Post Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category.

Parashas Toldos

This week’s parashah recounts the episode where Yaakov takes the blessing that Yitzchak meant to give Eisav. During the subsequent interchanges between Yitzchak and Eisav, Yaakov tells Eisav (Bereishis 27:35): “Your brother came with cunning and took your blessing.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 67:4): “He came using the wisdom of the Torah.” The Maggid asks: What does this mean? Seemingly, Yaakov did no more than mechanically follow his mother’s directions. What wisdom is the Midrash referring to?
The Maggid answers this question through close examination of the entire episode. He begins by raising some additional questions. 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 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 describes 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 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. He 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. This is the “wisdom of the Torah” that the Midrash tells us Yaakov exploited: 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 may 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 (Bereishis 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 in Devarim Rabbah 1:15, Eisav 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 taken steps to prevent such a takeover.

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates how Avraham sent his servant Eliezer to Aram Naharaim to search for a wife for Yitzchak. In the course of the conversation, Eliezer asks (Bereishis 24:5): “Perhaps the woman will not be want to follow me to this land; should I bring your son back to the land from where you came?” Avraham tells him no. Afterward Eliezer goes to Aram Naharaim, meets Rivkah and selects her to be Yitzchak’s wife, goes to Rivkah’s home, and relates the sequence of events to her family. In so doing, he mentions the issue that he raised in his conversation with Avraham (ibid. 24:39): “Perhaps the woman will not follow me.” Rashi expounds: “The word אֻלַי (perhaps) is written in incomplete form [without a vav, so that it could also be read אֵלַיto me]. Eliezer had a daughter, and he was a seeking a way to get Avraham to approach him to make a match between Yitzchak and his daughter.” On the other hand, in reporting Eliezer’s original statement to Avraham, the Torah writes אוּלַי in full spelling. Accordingly, many commentators have asked: Why would the Torah place the allusion to Eliezer’s hope in its report of his description of the events to Rivkah’s family, rather than in its report of his original statement to Avraham? Seemingly the allusion would be more aptly placed in conjunction with the original statement, when Eliezer was discussing the matter with Avraham himself, who was the relevant party. Indeed, the Midrash actually associates the allusion with the original statement. The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 59:9):
“And the servant said to him, [‘Perhaps the woman will not want to follow me’].” In this connection it is written: “Cnaan bears a false set of scales, to cheat the beloved one.” Cnaan is Eliezer [meaning either that Eliezer literally was Cnaan, the son of Noach’s son Cham, or that he was of Canaanite stock]. A false set of scales – he sat and weighed whether or not his daughter was fitting as a wife for Yitzchak. To cheat the beloved one – to cheat the beloved one of the world, Yitzchak. He said: “Perhaps the woman will not want to follow me, and I’ll give him my daughter.” Avraham replied: “You are cursed and my son is blessed, and the cursed cannot become attached to the blessed.”
It is natural, then, to analyze why Rashi associated the allusion with Eliezer’s narration of the statement to Rivkah’s family rather than with his original statement.
The key is to identify why Eliezer told Rivkah’s family about his prior statement to Avraham about the possibility that the woman he found for Yitzchak in Aram Naharaim might not want to follow him. The Maggid explains Eliezer’s intent with a parable. A certain merchant dealt in wares from a distant province. His fixed practice was to send an agent to the wholesaler in the other province to buy merchandise from him on credit, and after a set time he would send the agent back to the wholesaler to pay him for the previous purchase and make another credit purchase of new merchandise. The merchant maintained this practice for a long period. At a certain point, the merchant decided – in the manner of wicked men – to cheat the wholesaler by sending his agent to make a very large credit purchase, and then cutting off dealings with him without paying. When the merchant presented this plan to his agent, the agent was upset, and he tried to derail the plan. He told the merchant: “Maybe the wholesaler won’t agree to the deal.” The merchant replied brazenly: “This fellow has been selling to me on credit for years. Why would he now suddenly refuse?” The agent, feeling forced to follow his employer’s orders, made his way to the wholesaler. He said to him: “My employer asked me to go to you again to buy a large quantity of merchandise – on credit, as in the past. I pointed out that maybe you wouldn’t agree to the deal, but he told me to go anyway.” Sure enough, the wholesaler decided not to make the deal; the agent’s extra remark, tipping the wholesaler off to the merchant’s deceitful plan, induced the wholesaler to refuse.
Similarly, when Avraham sent Eliezer to Aram Naharaim to seek a wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer was upset; he wanted his daughter to marry Yitzchak. This hope led him to express reservations about the mission; he raised with Avraham the possibility that the woman he found might not want to follow him. And when he told Rivkah’s family about his discussion with Avraham, he was trying to lead them, or Rivkah herself, to suspect that some serious problem with the match lurked beneath the surface. Why else would a woman refuse to marry the son of the wealthy and famous Avraham? By raising doubts in this way, he sought to derail the match, so that Yitzchak would marry his daughter instead.
The Midrash associates the Torah’s allusion to Eliezer’s hope that his daughter would marry Yitzchak with his original statement to Avraham, for at the time he made this statement he already had the hope in mind. On the other hand, the incomplete spelling אֻלַי that prompted Rashi’s comment on the issue appears in Eliezer’s narration to Rivkah’s family, because it was at that point that his hope became clearly evident – the narration being a ploy aimed at bringing this hope to fruition.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah recounts, among other events, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. When Hashem was about to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, He said (Bereishis 18:17-19):  “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am going to do? But Avraham is firmly destined to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him. For it is known to Me regarding him – in order that he command his children and his household to follow him, that they observe Hashem’s way, to charity and justice, in order that Hashem may bring upon Avraham what He had spoken regarding him.” At first glance, it is not at all clear why the fact that Avraham was destined to become a great nation constituted cause for Hashem to tell him of His plans to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah. The Maggid provides an explanation based on the principle we presented in last week’s d’var Torah.
He brings out the idea with a parable. Two merchants were traveling on business, one young and the other elderly. They reached a major city, and they saw some clothing stores well stocked with high-quality suits. The elderly merchant said: “I’d like very much to buy one of these nice suits for my son, but I’m afraid that it will not fit him.” The young merchant declared: “I’m going to buy two or three.” His elderly companion asked: “What will you do if they do not fit your sons?” He replied: “You are right not to buy one of these suits, for you have only one son, born to you in your later years, and if the suit doesn’t fit him, you’ll have no one else to give it to. But my situation is different. Hashem has graciously granted me several sons of various ages. Also, since I’m still young, I’m likely to have more sons later. So my purchase of the suits will not go for naught. Eventually, I’ll be able to give them to my sons; whichever doesn’t fit one of them will fit another.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem deliberately led Avraham to pray for Sodom and Gemorrah. He knew that Sodom and Gemorrah ultimately would not benefit from this prayer, but, nonetheless, it would not be for naught. Rather, Hashem would hold it in store for the benefit Avraham’s descendants. This is what Hashem had in mind with His explanation of why He told Avraham of His plans: “Avraham is firmly destined to become a great and mighty nation.” He intended for Avraham’s prayer to benefit the great and mighty nation that would spring forth from him. A passage in Tehillim 102 hints at this idea. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 102:18-19): “He turned to the prayer of the barren one, and did not despise their prayer. Let this be put on record for the generation to come, and the newly-formed people shall proclaim Hashem’s praise.” We can read the appellation “barren one” (ערער) as alluding to Avraham, who, before being granted children, asked Hashem (Bereishis 15:2): “What can You give me, seeing that I go childless (ערירי)?” Even though Avraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gemorrah could not achieve its nominal goal, Hashem did not despise the prayer; rather, He put it on record on behalf of coming generations. And when the Jews of future generations are saved from distress, they will proclaim Hashem’s praise – they will thank Hashem not only for the salvation itself, but also for laying the groundwork through Avraham’s prayer.
The above discussion provides insight into the teaching in Yevamos 64a stating that Hashem yearns for the prayers of righteous men. On the surface, this teaching is perplexing. If a righteous man needs Divine aid, he surely will pray for it – Hashem does not need to yearn for his prayer. And if he does not presently have a specific need, why would Hashem wish for him to pray? But, in view of what we have just explained, we can understand the Gemara easily. Hashem, who has complete knowledge of the future, is aware of all future occasions in which the Jewish People will be in distress. And He recognizes that, on some of these occasions, the people of the generation will not have enough merit of their own to deserve to be saved. Hence, in His great kindness, He sets up situations that lead a righteous man to pray for Divine mercy, so that the benefits generated by this prayer will be available to all those who will need them in the future. This is, in particular, how Hashem capitalized on the exceptional piety of our holy forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. He induced them to pray, so that their prayers would benefit future generations of Jews of lesser spiritual stature. Hashem yearns for the prayers of righteous men because of this wondrous benefit.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Lech-Lecha

This week’s parashah describes several episodes in the life of Avraham Avinu. One of them is the war Avraham waged against the four kings to rescue his nephew Lot. Regarding this war, the Torah states (Bereishis 14:15): “And he and his servants divided up against them on that night.” If we read the words of the verse very literally, we obtain the following rendering: “And the night divided up on them.” Building on this point, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 43:3 remarks that just as Avraham went out to war at midnight, so too, Hashem smote the Egyptian firstborn at midnight. The Midrash relates: “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He, ‘Their father did good for Me at midnight, so I am going to do good for his children at midnight.’” Now, we would say that Hashem did Avraham a wondrous kindness by granting his small group of fighters victory over the mighty army of the four kings. But Hashem declared that Avraham did good for Him in the war against these kings. It is baffling. What did Hashem mean?
The Maggid builds his answer to this question on a Midrash. After the war, Hashem said to Avraham (Bereishis 15:1): “Do not fear, Avram, I am a shield for you – your reward is very great.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 44:4):
Avraham was afraid, for he thought: “I went into the fiery furnace [of Nimrod] and I was saved; I went to war against the four kings and was saved. Perhaps I have received my reward in this world, and I have nothing left for the world to come.” Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “Do not fear – I am a shield for you. All that I did with you in this world I did for you for nothing, and you have great reward in store for you in the world to come.” Your reward is very great, as it is written (Tehillim 31:20), “How great is Your blessing that You have hidden in store for those who fear You!” [The Midrash builds on the similarity between the word מָגֵן, meaning shield, and the Aramaic word מַגָן, meaning for nothing.]
This Midrash prompts two questions. First, why did Hashem save Avraham for free? Our Sages teach that, in general, Hashem does not dispense kindness and mercy indiscriminately. What made Avraham’s case different? Second, why was Hashem so expansive in His assurance? Avraham was concerned only that he had used up his reward. We would expect Hashem to respond simply by telling Avraham that his reward remained fully intact. Instead, He said that “your reward is very great,” indicating that Avraham gained added reward as a result of the episodes of the fiery furnace and the war against the four kings. Why did Hashem grant Avraham added reward?
We can understand Hashem’s intent by considering closely the ordeals our forefathers underwent. Avraham faced a series of ordeals, including being cast into a fiery furnace, suffering famine, and fighting a war against the four kings. Yitzchak, too, faced various ordeals. And Yaakov, the chief of the forefathers, was beset with troubles, without a moment’s rest, for almost his entire life. Why did our forefathers suffer all these ordeals?
Surely it was not in retribution for evil deeds; indeed, it would be a sacrilege to suggest so. Rather, the Maggid says, all the experiences that Hashem put the forefathers through were for the benefit of their descendants. Hashem foresaw that the Jews of future generations would face various troubles, and would be unable on their own merit to gain relief. He therefore put the forefathers through troubles of the same kind, to lead them to produce a reservoir of salvation from which their descendants could draw at all times. This key idea is the focal point of the prayer that sets the stage for the morning Amidah: “You were our forefathers’ aid in times of yore, a shield and a savior unto their children after them in each and every generation.” As we prepare to stand before Hashem to pray for His help, we draw on the reservoir of salvation that we inherited from our forefathers.
Now, when Avraham faced the war against the four kings, he himself reckoned that Hashem brought this hardship upon him because of some sin on his part – for it is the way of righteous men to regard Hashem’s dealings with them as just. Hence, after Hashem saved him from the four kings, he feared that his merits had been used up. Indeed, our Sages teach that when someone is granted a miracle, he incurs a deduction in his merits. But Hashem told Avraham not to fear. He said: “All that I did with you in this world I did for you for nothing.” He was telling him that the ordeal he suffered was “for nothing” – he had done nothing to deserve such suffering, but had been subjected to the ordeal so that he could produce reservoirs of salvation for his descendants, as we explained above. Accordingly, not only did Avraham not have his merits reduced due to the miraculous salvation he was granted, he actually earned great reward for going through the experience. And so Hashem told him: “You have great reward in store for you in the world to come.” The Sages conclude by quoting Tehillim 31:20. We suggest a homiletical reading: “How great is your blessing that you [Avraham] have put in store for the God-fearing ones who will descend from you.” By enduring the war against the four kings, Avraham produced great blessing, and put it in store for the Jews of future generations.
We can now understand very well Hashem’s view that, in Avraham’s war against the four kings, He had not done a kindness for him, but rather had received a kindness from him. Had Avraham deserved to suffer the war, the victory Hashem granted him would indeed have been a kindness on Hashem’s part to him. But since Avraham was in fact subjected to the ordeal “for nothing” – not on account of any sin on his part, but rather as a means of achieving Hashem’s goal of benefitting the Jews of future generations – it is apt to say that Avraham did a kindness for Hashem by going through the war.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shabbos Rosh Chodesh

This Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, and we therefore read the special haftarah for Shabbos Rosh Chodesh. The haftarah concludes with the following words (Yeshayah 66:23-24):
And it will be, that at every New Moon and on every Sabbath all mankind will come to prostrate themselves before Me, says Hashem. And they will go out and see the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me, for decay shall not cease and their fire will not be extinguished, and they will lie in disgrace before all mankind.
In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar Avodas HaElokim, Chapter 7, the Maggid quotes the second of these two verses in connection with a discourse on man’s place in this world. We present this discourse here.
A person must realize that man is not just another animal. For if he were, why would Hashem grant him special powers that no other creature possesses? Man has the powers of speech and intellect, and he has dominion over all the creations of the world. Hashem granted man these powers for a reason – so that he should exercise his intellect to recognize that he is a created being, the work of the One who created and maintains the existence of every object and being in the universe, and that the Creator created him, the premier of all creations, in order to serve Him and thereby connect himself to Him. Man’s task is to toil in the service of Hashem, with every deed that he does – every exercise of his physical or intellectual capabilities, every moment of his sojourn in this world – weighed in the scales of justice and morality, in accordance with the mission with which Hashem charged him.
Each person has his own mission, matched to the nature of his soul, and this mission is his lot in life, to perform his duty in this world and receive reward in the next world. Hashem put at man’s disposal a world full of blessing, enabling him to eat to satiation and clothe himself in honorable garb, so that with his service to Him, man may bring perfection to all of Creation, with everything it contains, and maintains it in existence. In this vein, the Mishnah in Avos 5:1 teaches that Hashem created the world with ten sayings in order to grant reward to the righteous who maintain the existence of the world that was created with ten sayings. Hashem takes no satisfaction in the strength of the horse or the swiftness of the deer; He takes satisfaction solely in those who fear Him and are anxious to carry out His will – as the Gemara in Berachos 33b says, “the Holy One Blessed Be He has nothing in His world except for a treasure of fear of Heaven.”
So each of us must cast his eyes upward and gaze at the heavens above, behold the heights of the heavens and the depths of the earth, and reflect on the purpose of it all. The entirety of Creation is meant for man, the premier of all creations, to use as a resource in serving Hashem. Man, although the last to be created, was the creation that Hashem first had in mind when He set out to create the world (סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה). How, then, can we allow ourselves to run loose and negate Hashem’s intent in creating us? How can we harden our hearts and keep ourselves from fearing Hashem? How can we refrain from carrying out the work Hashem assigned us, and detach and distance ourselves from Him? What will be of us in the end? How will we answer our Creator when He seeks an accounting from us and says to us: “Why did you rebel against Me? Behold, I prepared all the good of the world just for you. Why did you turn to evil deeds, and disdain the mission with which I charged you? What wrong did you see, that you distanced yourself from Me? And, when you rebelled against Me and cast Me aside, to what did you turn instead? What did you set your eyes on during your sojourn in the world? What did you spend all your days doing? For what did you abandon good, and cast Me over your shoulder?”
What happened to our wisdom, that we forgot our Creator? Woe to us in the end, when we see the accounting of our deeds, and all our hidden thoughts, in all their detail, are laid out before us. The righteous will sit with their crowns on their heads, beholding all their good deeds and enjoying their reward, and we will be sitting alongside them. They will rejoice with a glad heart, and we will cry out in pain. They will revel in Hashem’s greatness, and we will be struck with fright before Hashem’s wrath. The righteous will celebrate the downfall of the wicked, as it is written [the last verse in our haftarah]: “They will go out and see the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me, for decay shall not cease and their fire will not be extinguished, and they will lie in disgrace before all mankind.”
When we take all this to heart, we will be struck with fear. We will say: “What am I, that I should cast off the yoke of service to my Master? Woe to the servant who disdains serving his Master!” And we will incline our shoulder to what Hashem has placed upon us, and we will be like an ox bearing its yoke and a donkey bearing its bundle. We will subjugate ourselves and all our powers to the service of our Creator, who holds in His hand all the good of this world, and stretches His hand forth to grant good to His chosen ones who are faithful to His covenant.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Sukkos – Megillas Koheles and Parashas V’Zos HaBerachah

Megillas Koheles
In Koheles 8:8 it is written (rendered according to the Maggid’s commentary): “A man cannot control the spirit [of desire] to confine it, yet it has no power on the day of death. Nor is there discharge in war, and wickedness cannot save the wrongdoer.” The opening phrase of this verse teaches how Hashem granted man the freedom to choose between good and evil, with both options placed before him on equal footing. Hashem proceeded like an agent apportioning the contents of a house on an equal basis to several people. If one of them strongly desires a specific item and decides to take it, each of the others will take other items of the same value. In this way, all take an equal share, with no one getting an edge over the others. 
Hashem invested our physical drives with great power. Even if a person attains the wisdom to know that he should spurn evil and disdain all the vanities of this world, he cannot attain sufficient control over his physical drives to neutralize them completely. Indeed, Hashem did not create our physical drives for nothing: A certain degree of physical desire is necessary for a person to be prompted to take care of his bodily needs. In parallel, Hashem invested the intellect with comparable power, so that even if a person lives his entire life as a fool, the inclination for foolishness will have no hold on him on the day of his death. Thus, at the end of this book of wisdom, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 12:13): “The matter has ended, all has been heard.” Let us elaborate on what this statement means. 
At the beginning of the book, Shlomo declares (ibid. 1:3): “What gain does a man achieve from all his labor that he will labor beneath the sun?” Note that Shlomo does not say “that he labored,” but rather “that he will labor.” Here Shlomo is teaching us an important idea. As a person approaches death, he becomes like a man who is giddy with wine, and recoils from the thought of drinking. Not only does such a man regret his past drinking, but he has no desire to drink now. Even if he were given a free bottle of wine, he would not want to drink. It is the same with worldly pursuits. When a person nears his end, his eyes open up, and he sees that these pursuits have no substance: Not only is he left with nothing from his past labors, but he will gain nothing from future ones. He thus becomes disgusted with worldly pursuits, and loses all interest in them.
Parashas V’zos HaBerachah
In blessing the tribes of Zevulun and Yissachar, Moshe said (Devarim 33:18-19):
Rejoice, Zevulun, in your excursions, and, Yissachar in your tents. Peoples will be called to the mountain, there they will slaughter offerings of righteousness, for they [Zevulun] will be nourished by the abundance of the sea and the treasures sunken in the sand.
We can interpret this passage as follows. The Gemara in Yevamos 75a states that during the days of David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech converts were not accepted, because the Jewish People were very prosperous during that period and there was a concern that people might want to convert in order to get a share in this prosperity rather than solely out of a desire to serve Hashem faithfully according to the Torah. Now, the region of the tribe of Zevulun was a prosperous commercial center for an extended period. We can therefore surmise that gentiles in this region who sought to convert were handled with extra caution. Rather than being converted locally, they would be sent to Yerushalayim where they could be examined by the Kohanim and the prophets to determine whether their motivation for converting was pure or admixed with material considerations. This procedure is reflected in the Moshe’s statement that Zevulun would call peoples to the mountain. Here, the mountain referred to is the Temple Mount. The members of the tribe of Zevulun would have to send potential converts to the Temple Mount because they were blessed with great wealth, “the abundance of the seas and the treasures sunken in the sand.”
An additional homiletical interpretation was put forward by Rav Baruch Mordechai Lipshitz in the name of his father, Rav Yaakov Lipshitz. [It is not clear whether this segment is part of the Maggid’s commentary or was added by Rav Flamm, the redactor of the Maggid’s commentaries.] The Hebrew term used for treasures in this passage is שפוני, related to the word ספון. The word ספון means covered, as in the phrase roofed with cedar in Melachim Alef 7:3 and the phrase paneled houses in Chaggai 1:4. From this reason, the Hebrew word for ship is ספינה, since a ship must be coated on the outside by waterproof and airtight sealing material. Now, usually when a merchant ship goes out to convey merchandise from City A to City B, it takes other merchandise back from City B to City A; Hashem, in His wisdom, arranged for different commodities to be available in different areas in order to provide opportunity for commerce. Sometimes, though, a merchant ship does not take back other merchandise on the return trip. In this case, in order to maintain the weight necessary for the ship to travel safely across the sea, the ship will be loaded with sand, dirt, or stones.  Now, Moshe gave the tribe of Zevulun the blessing that they would nourished with the abundance of the seas. They would be blessed with all kinds of assets, lacking nothing. Thus, they would send out ships with merchandise to other lands, but would not take merchandise back. Instead, their ships, their ספינות, would be appropriately sunken partly into the sea by means of sand [rendering שפוני טמוני חול, treasures sunken in the sand, as ships {partly} sunken via sand].

Yom Kippur

We present here another selection from the essays on the Yamim Noraim by Rav Avraham Beirush Flamm, redactor of many of the Maggid’s commentaries, that appear in the last volume of Ohel Yaakov. This selection is from an essay entitled “Mussar (Moral Exhortation) Before Kol Nidre.”
We are now at the threshold of Yom Kippur. How should we approach this day? We can explain with a parable. A group of merchants decided to have a large ship built for them for sea travel. Obviously the building of the ship took place on land, close to the shore. Eventually the ship was finished and the time came to set it to sea. The ship had to be pushed into the water, gotten out of the shallow water where its bottom was still lying on the sea bed, and moved into the deep water. This process involved an enormous amount of toil and strain. Finally, the ship made it out into the heart of the sea. The younger seamen said: “Great, now we can relax.” One of the older seamen said: “Don’t be foolish! It is true that up to now you had to work very hard to get the ship out to sea. But you weren’t in any danger. But now that we are in the heart of the sea and subject to the rushing waves, we have to be extra careful. If we slacken now, we’ll be in really big trouble.”
