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Shabbos Parashas Devarim – Megillas Eichah

The Midrash states (Eichah Rabbah Pesichasa 11):
Had you merited, you would have come across the verse (Shemos 3:7): “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt.” But now that you have not merited, you come across the verse (Eichah 1:20): “See, Hashem, how I am distressed ….”
In explaining this Midrash, the Maggid focuses on the fact that the bitterness and pain of the exile is not experienced in the same way by everyone. For the masses, the main cause of distress is the subjugation to other nations and the elusiveness of making a living without a homestead in the land where they live. When the ruling powers take something away from them, they feel miserable. And, vice versa, those who are successful, make a comfortable living, and have a lot of social influence do not feel the pain of exile at all. They think: “What difference does it make whether I am here or there?” But the righteous ones recognize that Eretz Yisrael is a much more hospitable environment for the soul. We all know that water-bound creatures are sustained by the water and face death when they leave it. In the same way, Eretz Yisrael is the only habitat that really sustains us effectively, and being taken out of our land is the greatest tragedy of all for us. For then we are like fish that have been captured in a net and taken out of the sea onto dry land. The worst of all the troubles we suffer in the exile is being forced to live in the impure environment of a foreign land.
In this vein it is written (Yeshayah 62:6-7): “Upon your walls, O Yerushalayim, I have set watchmen on vigil continually all day and all night – they shall not quiet. Do not fall silent, you who raise remembrance before Hashem. Give Him no peace until He establishes Yerushalayim and makes her praised within the world.” We should not quiet down from our lamenting even if we have an abundance of good that overshadows all pain and sorrow. Whatever our circumstances, we should not give ourselves respite until Hashem re-establishes Yerushalayim. Being prevented from attaching ourselves to Hashem’s estate is the ultimate source of anguish. There is no greater tragedy. [In our day, although many of us have the opportunity to live in Eretz Yisrael, we still lack the Beis HaMikdash and a Torah system of government, and thus we are spiritually in exile, in an environment that is far from the ideal that was attained in former times.]
The same theme is reflected in a verse dealing with the Egyptian enslavement (Shemos 2:23): “The Children of Yisrael groaned from the labor.” It does not say that the Jewish People groaned “from the hard labor,” even though the Torah stated earlier that the Egyptians “embittered their lives with hard labor” (ibid. 1:14). This implies that their groans were not directed against the difficulty of the work, with the hope that the work would be eased. Rather, they were groaning over the horrible degradation of being forced to live in the defiled land of Egypt and be enslaved to its inhabitants. Even had the work been light, they still would have groaned over the fact that they were servants of Pharaoh and not servants of Hashem. Hence (ibid. 2:23, end): “Their plea rose up to God on account [lit. from] their labor.” Their prayer found favor in Hashem’s eyes because it was on account of the mere fact of their enslavement. They were not just pleading that the weight of the work be lightened. Rather, they despised serving the Egyptians and wished to serve Hashem instead.
Accordingly, the Torah verse quoted in our opening Midrash states: “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt.” The Holy One Blessed Be He recognized that the main cause of the Jewish People’s downheartedness was simply that they were in Egypt and not in Eretz Yisrael. They understood the difference between the two lands so well that the mere fact that they were not in their own land was what pained them most of all. Hence their prayer was answered.
But it is not so now. Today we feel no pain over living in an environment that is spiritually deficient. We are concerned only about the worldly troubles that befall us. Our basic disability is so far removed from our consciousness that we are completely unperturbed by it. We do not really feel a need to pray to be healed of it. How, then, can our prayers be pleasing to Hashem?
We now can understand what the Midrash is telling us. Had we merited, we would have come across the verse: “I indeed saw the affliction ….” We would have been pained primarily over the mere fact that we live in a foreign land, and then our prayer would have been truly pleasing. But now that we have not merited, we come across the verse: “See, Hashem, how I am distressed ….” We pray only over the worldly troubles that burden us. If Hashem would bless us with great bounty, we would no longer feel any pain at all.
This is not the proper way. Indeed, it is written (Tehillim 137:6): “Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Yerushalayim above my greatest joy.” Even when we are satiated with blessing, we still must not harden our hearts and fail to remember Yerushalayim. In truth, what greater glory do we have than the glory of Yerushalayim? What can compare?
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Mattos-Masei

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 5
Now, my dear soul, walk about and survey your path, listen to what you say, ponder your deeds, and see how your actions contradict your words. You speak constantly of fear and love of Hashem, you serve your Master and pray to Him, but virtually all of this is falsehood. For your do not examine your service to Hashem, to judge whether it is true service or not; instead you act just like a horse or a mule with no understanding [cf. Tehillim 32:9]. For if you truly accepted upon yourself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, offered your prayers to Hashem earnestly, and poured out your supplications before Him, why do you show no signs of submission to Hashem, like a servant before his master? Consider how much fear and trembling come upon you when you stand before some government official, how carefully you obey his orders. Go take your service to Me and the honor you show Me and offer them to one of these officials! [cf. Malachi 1:8] How is it that your limbs remain firm when you come to pray before the King of Kings, to whom sovereignty truly belongs? How is it that you say “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe,” and you speak these words just like you speak to your children or your friends? You walk about secure and calm, like a person who owes no debts and has no demands on him. Where is your wisdom, your declaration that you fear God?
If someone would ask you about this world, you would say it is vanity of vanities, a deception. But you pursue worldly matters with all your strength and rejoice in your worldly attainments. And if you lose some money, you get upset and agitated. You put yourself in great risk for money, you travel across the seas. And all that for temporary pleasures. When Rosh Hashanah comes you recite aloud the words of the Unesaneh Tokef prayer: “Behold, the Day of Judgment! … On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on the fast day of Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many will pass on and how many will be born. Who will live and who will die ….” Yet your heart is secure, your inner strength is firm. Consider how you would act if you were in the forest and you heard the sound of a fierce wild animal. Think about how you would be struck with fear and trembling, how your limbs would virtually come out of joint, how you would be seized with panic – even though the danger you face threatens only the body. If you really took to heart what you are saying when you recite the Unesaneh Tokef prayer, that today is the Day of Judgment on all mankind, body and soul, and your life is hanging in the balance, your heart would sway like trees swaying in the wind.
In truth, your heart is devoid of any real awareness of these matters. The words you utter with your mouth are just words you accustomed yourself to say over the years. If you scrutinize yourself, you will recognize your foolishness, and you will see that you have not reached even the beginning of true intellect – you are virtually bereft of true human understanding.
So make a fresh start. Imagine you were created just today. Marvel over your existence, and over the existence of all that your eyes see. How did all this come into being? Marvel over it all, the way you marvel when you come upon something new. If you ponder the world in this way, you will guide yourself wisely to the true path and achieve true success. Learn to know in your heart that there is a great and awesome God who created and watches over the world. Then you will fear Him and be abashed before Him, and you will serve Him truly and wholeheartedly, with fear, love, and submissiveness. You will act the way a person acts in the presence of a king – heart melting like wax in the presence of fire. As David HaMelech puts it (Tehillim 2:11), as you rejoice in serving Hashem you will tremble.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Pinchas

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 4 (end)
There are two major differences between the system of natural drives and the intellect. First, the drives develop before the intellect. The drives begin developing and operating right after a person is born, whereas the intellect, although it is the key element that Hashem had in mind when He created man, develops only later. As the saying goes, סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה – it is the end product that was first in mind. We can draw an analogy to growing grain. Growing grain requires plowing, planting, and working the ground. It is on account of the grain that the farmer undertakes this long process. But the grain emerges only in the end, when the stalk is fully developed. Similarly, the intellect emerges only in the end, when a person’s soul-system is fully developed.
Second, the drives operate on a person by coercion. For example, a person might not want to eat at a particular moment, and might not be thinking about eating, but the drive of hunger prods him to eat. By contrast, an exercise of the intellect is an action that is possible for a person to carry out, but he is not compelled to do so. A person can choose to focus on a certain matter to understand it. But he can also choose to turn his mind aside from it, and then he will have no better grasp of it than an animal. This principle applies to everything a person sees, hears, or encounters. A person can see something a hundred times, but if he does not pay attention and endeavor to undertand it, he will not grasp it. The same is true of what a person hears.
The principle can even apply to a person’s own speech. A person can utter certain sentences solely out of habit, with the lips moving on their own while his mind is elsewhere. For example, most people mention with some frequency that they have been brought into existence by the Creator for a set period, and they do not know whether they will be alive at the same time tomorrow, but their hearts are oblivious to this fact. For if their words came from the depths of their hearts, and they had a true awareness of their mortality, they would immediately be filled with worry over their fate and they would give up their attachment to the myriads of trivial worldly pleasures. It is clear that when most people speak of death they do not really register what they are saying. Regarding this unattentiveness, it is written (Tehillim 49:14): “With their mouths [alone] they accept their destiny.” In a lament before Hashem, Yirmiyahu speaks in a similar vein, saying (verse 12:2): “You are close in their mouths, but distant from their thoughts.”
The Gemara in Shabbos 31b states: “Not only do the wicked not tremble and worry over the day of death, their hearts are as firm as an edifice.” We can bring out the idea with an analogy. There are three approaches a merchant can take in deciding how much money to take on a business trip. The first type of merchant takes more than he expects to need, bearing in mind than unexpected expenses may arise. The second type takes exactly the amount he expects to need. And the third type does not even take with him enough for normal hotel bills. Similarly, there are three approaches a person can take in relating to his mortality. The first type of person takes a cautious approach, choosing the secure path and following Shlomo HaMelech’s advice (Koheles 9:8): “Always make sure your clothes are white.” Even in his early years he bears in mind that death can come unexpectedly at any moment. The second type assumes that the length of his life will be as expected; it is only in his old age that he prepares himself for the next world and mends his behavior. And the third type takes a super-confident approach and acts as if he will never die. The Gemara is saying that the wicked not only reject the cautious approach, but they go to the other extreme and adopt the super-confident approach.
The reason people talk without paying attention to what they are saying is that the ability to speak does not depend on the ability to understand. A baby starts making speaking sounds before he understands what he is saying. He simply mimics what he hears, like a parrot that has been trained to say words. The parrot’s ability to say the words does not imply that it has the ability to understand what it is saying; after all, it is only a parrot, and it has no intellect.
The evil inclincation casts a cloak over a person’s mind, leading him into a state of being unaware of the import of his actions. It heaps a thick layer of mud even over very commonplace considerations, thereby keeping the person from properly recognizing them. Thus, a person fails to pay attention to his existence, how he came into being, his essence and his qualities, and his purpose. He does what he does only because this way of life was passed down to him by his parents. He saw what they did, and he does the same. But he acts without discernment and understanding, and he does not take care to carry out these actions in the correct manner with adherence to all the details.


Shabbos Parashas Balak

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect)
Chapter 3
A habit is not a force that operates within a person from birth, and is not a pattern of behavior that his natural drives impose on him. Rather, Hashem placed within a person the power to habituate himself to a certain pattern of behavior or thought, even if it runs counter to his inborn tendencies, to the point where it becomes second nature to him. Habit makes it easy for a person to perform specific physical actions or engage in specific mental pursuits. A person can use habit to instill within his body or mind an inclination toward any activity he wishes. By repeated practice, a person can train himself in certain modes of behavior or thought until they become ingrained within him. For example, a person can train himself to avoid eating nonkosher food, or to shoot at a hair without missing. Nothing is beyond the influence of habit. Through habituation, a person can convert an activity for which he initially felt a natural distaste into an activity he enjoys engaging in. And it is within a person’s power, through repetition, to convert an activity that was initially beyond the pale for him into an activity that he performs easily. In this vein, the Sages say that if a person engages in a certain forbidden activity and then repeats it, he comes to regard the activity as permitted (Yoma 86b).
Habit is a powerful force, with the capacity to control all of a person’s tendencies. For example, a person may initially find it difficult to feel fear or love of Hashem, or exhibit certain other good character traits, but he can accustom himself to these traits until he finds them easy. In addition, a person may initially feel a strong attraction toward a certain food or item, and value it highly, but after he becomes accustomed to it, the attraction wanes, in the way that a fragrance fades. Eventually it becomes commonplace to him. A person may initially cherish a certain item and constantly take it out to use or handle, but over time he becomes less enamored with it, and takes it out only when he has guests.
Natural drives and ingrained habits are two important forces that strongly influence a person’s thinking and behavior in many areas. But an even more important force is the intellect, which we will focus on in the present section of this book.
Chapter 4 (beginning)
The intellect is an eminent attribute, with which man, the premier creation, has been crowned. It is what sets man apart from the animals and make him superior to them. Animals are not mentally aware of their existence. They have no intellectual understanding of their composition and nature, nor of their advantages and disadvantages relative to other creatures. Their behavior is completely dictated by natural drives. They are prompted by hunger to eat, by thirst to drink, and by fatigue to rest. They have no awareness of the fact that they were created from nothingness, or of the purpose for which they were created, or of the results of their actions. And it goes without saying that they do not know the difference between the upright and the crooked, or between the seemly and the contemptible, for these distinctions are exclusively in the realm of the intellect. There is no difference between the animals and the plants and inanimate objects, except for the capacity to move and feel physical sensations.
Man, however, by virtue of his intellect, can understand what his eyes see and his ears hear, and can recognize the features of what he perceives. He is aware that he exists and of how he came to exist. He has the capacity to intellectually examine all of his potential actions and assess whether they are upright and seemly, or crooked and contemptible. He can distinguish between the true and the false, the good and the bad, and the possible and the impossible. He can determine how he should act in every situation.
The seat of the intellect is the heart. Just as the heart is the hub of the body, providing sustenance to all its organs, so, too, the intellect that resides within it is the control center that governs a person’s behavior. The intellect sets a person’s path, directs his actions, and dictates his attitudes. What the intellect judges as good, the person loves, desires, and seeks. What the intellect judges as nice, the person enjoys adorning himself with. If a person’s intellect tells him that a certain individual is granting him benefit, he will love him, submit to him, and follow his directives. What the intellect judges as bad, the person will avoid and disdain.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Chukas

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 2
A person’s natural drives relate only to matters connected with the body, and not to matters connected with the soul. If a person refrains from studying Torah or praying to Hashem even for many years, he does not experience any natural feeling of hunger, thirst, or weakness. This is so even if he has in fact totally ravaged his soul. An injury to the body a tenth in magnitude would cause him great pain. But when a person suffers injury to his soul, he does not feel any pain. In this vein, Yirmiyahu declares (verse 17:9): “The heart is the most deceitful of all, and it is frail – who can know it?”
