to know where he and the rest of existence came from.
Let us consider the matter. Suppose Hashem has just now made you aware of yourself and the world around you. You recognize that you exist. You see that you are constructed with wondrous wisdom, with various organs and various capabilities. You find yourself in a grand world which is also constructed with wondrous wisdom. And you find within this world everything you need, from basic necessities to things that bring extra enjoyment. This world contains many different types of objects, including inanimate objects, plant life, and animal life. You stand amidst all these objects – you are affected by them, you make use of them, and you exercise dominion over them. And you do not recall or recognize what you are doing here. Who brought you into existence? Who brought into existence all the creations that surround you, right and left, above and below? Such a splendid palace! Brilliantly shining orbs bring you light both during the day and at nighttime. Your own self and all that you see are new, and you never knew or heard about how or why you and the world around you came to be.
Let us now consider for a moment an analogy. Suppose you wake up and you find yourself in the middle of the forest among the trees, in a house that was built for your honor. You have several servants who serve you and give you whatever you ask. And you have no recollection whatsoever of who brought you to the house and provided all the amenities you enjoy there. Surely you would be struck with a strong sense of wonder and amazement, and you would go around asking and investigating to try to find some explanation for all this.
All the more so you should be struck with wonder and amazement over the wondrous sight that you see – that you have been brought into existence and placed in world containing everything good. How could you not be utterly amazed?
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Shoftim

In last week’s d’var Torah, we presented the Maggid’s commentary on the following teaching of R. Elazar (Devarim Rabbah 4:3):
From the moment the Holy One Blessed Be He made this statement at Sinai, “it is not from the mouth of the Most High One that evil and good emanate” (Eichah 3:38, homiletically). Rather, they come automatically – evil comes to those who do evil and good comes to those who do good.
The Maggid explains that the reward or punishment that come our way when we observe or violate Hashem’s directives are not imposed on us legislatively, but rather are natural consequences of our actions. He explains further that through the very same influence Hashem simultaneously brings good to those who do good and evil to those who do evil. I now present more of the Maggid’s discussion of these themes.
It is written (Yeshayah 31:7-9):
On that day everyone will reject his idols of silver and his idols of gold …. And Assyria will fall by the sword …. His rock will pass away in terror and his officers will be devastated by a miracle – the word of Hashem, Who has a fire in Tziyon and a furnace in Yerushalayim.
In this passage, Yeshayah likens the influence that Hashem is bringing down to a fire, which has both the power to give light and warmth and the power to consume and destroy. The Assyrians were wicked, and therefore they were consumed.
Iyov’s companion Elihu declares (Iyov 34:10-11): “Far be it for God to commit evil and for the Almighty to commit crookedness. He repays a man [for] his deeds and brings forth for a man [what suits] his ways.” Elihu is saying that Hashem does not actively bring affliction to evildoers, but rather the affliction they suffer is a natural consequence of their evil behavior.
The idea that reward and punishment come about as natural consequences of our behavior is reflected also in the following teaching (Sifrei, Eikev 40): “The loaf and the stick came down bound together from heaven. Hashem said to them: ‘If you keep the Torah, here is the loaf for you to eat. And if not, here is the stick for you to be beaten with.’”
At the beginning of parashas Re’eh, Moshe declares (Devarim 11:26-27): “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing – that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God, that I command you today. And the curse – if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God ….” The Maggid asks: What is the import of the word today? The blessings and curses were not coming down at the moment Moshe spoke; rather, they were going to come down later in due course, according to the good deeds each person does and the sins he commits as time unfolds. The Maggid answers his question as follows. In a typical employer-employee relationship, usually the employer does not pay the employee on the spot at the moment he does a given task. Rather, at the end of each month, the employer pays the employee his wages for all the work he did that month. And similarly, the employer often will not discipline the employee on the spot at the moment he commits an infraction, but instead will wait until the employee accumulates a significant record of infractions and then discipline him. By contrast, the reward we receive for our mitzvos and the punishment we receive for our lapses are automatically triggered immediately as natural consequences of our actions, through a system that Hashem set into place the day He gave us the Torah at Sinai.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Re’eh

This week’s parashah begins (Devarim 11:26-27): “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing – that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God, that I command you today. And the curse – if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God ….” R. Elazar expounds (Devarim Rabbah 4:3):
From the moment the Holy One Blessed Be He made this statement at Sinai, “it is not from the mouth of the Most High One that evil and good emanate” (Eichah 3:38, homiletically). Rather, they come automatically – evil comes to those who do evil and good comes to those who do good.
The principle underlying this teaching, says the Maggid, is one stated by our early sages regarding reward and punishment for observing or violating Hashem’s directives. In the human legal system, punishment for crimes is set by legislation. For example, a human legal code may specify that a thief is punished by whipping, or jail, or death. This punishment does not come upon the thief as a natural consequence of his act of theft, in the way that ingesting a poison naturally causes death. Rather, the punishment is imposed on the thief by legal fiat. By contrast, the reward or punishment that come our way when we observe or violate Hashem’s directives are not imposed on us legislatively, but rather are natural consequences of our actions. Observing the laws of Hashem’s holy Torah naturally fortify us. Violating these laws naturally cause us harm. Thus Yirmiyahu declares (verse 2:19): “Your evil will afflict you, and your backsliding will chastise you.” The affliction is a natural consequence of the evildoing. In a similar vein, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 9:10): “There is no act, or reckoning, or knowledge, or wisdom in the grave.” Shlomo is saying that the punishment we receive for violating Hashem’s word is not like the punishment we receive for violating a man-made law, which involves human judges applying their knowledge and making a reckoning. Rather, as Yeshayah puts it (verse 64:6): “You melt us away in the hands of our iniquities” – the iniquities themselves bring us suffering. This principle is well known to those well-versed in our traditional sources, and the Maggid notes that he discusses it often. Here, the Maggid seeks to bring out a new insight.
A person might think, the Maggid says, that despite the fundamental difference just noted between man-made systems of reward and punishment and Hashem’s system of reward and punishment, the two systems are the same in one respect: The means of dispensing punishment differ from the means of dispensing reward. A human government imposes the death penalty by a lethal agent such as poison and rewards a person by giving him some benefit such as the opportunity to indulge himself. We might think that Hashem operates via a similar two-pronged system – punishing people by means of the afflictions of Gehennom and rewarding people by means of the delights of Gan Eden. But the books of the prophets contain many declarations explicitly stating that reward and punishment in fact come through the same pipeline.
For example, Malachi declares (verses 3:19-20): “For, behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the wanton and all the evildoers will be like straw – that coming day will set them ablaze …. But for those who fear My Name, for you the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays, and you will go out and flourish like calves [fattened] in the stall.” In connection with this prophesy, R. Shimon ben Lakish states (Nedarim 8b): “There is no Gehennom in the world to come – rather, the Holy One Blessed Be He will take the sun out of its sheath, and the righteous are healed by it while the wicked are judged through it … and not only that, but the righteous delight in it.” We see that the same agent brings both reward and punishment, depending on the state of the person being acted upon. In the same vein, in Avos D’Rabbi Nosson chapter 37 it is stated: “Two eat from the same bowl; this one tastes according to his deeds and this one tastes according to his deeds.” For a person with a healthy spiritual constitution, the delights are enjoyable, but for a person with a diseased spiritual constitution, the delights are unpleasant and harmful. Regarding the episode in which Sancheirev’s army laid siege to Yerushalayim and were miraculously struck down (Melachim Beis 19), R. Yitzchak Nafcha states in Sanhedrin 95b that Hashem opened the ears of Sancheirev’s soldiers and enabled them to hear the singing of the heavenly beings, and from the sound of the singing they died. Here, the same heavenly singing that brings delight to the righteous brought death to the wicked. We find this idea encapsulated in the psalmist’s declaration (Tehillim 77:11): “On account of my sickness the Most High One’s right hand has changed over.” The same Divine right hand has changing effects, depending what spiritual condition a person is in.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Eikev

This week’s parashah begins as follows (Devarim 7:12-19):
And it shall come about as a result, if you heed these laws and take care to fulfill them, that Hashem your God shall safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. He shall love you, and bless you, and multiply you. … And you shall consume all the peoples that Hashem your God will deliver unto you …. If you say in your heart, “These nations are more numerous than I; how will I be able to drive them out?” do not be afraid of them; remember well what Hashem your God did to Pharaoh and all of Egypt – the great tests that your eyes saw, and the signs, and the wonders, and the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, with which Hashem your God took you out. So shall Hashem your God do to all the peoples before whom you are afraid.
The Maggid sets out to explain the second half of this passage. It cannot be, he says, that the Torah is simply telling us not to fear enemy nations, for the Torah already conveyed this message many times elsewhere. Rather, the Torah’s intent is to offer us a different sort of encouragement.
It is a basic principle that the degree of aid Hashem grants a person depends on the degree to which he puts his trust in Him and takes refuge in Him. In this vein, David HaMelech entreats (Tehillim 33:22): “May Your kindness be upon us, Hashem, as we hoped in You.” And Yeshayah declares (verse 30:15): “For thus said my Lord, Hashem/Elokim, the Holy One of Yisrael, ‘In stillness and peacefulness shall you be saved; in quiet and in confidence shall be your might.’” In Shir HaShirim 6:3 it is written: “I am unto my Beloved and my Beloved is unto Me.” The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, part III, ch. 51, explains that Hashem draws close to a person to the same degree that the person draws close to Him. Similarly, Hashem watches over a person and aids him in proportion to the degree of trust the he puts in Him. Reflecting the negative side of this relationship, Iyov declares (verse 3:24): “I harbored a fear and it overtook me, and what I dreaded came upon me” –  because Iyov was overtaken with fear and did not maintain trust in Hashem, in the end he suffered the calamity that he had feared. Because of this principle, the Torah dictates that Jewish soldiers going out to battle against their enemies be charged not to harbor any fear (Devarim 20:3-4): “Do not let your heart be faint; do not fear, do not panic, and do not be broken before them. For Hashem, your God, is the One who goes with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.”
Yet, it can still happen that an individual soldier, in the middle of battle, will be struck suddenly with fear, and, recognizing that his level of trust in Hashem has dropped, will conclude that his hopes of succeeding and emerging from the battle unharmed are now lost. It is to such a person that the second half of the passage from the parashah is addressed. The Torah says: “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are more numerous than I; how will I be able to drive them out?’ do not be afraid of them.” The Torah is telling us: “If you are taken aback and feel fear in your heart, do not conclude that you are now finished and give up. Even in this situation, Hashem is ready to grant salvation.” As proof, the Torah cites the Jewish People’s experience in Egypt. At that time, under the yoke of harsh oppression, the Jewish People were gripped with terror. Nonetheless, Hashem came to their aid and rescued them. And He will do likewise, the Torah says, in other situations where we are faced with an enemy and, taken aback, are struck with doubts; we should not be afraid, for despite our doubts Hashem will still stand by us and save us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator