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Shabbos HaGadol

Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 5 (conclusion)
Shlomo HaMelech asks (Koheles 1:3): What benefit does a man gain from all his labor that he will labor beneath the sun?” We can explain what Shlomo is saying as follows. Admittedly a person’s labor generates benefit, in the form of various possessions that he acquires. And people work like crazy to acquire their possessions; as the Rambam puts it in his introduction to his commentary on Mishnah Seder Zeraim, were it not for crazy people, the world would be desolate. Moreover, people put great effort into safeguarding their possessions. But in the end, we all depart this world and leave our possessions behind. This being the case, what real benefit does the person himself gain from all his labor? The world benefits, but the person himself does not really benefit. As we stated in our commentary on Koheles 1:3 in Kol Yaakov, a person who spends his entire life toiling for worldly possessions as like a worker who earns only enough to feed himself, with nothing to bring home.
Accordingly, I [the Maggid] chose a different path, for the benefit of my soul, and the souls of other humble people like me, to take moral counsel and learn the ways of character development, from the bottom up, as we explained earlier based on Hoshea’s exhortation to return up to Hashem. And all is presented with clearly reasoned arguments, illustrated by parables, for parables have great power. Thus the Midrash teaches (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:8): “Do not regard parables lightly, for it is through parables that a person gains understanding of the Torah’s words.” In Eruvin 21b, the Gemara says that Shlomo came and made “ears ” for the Torah. My understanding of this teaching is as follows. It often happens that a person encounters a wise scholar and listens to him speak, but when he is asked later what the scholar said, he says: “I didn’t hear him.” You may point out to him that he was standing right next to the scholar. He will reply: “I didn’t pay attention.” But when a scholar begins his lesson with a parable, people open up their ears to hear everything he says. This was the approach Shlomo took in Sefer Mishlei: He fashioned parables and epigrams relating to what he wished to teach, and in this way “he made ears for the Torah” – that is, he stirred people to open up their ears and listen to his message.
Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect)
Our holy prophets have expounded profusely on the importance of the trait of mindful behavior – using intellectual knowledge as a guide to action – so much so that they have identified this trait as the foremost among the character traits needed to attain spiritual perfection. David HaMelech commanded his son (Divrei HaYamim Alef 28:9): “And, you, Shlomo, my son, know the God of your father” (see chapter 6). Shlomo, in turn, completed the message, saying (Mishlei 1:7): “Fear of Hashem is the source of knowledge.” Yeshayah’s opening rebuke to the Jewish People in begins by stressing the importance of activating the intellect (verse 1:3): “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey his master’s trough, but Yisrael did not know, My people did not ponder.” And our Sages teach (Berachos 33a): “Great is knowledge, which is mentioned in between two invocations of a Divine Name.” They say further (Nedarim 41a): “If you have acquired knowledge, what do you lack? And if you lack knowledge, what have you acquired?” Shlomo HaMelech, near the beginning of Sefer Mishlei – his book of ethical teachings in the form of proverbs – declares (Mishlei 1:22): “Until when, O simpletons, will you cherish silliness. Scoffers hanker for satire, and fools hate knowledge.” I therefore decided to begin this book with a discussion of mindful behavior, with an in-depth explanation of its essence, its nature, its eminence, and its benefits. Before we enter into our main discussion of this precious trait, however, we first explain the difference between the animals and man, the foremost creation, in regard to how their actions are driven.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vayikra

In the section of this week’s parashah that discusses the offerings a person must bring when he sins, the word the Torah uses for person is נפש – soul. The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 4:7‑8 – see Berachos 10a for a similar teaching):
In Tehillim 103 and 104, David HaMelech uses the expression “Bless Hashem, O my soul” five times. Why did David choose his soul to express his praise to Hashem? He reasoned: “… Let the soul, which fills the body, praise Hashem, who fills the world. … Let the soul, which bears the burden of the body, praise Hashem, who bears the burden of the world. … Let the soul, which outlives the body, praise Hashem, who outlives the world. … Let the soul, which is unique within the body, praise Hashem, who is unique within the world. Let the soul, which does not eat, praise Hashem, who does not eat. … Let the soul, which sees but is not seen, praise Hashem, who sees but is not seen.  … Let the soul, which is pure within the body, praise Hashem, who is pure within the world. … Let the soul, which does not sleep, praise Hashem, who does not sleep.”
A person’s soul rules over his entire body, and the body cannot make any move without the agreement and cooperation of the life force that the soul provides. Indeed, as the Torah says in Bereishis 2:7, the body comes from the earth, and it is only when Hashem breathed into it the soul of life that man became a living being. The soul is unique in that it is the only source of true life within man, while the body is merely a servant of the soul, putting its physical capabilities into operation to carry out the soul’s wishes. We have explained in Sefer HaMiddos, in Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect) and elsewhere, that the will of the intellect rules over a person’s desires and aspirations. It is therefore fitting for the soul to praise Hashem for all of the components of the body.
The Midrash also expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 4:4): “Ten things serve the soul: the food pipe for food, the windpipe for voice, the liver for anger, the lungs for absorbing liquids, the intestines for grinding, the spleen for levity, the stomach for sleeping, the bile for jealousy, the kidneys ponder, and the heart decides.” A similar list appears in Berachos 61b; there it is stated that the kidneys advise and the heart understands. Let us understand what function the kidneys serve that leads the Sages to say that they “advise,” and what our Sages mean when they say the heart understands. We build on the statement in the Midrash that “the soul is pure.” We know that people occasionally do evil deeds or think evil thoughts. But we must not think that the soul initiates these evil deeds or thoughts. Rather, all evil within man stems from the organs of the body. Thus, as the Midrash says, the liver is the seat of anger, the spleen is the seat of levity, the bile is the seat of jealousy, and so on. The role that the soul plays is to decide whether or not to heed the negative impulses that arise from the body. Thus the Torah states (Devarim 30:19): “Behold, I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.”  
Given this explanation, we can understand well the Torah takes such a severe stance toward those who incite others to evil. As explained in Maseches Sanhedrin, the general practice in Torah death penalty cases is for the court to aid the accused in raising defenses, but the inciter does not receive such aid. At first, it seems a wonder that the Torah puts such great blame on the inciter. Is the inciter a greater danger than a person’s natural evil inclination? Let us explain the reason for the Torah’s position. The soul directs a person’s actions according to intellect and analysis, and according to the Torah, which spells out what person should and should not do. The soul is guided toward the right choice by written Torah works and the teachings of Torah scholars. And, as we said above, the source of the evil inclination is the body. The Torah’s deeper teachings classify a person’s evil impulses into two root categories: desire for pleasure and anger. These two root categories branch out into a great multitude of emotions and impulses, such as love of people or things that bring pleasure, coveting, hatred, ill-will, and so on.
The impulses that arise from the body generate specious fantasies. Each fantasy comes before the heart with its “advice,” so to speak, and the heart forms a response according to its inclinations. If the heart fortifies itself when the fantasy first comes upon it, it can easily reject it. But if the heart “understands” accepts the fantasy and allows it to enter its inner chamber, it will be hard afterward for the heart to weed it out and cast it away. And the fantasy highjacks the person’s intellectual powers, and sets them to work on developing ways to obtain the ephemeral benefit that it portrays.
Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 9:1-13): “Wisdom has built her house …, she also has set her table. She has sent out her maiden to announce from the city heights: ‘Whoever is a simpleton, let him come here. …’ The woman of foolishness croons, the simple-minded one who knows nothing.” When wisdom seeks to lead a person to do a good deed, it calls out to the person with the Torah’s sublime words, conveyed to us by Hashem Himself, addressed to our intellect. Not so with the evil inclination, which emanates from the body. The evil inclination does not stem from a trustworthy source, and it does not present reasoned arguments. It does not approach us with words, but rather with simple-minded fantasies.
We can now see how the inciter is worse than the evil inclination. The evil inclination tries to lead us astray through fantasies, while the inciter tries to lead us astray through words and reasoned arguments. And Shlomo teaches (ibid. 27:9, homiletically): “Oil and incense gladden the heart, and so does the sweetness of one’s fellow from the counsel he gives to the soul.” Words can have more power to seduce than fantasies that pop into a person’s imagination, and therefore it is crucial to do away with inciters.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vayakhel-Pekudei

Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 4
[In the previous selection from Sefer HaMiddos, we presented the Maggid’s teaching that a person must first bring his conduct in line with the dictates of human decency and only afterward seek to perfect his service to Hashem. The Maggid is not saying that a person should not perform any other mitzvos until he has perfected his character. Certainly a person should make an effort to observe all mitzvos at a basic level. Rather, the Maggid is saying that as between perfecting one’s character and perfecting his observance of other mitzvos, perfecting one’s character takes precedence. We now continue with the Maggid’s discussion.]
We can bring out the point with an analogy. A man had a running dispute with his wife about what to do with assets she received from her father. One day, the man got severely sick and had to be confined to bed. While on his sickbed, he continued to argue with his wife about the assets. His wife said: “Why are you arguing with me while you are still so sick? First you should get yourself in proper shape, and then we can continue the discussion.”
Previously we quoted Hoshea’s exhortation (Hoshea 14:2): “Return, Yisrael, up to (עד) Hashem your God.” We noted that Hoshea does not tell us to return to Hashem (לה' or אל ה'), but rather to return up to (עד) Hashem. We can explain the exhortation as telling us that a person must perfect himself on all levels, starting from the level of basic human decency, progressing level by level, and aiming eventually to the heights of closeness to Hashem.
Accordingly, I [the Maggid] felt it fitting to compose a work that would benefit me and those like me in the process of character development. We could study from it every day of our sojourn on earth, examine our character traits, and assess whether they are in line with what a thinking man would view as proper, keeping in mind that Hashem is in our midst. Now, great luminaries of earlier times have composed works on character perfection, which have been circulated among the Jewish People. But in our times, a different kind of work is needed. The previous works on character perfection present finely-reasoned philosophical discussion. Those versed in philosophy were able to see the great wealth of wisdom buried within these works’ brief words. But what will be with simpler people, who have never delved in philosophy? Moreover, the earlier works are available to most Jews only in translation [Chovos HaLevavos and similar works were written originally in Arabic], and a translation cannot fully bring out what the author meant to express. Language is the quill of the heart and the agent of the author’s conscience, and no translation can reproduce the author’s message with perfect accuracy. This point has been discussed by various translators, such as Yehudah Ibn Tibon in his preface to his translation of Chovos HaLevavos.
Further, I saw that sainted authors who preceded me described in great depth and breadth the ideal level of service of Hashem which is the ultimate goal. But we have already noted that there is much work that a person must do before setting out to perfect his observance of all the mitzvos. We have already quoted the teaching that “basic human decency comes before Torah.” And we are in a constant struggle against our evil inclination, so that Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 6:4-5): “Do not let your eyes sleep or your eyelids slumber; save yourself like a deer from the hand [of the hunter] and like a bird from the hand of the trapper.” Shlomo teaches further (ibid. 4:19): “The way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know on what they stumble.” Over the course of their entire lives, the wicked are madly racing about at the instigation of their evil inclination, and they forget who put them here and why they are here. Nailed into their hearts from youth is the drive to toil and sweat for worldly assets, which they cannot hold onto permanently, but must leave over to their heirs when their life in this world ends. A person must bear in mind where he is headed to after he departs from this world. Thus, the Mishnah teaches (Avos 4:16): “R. Yaakov says, ‘This world is like a lobby before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the lobby, so that you may enter the banquet hall.’”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Ki Sissa

On the parashah
This week’s parashah recounts the sin of the golden calf. Accordingly, the Midrash on the parashah discusses the evil inclination. The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 41:7, end):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “At present, when they have the evil inclination within them, they engage in idolatry, but in the end of days I will uproot the evil inclination from within them and give them a heart of flesh.” Thus it is written (Yechezkel 36:26): “I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh.”
In explaining the Midrash, the Maggid presents a lengthy discourse. We previously presented a synopsis of one segment of this discourse. We now expand on a portion of it.
The Maggid takes another Midrash as his starting point. The Jewish People declare (Shir HaShirim 1:5): “I am blackened, yet beautiful, O daughters of Yerushalayim – [I am] like the tents of Kedar, [yet also] like the curtains of Shlomo.” The Midrash expounds (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:38):
Just as Shlomo’s curtains get soiled and are laundered, and then get soiled and are laundered again, so too it is with the People of Yisrael. Although they soil themselves with sin throughout the year, Yom Kippur comes and atones for them.
The Maggid explains as follows. The primary basis for our faith that Hashem will cleanse our souls in the end of days is not the belief that we will earn this cleansing, but rather our reliance on Hashem’s compassion and kindness. Because of these attributes, we understand that ultimately Hashem will take pity on us and, as an act of free grace, will purify and sanctify us. In the words of Devarim 30:6, He will circumcise our hearts, meaning that He will purge from within us the defilement of the evil inclination. Now, when the people who are deeply entrenched in idolatry, in one form or another, see Hashem granting us this cleansing, they might ask Hashem to do for them the same kindness. But it will not be possible to do so.
The difference between a person who, while beleaguered by his evil inclination, has a connection to Hashem and His law and a person who is deeply entrenched in idolatry is like the difference between a sick person and a dead person. A person may be extremely sick, even close to death, but so long as he is still alive it is possible for a doctor to cure him and restore him to his original state of health. But if a person is dead, there is no way to restore him – he is like an inert stone. Similarly, if a person is in essence a good person – if he has a connection to Hashem and His law, with the power of discernment which that entails – then even though he is infected with the evil inclination and thereby prone to sin, Hashem can cure him and restore him to his natural state of goodness. Thus, Hoshea declares in Hashem’s Name (Hoshea 14:5): “I shall cure them of their waywardness.” But if a person’s basic essence is evil, it is impossible to bring him to a state of true goodness.
The Midrash likens the Jewish People to curtains that get soiled and are laundered. If a cloth is itself black, laundering will not remove the blackness. But if a cloth is itself white, then even if it gets soiled with black stains, one can launder it and restore it to its original whiteness. In this vein, Yechezkel declares in Hashem’s Name (Yechezkel 36:25-26): “I shalll sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean …. I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh.”
Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 3
Hoshea exhorts (Hoshea 14:2): “Return, Yisrael, up to (עד) Hashem your God.” Note that Hoshea does not tell us to return to Hashem (לה' or אל ה'), but rather to return up to (עד) Hashem. Hoshea is teaching us that when we seek to repent, to direct our actions to good and mend our ways, we should divide the task into stages. Thus, Yeshayah exorts in Hashem’s Name (Yeshayah 1:15):
“Cleanse yourselves, purify yourselves – remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease turning to evil. Learn to do good and seek justice; vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow. Come now, let us reason together,” says Hashem, “if your sins are like scarlet they will become white as snow; if they have become red as crimson, they will become [white] as wool.
A person must first adjust his behavior so that it is in line with the type of conduct befiting a member of the human race. He must act as dictated by uprightness and honest exercise of his intellect. Afterward he can take the next step and adorn himself with the role of being a holy minister to Hashem. Hashem exhorts (Vayikra 19:2): “Be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy.” On account of Hashem’s being our God and our being His people, it is fitting that we serve our holy God and make ourselves holy. But our role as ministers to Hashem is not what makes it incumbent on us not to steal, extort, or commit other crimes of this nature – this would be incumbent on us even if were not ministers to Hashem, on account of our being men and women rather than animals. Thus, Yeshayah tells us first to cleanse ourseves by learning to do good and seeking justice, and only afterward tells us to avoid sinning by being derelict in our duty to serve Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Tetzaveh – Sefer HaMiddos

Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 2
We previously quoted R. Chananiah ben Akasha’s teaching: “The Holy One Blessed Be He wished to bring merit to Yisrael, therefore He gave them an abundance of Torah and mitzvos. As it is written: ‘Hashem desired, for the sake of his [Yisrael’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious.’” We explained that this teaching relates also to matters of basic human decency: Hashem took the code of honorable conduct that we inherited from our holy forefathers and included it as part of the Torah, so that we could receive reward for adhering to it. At the same time, in one sense, there would have been an advantage in not including this code in the Torah as a command. For then the evil inclination would not militate against it, so that we could maintain a firm hold on it, like an inheritance passed down from our ancestors. The moral code would be second nature to us, as if it were implanted within us from birth. But now that the moral code has been included in the Torah, the evil inclination fights to cause us to stray from it.
Let us return now to the Midrash we presented previously. Yeshayah declares in Hashem’s Name: “It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov, for you have toiled for Me, Yisrael.” The Midrash expounds: “All day they engage in business and do not get tired. They do their work and do not get tired. Yet when they recite the prayers they get tired! Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘“It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov.” Would it be that I had not come to recognize you, Yaakov! Why? Because “you toiled for Me, Yisrael.”’” Given what we have explained, we can grasp a key facet of what the Midrash is saying.
We can bring out the point with a parable. In a certain city, one of the community leaders, a wealthy and generous man, would regularly give lavish gifts to the community Rabbi on Jewish holidays and other special occasions. In time, the Rabbi’s daughter reached marriageable age. The Rabbi approached a matchmaker and asked him to check whether the rich man had a sharp-witted son whom he would be willing to match with his daughter. The matchmaker approached the rich man with the proposal and the matter was settled. Soon afterward the wedding was made. The Rabbi was extremely happy. He thought to himself: “My son-in-law’s father spent a lot of money on me even before his son married my daughter. Now that we are related through marriage, he surely will be generous toward me.” But in the end the opposite happened. A strife developed between the young couple, and eventually the rich man and the Rabbi came to hate each other intensely. So when the time came when the rich man usually would send the Rabbi a gift, he sent the Rabbi nothing. The Rabbi lamented: “If only I hadn’t made a match between this fellow’s son and my daughter! Then he would continue giving to me generously as he was accustomed to do. But now he has turned into my enemy.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem says to us: “I gained honor and greatness from the fine character traits you displayed while you were in your original status of ‘Yaakov.’ But now that I have given you the Torah and elevated you to the status of ‘Yisrael,’ you consider honorable conduct a burden. Would it be that I had not come to recognize you, Yaakov! Perhaps it would have better had I not included the glorious code of conduct that you followed as part of the Torah.” We can understand similarly Hoshea’s declaration in Hashem’s Name (Hoshea 8:12): “I wrote for them the great principles of My Torah, but they were regarded as something foreign.” Hashem is saying: “I gave them Torah and mitzvos in order to bring them merit, with their adherence to their regular moral code now being an act of obedience to My command for which they would receive reward. But afterward, the opposite happened. Their previous moral code is now foreign to them, and they have become estranged from Me, more distant than they were before. Would it be that I had not come to recognize you, Yaakov!”
