Shabbos Parashas Haazinu

1. This week’s parashah presents Moshe’s song of admonition to the Jewish People. The song begins as follows (Devarim 32:1): “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” Similarly, the Book of Yeshayah opens with a prophesy that begins as follows (Yeshayah 1:2): “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth.” In Moshe’s song, the phrase give ear is addressed to the heavens and the word hear is addressed to the earth, while in Yeshayah’s prophesy it is the reverse. The Midrash in Sifrei 306 explains that Moshe was closer to the heavens while Yeshayah was closer to the earth. Clearly the Midrash is speaking homiletically, for at the time that Moshe and Yeshayah delivered these respective prophesies they were both on the earth.
The Maggid explains the idea behind the Midrash as follows. There are two ways to distinguish truth from falsehood and good from bad. The first way is by means of the intellect, either through reasoning or through prophesy. The second way, which is easier, is by means of observation and experience: Seeing the righteous being rewarded and the wicked being punished enables one to tell good from bad. Now, Moshe had only a few opportunities to see the wicked being punished, and so the way he learned to tell good from bad was mainly by means of the intellect, which is more connected with the heavens. Yeshayah, on the other hand, had many opportunities to observe the wicked being punished, for in his time a substantial segment of the Jewish People had been sinning already for several generations, and Hashem was regularly meting out punishment to the wicked. Thus, the way Yeshayah learned to tell good from bad was mainly by means of seeing people being subjected to a curse, which is more connected with the earth.
When we are in a state of peace, the primary way of telling good from bad is by means of the intellect. In such times, those who have the greatest power of discernment are the Torah sages, who are filled with Torah wisdom and close to Hashem. Those in the streets have much less power of discernment, for they are distant from wisdom. In times like ours, however, it is different. Those engaged in business and other means of earning a livelihood can tell very well between good and bad. For they see what happens over the course of time, and they recognize that eventually they become the victims of the type of evildoing they committed against others, measure for measure. In this connection, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Mishlei 1:20): “Wisdom sings out in the street [with words of lament and rebuke, as seen in the subsequent verses].
The same idea is reflected in the following passage (Hoshea 4:1-3): “Hashem has a grievance with the inhabitants of the land, for there is no truth, and no kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land. [Instead,] false swearing, murder, theft, and adultery; they have breached [moral standards] and the blood of one [murder victim] runs into that of the other. Therefore the land will be destroyed and all who dwell in it will be put in misery.” The “inhabitants of the land” who are involved in earthly affairs see up close the various events that unfold in the earthly realm. They can easily take stock of their actions and see for themselves the rampant evildoing being committed and the punishment that comes in its wake. They are in a better position to recognize what is happening than those involved in Torah wisdom.
2. Moshe declares (Devarim 32:18): “You ignored the Rock who gave birth to you, and forgot the God who brought you forth.” The Maggid brings out the idea behind this verse with a famous parable. Reuven owed Shimon $1,000. Shimon was pressing Reuven heavily for payment. Reuven he sought advice from Levi to push Shimon off. Levi told Reuven that when Shimon shows up he should act like a crazy person, muttering and whistling and dancing around. Shimon showed up, Reuven put on the act, and Shimon concluded that Reuven was crazy and left him alone. Some time later, Reuven borrowed money from Levi. The time came for payment, Levi showed up to collect, and Reuven started putting on the crazy person act. Levi took his stick, gave Reuven a hard whack, and exclaimed: “Fool! I’m the one who taught you this trick. Do you think you can use it on me?”
The parallel is as follows. The Midrash teaches that Hashem granted man the trait of forgetfulness for his own benefit (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 615 and Nach 968): “Had the Holy One Blessed Be He not hidden from man [i.e., caused people to forget] the day of death, people would not build houses or plant vineyards, for they would say, ‘Tomorrow I may die, so should I toil for others?’ Therefore He hid from man the day of death, so that people would build and plant.” Accordingly, for a person to take this trait of forgetfulness and use it to forget Hashem is the height of contemptibility.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vayeilech – Shabbos Shuvah

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 6 (end)
The second half of Tehillim 19 speaks of the greatness of the Torah. David HaMelech declares (ibid. 19:8): “Hashem’s Torah is perfect, restoring the soul; Hashem’s testimony is trustworthy, making the simple wise.” We can explain this statement as follows. David began by stating that “the heavens relate God’s glory” (ibid. 19:2), for a person who contemplates them. Similarly, Yeshayah declares (verse 40:26): “Lift your eyes upward and see who created these – who brings forth their legions by number, He calls to each of them by name. By the abundance of His power and the firmness of His strength, not one is missing.” The wonders of creation provide is a powerful mechanism for opening a person’s eyes and heart and firmly instilling within him genuine faith. But they have this effect only on a person who stops to contemplate them, and not one who ignores them.
The holy Torah is different. The Torah’s wisdom calls out and beckons to a person from the heavens. