Post Archive for 2019

Shabbos Parashas Tzav

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 14
We continue with our analysis of the blessing that follows the morning Shema:
True and certain, established and enduring, right and steadfast, beloved and cherished, delightful and pleasant, awesome and mighty, correct and accepted, good and beautiful is this word unto us forever and ever.
We examine now the term certain (יציב), which we can also render as authoritative. This term is related to the term נצבים that appears in Shmuel Beis 8:14: “He [David HaMelech] appointed authorities (נצבים) in Edom.” The term points to the rule of Torah, service to Hashem, and fear of Hashem over our bodies and souls. All our desires must give way to the Torah. We see that the observance of some mitzvos runs counter to human desire: Circumcision, cessation of work on Shabbos, avoidance of forbidden unions, avoidance of nonkosher foods, and the like. It would be impossible for us to harness ourselves and adhere to these requirements, were it not for the fact that they are imprinted upon us from birth, inculcated in us generation after generation – fathers handing down the Torah tradition to their sons, and the sons conforming to their fathers’ teachings, with the chain stretching all the way back to generation of Jews who stood at Mount Sinai and heard the word of Hashem Himself.
We see how hard it is for a person who wishes to accept a prohibition upon himself to refrain from what he has been accustomed to do. Yet the Torah imposes upon us a wide range of prohibitions, and dictates our daily conduct in the way a master dictates orders to his servant. We do not eat, drink, smell, speak, or perform any deed, great or small, except within the bounds the Torah sets for us. We see the extensive array of rules the Torah dictates in the area of eating. Not only does the Torah forbid us from eating the meat of certain animals and fowl, but even in connection with the foods the Torah permits it imposes rules: kosher slaughter, salting meat to remove blood, avoiding eating meat and milk together, and specification of various defects that renders an animal’s meat unfit for eating. In the area of clothing as well, the Torah lays down rules: placing fringes (tzitzis) on the corners of four-cornered garments and not wearing clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen (shaatnez). The Torah also lays down rules in a range of other areas: what we may and may not say, what we may look at, what we may listen to, and what we may indicate through gestures. It commands us to curb our desires and to avoid jealousy and hatred, and it imposes rules on our patterns of thought.
In the end, there is no moment of time, no location on earth, and no entity in our world that the Torah’s laws do not reach. We are not allowed to move any limb, to say any word, or engage in any thinking in a manner that runs counter to what the Torah dictates. And we may not break off from serving Hashem. Although the Torah permits us to tend to our physical needs, and earn a livelihood by engaging in labor or business, Shlomo HaMelech exhorts us (Mishlei 3:7): “In all your ways, know Him.” Thus, the activities we engage in to tend to our physical needs also come within the scope of service to Hashem. The relationship we have with Hashem is not like the relationship a person has with a neighbor or friend, whose home he may visit occasionally, and with whom he may break off relations, either because of some offense that triggered anger, or simply because he has had enough of his company. The relationship we have with Hashem is the relationship of a created being to his Creator.
The Torah does not show favoritism, neither to young nor to the old. It constantly demands of us more and more. Thus, the Gemara in Bava Metzia 31b teaches that in the case of a Torah scholar, unintentional lapses are regarded as intentional sins. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 1:18): “For with great wisdom comes great torment, and one who increases his knowledge increases his grief.”
What we have discussed above gives us a deeper understanding of the term ויציב. There are three terms in Hebrew that signify standing: עמידה, קימה, and הצבה. These terms reflect three progressively greater levels of stature. The term עמידה signifies simply standing, with no special power. The term קימה signifies elevation. The term הצבה signifies rulership and dominion. The different shades of meaning in the latter two terms is reflected in Yosef’s dream about the sheaves (Bereishis 37:7): “Behold! My sheaf arose (קם) and stood (נצבה), and – behold – your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” In a similar vein, our holy Torah arises and stands high. No one rules over the Torah except Hashem Himself.
We, the Jewish People, have been through over three thousand years. During this period, people of tremendous wisdom have arisen, but they have not been able to change the Torah one iota, to permit what the Torah has forbidden. The Torah forbids a Jewish king to have many wives, lest he stray. Shlomo HaMelech tried to circumvent this law, saying “I will have many wives and not stray” (Sanhedrin 21b). In the end, he wound up saying (Koheles 1:18): “For with great wisdom comes great torment, and one who increases his knowledge increases his grief.” And he declared further (ibid 2:12): “What can man who comes after the King do? It has already been done.” We also are not allowed to set down additional prohibitions beyond those in the Torah, except as “fences” to keep us from violating the Torah’s prohibitions.
The word ויציב is in the future tense, signifying continuing rulership. This usage reflects the great preciousness the Torah has in the eyes of those who learn and support it – to the extent that in every generation substantial new stringencies are introduced, on account of a lack of complete understanding on our part of what the Torah dictates. We see this in the stringencies observed in determining whether the meat of a particular animal is fit to eat, those observed in the area of marital relations, those observed in regard to reciting blessings, and those observed in many other areas. We observe these stringencies out of concern that our understanding of the Torah’s laws may be imperfect; we prohibit some things that the Torah permits, as a “fence” distancing us from prohibited areas, so that we do not slide into them. And we accept all these stringencies upon ourselves gladly and with love, because of the Torah’s great sweetness.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vayikra

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 13, end
The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 20:4 relates that a certain Roman philosopher sought to determine the length of the gestation period of a snake. He found snakes mating, put the females in a barrel, and fed them until they gave birth. When some Torah scholars came to visit Rome, the philosopher asked Rabban Gamliel how long the gestation period is, and Rabban Gamliel could not answer. Later that day Rabban Gamliel encountered R. Yehoshua and told him what happened, and R. Yehoshua told him that the answer was seven years. R. Yehoshua explained: “The dog is a nonkosher roaming animal and its gestation period is fifty days. A nonkosher farm animal’s gestation period is twelve months. Now, regarding the snake, it is written (Bereishis 3:14): ‘Accursed are you beyond all the farm animals and beyond all beasts of the field.’ Just as the farm animals are cursed seven times more than the beasts of the field, so, too, the snake is cursed seven times more than the farm animals.” Towards evening Rabban Gamliel returned to the philosopher and gave him the answer. The philosopher banged his head on the wall and exclaimed: “What took me seven years of toil to determine, this fellow conveys to me with the ease of passing a reed.”
Similarly, in Koheles 1:13, Shlomo HaMelech declares that he set his heart “to survey (לָתוּר) and probe with wisdom all that is done beneath the heavens,” and in Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:7, the Midrash expounds:
What does it mean “to survey” (לָתוּר)? It means to be a scout for wisdom. As it is written (Bamidbar 13:2): “And they scouted (וְיָתֻרוּ) the land of Canaan.” Whoever was well-versed in Scripture, he [Shlomo] would go to him; whoever was well-versed in Mishnah, he would go to him. … And not only for Torah teachings was Shlomo a scout, but rather for everything that takes place under the sun, such as how mustard and lupines are prepared. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to him: “You went searching for Torah teachings? By your life, I will not deprive you of your reward. Behold, I am going to infuse you with Divine inspiration.”
Now we can ask, how did Shlomo permit himself to investigate such things as how to prepare mustard and lupines, and thereby interrupt his Torah study? A Jew is obligated to study Torah at all times. Thus, The Gemara in Menachos 99b relates:
Ben Damah the son of R. Ishmael’s sister once asked R. Yishmael, “May one such as I who has studied the whole of the Torah learn Greek wisdom?” R. Yishmael read him the following verse (Yehoshua 1:8): This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, and you shall meditate upon it day and night.” Go then and find a time that is neither day nor night and then learn Greek wisdom.
The reason Shlomo permitted himself to investigate such things as how to prepare mustard and lupines is that he set his heart to determine these things from the words of the Torah. We can compare the matter to a merchant who can find out what his inventory is without examining the merchandise, simply by reading his records. The Torah is a record book that contains information on everything beneath the heavens.
In Avos 5:22 the Mishnah states: “Probe it [the Torah] again and again, for everything is in it. Set your gaze upon it; grow old and gray over it, and do not budge from it, for you have no better portion than this.” A person can live far from a settled area and not observe anything, and still, by attaching himself among Torah scholars, gain the knowledge and understanding to give advice on anything a person might ask. He will have intimate knowledge of what results from any action, at any place and at any time. Look in the Torah and see the curses listed for sinning, and take note of how everything the Torah spoke of has come to pass. Shlomo spoke well when he said (Mishlei 23:26): “My child, give your heart to me, and your eyes will desire my ways.”
Now, given what we have discussed, what need do we have for proofs of the truth of the Torah. Anyone who beholds its glorious wisdom will recognize its truth. The truth speaks for itself!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Pekudei

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 13, continued
We said that no wisdom can exist without having been transmitted by a Primal Intellect. It is the fortunate lot of the Jewish People to have received from Hashem an abundance of wisdom. We are a great and exalted people, to whom Hashem has granted an inborn capacity for understanding. The Jewish People has a natural proficiency in all areas of intellectual inquiry. We see for ourselves how our youths display wondrous wisdom. Because of our astuteness, we have a critical eye, and when we are presented with a claim, it is hard to convince us all to believe it. At the same time, when we encounter a self-evident truth, we accept it readily, for Hashem has implanted in our hearts a natural tendency to recognize truth.
Thus, the belief in Hashem and His servant Moshe is universal among all classes of our people: the young and the old, the common people and the elite, and so on. Even among young Jewish children, who cannot yet tell good from bad, we find many who are God-fearing and continually engaged in Torah and mitzvos; fear of Hashem can be seen on their faces as part of their nature.
Let us consider how our commentators explain Tehillim Chapter 19. The chapter begins by saying that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament tells of His handiwork.” After elaborating on this statement, the chapter goes on to speak of the Torah: “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul. The testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple one wise.” The chapter begins by praising the sun, and then proceeds to praise the Torah. The sun and the Torah are our steadfast luminaries. Just as the sun was created to shine light on the earth for the benefit of our bodies, so, too, the precious Torah was given to us to shine light on our souls and open the eyes of our intellect. And just as our physical eyes are receptive to light, so, too, our intellect is geared to absorb wisdom. And the Torah is the fountain of wisdom, from which we draw counsel for dealing with all the various challenges of life. One who safeguards the Torah and observes its dictates will proceed through life securely, without stumbling. We find wise counsel in great measure in the homiletical teachings of the Sages, which provide guidance in dealing with all kinds of illnesses and difficulties.
Moreover, the Torah contains comprehensive information on nature of all creatures: how they are conceived and born, how they move from place to place, what agitates them and what calms them, and so on. Some of this information is presented in Scriptural passages devoted to these topics, while some is presented incidentally in metaphorical statements. One example of the second type is found in Tehillim 42:2: “As the deer longs for brooks of water, so my soul longs for you, my God.” Another example is found in Mishlei 17:12: “Better for a man to encounter a bear bereft of its offspring than a fool in his foolishness.” Likewise, the Torah contains information on all other creations, both those under the sun and those above it, without exception. Regarding every creation, the Torah provides information about its nature and behavior, its beginning, middle, and end, its genesis and its purpose, what benefits it and what damages it, its source, its appointed time, and where it is from and where it is going.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vayakhel

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 13, beginning
We now explain the blessing that follows the morning Shema:
True and certain, established and enduring, right and steadfast, beloved and cherished, delightful and pleasant, awesome and mighty, correct and accepted, good and beautiful is this word unto us forever and ever.
The term true denotes a fact whose truth is self-evident, without need of proof. An example is given by the Gemara in Sotah 9b:
It is written (Shoftim 16:18): “And Delilah saw that he [Shimshon] had told her all that was in his heart.” How did she know? Said R. Chanin in the name of Rav: “From here we see that words of truth are recognizable [meaning, according to Rashi, that they sit well with the listener].”
Now, Shimshon was an established liar in his dealings with Delilah, having lied to her three times. Thus, in view of the one making the statement, it was more likely to be false than true. Nonetheless, the statement itself was recognizable as true.
We see from this, and we must know and firmly believe, that a person has a natural sense, which Hashem implanted in him, whereby he can recognize the truth without any proof. We can draw an analogy with seeing. One way to determine the nature of an object is through an identifying mark. Another way is through the object having previously made an impression on the eye, even it has no identifying mark. Thus, in a discussion of returning lost objects in Bava Metzia 24a, our Sages taught, in their pure wisdom, that recognition by sight based on a prior impression on the eye is better than an identifying mark. The same holds with the sense of hearing: In some cases, a person believes what he hears because of compelling evidence or a compelling logical proof, while in other cases he believes something without any proof, just because his heart tells him it is true.
Now, the law stated in Bava Metzia that a lost object can be returned solely on the basis of a prior impression on the eye applies only to a Torah scholar, who is able to see things clearly. Similarly, the fact that a person believes something does not mean it is true unless the person has clear mental perception. A person’s belief cannot be trusted if the person is a fool who believes anything, today believing one thing and tomorrow its opposite. It is different with a person who has a skeptical nature, and does not tend to believe what he hears. With such a person, if he believes some proposition, this is reliable testimony that the proposition is self-evidently true.
Yirmiyah 10:10 states: “Hashem, God, is true.” In connection with this statement, the Rambam in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:4 states that Hashem alone is absolutely true – nothing else is true in the way He is true. In order to us to be able to conceive of any entity that may or may not exist, we must first have firm knowledge of the One who necessarily must exist. There must not remain in our minds any doubt of Hashem’s existence and His unity – that there is no power aside from Him.
This is the meaning of the word true at the beginning of the blessing that follows the morning Shema. It is self-evident that no entity can exist in this world without having had a Creator, and no wisdom can exist without having been transmitted, out of graciousness, by a Primal Intellect.

Shabbos Parashas Ki Sissa

This week’s parashah recounts the sin of the golden calf. The Maggid explains that this sin was only a temporary lapse; the Jewish People’s normal state is to follow the proper path. He expounds on this theme at great length. We present here a selection from this essay.
The Gemara in Shabbos 88a-b relates the following episode:
A certain Sadducee saw Rava engrossed in his studies while the finger[s] of his hand were under his feet, and he ground them down, so that his fingers spurted blood. “You rash people,” he exclaimed, “who gave precedence to your mouth over your ears [by accepting the Torah with the words “we will do and we will hear” (Shemos 24:7)]– you still persist in your rashness. First you should have listened, and if within your powers, accept; if not, you should not have accepted.” Said he to him, “We who walked with wholeheartedness, of us it is written (Mishlei 11:3): ‘The wholeheartedness of the upright shall guide them.’ But of others, who walked in crookedness, it is written (ibid.): ‘But the crookedness of the treacherous shall destroy them.’”
The Maggid sets out to explain how Rava’s reply was substantive and not merely rhetorical.The starting point is the fact noted above that the Jewish People, although susceptible to being led astray by the evil inclination, have a natural inclination toward good. The Jewish People’s natural goodness can be seen strikingly by way they accepted the Torah. Why did the Jewish People accept the Torah right away without worrying at all that the evil inclination inside them would keep them from observing it, while other nations that Hashem approached were afraid to accept it?
The Maggid answers this question by analyzing an episode that took place during the Jewish People’s sojourn in the wilderness. The Torah relates (Bamidbar 11:4-6): “The rabble that was among them craved a craving, and the Children of Yisrael also cried again and said, “Who will feed us meat? …” Let us explain what took place here. The Jews, like the Egyptian rabble that tagged along with them, experienced a craving for meat and other foods. But while doing so they cried, lamenting in their hearts the fact that the evil inclination was swelling up within them and leading them to feel this craving. If someone had approached the Jews and offer to cure them of this craving, they would have accepted eagerly, for they recognized that physical pleasures are vain, and they craved these pleasures only because they were overcome by their evil inclination. But in regard to the rabble, the Torah says that they “craved a craving” – they chose willingly to cultivate a craving. Had someone offered to cure them of the craving, they would have declined.
Now, a person may size up his evil inclination and think that he does not have the capabilty to hold it at bay, but in truth he does have this capability. As our Sages teach in Kiddushin 30b, Hashem tells us: “I created the evil inclination, and I created the Torah as an antidote.” If a person immerses himself in Torah, its light will lead him back to the right path. It is for this reason that the Jews accepted the Torah even though they knew that the evil inclination would urge them to stray from it. They had faith that by engaging in Torah study their evil inclination would be subdued and the flame of desire would die out. But the Torah’s power to subdue physical desires is relevant only to one who wants to rid himself of these desires. Those who craved a craving did not want the Torah – they were not interested in its curative powers. They took the view that it is better to revel in worldly pleasures.
With this background, the Maggid says, we can understand well Rava’s reply to the Sadducee. The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. Two blind men went from city to city together, going door to door to collect alms. One of them was a good person, while the other was wicked. The first one was very upset about having to wander from place to place and experience the embarrassment of begging, but his dire circumstances forced him to do so. The second one, by contrast, enjoyed the wandering and the freedom from responsibility. Once they came to a city where there was an expert eye doctor. The first blind man invested great effort in arranging to visit the doctor and get cured of his blindness. The second one was not interested; he said that his blindness was the cornerstone for his making a living through begging and it made no sense to cast it aside. The doctor heard about these two men. To the one who was seeking to get cured, he said: “May Hashem grant you a better way of making a living than begging, so that you and your descendants may live in wealth and honor, as is your wish. To the other one he said: “May it be that you remain forever in poverty, for this is what you have chosen.”
The Jews who remain loyal to the Torah tradition are like the first beggar, while the heretical Sadducees are like the second one. When the Sadducee cast at Rava his critical remark, Rava replied: “We who walked with wholeheartedness, of us it is written: ‘The wholeheartedness of the upright shall guide them.’ But of others, who walked in crookedness, it is written: ‘But the crookedness of the treacherous shall destroy them.’” Rava was saying: “We have firmly rejected the path of wallowing in empty worldly pleasures. Our only desire is to purify ourselves and bring our souls to a state of redemption. It is merely incidental that occasionally our evil inclination overtakes us. Our main focus is on doing good. Our wholeheartness will lead us to our redemption. But you have chosen to embrace worldly pleasures and have rejected the upright and good. Because of this choice, you are headed for poverty and destruction.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Tetzaveh

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 12
We now explain the nature of the time a person spends in this world. As we discussed earlier, a person’s body has a defined extent and composition. It has a beginning and an end. It is composed of organs and limbs, joints, muscles and tendons, and bones. And all of these components are essential for a person to exist in a complete state. Each has its unique function. Similarly, the time a person spends in this world has a defined extent and composition. Regarding the extent of a person’s lifetime in this world, it is written (Tehillim 90:10): “The days of our years among them are seventy years, and if with strength, eighty years.” Likewise, the masters of deeper Torah wisdom teach that a complete lifetime in this world consists of seventy years. In addition, a person’s lifetime is divided into different stages, each with its own character.
Thus, the Mishnah in Avos 5:21 teaches: a five-year-old is involved in Scripture, a ten-year-old is involved in Mishnah, a thirteen-year-old begins observing mitzvos, a fifteen-year-old is involved in Gemara, an eighteen-year-old goes to the marriage canopy, a twenty-year-old is involved in pursuit of a livelihood, a thirty-year-old attains full strength, a forty-year-old attains understanding, a fifty-year-old is fit to give counsel, a sixty-year-old attains seniority, a seventy-year-old attains ripeness of age, an eighty-year-old exhibits strength ….” Here, in their wisdom, the Sages incisively analyzed the course of a person’s lifetime in this world, listed its stages, and identified the unique function of each stage.
Further, we see that time is made up of different units. A day is made up of 24 hours, seven days make up a week, four weeks make up a month, twelve months make up a year, seven years make up a shmittah cycles, and seven shmittah cycles make up a yovel. The division of time into units, each with a special name, reflects the differing functions of the different units, as is known to the masters of deeper Torah wisdom.
But one must not think that the function of each segment of time will come about automatically, without any effort on our part to bring our lives to completion. It is not so, my brother! Just as we must exert effort to maintain our physical existence, so, too, we must exert effort in order for the stages of life to lead us to a fitting spiritual level. We have to infuse our lives with fear of Hashem and serve Hashem appropriately every day and every year. We have to make sure not to leave anything out. If we exert the proper effort, then will we reach our proper station. We will be infused with knowledge, understanding, and discernment, and each stage of life will lift us higher and higher, until we are even able to attain Divine inspiration (and prophesy, during the time of the prophets).
Moreover, if we exert the proper effort Hashem will assist us and adorn us with a crown of splendor. In all our activities we will see success, without any anguish, all in a proper and straight manner. We will enjoy constant success until the time comes for Hashem to take us from this world, to bring us into the world to come, the world that is pure good, to revel in its delights. There as well our time will rise with us as a pleasing fragrance to Hashem and we will be clothed in a robe of glory. The Zohar describes this process. Regarding Avraham, the Torah says (Bereishis 24:1): “And Avraham was old, he had come to days.” Expounding on this statement, the Zohar teaches:
Come and behold: Avraham came close to Hashem. All his days, this was his desire. But Avraham did not come close in one day or at one time. His good deeds brought him closer every day and he rose level by level, until he reached a lofty level. When he got old, he entered the supernal levels as befit him.
But if you betray Hashem and do not observe what He commanded you in every segment of time, then the foreigner within you – the evil inclination – will rise up over you. Your time will be infused with abounding insanity and blindness, until you end up striving vainly to find the door to regret. For just as the successive segments of time bring a righteous man to increasingly higher levels, so, too, they push a wicked man lower and lower. Thus the Gemara in Shabbos 152a teaches: “With elder Torah scholars, the more they grow older the more wisdom they acquire … but with elder ignoramuses, the more they grow order the more foolish they become.” Similarly, the Gemara in Sukkah 52a teaches: “Regarding the evil inclination, initially it seems like a strand of a spider’s web, but in the end it becomes like a wagon’s ropes.”