The Rambam, in the sixth of his Eight Chapters, discusses the difference between the mitzvos that a person can understand with his own intellect and those that a person becomes aware of only through a Divine communication. Regarding the first set of mitzvos, it is fitting for a person to reflect on them and gain an understanding that it is just and right to observe them, simply on account of his being a member of the human race. By contrast, with the second set of mitzvos, a person should take the attitude that he is observing them only because Hashem commanded him to do so. Thus, in Sifra, Kedoshim (quoted by Rashi on Vayikra 20:26), our Sages teach: “A person should not say, ‘I don’t want to eat pork.’ Rather, he should say, ‘I want to eat pork, but what can I do? My Father in heaven has decreed against it.’” There is no such teaching regarding the prohibitions against murder or stealing. A person can understand with his own intellect that he should avoid murder, stealing, robbing, lying, and so on, even if he were not commanded to avoid these acts. Similarly, a person can understand with his own intellect that he should be kind, compassionate toward others, modest, and patient and tolerant, and should conduct himself honorably in all respects.
In light of what we have explained, we can understand a rebuke that Moshe directed toward us in Hashem’s Name (Devarim 32:21): “They provoked Me with no god, aggravated Me with their absurdities. So I shall provoke them with a non-nation, and with a vile people I shall aggravate them.” When Hashem declares that we provoke Him with no god, he is saying that we provoke Him through acts that we should realize are wrong even without God telling us not to engage in them. And when He says that we aggravate Him with our absurdities, He saying that we anger Him through acts that we should recognize on our own as absurd and counter to common sense. And Hashem continues by saying that He will deal with us measure for measure: Just as we departed from the ways of decent human beings, He will provoke us with a non-nation – with a vile assemblage of people that does not fit the description of a normative nation.

Shabbos Parashas Terumah — Sefer HaMiddos

Since there are some parashios for which I have already presented all of the Maggid’s commentaries that are available, I will begin presenting selections from the Maggid’s Sefer HaMiddos (Book of Noble Character Traits), starting from the beginning and continuing in order. Sefer HaMiddos is the only work among the Maggid’s published teachings that was put in the form of a written text by the Maggid himself. The Maggid prepared a draft of the book, and the book was then edited and published by Rav Avraham Beirush Flamm, who also redacted the Maggid’s commentaries on the parashios of the Torah (Ohel Yaakov) and the haftaros (Kochav MiYaakov).
The structure of Sefer HaMiddos is patterned after that of Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart), a leading work on Jewish piety written by in Arabic in 1040 by Rav Bachya Ibn Pekudah and translated into Hebrew about a century or so later (other translations have been produced subsequently). The book consists of a Prologue and eight sections, called “gates”:  Intellect, Fear of God, Love of God, Service to God, Trust in God, Haughtiness, Hatred, and Prayer. Each section is divided into several chapters.
We begin with the Prologue, the first part of which has a connection with this week’s parashah, parashas Terumah, which presents Hashem’s instructions for the building of the Mishkan. The Holy Ark, containing the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, representing the Torah (especially the written Torah) was built with a crown on its top. The Prologue beings with a teaching in Yoma 72b relating to this crown. In this connection, a friend of mine who is also interested in the Maggid’s teachings pointed out to me that the Maggid’s family name, Kranz, is Yiddish for crown or wreath.
Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 1
In Yoma 72b [in connection with the crown on the Holy Ark in the Mishkan], R. Yochanan expounds: “It is written זר and read זֵיר – if a person is worthy, the Torah becomes a crown (זֵיר) for him, and if not it becomes a stranger (זָר) to him.” R. Yochanan is presenting a teaching here which is related to a Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 457. It is written (Yeshayah 43:22): “It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov, for you have toiled for Me, Yisrael.” The Midrash expounds: “All day they engage in business and do not get tired. They do their work and do not get tired. Yet when they recite the prayers they get tired! Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘“It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov.” Would it be that I did not come to recognize you, Yaakov! Why? Because “you toiled for Me, Yisrael.”’”
In the blessing over the Torah, we say: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah. Blessed are You, Hashem, Giver of the Torah.” Hashem did not decide to give us His precious Torah based on drawing lots. Rather, He gave us the Torah because He saw that we were worthy to receive it. How did He reach this conclusion? It must be that He saw in us a merit predating our observance of the Torah’s laws and statutes – something coming before Torah. What comes before Torah? The answer is given in the traditional saying, derived from Vayikra Rabbah 15:3, that basic human decency comes before Torah. Basic human decency encompasses the spectrum of noble character traits, such as perfect honesty and compassion for others. In Yevamos 79a, the Gemara list three traits that typify the Jewish People: compassion, humility, and readiness to perform acts of kindness. R. Yochanan contrasts a worthy person who learns Torah with an unworthy person who learns Torah. When a person makes himself worthy by developing noble character and afterward learns Torah, he is like a person in fine clothes who bears a crown on his head. But when a contemptible person learns Torah, he is like a person in tattered clothes who bears a crown on his head; the crown looks out of place. This is what R. Yochanan means when he says that if a person is unworthy, the Torah is a stranger to him.
Mishnah Makkos 3:16 and Avos D’Rabbi Noson, chapter 41 (end) present a teaching of R. Chananiah ben Akasha: “The Holy One Blessed Be He wished to bring merit to Yisrael, therefore He gave them an abundance of Torah and mitzvos. As it is written (Yeshayah 42:21): ‘Hashem desired, for the sake of his [Yisrael’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious.’” Hashem included in His Torah many things that we would do of our own accord even if He had not commanded them, such as refraining from eating disgusting things such as insects and mice. Hashem included these things among the mitzvos of the Torah in order that we could receive reward for them as well, for, as the Gemara in Kiddushin 31a states, “one who is commanded to do something and does it is greater than one who is not commanded to do something and does it [of his own accord].” The evil inclination has the power to test us only in areas relating to a commandment of the Torah. In this light, we can understand what the Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni is saying. The fact that we do not get tired when engaging in business or doing our work is a sign that we do not experience great resistance in engaging in pursuits that the Torah does not require. It is only in regard to mitzvos that the evil inclination fights against us, causing us to feel weary. We can say that R. Chananiah ben Akasha’s teaching relates also to matters of basic human decency: Hashem took the code of honorable conduct that we inherited from our holy forefathers and included it as part of the Torah, so that we could receive reward for adhering to it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mishpatim

Parashas Mishpatim deals with civil laws. The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 30:1, expounding on Tehillim 99:4), it is written: “You established uprightness for Your beloved ones – through the laws that You gave them, they enter into disputes with one another, and go to have them adjudicated, and [thereby] they make peace.” The Maggid explains that when devoted Jews bring a court case, it is not out of love of money, but rather out love of uprightness and justice. Both parties in the case are concerned that they may be taking something that is not theirs, and wish to have the matter properly resolved.
Avos 1:18 states: “On three things the world stands: on justice, on truth, and on peace. As it is written (Zechariah 8:16): ‘Truth and judgment of peace are you to adjudicate in your gates.’” Yerushalmi Taanis 4:2 comments: “All three are one: when justice is done, truth is established and peace is made.” The Maggid explains this teaching by noting a key difference between a court case that is brought because one party is trying to take or withhold something unrightfully from the other from the other party and a court case that is brought by upright men who are unsure about what the law is in a certain matter and wish to have the issue properly clarified. If someone brings a case in an attempt to take what is not rightfully his, the court will set the matter straight, and as a result the person who brought the case will go home upset, because he did not get what he wanted. By contrast, when two parties bring a case to court out of a desire to clarify what the law dictates, and one of the parties is told that he has been holding something that is not rightfully his, he will give it over right away and will not want to have it in his hands anymore, and he will go home glad that the court saved him from doing an injustice to the other party. In this vein, the Gemara says (Sanhedrin 7a): “Let one who leaves a court that has taken his cloak from him sing his song and go his way.” Moreover, the one who was judged to be in the wrong will appease the other party and apologize over making him go through the trouble of going to court. And thus, after the case is decided, there will be peace and friendship between the two parties.
From the Mishnah in Avos, we might have thought that justice, truth, and peace are three separate things, but the Yerushalmi, after quoting the Mishnah, states that they are all one unit. In the verse in Zechariah, truth comes first, and then justice and peace. If the initial reason for seeking a court judgment is the desire to arrive at the truth, then after the judgment the parties will be at peace with each other, and they both will thank the court profusely for guiding them to the proper outcome. But if the initial reason for seeking a court judgment is a need for someone to retrieve something that was wrongfully taken from him, then the opposite will result: After the judgment the losing defendant will hate both the plaintiff and the judges.
The Midrash states that the Torah’s laws lead Jews to enter into disputes with one another. The Midrash is saying that the reason the Jews go into court is a desire to uphold the Torah’s laws and reach a resolution that is true and just. Accordingly, after the matter is adjudicated, the parties are at peace with each other.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Yisro

This week’s parashah recounts the giving of the Torah. The Maggid discusses a difficulty in the Torah’s account that is raised in Shabbos 87a. In Shemos 19:8, the Torah reports that the Jewish People declared their readiness to obey Hashem’s word, and states afterward that “Moshe brought back the words of the people to Hashem.” In the very next verse, the Torah states: “Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem.” The account thus seems unnecessarily repetitive, for between these two statements there is no indication of any further interchange, aside from a declaration that Hashem directed to Moshe himself. It does not appear that Hashem was asking Moshe to relay a second message to the people, so as to create a need for Moshe to come back to Hashem with another response. What, then, was the point of the repetition?
The Maggid suggests a possible explanation based on a Midrash. It is written (Shir HaShirim 1:2): “Kiss me with the kisses of Your mouth, for Your affections are more pleasing than wine.” The Midrash comments as follows (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:14, slightly paraphrased):
R. Yochanan interpreted the verse as referring to the time when the People of Israel went up to Mount Sinai. It is like a king who was seeking to marry a certain woman from a good family of distinguished lineage. He sent a messenger to speak with her. She said: “I do not think I am worthy [even] of being his maidservant. I want to hear it from his mouth.” When the messenger returned to the king, he had a grin on his face, but his report to the king was garbled.
The king, who was sharp-witted, said to himself: “Since he has a grin on his face, it looks like she accepted. But since his report to me was garbled, it looks like she said that she wants to hear it from my mouth.”
At the time of the Giving of the Torah, the People of Israel was the woman from the good family, the messenger was Moshe, and the king was the Holy One Blessed Be He. It is written (Shemos 19:8): “And Moshe brought back the word of the people to Hashem.” What, then, is meant by the statement (ibid. 19:9): “And Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem”? We see that when Hashem said, “Behold, I am going to come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people will hear as I speak with you, and will also believe in you forever,” then “Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem.” He said to Him: “Thus they demanded [to hear the message directly from Your mouth].”
This Midrash implies that the statement “Moshe brought back (וישב) the words of the people to Hashem” and the statement “Moshe related (ויגד) the words of the people to Hashem” are both referring to the same message, but conveyed in two different ways. Initially, when Moshe came before Hashem, he was embarrassed to say outright that the people had demanded to hear Hashem’s message directly from Him. Only from Moshe’s reticence, in combination with his grin, was it recognizable that he was holding something back. This is hinted at in the statement, “Moshe brought back (וישב) the words of the people to Hashem.” Moshe was holding the people’s words within himself like a person bringing something back in a container. It was as if Moshe brought back the words themselves and simply presented them before Hashem, rather than conveying the message orally. Afterwards, when Hashem said, “Behold, I am coming to you … in order that the people will hear as I speak with you,” Moshe was led to tell Hashem explicitly that the people had demanded to hear from Him directly. When our passage states that “Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem,” it is referring to this latter explicit report.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Beshallach

Parashas Beshallach begins with the following verse (Shemos 13:17): “And it was, when Pharaoh sent the people out, that God did not lead them (לא נחם) by the way of the land of the Philistines, for it was near.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 20:12):
Even though Pharaoh sent them out, the Holy One Blessed Be He was not comforted (לא מתחם). What is this like? It is like the following parable: A king’s son was taken captive by bandits, and he went out, rescued him, and killed the bandits. The son would tell his father: “Such-and-such they did to me. In such-and-such a way they beat me and subjugated me.” Even though the king killed the bandits, he was not comforted, but said: “Such-and-such they did to my son.” [The Midrash goes on to present the parallel: Even though Hashem cast ten plagues upon the Egyptians and forced them to release the Jews, He was not comforted until He drowned them in the sea.]  As it is written (Yoel 4:19): “And Egypt will become a wasteland.”
The Maggid notes that, that in the parable, the king hears his son describe what his captors did to him only after he rescued him. He notes also that it appears from the quotation of the verse from Yoel that the Midrash is saying that Hashem harbors an eternal grudge against the Egyptians for what they did to the Jews. The Maggid sets out to explain the underlying idea.
The Maggid builds his explanation on a principle he discusses elsewhere. Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 3:7): “I have indeed seen (ראה ראיתי) the affliction of My people who are in Egypt.” The double language here indicates that the Egyptians afflicted the Jews in two different ways: physically and spiritually. The Jews were afflicted physically through the hard work the Egyptians forced them to do. And they were afflicted spiritually by being exposed to the Egyptians’ idolatrous practices, with their associated abominations. This exposure influenced the Jews, along of the lines of the statement in Tehillim 106:35 that the Jews “mingled with the nations and learned their deeds.” Regarding the enslavement in Egypt, the Torah states (Devarim 26:6), “And they did evil unto them, and afflicted them.” Again, the double terminology delineates the two forms of affliction: The phrase they did evil unto them refers to the spiritual affliction, while the phrase afflicted them refers to the physical affliction. Accordingly, Hashem’s message of redemption involves a corresponding double language (Shemos 3:16): “I have indeed remembered (פקד פקדתי) you and what was done to you in Egypt.” Here, the word you refers to the Jews’ inner spiritual essence, which was impaired during their stay in Egypt, while the phrase what was done to you refers to the physical suffering.
At this point, the Maggid presents a parable. A skilled craftsman was put in jail, where he was subjected to beatings and other physical torments. In addition, the prison staff forced him to lend them his tools, and they used them inappropriately and damaged them. When the craftsman was released from jail, he no longer had to suffer the physical torments, and he had no lasting pain over them. With the damage to his tools, however, it was just the opposite. While he was in jail, he knew his tools were being damaged, but he didn’t feel the effects of the damage, for he wasn’t practicing his craft in jail, and he wasn’t using his tools at all. But when he was released from jail and started to practice his craft again, he came to a full realization of the extent of the damage. Every time he picked up a tool, he saw what bad condition it was in. As time went on, he felt the effects of the damage more and more.
The parallel is as follows. When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, they underwent severe physical suffering. When they were released, the suffering ended. On the spiritual plane, the opposite occurred. While in Egypt the Jews did not feel the insidious effects of being exposed to Egypt’s corrupt idolatrous culture, for during this time they were not engaged in spiritual pursuits. But after they were released and they began to involve themselves with Torah and mitzvos, they realized the severity of the spiritual harm they suffered. Anytime they undertook to perform a mitzvah that involved exercising a noble character trait, they felt a strong inner resistance, and they realized how badly their souls had been tainted. In the same way that in the parable in the Midrash the king fully realized how much his son had suffered only after he had rescued him, so, too the Jews fully realized the extent of their spiritual corrosion only after they left Egypt, and as time went on they felt the damage more and more.
In speaking of how He would redeem the Jews from Egypt, Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 6:7): “And I will take you unto Me as a people, and I will be a God unto you, and you will know that I am Hashem your God who is taking you out from under the sufferings of Egypt.” Hashem is indicating to the Jews that after He takes them unto Him as a people and they begin ministering to Him, they will know how much spiritual affliction they suffered in Egypt and recognize the true reason why Hashem redeemed them – not to relieve them from their physical suffering, but rather to benefit their souls.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo

In connection with Pharaoh, the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah quotes the following verse (Mishlei 27:3): “A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool’s vexation is heavier than both.” The Maggid explains the connection as follows. A large stone and a large pile of sand are both heavy and hard to move. Yet there is a difference between the two. A heavy stone can be carried by a person who is very strong, even if it is too large for him to hold on all sides. Since a stone is a solid object, it can be carried even without a complete hold. For example, a strong person can lift the stone onto his shoulder and hold on to the front of it, and in this way he will be able to carry it. It is different, however, with a pile of sand, which is not a solid object, but rather a mass consisting of many small unconnected particles. If a person tries to carry the pile without a complete hold on all of it, he will fail, for the sand will spill out.
The stone and the sand correspond to the two types of people we discussed in last week’s d’var Torah: the tough-hearted type and the irresolute type. It is difficult to get a tough-hearted person to accept a claim, but if the person making a claim has strong proofs, he will be able to convince a tough-hearted person to accept his claim, and from then on he will maintain his belief in the claim forever. But it is impossible to convince a fool definitively of anything. Just as a pile of sand is made up of small particles that are completely unconnected, what a fool thinks today and what he thinks tomorrow are almost completely unconnected. The only way to get a fool to maintain his belief of a claim is to keep repeating the arguments to him constantly. As we said last week, Pharaoh had the disadvantages of both the tough-hearted and the irresolute type, and so the verse about the stone and the sand provides an apt portrayal of him.
The Jewish People, by contrast, are of tough-hearted stock. They don’t believe anything until they have investigated it through and through. But once they accept something, they maintain their belief forever. In Shemos 32:9, the Jewish People are described as a “stiff-necked people.” In Shemos Rabbah 42:9, the Midrash remarks that this appellation is not a criticism, but rather a praise; the Jew declares: “Either I’ll live as Jew or be hanged.” A similar message underlies the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 3:12, which relates that when Moshe argued before Hashem that the Jewish People would not believe him, Hashem replied by saying that they are “believers, sons of believers.” On the surface, it seems that Hashem’s view of the Jews was the opposite of Moshe’s. But we can explain as follows. Moshe knew that the Jewish People were tough-hearted, that it was hard to convince them of a claim. He therefore presumed that they would not believe him. But Hashem told him that the Jews’ tough-hearted nature was not a liability, as he thought, but rather an asset. Indeed, it is a basic tenet of the Jewish faith that one should not believe someone who conveys prophecies without rigorously checking his reliability. But, Hashem told Moshe, once the Jews accept a claim, their belief in the claim is firmly implanted in their hearts like a peg in solid ground. By contrast, the wicked are difficult because they believe one thing today and something else tomorrow. In regard to Jewish People’s devotion, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Shir HaShirim 8:7): “A multitude of waters cannot extinguish the love, and rivers shall not wash it away.” The Jewish People’s faith and love of Hashem hold firm forever.
David Zucker, Site Administrator