Post Archive for February 2019

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