A person has the choice, if he wishes, to uproot and destroy. Initially, Hashem holds back from subjecting a sinner to the judgments his evil deeds generate, but when he becomes a full-fledged scoundrel, He will subject him to full judgment. Testimony will be brought of all his evil deeds and thoughts. As the Gemara teaches (Chaggigah 5b): “Even about the excessive conversation between a man and his wife will testimony be brought on the day of judgment.” He will be surrounded by enemies. Attacks will be hurled against him like arrows shot at a target. In the words of the prophet (Yeshayah 33:1): “When you finish pillaging you will be pillaged; when you end your treachery, they will be treacherous with you.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Terumah

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 11
We know that the human body is not a simple unit, but rather is made up of many components. The Creator fashioned the body from the four basic physical elements: fire, air, water, and earth. The body is made up of different organs and limbs, and each organ and limb is made up of different parts, each with a unique name, unique capabilities, and a unique function. And each part’s existence is maintained through means specific to that particular part. The body is complete only when all its various parts are complete. If some part is missing or compromised, the impairment causes the person distress and dissatisfaction. There are many organs that are so critical that without them a person would be dead. And there are organs without which a person lacks protection from the various hazards constantly present in his environment. With some people, the lack of a certain organ or even a deficiency in its function can cause them to go insane, so that they are worse off than an animal. Furthermore, just as a person’s continued existence depends on his body being complete with all its parts, his continued existence depends on the outside world being complete with all its parts. In addition, the world is filled with things which, if they come upon a person, can kill him or make him severely ill, and no organ is free of such risks. The Sages teach in Devarim Rabbah 9:3 that every organ is susceptible to some kind of defect that can lead to a person’s death. If we ponder all this, we realize that nothing is as difficult as keeping a person alive. And nothing can occur more easily than a person’s departure from this world due to the absence of one of the conditions necessary for his continued existence. What, then, is man and what is his glory?
Now, my soul, when I see all this, how can I have confidence in your strength and your continued existence? I see you as so very fleeting, like the gourd in the Book of Yonah, which in one night emerged and in one night withered. How can you take pride in your existence when the specter of your disintegration and departure from the world constantly hovers over you? If you neglect to pay attention to the things you must take care of to maintain your own existence, you will grow weaker and weaker, to the point of death. Ponder how many things you need to do constantly to stay alive: eat and drink, rest and sleep, relieve yourself of bodily wastes, and on and on. You have to fight to stave off the deterioration and death that would come upon you naturally, by itself, if you took no action. If you let up for a moment from the countless tasks you need to perform to keep yourself going, you would be no more.
This being so, you can see clearly that your existence is not a natural phenomenon, but rather is the result of kindnesses Hashem does for you to keep you alive, through the mechanisms which He, in His wisdom, put into place. Hashem created all the elements of which you are composed, and all the elements of which the world around you is composed, and of which you need to avail yourself to stay alive. You receive your life force moment by moment. At any given moment you have no guarantee that you will live to the next moment. You are entirely in Hashem’s hands, and you have to look toward Him and hope He will grant you your next moment of life. As it is written (Tehillim 123:2): “Behold, like the eyes of servants unto the hand of their master, and like the eyes of a maid unto the hand of her mistress, so are our eyes unto Hashem our God, until He extends to us His graciousness.”
You must guard yourself, and make sure not to forget these things, lest you lose sight of them and regard your existence as secure and perpetual. Do not think you need nothing outside of yourself to continue in existence. Do not forget that you are mortal. View yourself as a being that lives only a brief moment. Consider yourself very lowly, for the past is gone, and you may not make it into the future. Do not take your mind off the fact that if nature took its course, you would be gone. View your existence not as a certainty, but rather as something that only might be, if Hashem shows you favor. You understand the difference between something that whose existence is a certainty and something whose existence is a mere possibility. So do not put your faith in what is but a thin reed, and do not rely on it for support. Rather, place your hope constantly in Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Mishpatim

The last section of this week’s parashah recounts events associated with the Giving of the Torah. The Jewish People declare (Shemos 24:7): “All that Hashem has spoken we shall do and we shall listen.” In Ruth Rabbah Pesichasa 1, the Midrash expounds:
“Hear, O My People, and I shall speak” (Tehillim 50:7). How did you merit to be called “My People”? From “I shall speak” – because you spoke before Me at Sinai and said: “All that Hashem has spoken we shall do and we shall listen.”
This Midrash seems to take the verse from Tehillim far beyond its plain meaning, which is simply a call from God to the Jewish People to listen to what He is going to say to them. Also, the Midrash seems to make quite a stretch in reading the phrase “I shall speak” as “because you spoke.” But the Maggid, in his commentary on Megillas Rus, shows that the Midrash fits perfectly with the plain meaning of the verse.
The Gemara in Shabbos 88a relates that when the Jewish People said “we shall do and we shall listen,” a Heavenly voice cried out:
Who revealed this secret to My children? This is the expression that the ministering angels use! As it is written (Tehillim 103:20): “Bless Hashem, O His angels – the mighty ones who do His bidding and listen to the voice of His word.” First they mention doing, and afterwards listening.
The Maggid explains this teaching as follows. The Torah is divided into two parts: revealed Torah and hidden Torah. The revealed Torah is freely available to all. Anyone who wishes can take a full helping of it and understand what he has learned. The hidden Torah, however, can be grasped only by a select few: those who, through their exemplary deeds, serve God out of deep love. Only when a person reaches this exalted level does God open his eyes and allow him to behold the wonders of His Torah. As it is written (ibid. 25:14): “Hashem’s secrets are for those who fear Him.”
Now Moshe came before the Jewish People only to present the side of Torah and mitzvos that is revealed to all. Just before the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, Moses brought the Jewish People the following message from God (Shemos 19:5): “Now, if you hearken well to My voice and uphold My covenant, then you shall be unto Me a special treasure among all the nations, for the whole Earth is Mine.” This declaration indicates that what was put before the people was only the revealed part of the Torah that is readily understood when heard. Nonetheless, the people discerned that there was another, hidden side to Torah that contained even greater wisdom. Moreover, the people realized that one who observes the revealed Torah properly eventually gains access to the hidden Torah, just as one who tends a tree properly eventually enjoys its fruit. This is what they meant when they said: “We shall do and we shall listen.” They declared that they would faithfully keep the revealed Torah, and thereby proceed – having attained the necessary capacity – to hear and digest the secrets of the hidden Torah.
We can now easily understand the Heavenly cry: “Who revealed this secret to My children?” Underlying this cry is the question: “How did the Jewish People know that there is another, hidden part to the Torah, beyond the revealed part that I am putting before them now? How did they know to commit themselves to listen to another message that I will convey later?”
With this, we can explain the Midrash that we quoted at the outset. There remains just one more point to bring out. If a person habitually makes all his purchases at a certain store, he will naturally refer to the manager of this store as “my storekeeper.” Similarly, if a person always uses a certain tailor or handyman, he will speak of “my tailor” or “my handyman.” Now, a person who uses a certain tailor once will not automatically refer to this tailor as “my tailor.” However, if the tailor makes an arrangement with him after the first time to do all his tailoring work from then on, then he can refer to the tailor as “my tailor” even after just one job.
The same idea applies to the relationship between God and the Jewish People. The fact that we accepted God’s word on one occasion would not in itself give us the right to have God call us “My People.” We gained this title only because we pledged on that occasion to listen to God regularly from that point on, whenever God would speak to us through His faithful prophets and men of wisdom. When we declared at Sinai “We shall do and we shall listen,” we made a covenant for the future that binds us to heed God’s word at all times.
This is the message behind the verse from Tehillim: “Hear, O My People, and I shall speak.” God is telling us why we are obligated to listen to Him when He speaks. God says to us: “How did you gain the right to be called ‘My People’? Not because you listened to Me on one occasion. Rather, because on that occasion you spoke before Me and said: ‘We shall do and we shall listen.’ With these words, you promised that whenever ‘I shall speak,’ you will listen. And so you are duty-bound to listen to what I shall speak to you now.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Yisro

This week’s parashah recounts the giving of the Torah. The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 28:1 relates that when Moshe ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, the ministering angels sought to attack him. The end of the Midrash relates that God recast Moshe’s visage into the form of Avraham’s visage, and challenged the angels: “Are you not embarrassed before him? Is this not the one to whom you went down and in whose house you ate?”
The Maggid explains the matter of the transformed visage with the aid of a parable. In a certain kingdom, the king had a chief minister whom he regarded very highly, so much so that the king always consulted him before taking any major action. The king also had an only son – a young, tender boy. The king loved his son very much, and pampered him greatly. But whenever he needed to consult with his chief minister, he would tell his son to step outside, so that he could discuss affairs of state with due secrecy. The chief minister would boast about this to all the other royal ministers, saying: “See, the king regards me even more highly than his own son. On account of me, he sends his dear son out, and makes time to meet with me privately in his inner chamber. There he tells me everything that is on his mind.”
When the king’s son got word of what this minister was saying, he became depressed. He was pained at the thought that his father had so much more regard for this minister than for him. He fell into such a deep depression that he became bedridden. The doctors came to examine him, and they saw that the boy’s illness was due to depression. They said that the only way to cure the boy was to cheer him up him with uproarious merry-making – this was what was needed to enable the boy to shake off his depression.
The king called in a large group of musicians to play rollicking music for his son, but this had no effect, because the son was already used to such music. So then the king called in his advisors to see if they, in their great wisdom, could suggest a novel way to cheer up his son – something that the boy had never seen before. They responded: “The king should issue a special order to all his ministers and officers: each day one of them must dress up as some animal – a bear, a lion, and so on – and parade in that costume in front of the boy. No doubt your son knows all your ministers and officers. When he sees these dignitaries frolicking before him in animal suits, he will burst out laughing, and after a few days of this he will recover.”
