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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

Parashas Ki Seitzei

In this week’s parashah, the Torah says (Devarim 25:13): “You shall not have in your pouch one weight and another weight, a large one and a small one.” Here the Torah exhorts us against cheating in business, or even possessing the means to do so. In expounding on this verse, the Maggid links it to a teaching by Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei 3:31-33: “Do not envy the pillager, and do not choose any of his ways. … Hashem’s curse is upon the house of the wicked, while the abode of the righteous He blesses.” We previously presented the Maggid’s discussion of the connection between the verse from our parashah and the passage in Mishlei. We now present some further discussion that the Maggid presents on the passage in Mishlei.
The Maggid’s starting point is a statement by David HaMelech (Tehillim 125:4–5, homiletically): “Do good, Hashem, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hearts. And as for those who slip, may Hashem carry away their crookedness with the wicked, and peace will be upon Yisrael.” The Maggid explains as follows. People are generally disgusted by garbage and do not want it lying around all over their homes. So they keep in their homes a garbage can and deposit the garbage there. When the garbage can gets full, they haul the garbage out to a garbage dump. Similarly, Hashem has set up a system for clearing our environment of all remains of the various forms of evil. He arranges for people who are completely wicked to serve as repositories of the fruits of evildoing, and when they get full, He disposes of them by sending them to their deaths. Occasionally a righteous person slips and uses wrongful means to achieve some gain, be it money, possessions, or honor. When this happens, Hashem arranges for a completely wicked person to get hold of this gain, either directly or indirectly, thereby rendering the righteous person clean. In the passage from Tehillim quoted above, David is describing this process.
In this vein, regarding the completely wicked, Malachi declares (verse 1:4): “They will be called the border of wickedness.” Just as people have designated garbage dumping zones, so, to, Hashem makes the completely wicked serve as designated zones, with defined borders, for wickedness. The process of transferring wickedness to the completely wicked is reflected in the Yom Kippur service in the Beis HaMikdash. Regarding the he-goat for Azazel, it is written (Vayikra 16:22): “The he-goat will bear upon itself all their iniquities to a desolate land.” Expounding on this statement, the Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, Torah, 576 speaks of the Jewish People’s sins being transferred to the evildoers (נוטל הקב"ה כל עונותיהם של ישראל
ונותנן על עשו הרשע
). This is what Shlomo means when he says that “Hashem’s curse is upon the house of the wicked.” In a similar vein, Yirmiyah declares (verses 5:26-27): “Among My people are found wicked men … as a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit.”
In Tehillim 1:4, David HaMelech contrasts the righteous with the wicked:
Praiseworthy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, and has not stood in the path of the sinful, and has not sat in the conference of scorners – whose desire is instead for Hashem’s Torah, and who meditates on His Torah day and night. He is like a tree planted by brooks of water, which yields its fruit in its time, and whose leaves never wither – and everything he does will succeed. Not so are the wicked; rather, they are like the chaff that the wind drives away.
There is a key difference, the Maggid says, between a righteous person’s eating and a wicked person’s eating. The righteous person, as Mishlei 13:25 says, eats to satisfy himself, in order to use the energy he obtains from the food to learn Torah and serve Hashem. The righteous man fulfills Shlomo HaMelech’s exhortation to know Hashem in all his ways (Mishlei 3:6), so that even his eating is a mitzvah act. Thus, his eating is transferred from the realm of physicality to the realm of sanctity – it becomes bound up with his soul. And just as a righteous man’s righteousness and service to Hashem endure forever (cf. Tehillim 111:3, 112:3, 112:9), so, too, the means which enabled him carry out his service to Hashem endure forever. By contrast, a wicked man’s eating, and, in fact, all his activities, are bound up with his body, and their existence ceases when the body dies. They are lost, as if scattered by the wind.
Thus, David likens a righteous man to “a tree planted by brooks of water, which yields its fruit in its time.” Throughout the time a righteous man spends in this world, he produces spiritual fruit through learning Torah and serving Hashem. Moreover, his “leaves never wither.” Here, David is using leaves as a metaphor for all the activities the righteous engages in to care for his body; just as the leaves of a fruit tree protect the fruit, so, too a righteous man’s physical pursuits support his service to Hashem. Thus, the righteous man will receive reward not only for his Torah learning and his mitzvos, but also for the effort he invested in his physical pursuits. As David says, “everything he does will succeed” – including his physical pursuits. And then David continues: “Not so are the wicked; rather, they are like the chaff that the wind drives away.” Nothing about the wicked person or his activities has any genuine worth; they are like chaff containing no seeds for producing a crop, and thus they are destined, in the words of Daniel 12:2, for shame and everlasting abhorrence. Accordingly, there is no harm in using the completely wicked as spiritual garbage cans, for they contain nothing of value that would be spoiled thereby.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Shoftim – On Suffering and Redemption

In last week’s d’var Torah, we presented a discussion by the Maggid about how the misfortunes we go through are all in actuality acts of planting toward the final redemption. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 126:1): “When Hashem returns the captivity of Zion, it will be as if we had been dreaming.” In the end of days, the Maggid explains, we will realize that when we viewed the hardships we bore as being bad, it was if we had been dreaming, for in fact Hashem orchestrated these hardships entirely for our good. We now present the continuation of this discussion.
David declares further (ibid. 126:2): “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song.” Laughter is generated by situations where something is made to appear to be the exact opposite of what it really is, such as when a peasant impersonates a nobleman, wearing fancy nobleman’s clothes and mimicking a nobleman’s gestures. Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 7:3): “Anger is better than geniality.” The Gemara comments (Shabbos 30b): “The anger that the Holy One Blessed Be He shows toward the righteous in this world is better than the geniality that the Holy One Blessed Be He shows toward the wicked in this world.” Hashem shows anger to the righteous and geniality to the wicked, but both are just a show – in truth, Hashem loves the righteous and hates the wicked. And the angry stance that Hashem takes toward the righteous now is only to build up their spiritual strength, to enable them to receive the blessing He has in store for them.
David continues (Tehillim 126:3): “Then they will declare among the nations, ‘Hashem has done greatly with these.’” At the time of the final redemption, the nations of the world will not recognize that all the blessings that they see coming to us are the fruit of our prior hardships. They will regard these blessings as being a spontaneous display of benevolence coming into effect just at that moment, sent our way by Hashem as a free gift. They will conclude that Hashem “has done greatly” with us – that is, He has given us more than we deserve. They will thus declare (ibid. 126:4, homiletically): “Had Hashem had done so greatly with us, we would rejoice.” That is, they will say: “If Hashem gave us free blessings like that, we would also be happy.” They will wonder why Hashem is giving blessings only to us, when He could just as well give the same blessings to them, and so they will be jealous of us. By way of analogy, if a person sees someone else get rich by working hard, he will understand and accept this outcome, but if he sees someone else finding an expensive object or receiving an expensive gift, he will feel upset and say: “Why him and not me?” This is how the nations will feel when they see our success in the end of days.
Speaking of the end of days, Yirmiyah declares (verse 31:12): “Then the virgin will rejoice with dancing, and the young men and the old together, for I will transform their mourning into joy, and I will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow.” Were it the case that the blessings we will receive in the end of days will come to us spontaneously, rather than as result of prior developments, the outlook of the old would differ from that of the young men. The young men would feel total joy, for they never suffered hardships. The old, on the other hand, would feel joy only over their experiences from the point of redemption onward, but not over the experiences of the past. But since in fact the hardships are what will produce the blessings, the old will rejoice over the past as well. And so the young men and old will rejoice together – both will feel total joy over everything they experienced during their lives.
The Maggid draws an analogy to a festive meal. Putting together a festive meal involves a lot of cooking, baking, frying, and other hard work. But when the preparations are done, everyone sits down at the table and they all happily enjoy themselves.
In the Song at the Sea it is written (Shemos 15:2, following Rashi): “God’s power and vengeance were my salvation.” That is, everything we have experienced and will experience – both the powerful outpour of blessing that we will experience in the end of days and the chastisements that we have suffered throughout the course of history – everything is brought about by Hashem as part of our salvation. And therefore (the conclusion of Shemos 15:2): “This is my God and I will glorify Him, the God of my fathers and I will exalt Him.” We will glorify Hashem on account of the blessing He will shower upon us, and exalt Him on account of the many misfortunes that our fathers went through, which produce the eventual blessing.
In the opening verses of Tehillim 126, David HaMelech speaks of the process of suffering producing blessing. The remainder of the psalm reads as follows:
Return our captivity, Hashem, like rushing streams through dry land. Those who sow with tears will reap with joy. The one bearing the measure of seed walks along weeping, but he will come home with joy, bearing his sheaves.
David declares: “I know that our suffering now is meant to produce blessing in the end. But we have already had our fill of ‘bad dreams.’ So please return our captivity now. The time has come for those who sowed with tears to reap with joy. We are walking along weeping from our troubles. We experience our suffering now as real, not as a mere dream. So show us gracious compassion by bringing the day when we will come home with joy, bearing our sheaves.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Re’eh

This week’s parashah includes a segment on giving charity. The Torah states (Devarim 15:7-10): “If there is a destitute person in your midst … you shall surely open your hand to him … and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, for on account of this thing Hashem will bless you in all your work.” The Maggid explains this statement as follows. Imagine the following scenario: A person is walking in the marketplace one day with 100 gold coins in his pocket, and he loses them. The next day he visits the marketplace again, and finds a pouch with 200 gold coins. The new find gives him some consolation for his previous loss, but the consolation is incomplete, for he will say to himself that if he had not lost the 100 gold coins, he would now have 300. Now imagine another scenario: A person is walking across his field carrying a sack of grain. The sack has a hole, the grain falls out little by little, and he winds up coming home almost empty-handed. Some time later he finds stalks of grain spouting up all over his field, and eventually he reaps a bumper crop. In this case he will not say that had he not suffered his previous loss he would have had more, because he understands that if not for this previous loss he would not have gained the windfall that came to him in the end.
This second scenario brings out what the Torah is saying. A person should not feel upset about giving charity to a poor person, and think that had he not given he would have had more. He should understand giving charity is the key to his future success. As the Gemara in Taanis 9a puts it, עשר בשביל שתתעשר – give tithes so that you will become wealthy.
The Maggid links this idea to some prophecies of Yeshayah. In Yeshayah 12:1 it is written: “You will say on that day, ‘I thank you, Hashem, for You were angry with me, and Your anger turned back and You comforted me.’” And in verse 35:10 it is written: “Those redeemed by Hashem shall return and come to Zion with exuberant song, with eternal joy upon their heads. They shall attain gladness and joy, and anguish and groaning shall flee.” Yeshayah is teaching us that in the end of days we will see clearly that all the misfortunes we went through were in actuality acts of planting toward the final redemption. And in regard to each and every blessing that we obtain, we will identify the misfortune that produced that specific blessing.
In this vein it is written (ibid. 60:15): “On account of your being forsaken and hated, with no wayfarers, I will make you an eternal pride, a joy for generation after generation” [reading תחת as on account of, as in, for example, Devarim 28:47, instead of the usual rendering of in place of]. And similarly (Yeshayah 61:7): “On account of your shame which was double and [the] disgrace that they would bemoan as their portion, therefore they will inherit a double portion in their land and eternal joy will be theirs.” These verses identify, as if pointing with a finger, the misfortunes from which specific blessings sprouted. And so, in retrospect, we will thank Hashem for the kindnesses He secretly embedded in the hardships we suffered. “Anguish and groaning will flee” – we will regret the anguish we felt and the groaning we did in the wake of the difficulties that Hashem brought upon us.
David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 126:1): “When Hashem returns the captivity of Zion, it will be as if we had been dreaming.” David HaMelech likens our experiences throughout the course of history to a dream, saying that in the end of days the interpretation of the dream will be laid out for us, just as Yosef laid out for Pharaoh the interpretation of his dreams about the cows and the stalks of grain. It is common in the Bible for a false impression to be called a dream, just as people commonly refer to ridiculous beliefs and plans as dreams. Thus it is written (Yeshayah 29:7-8):
Like a dream, a vision of the night, will be the multitude of nations that muster themselves against Ariel, along all those who besiege her and beleaguer her and cause her distress. It will be as when a hungry man dreams, and, behold, he is eating, but he wakes up and his soul is empty, and as when a thirsty man dreams, and, behold, he is drinking, but he wakes up, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul craves drink – so shall be the multitude of all the nations that muster themselves against Mount Zion.
The Gemara relates (Berachos 56b): “Ben Dama, the son of R. Yishmael’s sister, asked R. Yishmael: ‘I dreamt that both my jaws fell out; [what does it mean]?’ He replied to him: ‘Two Roman counsellors made a plot against you, but they have died.’” It is the way with people that when someone has a bad dream he is shaken, even after he wakes up, but others explain to him that it is a good sign. Similarly, in the end of days it will be made clear to us that all the misfortunes we have suffered, from the time of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and onward, were orchestrated by Hashem for our good. And then, as David says, it will be as if we had been dreaming. We view all the difficulties we go through as misfortunes, for they appear that way on the surface, but in the end of days we will realize that we were only imagining this to be so. And then, David continues (Tehillim 126:2), “our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Eikev

In this week’s parashah, Moshe says (Devarim 10:12): “And now, Yisrael, what does Hashem your God ask of you? Only to fear Hashem your God ….” The Gemara expounds (Berachos 33b):
Is fear of heaven such a small thing? … Yes, with Moshe it was a small thing. As R. Chaninah said: “By way of analogy, if someone is asked for a large vessel and he has one, it seems to him like a small vessel, but if he is asked for a small vessel and he does not have one, it seems to him like a large vessel.”
The Maggid says that this Gemara cannot be read at a simple level. He asks: Does the fact that for Moshe fear of heaven was a small thing justify his demanding it of the rest of the Jews of his generation? Does the fact that a rich person has a large vessel justify his demanding that his poor neighbor bring one also? To understand the Gemara properly, we must look deeper.
The Maggid takes as his starting point an idea he developed in the first essay in his commentary on the Book of Ruth. When Noach and his family left the ark after the flood, Hashem told them (Bereishis 9:2): “And the fear and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the field and every bird of the sky – upon all that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea.” Why did Hashem convey this message to Noach and his family? On first thought, it seems that it would have made more sense for Hashem to speak to the animals and command them to fear people. What point was Hashem making?
To explain the idea behind Hashem’s words, the Maggid introduces two additional sources. The first source is a Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 70:11 and Midrash Seichel Tov (Buber ed.), Bereishis Chapter 29, Paragraph 10. It is written (Tehillim 34:8): “The angel of Hashem encamps around those who fear Him and rescues them.” The Midrash applies this verse to Rachel. Yisro’s daughters would be chased away from their local well by the shepherds. But when Rachel went to her local well, the shepherds never disturbed her; her fear of God precluded them from doing so. The second source is the following verse (Devarim 28:10): “And all the nations of the world will see the Name of Hashem written upon you, and they shall be fearful on account of you.” 
The idea is as follows. Speaking of the Torah, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 119:105): “Your words are a lamp unto my feet.” In a similar way, the fear of God within the soul of a God-fearing person is like a lamp. When a person lights a lamp for himself, the light spreads to others as well. As Gemara in Shabbos 122b says, a lamp for one person is a lamp for a hundred people. A person whose heart is full of fear of God radiates his fear of God onto his surroundings. This fact is reflected in the verse from Devarim quoted above. We can now understand what Hashem was telling Noach and his family. He was telling them that they should fear Him so intensely that the fear will radiate out to the animals and make them tremble. Without the fear of God, a person looks to the animals like just another animal (cf. Shabbos 151b), but a person who radiates fear of God is immune from harm, as was the case with Rachel.
The Maggid quotes the Vilna Gaon as saying that there is a certain critical level of fear of God that a person must have in order for his fear of God to radiate onto others. By way of analogy, imagine a small basin placed inside a larger basin, with a person pouring water into the small basin. So long as the small basin is not yet full, no water will reach the larger basin, but if the person continues pouring after the small basin is full, the excess water will spill into the larger basin. It is similar with fear of God. When a person’s soul is completely filled with fear of God, then fear of God will spill out from him onto his surroundings.
Fear of Hashem depends on comprehension of Hashem. Fear of Hashem is present in heaven because the heavenly beings have a substantial level of comprehension of Hashem. They behold Hashem’s awesome glory and they are overcome with fear that makes them sweat so much that their sweat forms the Dinur River (Chagiggah 13b). But the average person sits in darkness, with a very low level of comprehension of Hashem. If a person lacks wisdom, he surely cannot have any appreciable fear of Hashem. The only way to attain fear of Hashem is to study the Torah and perform the mitzvos that Hashem brought down from heaven and conveyed to us. By analogy, suppose a person wants to cultivate a certain spice that grows only in certain areas. He must then bring soil from one of these areas, embed this soil into a section of his property, and plant seeds of the spice in this soil. Similarly, Hashem brought part of heaven down to our world so that fear of Him could develop here. Often certain products that come from a certain place are named after the place they come from. In this vein, fear of Hashem is called “fear of heaven” because heaven is the primary source of fear of Hashem.
For us, fear of God is indeed not a small thing. But it is far from a person’s reach only if his community lacks righteous people. If a righteous person is present in a person’s community, then fear of God is well within his reach. This fact is reflected in a verse we quoted previously: “The angel of Hashem encamps around those who fear Him and rescues them.” The surroundings of a God-fearing person are suffused with holiness.
Certain gems can be found only in distant places. But if a merchant travels to the appropriate area and brings a stock of these gems to a certain city, the people of the city can easily obtain them. They can do so, however, only if they approach the merchant and buy them or ask for them as a gift. Similarly, a righteous person can imbue other members of his community with fear of Hashem, but only if they draw close to him. We can link this idea to a teaching in Bava Kamma 41b. It is written (Devarim 6:13): “את ה' אלוקיך תירא – Hashem, your God, you shall fear.” The Gemara says that that extra word את in the verse comes to extend the exhortation to a directive to fear Torah scholars. It is essential for us to follow this directive, for that is the only way we have to attain fear of Hashem.
We can now understand what the Gemara in Berachos 33b means when it says that with Moshe fear of Hashem is a small thing, and appreciate R. Chaninah’s analogy about the large vessel and the small vessel. For people who were placed “with Moshe” – in his vicinity – fear of Hashem was easily attainable. For Moshe was filled with fear of Hashem, and the fear spilled over from him to his surroundings. When the Gemara speaks of a person who is asked for a large vessel and has one, it is speaking of a person who can obtain the large vessel from someone else. Thus, when Hashem granted some of Moshe’s powers of prophecy to the elders of the Jewish People, He described this process by saying that he was going to “take from the spirit that is upon you and place it upon them” (Bamidbar 11:17). The phrase “upon you” indicates Moshe’s abundant fear of Hashem – so abundant that it overflowed, spilling onto him and those nearby him. In a similar vein, in the first paragraph of the Shema, Hashem tells us (Devarim 6:6): “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” A Jew’s heart should be so filled with words of Torah that the words spill out onto it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vaeschanan

This week’s parashah begins with Moshe describing his (unsuccessful) prayers to Hashem to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. This prompts the Midrash to present various teachings regarding prayer. Thus, the Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 2:11):
It is written (Tehillim 20:2): “Hashem will answer you on the day of distress; the Name of the God of Yaakov will raise you up.” Reish Lakish taught: “We can give an analogy. A woman giving birth was feeling pain during the delivery. They said to her: ‘The One who answered your mother will also answer you.’ Thus said David HaMelech to the Jewish People: ‘The One who answered Yaakov will answer you. What did Yaakov pray? He prayed (Bereishis 35:3): “I will make there an altar to the God who answers me on the day of my distress.” Also with you: “Hashem will answer you on the day of distress; the Name of the God of Yaakov will raise you up.”’
In explaining this Midrash, the Maggid presents the following parable. A rich man had an only son who was a fool. He realized that after his death his son would not hold onto his great wealth, but was sure to lose it all. He took all his silver and gold and put it in a chest. And at the bottom of the chest, underneath all the silver and gold, he placed a set of letters asking for help, of the kind beggars carry with them. The rich man said to himself: “Let my son take the gold and silver from this chest as he needs, and when he uses it all up at least he’ll have these letters that he can take wherever he goes to plead to people to have pity on him and help him.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem prepared a great treasure for us: The Beis HaMikdash and all its vessels, the order of service in the Beis HaMikdash, the laws of Eretz Yisrael, and so on. But He knew that the Beis HaMikdash eventually would be destroyed, and the Jewish People would be exiled from their land, bereft of all the many blessings they had in their initial days of glory. All we would have left would be the opportunity to plead to Hashem to be gracious toward us and grant us blessing out of sheer compassion. He therefore placed within the hearts of David HaMelech and his associates to prepare for us prayers that we could recite and thereby sustain ourselves during the exile. Thus, David declares (Tehillim 22:3): “My God, I call out by day, and You do not answer me; and at night, and there is no abatement for me.” In a homiletical vein, we can understand David as saying the following: “Now, as I call upon my God, there is not yet need for Him to answer my prayers, for the light of the day is still shining, and it is not a time of need. But when the darkness of night comes – when the Beis HaMikdash is destroyed and we go into exile – my pleas will resound without abatement.” It is along the lines of the Rabbinic saying (e.g., Yevamos 97a): “Whenever a person relates a teaching in the name of a certain Torah scholar, the scholar’s lips move within the grave.” David says: “When the night of exile comes, my Jewish brothers will give me no rest – they will constantly recite the prayers I prepared for them.”  Similarly, the sons of Korach declare (Tehillim 88:2): “Hashem, God of my salvation, in the day I cried out, in the night before You.” That is: “I composed my prayer in the tranquility of day, but in the night I will pour it forth before You.”
We turn now to the verse from Tehillim that the Midrash quotes: “Hashem will answer you on the day of distress; the Name of the God of Yaakov will raise you up.” Seemingly this statement is truncated at the beginning; it should have been written: “When you pray to Hashem, He will answer you on the day of distress.” Our Sages therefore explain the statement as follows. When our forefather Yaakov prayed before Hashem, he had in mind that he was not praying on his own behalf, but rather on behalf of us – Hashem would be granting relief to us, not to him.
Usually when a person prays, he is not answered right away; rather there is some interval of time before Hashem sends aid. Thus, the Midrash states (Devarim Rabbah 2:17): “Some prayers are answered after forty days … and some prayers are answered after twenty days ….” But David declares that Hashem will answer on the day of distress – on the very day itself. And then David explains why: “The Name of the God of Yaakov will raise you up.”
The Maggid brings out the idea with an analogy. Suppose some people did business together, and after the venture was over they made an accounting and settled up. And then, shortly afterward, one of them approaches the other and says: “I went over the accounts and I discovered that I owe you some money.” Surely the second partner will not press the first partner for immediate payment. But now let us imagine another scenario. A person’s father does business with someone, and they settle up. Fifty years pass, the father dies, the son goes through his father’s papers, and discovers that his father’s partner in this transaction actually owed his father a considerable sum of money. It will then be no surprise if the son presses the partner to pay right away.
The parallel is as follows. When a person prays for a specific need at a specific moment, his stock of merit might be too small for him to be helped right away, so that the relief is held up. But it is different when a person offers a prayer that our holy forefathers offered thousands of years ago. He might well receive help from Hashem right away, and yet there is still a long interval between the time the prayer was first offered and the time it was answered. David is saying that it is on account of Yaakov (and Avraham and Yitzchak) that we receive an immediate answer; Yaakov submitted the request on our behalf long ago. In a similar vein, on another occasion David cries out (Tehillim 22:2): “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me; why so far from saving me, from the words of my roar?” David is saying: “Hashem, I feel as if You have forsaken me. And if You ask why I am pressing You, it is because it is so far from the time the request I am making of You was put forward on our behalf by our forefathers.” 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Devarim

Sefer Devarim begins with the following statement: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael on the other [east] side of the Jordan ….” The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 1:7):
What is this like? Let us give a parable. A dyed wool merchant was outside calling out: “Here is dyed wool!” The king was peering outside and he heard the announcement, and he called the merchant over to him. He asked: “What are you selling?” The merchant replied: “Nothing.” The king exclaimed: “I heard you calling out, ‘Here is dyed wool,’ and you tell me you’re not selling anything?” The merchant responded: “My master, it is true that I’m selling dyed wool, but for someone in your high position it is like nothing.” Thus it was with Moshe and Hashem. When Moshe spoke to Hashem [at the burning bush, Shemos 4:10] he said, “I am not a man of words.” But in relation to the People of Yisrael, it is written: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael.”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He relates that he once asked the Vilna Gaon what the difference is between the first four books of the Torah and Sefer Devarim. The Gaon replied as follows. The words in the first four books were spoken by Hashem Himself, channeling His speech through Moshe’s throat. But the words in Sefer Devarim were like those spoken by the prophets who came after Moshe. With these other prophets, Hashem communicated His message to the prophet in a vision, and afterward the prophet conveyed the message to the people. Thus, at the time the prophet spoke to the people, Hashem was no longer speaking to him. Similarly, Moshe conveyed Sefer Devarim to the Jewish People on his own.