So it is with us. On Rosh Chodesh Elul we began the process of repentance. We put in much effort. We performed a cheshbon ha-nefesh – a spiritual and moral accounting, a soul-searching, assessing our conduct over the past year. We pleaded profusely to Hashem for forgiveness. We gathered for the selichos services, where we all prayed to Hashem together for forgiveness – the Sefardim starting from the second of Elul and the Ashkenazim from the Motzoei Shabbos before Rosh Hashanah. Many of us rose early to go to shul to recite the selichos an hour or so before dawn, which is the most favorable time. Some of us fasted for a portion of the week before Rosh Hashanah and the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of us got worn down and developed some negative feelings toward these days on account of the extra prayers and afflictions. And now we have reached Yom Kippur, the awesome Day of Atonement, the last day of the Ten Days of Repentance. We no longer have to wake up extra early to squeeze in selichos amongst our regular daily activities. We might think that now we can relax. But the truth is just the opposite. The responsibility we bore in Elul, on Rosh Hashanah, and during the other days of repentance is modest compared to the responsibility we bear on Yom Kippur. We are in the depths of the sea now. As we say in the Unesaneh Tokef prayer, on Rosh Hashanah the decree is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
As we recited this prayer on Rosh Hashanah, we described how Hashem decrees who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, …, who will be poor and who will be rich, and so on. Yet there is a very big difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is like the difference between the time a baby is a fetus inside the mother and the time the baby is born and enters the world. So long as the baby is in the fetal stage, compositional changes can take place, but once the baby is born such changes cannot take place anymore. The days between Rosh Hashanah and erev Yom Kippur are like days of gestation. Rosh Hashanah is the day of conception; in our prayers on Rosh Hashanah we speak of the day as the day of the conception of the world. On Rosh Hashanah our decree is written, but during the remaining days of repentance it can be changed. On Yom Kippur, however, the decree is sealed. Yom Kippur is the day of birth; it is a day when the potential is actualized.
The prophet Tzefaniah exhorts (verses 2:1-3):
Examine yourselves, examine each other, O nation unshamed. Before the decree is born, the day you pass along like the chaff; before Hashem’s fierce anger comes upon you, before the day of Hashem’s anger comes upon you. Seek Hashem, all you humble of the earth who have fulfilled His law; seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you will be hidden on the day of Hashem’s anger.
Tzefaniah is telling us that we are not doomed to be shamed forever, with Hashem rejecting our prayers. Although our decree was written on Rosh Hashanah, we should not give up. Let us examine ourselves and examine each other. There is still time. The decree is not yet born. Hashem’s anger may be, so to speak, welling up, but right now it is only potential anger – we have not yet reached the day when Hashem’s anger becomes an actuality. We should repent and plead to Hashem fervently for forgiveness. If not now, when? 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Rosh Hashanah

The last volume of Ohel Yaakov, the collection of the Maggid’s commentaries on the parashios of the Torah, contains a series of essays about the Yamim Noraim. These essays were composed by Rav Avraham Beirush Flamm, the redactor of Ohel Yaakov, and they consist of Torah insights of Rav Flamm interlaced with Torah insights of the Maggid. I present here a selection from one of these essays, which is labeled as a drashah (sermon) for erev Rosh Hashanah.
1. It is written (Amos 3:1-6):
Hear this word that Hashem has spoken regarding you, O Children of Yisrael …, saying: “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will take account of you regarding all your iniquities. Do two people walk together, if they have not met? … Does a trap lift off the ground without making a catch? Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?”
This passage gives insight into the effect that the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah has.
Every Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar. In Vayikra Rabbah 29:3, our Sages teach that in the merit of our shofar blowing Hashem rises from the Throne of Justice and sits on the Throne of Mercy and Compassion. Yet we see that every year people suffer misfortunes; some suffer health problems, others suffer monetary losses, and so on. Now, each year, one member of the congregation blows the shofar for everyone. We might think, therefore, that everyone should have the same kind of year; if Hashem was pleased with the shofar blowing, everyone should have a good year, and if not, everyone should have a hard year. And we might wonder why this is not so.
The reason is as follows. Hashem put into the shofar the power to shock the Adversarial Angel and neutralize him in all the areas in which he operates, both in luring people into sinning and in indicting them in the heavenly court. But the power that the shofar has to benefit a specific person in this way depends on how the person chooses to relate to the shofar blowing. A person can choose to focus on the shofar blasts and make an effort to instill fear of Hashem in his heart, or he can choose to let the shofar blasts pass him by. And, as our Sages teach in Bamidbar Rabbah 9:24, a person’s portion is measured out in the same way that he himself measures. If a person lets the shofar blasts penetrate his heart and make him feel humble and broken in spirit, the shofar blasts will also break the Adversarial Angel’s power to harm him. And if person is unaffected by the shofar blasts, the Adversarial Angel power will also be unaffected.
This idea is reflected in the last two verses in the passage from Amos: “Does a trap lift off the ground without making a catch? Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?” The first verse reflects our perspective. The shofar is supposed to eliminate evil like a trap is supposed to catch game, and we wonder why it doesn’t work. The second verse gives the answer: The shofar is supposed to cause us to tremble, but we do not allow it to do so.
In the second to last sentence in the Shofaros section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amidah, we say: “For You hear the sound of the shofar and give ear to the staccato blasts, and there is none like You.” There is none like Hashem who can see into the hearts of the people who hear the shofar blasts and discern how the blasts affect them.
Consider trying to light something. In lighting a candle, for example, if the wick has been previous lit and has been charred, it is easy to light again; a slight touch of the flame will cause the wick to catch the flame and burn steadily. But if the wick has not yet been charred, it will be hard to light. And if you try to light something that is not flammable, you can hold the flame there all day and nothing will happen. It is similar with a person’s heart.  Some people are like David HaMelech, who said (Tehillim 55:5): “My heart trembles within me.” Such a person’s heart is filled with fear all year long. Whenever he sees any misfortune come upon anyone, he is taken aback. So when he hears a frightening sound, he trembles seven times over and his heart melts. Others are like those of whom it is written (ibid. 73:4): “There are no fetters to their death, and their robustness is sound.” They are unperturbed by the most horrible tragedy. Certainly they are not stirred by the shofar blasts, which are just the sounds of a horn.   
Thus, earlier in the passage in Amos, it is written: “Do two people walk together, if they have not met?” Suppose two people come across each other on the street. If they are strangers, they will not join up. But if they had dealings with each other previously, they will join up and walk together. So it is with the shofar. If a person has a sensitive heart and an attentive ear, the shofar blasts will arouse within him a feeling of fear and he will be stirred to repentance, and the shofar will protect him from the Adversarial Angel. But if a person has never felt fear before, the shofar blasts may very well have no effect on him, and then they will not protect him.
2. In many communities it is the custom during the Ten Days of Repentance to recite Tehillim 130 in the Shacharis service after the Pesukei D’Zimrah section. The psalm begins as follows (verses 1-2): “A Song of Ascents: Out of the depths have I called to You, Hashem. Hashem, My Lord, hearken to my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. We can bring out the idea behind these verses with a parable. A rich man came to a certain town, and found there many members of his family, all of them poor and downtrodden. He sent out word to them that they should come to him, and he would grant them what they ask. Each of the relatives consulted with the members of his household about what would be most pressing to ask for. One of the relatives was utterly destitute; he had nothing in his house, no food and no clothing. In addition, he was sickly and depressed. He couldn’t figure out how to decide what he should ask for. So he just went to the rich visitor and cried, without saying anything. The rich man said: “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you.” The hapless fellow answered: “It won’t help me to make a specific request; that will just make you think that that’s the only thing I need.” Similarly, we are so beset with troubles that turning to Hashem with specific requests will not lead us to a state of peace. The only choice we have is approach Hashem and let out a general cry for help.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Nitzavim-Vayeilech

I present here two short selections from the Maggid’s commentary on Parashas Nitzavim.
1. The Torah states (Devarim 29:28): “The hidden things are unto Hashem our God, but the revealed things are for us and for our children forever, to carry out all the words of this law.” In connection with this statement, the Maggid quotes Yeshayah 48:16: “Not at the start did I speak of the hidden” (homiletical rendering).  He explains as follows. The Torah encompasses an unfathomably great treasure of esoteric wisdom. But when Hashem brought the light of the Torah into our world, He did not begin with the esoteric teachings, but rather with the revealed and openly accessible teachings. The revealed part of the Torah is easily understood by everyone. Indeed, all the nations of the world appreciate the Torah’s laws; Moshe describes the nations praising us for our laws (Devarim 4:6): “Therefore safeguard them and perform them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” When a person has internalized the revealed Torah, Hashem then conveys to him the hidden Torah. [The Maggid explains elsewhere, for example in Kol Yaakov in the commentary on Song of Songs 4:9 and the end of the commentary on Ruth, that when a person faithfully fulfills the directives of the revealed Torah, Hashem grants him access to the hidden Torah.] We should take a similar approach in learning Torah from others. We should not accept the words of anyone who comes along and offers us teachings of the hidden Torah. Only when a person has given us extensive instruction in the revealed Torah and has proven to us his expertise in this area can we believe that he is knowledgeable in the hidden Torah and accept hidden teachings from him. If a person whom we have not verified to be an expert in the revealed Torah makes various statements with the claim that they are hidden Torah teachings, we should turn away.
2. The Torah states (Devarim 30:1-3): “And it will come to pass, when all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have set before you, and you take it to heart amidst the all the nations among which Hashem your God has dispersed you, that you will then return to Hashem your God … And then Hashem your God will bring back your captivity ….” The Torah speaks here of our being stirred to repent specifically through witnessing both blessing and curse. If we observe only a curse, for example a drought, we might think it is just happenstance – that we have just reached one of the low points in the changing tides of life. But when we see that all the other nations are enjoying blessing while we alone are beset by curse, we then realize that Hashem has orchestrated the circumstances deliberately in order to arouse our hearts, and so we will be stirred to repent.
In truth, though, even when the whole world is subject to curse, it is a mistake to think that the misfortune came about through happenstance. In this vein, Yeshayah declares (verse 40:28, rendered according to the Maggid’s commentary): “Did you not know? Behold, you did not pay heed. Hashem is the God of the world (אלוקי עולם), the Creator of the ends of the earth.” Yeshayah is telling us: “Did you not know what you did when you did not pay heed to Hashem’s command to obey the laws of His Torah? You caused Hashem to change His mode of operation, on a world-wide scale, from the Attribute of Mercy and Compassion, which is associated with the Divine Name ה', to the Attribute of Justice, which is associated with the Divine Name אלוקים!” Indeed, in a famous teaching, often quoted in the period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our Sages say (Kiddushin 40a-b):
A man should always regard himself as though he were half guilty and half meritorious: If he performs one mitzvah, he is fortunate for tipping his scale to the side of merit; if he commits one sin, woe to him for tipping his scale to the side of guilt, as it is said (Koheles 9:18): “But one sinner destroys much good” – that is, on account of a single sin which he commits much good is lost to him. R. Elazar ben R. Shimon said: “Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of deeds, good or bad], if he performs one good deed, he is fortunate for tipping his scale and that of the whole world to the side of merit; if he commits one sin, woe to him for tipping his scale and that of the whole world to the side of guilt, as it is said, ‘But one sinner …’ – on account of the single sin which this man commits he and the whole world lose much good.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Ki Savo

This week’s parashah presents the declaration that a person is supposed to make to testify that he has properly performed the mitzvah of separating and distributing tithes from his produce. Previously, in parashas Re’eh, the Torah discusses the mitzvah of giving charity. We present here the Maggid’s discussion, in his commentary on the two parashios, on the difference between these two mitzvos.
The Maggid begins his discussion with a parable. A person committed a crime and was sentenced to pay a heavy fine. The court authorities went to his house and confiscated some of his belongings as security for payment of the fine. A few days later, the head of a yeshivah came to visit the town. The town leaders wanted to give him a respectable contribution, and they started discussing where they would get the money from. One of them offered a clever suggestion: “We have on hand all these items that we recently confiscated from a criminal offender as security for payment of a fine. Let’s tell him that he must redeem these items now, or else they’ll be sold to someone else.” Having no choice, the offender came forward and paid the fine. But he was upset with the visitor and cursed him vehemently, blaming him for causing him misfortune. It was only because of the visitor that the town leaders pressed him to pay the fine so soon, and he felt that if the visitor had not come, they might even have decided to give him his belongings back.
Now suppose that the sequence of events was reversed – that early in the day the town leaders sent word to the offender that he had to redeem the security items immediately, and afterward the visitor came and the town leaders gave him the money that the offender had paid. The offender would then bless and thank the visitor profusely, and he would be glad that the money he had paid had found its way into the hands of a distinguished Torah scholar. He would think to himself: “If not for this visiting scholar, there’s no telling what they would have done with my money.”
The Maggid then explains as follows. With charity, it is the pauper’s visit to a person’s house that leads him to part with a specific sum of money. The person could thus become upset that the pauper came, thinking that if he had not come he would not have had to part with the money. By contrast, with tithes of produce, the moment a person smooths over a pile of grain, the grain becomes forbidden until he separates the tithe from it. After separating the tithe, he puts it in a designated place in his house.  Afterward, when the Levite comes to his house and asks if he has any tithes to give, he says to him: “It’s good you came. I have some produce that I set aside as tithe that has been sitting here a few days now. Come in and take it.” And he blesses the Levite profusely. In this vein, Sifrei comments that the declaration regarding tithes carries an implicit message: “I have rejoiced and caused others to rejoice on account of this.” When tithes are delivered, both the giver and the recipient rejoice.
With charity, the designation of a specific sum of money as charity and the delivery of the money to the recipient occur at the same time. But with tithes, the designation of the produce and its delivery to the recipient are carried out as separate steps. This fact is reflected in the declaration the Torah commands a person to make regarding tithes (Devarim 26:13): “I have removed the sanctified things from the house, and I also have given it to the Levite, to the proselyte, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to the commandment that You commanded me.” In this declaration, both steps are mentioned.
There is one other respect in which tithing has an advantage over giving charity. With charity, the giving is praiseworthy but there is nothing praiseworthy about ceasing to give. But with tithing, since the Torah specified a set amount, ten percent, that a person is supposed to give, it is proper to give exactly that amount, no less and no more. Thus, when the portion set aside reaches ten percent and the owner stops setting produce aside, the stopping is also a mitzvah. Accordingly, it is specifically when a person finishes dispensing his tithes that the Torah directs a person to declare that he has done as Hashem commanded.
David Zucker, Site Administrator