Word of this order reached the chief minister. Having no choice, he dressed up as some animal, and went frolicking and prancing in front of the king’s son. The boy recognized the minister, and was filled with laughter and tremendous joy. When the chief minister left the boy’s room, the king’s other officers and confidantes approached him and said: “Now you can see clearly that the king loves no one like he loves his son. When the boy got sick, the king pulled out all the stops. He even went so far as to order you to dress up in an outlandish costume, although this obviously was very degrading to you. All this was to cheer up his dear son in order to cure him.”
The parallel is as follows. The lofty ministering angels on high felt that there was no comparison between them and corporeal man. For they are exalted beings, stationed in Heaven at God’s service, while man is a lowly being, stationed on Earth. Hence they exclaimed with outrage: “What is a man born of a woman doing among us? … Set Your glory within the Heavens!” God, in His wisdom, responded with an ingenious demonstration to make it crystal-clear to the angels that He cherishes man much more than he cherishes them.
God recast Moshe’s visage into the form of Avraham’s visage, and challenged the angels: “Are you not embarrassed before him? Is this not the one to whom you went down and in whose house you ate?” When Avraham was saddened because no guests were coming to him, God told the angels to come down to Earth in the guise of men, to eat in Avraham’s house. This was a degrading act for the angels, who are purely spiritual beings, elevated above the physical world. Nonetheless, out of love for Avraham, God ordered the angels to act contrary to their nature and eat. Upon pondering this past event, the angels would now see how dearly God cherishes man and treats him like a son – for man is the centerpiece of all creation.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Beshallach

This week’s parashah recounts the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The Jews found themselves trapped, with the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind him, and they cried out to Hashem. And Hashem said to Moshe (Shemos 14:15): “Why are you crying out to Me? Speak to the Children of Yisrael, that they go forward.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 21:8): “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe, ‘All the Jews have to do is just go forward.’” What did Hashem mean by this? And why did Hashem include the words “to Me”? The Maggid sets out to explain what Hashem meant.
The starting point is a basic rule: Hashem generally does not perform supernatural miracles for people in distress if there still remain natural steps that they can take to deal with their situation. Only when all natural means have been completely exhausted does Hashem step in and perform a miracle. Accordingly, a person is obligated to make a steadfast effort to continue employing natural means as long as such means are still available. The Gemara in Berachos 32b lists four areas that need bolstering. One of these areas is prayer, regarding which it is written (Tehillim 27:14): “Hope to Hashem; strengthen yourself and let your heart take courage, and hope to Hashem.” Hashem does not need to make any preparations to rescue someone; He can bring salvation in an instant. So it is incumbent on a person to press on with his efforts and his prayers up to the very last moment.
The Maggid introduces a parable to bring out the message. A rich man had an only son, whom he cared for consummately. The father decided he should accustom his son to doing business so that later he would be able to support himself and his family. The father said to his son: “Go out each week and do business until you make $1,000. Bring the $1,000 to me at the end of the week and I’ll give you another $4,000, so that you’ll have $5,000. But be aware that until you bring me the $1,000 that you made, I won’t give you a thing.” This arrangement operated for several weeks. One week the son got together $999 and he figured it wasn’t worth making an effort to gain an additional $1, so he just went to his father with the money he had and asked his father to give him the sum needed to reach $5,000. The father told the son to count the money he had brought, and the son counted out $999. The father told him: “You think that the missing $1 is too minor to be of any importance, and it should not hold me back from giving you an additional $4,000 as usual. But you should know that the $1 is more significant than the $4,000. For me, the $4,000 is minor, because I have the money at hand. You should have made every effort possible to get the remaining $1. The $1 was important, for you needed to have it in order to get the $4,000.”
The parallel is as follows. The Jews had traveled a considerable distance to arrive at the shore of the sea. They did not want to go on further until Hashem split the sea. But on account of the missing additional step, Hashem held back from performing the miracle. It is as we explained above – Hashem does not perform a miracle a second earlier than necessary. The Jews felt, upon arriving at the shore of the sea, that they had done everything in their power and it was now time for Hashem to step in and perform a miracle to save them. When they saw the sea remaining in its usual state, they cried out to Hashem to perform the miracle. But in truth there was more they could do: They could continue going forward a few more steps until the water reached up to their noses. We might think that the few additional steps’ distance was too minor to hold back the miracle. But Hashem exclaimed: “Why are you crying out to Me?” He was saying: “Why are you crying out for Me to do My part? My doing a miracle is minor. Your taking a few more steps is important, because this is what is needed to bring on the miracle. All you have to do is just go forward.” The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 21:8 expounds further, describing Hashem saying to Moshe: “You are under My dominion, and the sea is under My dominion, and I have already made you a superintendent over it.” All that was needed was for the Jews to take those few additional steps.
David Zucker, Site Administrator