The Midrash expounds earlier (Devarim Rabbah 1:1):
It is written (Mishlei 15:4, homiletically): “The tree of life heals the tongue.” And the “tree of life” is none other than the Torah, as it is written (ibid. 3:18): “It [the Torah] is a tree of life to those who grasp it.” … Before Moshe acquired Torah, he declared: “I am not a man of words.” But after he acquired Torah his tongue was healed and he began to speak out words, as it is written: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael.”
Initially, the Maggid says, it was necessary for Moshe to have a speech impairment. In this way, when Moshe spoke words of Torah, and the words came out smoothly and clearly, the Jewish People would know that it was Hashem speaking. They could tell that it was not Moshe speaking, for the rest of the time Moshe was unable to speak smoothly. This state of affairs continued throughout the period in which Moshe presented the Jewish People the Torah for the first time. The situation is reflected in the Midrash with the parable of the dyed wool merchant. Moshe was able to present words of Torah clearly during this period, but from Hashem’s standpoint, Moshe was not purveying anything, for in fact He was the One doing the speaking. Moshe viewed himself as having nothing to offer, for he was not a man of words.
But now, when Moshe set out to present the Torah a second time, it was no longer necessary for Moshe to have a speech impediment. The people had already heard the entire Torah spoken by Hashem through Moshe’s throat, and they knew Hashem had been the speaker. Accordingly, Hashem healed Moshe’s tongue, and he was able to speak normally. And thus, when Moshe presented his review of the Torah, speaking on his own, the words came out smoothly.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Megillas Eichah

Given that we are now in the annual three-week period of mourning over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, I present some teachings from the Maggid’s commentary on Megillas Eichah (Lamentations), which we read on the fast of Tishah B’Av. In Eichah 3:23, it is written: “They come anew each morning – Your faithfulness is great.” The Midrash presents a comment on this verse by R. Shimon bar Abba (Eichah Rabbah 3:20): “From the fact that You recast [Your relationship with] us at the dawning of each major kingdom, we know that You can be firmly counted on to redeem us.” We can understand this comment by reflecting on why God sent us into exile. We have to understand that Hashem did not exile us out of anger, intending to make our souls languish. Far be it for Hashem to do evil – He intends only good for the Jewish People. His sole aim is to benefit us in the end. He afflicts us only because our condition requires it.
This idea is reflected in the following verse (Tehillim 77:11, homiletically): “On account of my sickness the Most High One’s right hand has changed over.” It is like a father who makes his son take bitter medicines because the son is sick. The medicine is meant to clear the son’s system of the disease and restore him to his former strength. The Maggid elaborates on this theme at length several times in his commentary on Eichah. The son initially will view his father as a total enemy whose intent is to aggravate him. But when he sees that the doctor sometimes tells the father to throw out the old medicines and prepare new ones in their stead, the son will then understand that the father is acting for his good. If the father wished merely to afflict him, why would he switch to a different medicine? Surely the original medicine, with its horribly bitter taste, would do the job well enough. Similarly, from the fact that Hashem sometimes cancels the old decrees and subjects us to new ones, we have clear evidence that His intent must be for our good. This is what the Midrash is telling us. We can draw encouragement from this teaching.
At the same time, we have to recognize that Hashem is in pain, so to speak, over the fact that He has to bring us suffering rather than the blessing that He wishes to bring us. In this connection, the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 2:5, expounding on Hashem’s conversation with Moshe at the burning bush, teaches as follows:
Said R. Yannai: “Just like with twins, if one has a headache, the other feels it. In the same vein, the Holy One Blessed Be He said (Tehillim 91:15), ‘I am with him in distress.’” Another point: What is the meaning of “I am with him in distress”? When they are in trouble, they call out only to the Holy One Blessed Be He. Thus it was in Egypt, as it is written (Shemos 2:23): “And their supplication rose up to God.” And thus it was by the sea, as it is written (ibid. 14:10): “And the Children of Yisrael cried out unto Hashem ….” There are many other such instances. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “Do you not sense that I am engulfed in pain when the People of Yisrael are engulfed in pain? You can know from the fact that I am speaking to you, so to speak, from amidst the brambles that I share their pain.”
On Tishah B’Av, as we lament the fact that we are in a state of exile, without the Beis HaMikdash, we should lament especially over the pain Hashem Himself feels because of this state of affairs.
David Zucker, Site Administrator