Now, although I just said that a person’s natural drives do not relate to matters connected with the soul, I meant only that these drives do not benefit the soul. But they can cause the soul great damage, to the point of destroying it. For if a person indiscriminately follows his drives, they can lead him to develop an affinity for all kinds of abominations that Hashem hates – to the point where he feels the greatest hankering for the worst abominations. Regarding affinity for illicit pursuits, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 9:17): “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread [eaten] in hiding is pleasing.” Leading a person to develop such an affinity is one aspect of the evil inclination’s conniving – it assaults him with sharp arrows and pelts him with hot coals, and claims that it was just playing. A person can come to believe that his evil inclination loves him and seeks his good, and allow his evil inclination to goad him to focus earnestly on sinful endeavors – until, in Shlomo HaMelech’s words (ibid. 7:23), the arrow slices his liver. Suddenly his day of downfall comes upon him. If a person is wise, however, he looks ahead and carefully weighs every action. He will say to himself: “Perhaps it is the evil inclination coaxing me with smooth words, in order to pursue me and swallow me.”
The Mishnah states (Avos 5:20): “Yehudah ben Teima says, ‘Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.’” Let us relate one of the ways this teaching has been interpreted. The Midrash tells us that it is a deer’s nature, as it runs, to keep looking back to see if it is being chased. Similarly, a person must examine and contemplate his ways, and constantly look back to see whether the evil inclination is chasing after him to fluster him and destroy him.
I believe this idea is reflected in Shlomo HaMelech declaration in Koheles 2:13-14: “I saw that the advantage of wisdom over foolishness is like the advantage of light over darkness. A wise man’s eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness.” Just as a person can see only where there is light, so, too, it is only by employing a certain wise stratagem that a person can keep himself on the proper path. What is this stratagem? “A man’s eyes are in his head.” A wise man ponders why his eyes are in his head rather than in some other part of his body. Through this pondering, he comes to recognize that Hashem, in His wisdom, deliberately created him this way, so that, as he proceeds along, he can turn his head around and look back to see if he is being chased. And then he realizes that, similarly, he must be constantly on guard against the wiles of the evil inclination. The fool, by contrast, walks in darkness – even the hazards that are right in front of him he is unable to see.
Let us now bring out another facet of Shlomo’s statement that “a wise man’s eyes are in his head.” We start with an analogy. Consider a merchant who is traveling for business, with his son tagging along just for the enjoyment of travel. The merchant gains satisfaction from noting how far he has traveled, for this represents his progress toward his destination. The son, on the other hand, gains satisfaction from noting how much further there is to go, for this represents how much further opportunity he has to experience the enjoyment of travel. Similarly, a righteous man gains satisfaction from reviewing his past, while a fool gains satisfaction by fantasizing about his future.
Specifically, a righteous man gains satisfaction by noting how long he has lived so far and reflecting on how much Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds he has amassed during this time. And he is apprehensive about the time he has left in this world, for he recognizes that he cannot know what the future will bring (see Koheles 8:7) and he is aware of the Sages’ teaching that a person should not believe in himself until the day of his death (Avos 2:5). Moreover, even regarding the past he makes a strict accounting, and if he finds his accomplishments in Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds inadequate, he becomes greatly pained, and makes a diligent effort to rectify his deficiencies.
It is different with the fool who spends his time reveling in temporary worldly enjoyments. The days of his past are of no value to him, for the enjoyments he indulged in during this period have faded and are no more. He gains no further satisfaction from them. He gains satisfaction only from noting how much time he has left to indulge in further enjoyments. As Yeshayah puts it (verses 56:11-12): “And the dogs are greedy; they do not know satiety. These are the shepherds who cannot understand; they have all gone off on their own way, each to his own corner, for his own gain. ‘Come, I will fetch wine, and we will guzzle liquor, and tomorrow will also be like this, and even much greater.’”
The contrast described above is reflected in Shlomo’s statement that “a wise man’s eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness.” The wise man realizes that Hashem put his eyes in his head so that he could turn back and take a look at his past life, to see whether it provides him satisfaction. He thus learns to use his time productively. But regarding the foolish and wicked, Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 12:7, homiletically): “The wicked turn back and are no more.” When the wicked man turns back to look at his past, he finds that there is no longer anything left. Accordingly, he is led to focus all his attention on the future. But since he cannot know what the future will bring, he is like a man walking in the dark.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Korach

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 1
There are three causes that lead a living being to act in a certain way and pursue a certain object until it is attained: (a) instinct, (b) habit, and (c) intellect. We begin with a discussion of instinct. Hashem implanted in the creatures of the world a number of drives that are common to them all: hunger, which serves as a signal to eat; thirst, which serves as a signal to drink; fatigue, which serves as a signal to rest and sleep; and so on. These various drives stand ready to prompt every living being to avail itself of the means that Hashem placed within the world to enable it to remain in existence. In addition, man is implanted with drives for enjoyments that, while not necessarily extravagant luxuries, go beyond what is needed for basic existence. For example, people have a drive to adorn themselves and a drive to stroll outdoors to take in fresh air and see the sights of nature. Man is the only living being implanted with such drives for indulgences Animals do not have them. On the other hand, the absence of such drives within the animals themselves is compensated for by the drives man has to adorn and pamper the animals he possesses, and to pride himself on the care he shows them. All the drives just described are included within the general heading of “natural instinct,” although they come in many different forms and vary from one creature to another, according to the way that Hashem, in His wisdom, dictated that the world should operate.
As a rule, it is beneficial to cater to these drives to a certain degree, but harmful to cater to them in excess. It is good for to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, and rest when tired, and meeting physical needs through such activities provides much pleasure. Now, as Rambam points out in Moreh Nevuchim, people are generally unware of the effects these activities have within the body. For example, in regard to eating, we have little awareness of the processes whereby the body propagates food through the digestive tract, holds it within the stomach, digests it, and eliminates the waste. It is similar with other activities we engage in to meet our bodily needs. Our system of drives is unaware of the purpose underlying these activities; it knows only that it is supposed to prompt us to engage in them.
In this respect our system of drives is like a servant who follows his master’s orders without knowing what he is accomplishing by doing so. Now, a servant who is doing an assigned task will not set an appropriate limit by himself on how much he does. If the master does not specify a limit, the servant will continue working on and on, even if the added work ruins the product. The servant cannot determine on his own how much he should work, because he does not know the goal behind what he is doing.
Thus it is with the bodily drives: They prompt us to eat and drink, but do not specify rules on what to eat or how much. We can actually harm ourselves by inappropriate eating, either by eating foods that are intrinsically harmful, or by overeating, or by eating at the wrong time or in the wrong place. The instinctual element within us is oblivious to how the food affects our body. We can feel a craving even for something as injurious as a knife in the back. In this respect, man differs from the animals; thus our Sages tell us (Avos D’Rabbi Noson 16:3): “Go and watch how a kid or a lamb turns back when it sees a pit, for there is no evil inclination in an animal.” But regarding human drives it is written (Mishlei 9:13): “The woman of foolishness clamors; she is an imbecile and knows nothing.” Each of our drives draws us incessantly toward the activity it is appointed to promote; it badgers us on and on without limit, and if we continue listening to it up to the very end, our ultimate fate will be bitter. As Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 5:3): “For the lips of the wanton woman drip honey, her palate is smoother than as oil, but in the end she is as bitter as wormwood and sharp as a double-edged sword.”
We must guard our drives with the utmost vigilance; we must weigh their demands and set proper limits on them according to our physical constitution and according to the times and circumstances. When one of our drives prods us too far, we must rail against it even though the urge is yet strong. If we do not do so – if, for example, if we keep eating or drinking until the urge to do so dies down – we do away with ourselves.
It is important to realize that, while our instinctual impulses are part of our inborn nature and initially operate upon us in a manner we do not pursue or control, in the long run it is in our power to decide whether or not to continue following them. As beings with free will, we can modify our impulses and modulate them as we choose, implanting within ourselves a new configuration of natural habits. We will elaborate on this matter in the coming chapters.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Shelach

Yeshayah declares (verse 40:3-8):
A voice calls out in the desert: “Clear the way of Hashem, forge in the desert a straight road for our God.” … The glory of Hashem will be revealed, and all flesh together will see that the mouth of Hashem has spoken. A voice says: “Proclaim!” … “All flesh is like grass and all its kindness is like a blossom in the field. … Grass withers and a blossom fades, but the word of our God shall abide forever.”
The last verse of this passage is quoted by a Midrash on our parashah (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:3) in connection with Hashem’s promise to give the Land of Israel to the Jewish People. We previously presented a segment of the Maggid’s commentary on the Midrash. We now present another segment, which focuses on the verses in the above passage.
The Maggid explains that the passage is expressing praise for the Torah and disdain for worldly matters. Hoshea exhorts (verse 10:12): “Sow for yourselves righteousness.” The message here, the Maggid says, is that we should invest our efforts in Torah and mitzvos. And the Maggid likens those who focus their efforts on worldly matters to the desert of which Yeshayah spoke – just as the desert does not absorb seeds and cause them to sprout, so, too, those who are immersed in worldly matters do not absorb the “seeds” of Torah and mitzvos and cause them to sprout.
The Maggid develops his point with a parable. After suffering a fall in fortune, a certain man left his country and traveled far away, eventually reaching a country on the other side of the sea. The people there were primitive, like wild beasts – they did not know how to work the land to cause it to yield produce. In addition, the country was laden with precious stones, and the people were unaware of their full value. The people sustained themselves through trading with merchants who would bring them grain and fruit in exchange for the precious stones. The man who had moved into the country bought a large field and cultivated it, producing an abundance of grain and fruit. And he began trading his grain and fruit for the precious stones. When the man approached the end of his life, he instructed his sons, saying: “My sons, you should know that I have another son through my first wife whom I married in my former country. Bring him down here and let him take a share in my estate. And let him choose which of my possessions to take, for he is dear to me, and a wise and refined person.”
The man’s sons heeded their father’s words. They brought over the other son and let him choose which of their father’s possessions to take. He chose the precious stones, and let the other sons take the grain and fruit. The other sons found this laughable, for in their eyes the produce was the most valuable part of their father’s estate, and they considered the precious stones trifling. And they were baffled by their father’s having said that this son was wise, for they thought he made a very foolish choice.
Some years later, a wise king came to the country and educated the populace. He taught them how to make farming tools and work the land. Everyone in the country began working the land, and they produced a tremendous crop. And they started transporting the precious stones to other countries and selling them at a high price, commensurate with their great value. Ultimately, grain and fruit in this country became very cheap, while precious stones became expensive. And then the man’s sons said to themselves: “We thought our half-brother was crazy and foolish, but now we see that our father was right when he said he was wise and discerning. He took the truly valuable part of our father’s estate and left us with the inconsequential part.”
The message is as follows. The Land of Israel has both material and spiritual advantages. On the material side, it is a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where we can eat bread without scarceness, a land which lacks no physical assets, whose stones are iron, and from whose hills we may quarry brass (Devarim 8:9). These material assets are great in quantity, but minute in quality. On the spiritual side, the land is infused with holiness, uniquely conducive to Torah, wisdom, sanctity, purity, and prophesy, and uniquely suited to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. In this vein, it is written (Yeshayah 2:3): “For from Zion will come forth Torah, and the world of Hashem from Yerushalayim.” These spiritual assets are present only in a minute quantity among the general population, but are of immeasurably great value to the wise and discerning.
As long as a person hankers for fleeting worldly pleasures, sets his heart on this world, and views this world as the ultimate good, the spiritual assets of the Land of Israel seem inconsequential to him by comparison. Indeed, in view of the peace and material success that prevailed in Shlomo HaMelech’s time, the spiritual assets seem utterly trifling. We can imagine people of a materialistic orientation saying that Avraham never enjoyed the assets of the land Hashem had promised him. After all, they would say, during Avraham’s time in the land, the Canaanites held dominion and he was only a sojourner. And such people would marvel over how Hashem seemingly did not fulfill the promise He made to Avraham. But in the end of days the truth will emerge and shine forth, and we all will realize that all the material assets of this world are like nothing, and Torah is the only asset of true value. And then, in retrospect, we will see that Avraham took a more than ample helping of the gifts the Land of Israel has to offer, for no one else attained his level of holiness, wisdom, and prophesy.
This is the message of the passage in Yeshayah that we quoted at the outset. He says: “Grass withers and a blossom fades, but the word of our God shall abide forever.” Material assets wither, decay, and fade, but the value of Torah is immeasurable and everlasting.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Behaalosecha

Last week’s parashah ended with an account of the offerings the tribal princes brought during the inauguration of the Mishkan. The beginning of this week’s parashah adds a postscript recalling the service of lighting the menorah in the Mishkan. Accordingly, in his commentary on the parashah, the Maggid discusses the service in the Mishkan in general in the unique features of the lighting of the menorah. Last year we presented a segment from this discussion (link). We now present another segment.
In the segment we presented last year, the Maggid explains that the Mishkan, and later the Beis HaMikdash, served as the conduit whereby our prayers would ascend to heaven and Hashem would send blessing down to us. The Maggid likens the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash to a road. In the present segment, the Maggid elaborates on this analogy.
If a person wants to get to a certain destination, the Maggid says, he must take the road leading to it. If he stays on the road, he will reach his intended destination. But if he strays from the road, he will end up someplace else. Similarly, if we worship Hashem in the way He specified, our acts of worship will rise directly up to Him, and He will send down blessing directly to us. But if we perform acts of worship that Hashem did not specify, thus taking a distorted course that resembles idolatry, He will convey blessing down to earth through a distorted channel, and instead of reaching us it will end up elsewhere. As hinted at in Yeshayah 65:1, read homiletically, Hashem will be forthcoming toward those who did not seek Him.
Thus, Hashem told Avraham (Bereishis 17:1-2): “I am Almighty God, walk before Me and be wholehearted, and I will set My covenant between Me and you, and I will increase you most exceedingly.” If we follow the proper path and direct our hearts to Hashem, Hashem will send down blessing through a channel that leads to us. Along these lines, in describing the special eminence of the Beis HaMikdash and the service we performed there, David HaMelech declares (Divrei HaYamim Alef 29:10-12):
Blessed are You, Hashem, the God of Yisrael our forefather, for ever and ever. Yours, Hashem, is the greatness, and the strength, and the splendor, and the triumph, and the glory, even everything in heaven and earth. Yours, Hashem, is the kingdom, and the sovereignty over every leader. Wealth and honor come from You ….
The Hebrew expression corresponding to for ever and ever is מעולם ועד עולם, which can be rendered as from world to world. David is speaking of a state of affairs where the heavenly realm and the earthly realm are aligned and unified – we direct all our praises and worship to Hashem alone, and carry out the service in the Beis HaMikdash in the manner He specified, and He blesses us with wealth and honor. We can elaborate on the phrase even everything in heaven and earth. Heaven is the source of bounty and earth is the source of service to Hashem by man through the proper exercise of his freedom of choice. When we send service to Hashem up to heaven, Hashem sends bounty down to earth, so that heaven and earth each contain everything – both worship and bounty.  This is the state of affairs that will prevail in the end of days. Thus, Yeshayah declares (verse 40:3): “A voice calls out in the wilderness: ‘Clear the way of Hashem, forge in the desert a straight road for our God.’” The voice is heralding the era when Hashem will make all necessary repairs to the conduit between heaven and earth, so that it will operate as before.
But now, on account of our sins the Beis HaMikdash remains in disrepair. In Yirmiyahu’s words (Eichah 1:4), the paths of Zion are desolate. Still, we rely on Hashem to sustain us. Thus David HaMelech entreats (Tehillim 25:6): “Remember Your mercies, Hashem, and Your kindnesses, for they are from times of yore.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 22:1): “Not [new] from now, but from times of yore.”  Given that the Beis HaMikdash is now in disrepair, we ask Hashem to keep sustaining us by reverting to the worldly means He employed in earlier times, before the Mishkan, the predecessor of the Beis HaMikdash, was built. In the same vein, in Vehu Rachum prayers that we recite as part of Tachanun on Mondays and Thursdays, we appeal to Hashem for His help, saying: “It is Your way to perform free kindnesses in each and every generation.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Naso

This week’s parashah presents the threefold blessing that Hashem told the Kohanim to convey to the Jewish People. The third blessing is as follows (Bamidbar 6:26):
May Hashem lift (ישא) His countenance up toward you and grant you peace.
The Maggid notes two other verses in Scripture where the word ישא (which denotes lifting or carrying) appears in connection with the four-letter Divine Name (ה'):
1. Tehillim 24:5: He will bear a blessing from Hashem, and righteous kindness from the God of his salvation.
2. Devarim 28:49: Hashem will carry over upon you a nation from afar, from the end of the earth, like an eagle swoops – a nation whose language you will not understand.
He goes on to expound on these three verses as a group.
Consider how a teacher deals with his student, or a father with his son. If the teacher sees that the student listens and accepts discipline, he will occasionally admonish the student to stir him to greater diligence in his studies. But if the teacher sees that the student is like a deaf person and pays absolutely no attention to his studies, he will not bother to admonish him at all, because he knows that it will not help. Accordingly, Shlomo HaMelech advises (Mishlei 19:18, homiletically): “Discipline your child when there is hope” (homiletically rendering כי as when rather than because). When there is hope that the child will listen, it is right to discipline him, but if not, discipline is pointless.
Hashem deals with the Jewish People in the same way. In days of yore, when we were well settled in Eretz Yisrael, we had a system of Torah law courts with judges and enforcement officers to deal with violations of Torah law, including capital offenses. But when we strayed and were sent into exile, this system ceased to operate. Our sinning got so out of hand that the system of Torah justice was worn down. In this vein, the daughter of Zion laments (Yirmiyah 4:31): “Woe is me now, for my soul has been wearied from the killers.”
The three verses in which the word ישא appears in connection with the four-letter Divine Name reflects three modes through which Hashem deals with the Jewish People. The verse in Tehillim, which speaks of blessing, reflects how Hashem dealt with us in the days when the Beis HaMikdash was standing and we followed Hashem’s instruction and observed His commandments. During this period, Hashem handed blessing out for us to take. The verse from our parashah, which speaks of peace, reflects how Hashem dealt with us while we were still dwelling in Eretz Yisrael but began to stray from the Torah path and sin. Hashem then admonished us and punished us, either directly or by means of the prophets and the Torah courts. We were all clearly told what offense on our part prompted the discipline, and we were thereby led to take matters to heart and repent our evil ways. As a result, peace was restored between us and Hashem. The verse from Devarim, which speaks of oppression by a foreign nation, reflects how Hashem began dealing with us at the time the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. Our enemies killed many thousands among our people, but we no longer had prophets and judges to tell us clearly what we were being punished for. In the words of Mishlei 27:22, it was if we were ground in a mortar and pounded with a pestle, but our foolishness was not removed from us.
It is in regard to this situation that the Torah tells us that Hashem will carry over upon us a nation from afar, from the end of the earth, like an eagle swoops – a nation whose language we will not understand. Yirmiyahu conveys a prophesy describing the situation in similar terms (verse 5:15): “Behold, I am bringing upon you a nation from afar … a powerful nation … whose language you will not know, so you will not understand what they say.” We will not understand what message our oppressors are conveying to us, and we will not recognize what evil ways we have to mend. Our state will be like that of a sick person who is taking harsh medicines but is not under a doctor’s supervision. Who knows if he will be cured?
Yirmiyahu laments (verse 8:22): “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no doctor there? Why has the health of the daughter of my people not recovered?” We can interpret this verse homiletically as depicting the situation we have just described. Yirmiyahu marvels over the fact that we have undergone great afflictions but they had no effect on us. He then explains why: There is no doctor there. And then he describes the outcome: We have not recovered. Because we have no prophet to tell us why the afflictions have come upon us, we have not mended our ways.
In the first chapter of Mishlei, Shlomo HaMelech describes wisdom lamenting in the streets. And he presents the reason (verse 1:24): “For I have called out but you refused, I stretched forth my hand and no one listened.” On the surface, it seems that the two halves of this verse are saying the same thing in different words. In fact, however, there is no repetitiousness. The first half of the verse describes speech, while the second half describes an outstretched hand. Shlomo is describing the matters that we have discussed. Initially, the rebuke we received from the prophets was of great benefit, for it called to our attention the sins we had committed. The prophets admonished us with their mouths, not with their hands. But eventually we started refusing to listen, and then Hashem sent against us enemies who admonished us with their hands rather than with their mouths. No words were being said, and no one could hear why we were being subjected to the afflictions. As a result, no one was aroused to repent right away from his improper ways.

Shabbos Parashas Bamidbar – The Book of Ruth

With Shavuos coming right after this Shabbos, I present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuos. Naomi, Elimelech’s widow, and her daughter-in-law Ruth return from Moab destitute, and Ruth sets out to glean in the field behind the harvesters. We are told (Ruth 2:3‑5):
And her fate made her happen upon a plot of land that belonged to Boaz, who was of Elimelech’s family. And, behold, Boaz came down from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers: “May Hashem be with you.” And they said to him: “May Hashem bless you.” And Boaz said to the young man he had appointed over the reapers: “To whom does that young woman belong?”
Now, the main theme of the Book of Ruth is the great kindness Hashem showers upon those who come to take shelter in Him by converting to the Jewish faith – how He raises them up from lowliness. The Maggid remarks that the initial exchange of greetings between Boaz and his workers seems to have nothing to do with this theme. He then proceeds to explain how it actually helps to bring this theme out.
The key is to realize that the Hashem carefully guided all the events that the Book of Ruth records, with every event designed as a kindness to Ruth, who revered Hashem and placed her hopes on His compassion. Boaz’s query about Ruth might appear to be a mere natural occurrence, for it is common for someone who sees something new to ask about it. But in fact Hashem staged this event, just as He led Ruth to “happen upon” one of Boaz’s fields in the first place and led Boaz to come to this specific field precisely when Ruth was there. The whole chain of events was directed by Hashem for Ruth’s benefit. Hashem watched over Ruth with loving care, and led her to glean in the field of a righteous man, where the workers would not disturb her.
Our passage shows this strikingly. Let us think about how Boaz acted here. Usually, when an owner comes to inspect his property, he plans out what he wants to examine. His visit typically will be prompted by certain matters of major importance. While there he will also check on lesser matters that would not call for a special trip, but still are of concern to him. He might also ask, by the way, about some side matters that are of no special consequence to him.
But clearly not everything gets the same attention. The matters he made the trip for take first priority; he will deal with them right away. The lesser matters he will turn to later. And then, after he has taken care of all his business, he might chat over some inconsequential matters.
Thus, when Boaz came from Bethlehem to check on his field, we would have expected him to begin by asking about matters related to the reaping. But instead, the very first question Boaz asks, after greeting his workers, is a seemingly tangential one: “To whom does that young woman belong?”
This shows that, in Hashem’s plan, Ruth was actually the main reason for Boaz’s visit to the field. Hashem led Boaz to visit the field to take note of Ruth and show kindness to her. Thus, Boaz began by asking about Ruth, just as anyone on a business visit begins by asking about the matter for which he made the trip. The other matters were set aside for later, as being of lesser importance. Boaz’s greeting is recorded to show that the first thing Boaz asked about, right after greeting his workers, was Ruth. This proves that Hashem directed the whole episode. Hashem, the Master Planner, reversed the natural order of things for the benefit of Ruth, who had taken shelter in Him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator