Post Archive for November 2018

Shabbos Parashas Vayeitzei

This week’s parashah recounts Yaakov’s sojourn in Charan. As Yaakov set out for Charan, he made a vow, saying (Bereishis 28:20-22): “If God will be with me, and guard me on this path on which I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be unto me as a God. Then this stone which I have set up as a pillar will be a House of God, and whatever You give me I will repeatedly tithe to You.” The Maggid remarks that Yaakov’s statement here is ambiguous: It is unclear what he meant in stipulating that “Hashem will be unto me as a God,” and in saying that “this stone which I have set up as a pillar will be a House of God.”
Rashi noticed these difficulties, and offered his explanations. Regarding the stipulation that “Hashem will be unto me as a God,” Rashi’s interpretation is that Yaakov was asking Hashem to arrange for His Name to be associated with him from beginning to end, in the sense that none of his progeny would develop a spiritual blemish that would render him unfit for Hashem’s Name to be associated with him. And regarding the statement “this stone which I have set up as a pillar will be a House of God,” Rashi’s interpretation, following Targum Onkelos, is that Yaakov was promising to worship Hashem at the site of the stone upon his return to the Land of Israel, as he indeed ultimately did (Bereishis 35:1-7).
The Maggid offers another interpretation of Yaakov’s statement, based on the following rendering:
If God will be with me, and guard me on this path on which I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house. It will then be that Hashem will be unto me as a God, and this stone which I have set up as a pillar will be a House of God, and whatever You give me I will repeatedly tithe to You.
The Maggid thus views the stipulation that “Hashem will be unto me as a God” not as part of Yaakov’s request to Hashem, but rather as part of what he vowed to do if the request were fulfilled. He sets set out to explain exactly what this part of the vow entailed.
He builds on two Midrashim concerning Yaakov’s statement. One Midrash reads as follows (Bereishis Rabbah 70:6):
Hashem took the words of the forefathers and made these words the key to the redemption of their descendants. Said Hashem to Yaakov: “You said, ‘It will then be (והיה) that Hashem will be unto me as a God.’ By your life, all the kindnesses, blessings, and consolations that I will provide your descendants, I will announce using none other than the expression that you used: ‘it will then be.’” It is thus written (Zechariah 14:8): “It will then be on that day, that spring waters shall flow forth from Yerushalayim ….” And similarly (Yeshayah 11:11): “It will then be on that day, that Hashem will extend his hand a second time to acquire the remnant of His people ….” And similarly (Yoel 4:18): “It will then be on that day, that the mountains will drip with wine ….” And similarly (Yeshayah 27:13): “It will then be on that day, that the great shofar will be sounded, ….”
A second Midrash, in Bereishis Rabbah 70:6, teaches that Yaakov’s requests conveyed – by way of allusion – a plea that Hashem guard him from evil speech, illicit relations, murder, and idolatry. We see from this teaching that Yaakov’s main fear, as he set out for Charan, was that the wicked Lavan might influence him to turn away from the path of truth and good to the path of falsehood and evil. He therefore pleaded with Hashem to stay at his side and keep him from straying, and he hoped that Hashem would do so. At the same, he realized that his being under Lavan’s dominion would unavoidably prevent him from discharging his duties to Hashem in full measure, for a person cannot fully serve two masters at the same time. He therefore vowed to Hashem that if He would return him to his father’s house in peace, safe and free, he would then give Him his due – he would serve Him with extra diligence, to make up for the deficiencies in his service during his time in Lavan’s house. He communicated this pledge by saying, “It will then be (והיה) that Hashem will be unto me as a God.” The word והיה contains a Biblical conversive vav, which converts the past tense verb היהit was – to future tense: it will be. It hints at something being transferred to the future. Yaakov used this term to express a vow to remit his unfulfilled obligations to Hashem in the future, upon returning from his journey.
Correspondingly, Hashem promised Yaakov to act similarly toward his descendants – the blessings He is withholding from us at present He will remit to us in the end of days. This portion of blessing will be added onto the portion of blessing He set aside to convey to us in the end of days, so that we will receive a double portion of blessing. In this vein, Yeshayah declares (ibid. 61:7): “In place of your double shame, and the disgrace they bewailed as their portion – therefore they shall inherit a double portion in their land, and eternal gladness shall be theirs.” Similarly, it is written (Yoel 2:25-26): “I will repay you for the years that the [locusts] consumed. And you shall eat well, to satiation, and you shall praise the Name of Hashem your God Who has done wondrously for you – and My people shall be eternally free of shame.” Hashem will grant us blessing that is so wondrously abundant that it will compensate for all the deprivation we suffered throughout history, and retrospectively erase all the shame we felt over the course of all time. The first Midrash expresses this idea. It is to reflect the foregoing principle of restitution that all the kindnesses, blessings, and consolations Hashem conveyed to us were announced using the term והיהit will then be – a term that represents a transfer from the past to the future. As the Maggid explains in his commentary on Bereishis 1:3, the Midrash is teaching that the bounty that was fit to be delivered now will instead be delivered later. Hashem’s promise to Yaakov mirrors Yaakov’s promise to Him. This is what the Midrash means when it says that Hashem took the words of the forefathers and made these words the key to the redemption of their descendants.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Toldos

This week’s parashah describes how Yaakov came and took the blessings that Yitzchak had meant for Eisav. The Maggid raises some questions about this episode. First, why does the Torah first report Eisav’s outcry without any explanation, and only later, after relating Yitzchak’s response, report the reason for the outcry? Second, given that Yitzchak had already told Eisav that he had blessed Yaakov and that therefore Yaakov would indeed be blessed, what did he add by saying that Yaakov came with cunning and took his blessing? Third, how could Eisav say that Yaakov “took” his birthright, when in fact he had willingly sold it to him?
To explain the interchange between Yitzchak and Eisav, the Maggid begins by analyzing what Yitzchak had in mind when he decided how he would bless his two sons. Yitzchak had two types of blessings to grant: spiritual blessings, relating to the world to come, and material blessings, relating to this world. He decided it would be proper to grant the spiritual blessings to his firstborn son, i.e., Eisav, for the firstborn son has a special elevated status and is the one invested with responsibility for bringing offerings. Thus, when Yaakov approached Yitzchak and presented himself as Eisav, Yitzchak was poised to grant him the spiritual blessings. Yaakov sensed what Yitzchak wanted him to do. After some reflection, he decided it would be better for him to receive the material blessings. He reasoned that since anyone can acquire a share in the world to come on his own by choosing to follow the proper path, and since he had in fact adopted this path and was wholehearted in thought and deed, he did not need Yitzchak to bless him with success in acquiring a share in the world to come. He therefore made a move to induce Yitzchak to grant him the material blessings. What move did he make? He told Yitzchak, in the guise of Eisav, that “he” had sold the birthright to “his brother.” And given that the birthright had passed from Eisav to Yaakov, it would be proper to grant Eisav the material blessings instead of the spiritual blessings. Yitzchak followed this reasoning, and, thinking that the person standing before him was Eisav, granted Yaakov the material blessings.
Now, when Yitzchak told Eisav afterward that “I blessed him – and, indeed, he will be blessed,” Eisav initially thought that Yaakov had not come with any cunning, but rather had simply overheard Yitzchak’s request for delicacies, had stepped in and brought them in order to satisfy Yitzchak’s need, and had received a blessing. Eisav assumed that Yitzchak was aware that it was Yaakov who had brought the delicacies. Eisav had also worked out in his mind, just as Yaakov had, that Yitzchak was planning to give him the spiritual blessings and Yaakov the material blessings. He thus concluded that Yitzchak had in fact given Yaakov the material blessings. He was devastated by this outcome, for he was interested only in worldly pleasures, and he had figured that – given his having sold the birthright – he would get the material blessings. He therefore let out an exceedingly great and bitter cry.
Yet, at this point, Eisav did not state why he was upset. We can bring out his reason for not doing so with a parable. A thief stole a precious item from one of his neighbors, and hid it away in his own house. Shortly thereafter, a gang of thieves came at night and took the item. He groaned and wept, and cried out in public about how he had a precious item stolen from him. But when people asked him to describe the stolen item, he did not answer. He simply kept on weeping and screaming. Similarly, Eisav was ashamed to tell his father that he was upset over having lost material blessings, for, over the years, he had constantly “trapped his father with his mouth” and passed himself off as saintly. How could he now make a big fuss over worldly pleasures? He therefore simply let out an inchoate outcry and pleaded: “Bless me too, Father.” He did not specify what blessing he wished to get.
Yitzchak responded by saying: “Your brother came with cunning and took your blessing.” Eisav assumed Yitzchak was referring to the spiritual blessings, which Yitzchak viewed as being “Eisav’s blessing” because Eisav was the firstborn. Eisav thus revised his initial reading of what had taken place, now surmising that Yaakov had slyly impersonated him before Yitzchak and taken the spiritual blessings. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 67:4 says that Yaakov presented himself before Yitzchak “using the wisdom of the Torah.” The Midrash is saying that Yaakov exercised a Torah-based right to assume Eisav’s place – a right arising from Yaakov’s having bought the birthright from Eisav. At this point, Eisav calmed down and rejoiced inside, reasoning that since Yaakov had received the spiritual blessings, he would get the material blessings, which is what he wanted all along. It did not occur to him at all that Yaakov might have told Yitzchak about the sale of the birthright. So he said to Yitzchak: “It is fitting that his name is called Yaakov, for now he has taken me over me twice: He took my birthright, and, behold, now he has taken my blessing.” What he had in mind was as follows: “You made no mistake, Father. It was in full accordance with law that you granted him the spiritual blessings, for he took over the status of firstborn. And as for me, it is fitting me to grant me the material blessings.”
Eisav thus continues: “Surely you have reserved (אצלת) a blessing for me.” Expounding on the word אצלת, the Midrash remarks (Bereshis Rabbah 67:4): “A blessing from the leftovers (מן הנצלת).” Eisav was asking for material blessings, even though they are inferior blessings, because from the standpoint of law he had no right to ask for more than that. Yitzchak replied: “You have misunderstood. I gave Yaakov the material blessings – I made him a lord over you, I gave all his kin to him as servants, and I fortified him with grain and wine. What, then, my son, shall I do for you? I cannot give you the spiritual blessings – you are not entitled to them, since you sold the birthright to Yaakov.” At this point, Eisav raised his voice and wept, for he realized that he had been foreclosed – he lost the material blessing, which was his main desire. And then, as described Devarim Rabbah 1:15, he exclaimed: “Come and see what this ‘wholehearted one’ did to me.” It was Yaakov’s wholeheartedness that enabled him to succeed in his cunning takeover of Eisav’s blessing: If not for Yaakov’s wholeheartedness, Eisav would have been careful to take steps to prevent such a takeover.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 8
Knowledge concerning spiritual matters through intellectual investigation involves deep reasoning, of the kind philosophers engage in, to bring strong proofs of the Creator’s existence, oneness, eternality, power, and supervision over the world. But since Hashem has done us the great kindness of enlightening our eyes through His Torah, it is better not to depend on the philosophical approach to these matters. The philosophical approach is very time-consuming and uncertain, whereas the path of the Torah tradition allows one quickly to learn the truth.  Shlomo HaMelech has previously warned us about the philosophical approach, saying (Mishlei 3:5-7): “Trust in Hashem with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways know Him, and He will smooth your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear Hashem and turn away from evil.”  That is, a person’s performance of mitzvos (even those that we understand are necessary) should not be on account of his own wisdom and understanding. Rather, one should turn away from evil simply out of pure fear of Hashem. Thus David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 111:10): “The origin of wisdom is fear of Hashem.”
Elsewhere David pleads to Hashem to teach him in the merit of his faith in Him (ibid. 119:66): “Teach me good reasoning and knowledge, for I put my faith in Your commandments.” We can bring out the point behind this plea with an analogy. Once three men were stricken with the same illness. They went to the same doctor, and the doctor prescribed the same treatment to all three. The first patient did not investigate the matter at all, but simply followed the doctor’s instructions, and he recovered. The second patient had some knowledge of medicine, and he investigated the doctor’s recommendations. Those he did not understand he disregarded, and he died. The third patient had the same degree of knowledge of medicine as the second patient, but he recognized that the doctor knew more than he did. Although he investigated the matter and was unable to understand some of the recommendations, he relied on the doctor’s great expertise, and thus he did not bring himself harm through his investigation.
Similarly, in relation to mitzvos, different people have different attitudes. The common folk observe the mitzvos to perfection without any investigation, while a person with intellect will investigate every detail. Such investigation poses a serious risk that the person will disregard what he does not understand. But if a person at the outset puts faith in Hashem’s wisdom and omnipotence, his investigation will not cause him to stumble. This is the point behind David’s plea. David entreats: “Teach me good reasoning and knowledge.” He then explains why it is appropriate for Hashem to do so: “For I put my faith in Your commandments.” Elsewhere in the same psalm he declares (ibid. 119:6-7): “My ways will be firmly guided to observe Your edicts (חקיך) so I will not be ashamed when I peer at all Your commandments (מצותיך).” David firmly commits himself to observe Hashem’s edicts – the chukim, which are beyond human understanding. As a result, he will not come to shame through examining His commandments – the mitzvos that the human intellect can comprehend.
Iyov’s companion Elihu asks Iyov (Iyov 33:13): “Why do you complain against Him that He does not answer for all His affairs?” There is an important message in this question. It is the way of a servant to obey all his master’s orders, not only those he understands and recognizes as right, but also those that make a person’s ears ring because they seem to run counter to reason. The servant submits himself to his master and carries out all his orders swiftly. This is the attitude we should take to the directives Hashem set down for us. As servants of Hashem, it is our duty to carry out all His directives swiftly, not only those that we understand but also those for which we see no reason. We must keep our mouths shut and not question why Hashem told us to do this or that.
We can bring the point out further with a parable. Once there was a soldier who did his work well and carried out his sergeant’s orders swiftly, but with every order he would ask the sergeant what the reason was. The sergeant would explain, and the soldier would be satisfied and would carry out the order. At some point, the sergeant approached him and, for no apparent reason, beat him so fiercely that he bled. The soldier cried and asked why he had been beaten, but the sergeant gave him no answer. The sergeant beat the soldier in this way on several occasions. The poor soldier was more distressed over not knowing the reason behind these beatings than over the physical pain that the beatings caused. After some time, the soldier met up with a wise man and asked him about the beatings, hoping he could explain. The wise man replied: “You should know, my friend, that your sergeant considers your performance good and fitting, and you have not left out anything in doing your work. But you are accustomed to ask him for the reason behind each order, and afterward you carry it out. You are not accustomed to accept his orders simply as orders you must obey no matter what. Your sergeant wanted to teach you and instill in you the mindset that you must do everything he orders you to do without asking for the reason, like a faithful servant who does not question his master at all. The only way he could do this was to take some action toward you that you viewed with disfavor, and then refuse to answer you when you asked for the reason. He had to do this several times, until you had no choice but to simply accept it. And there is nothing that he could have done which you disapprove of more than to beat you and not tell you the reason. If he were to explain the reason, it would no longer be something you had to simply accept as something you must bear.
The parallel is as follows. Iyov carried out Hashem’s directives perfectly, but only because he understood them and found them appealing. He had not accustomed himself to ascribe justice to the will of Hashem, his Master, in situations where His directives seemed to him bizarre. And there is nothing that a person will find bizarre and disapprove of more than afflictions that come upon him for no apparent reason. Hashem therefore subjected him to afflictions and refused to explain the reason when he asked, until he gave up and simply accepted the suffering and kept silent. Elihu sought to call Iyov’s attention to the flaw in the attitude he had taken. He declared (ibid. 33:12): “I answer you that you did not ascribe justice; God is greater than mortal man. Why do you complain against Him that He does not answer for all his affairs?” Elihu was telling Iyov: “You have not accustomed yourself to ascribe justice to Hashem’s ways in situations where they run counter to your understanding. How could you forget that Hashem is greater than mortal man? You have the mind to know that Hashem, our Master, is great. His wisdom is boundless and his works are multitudinous. His ways are loftier than the schemes of mortal man. This being so, why do you complain against Him that He does not answer for all his affairs? Hashem does not explain the purpose behind everything He does. You must keep your mouth shut and accept all His ways as edicts.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator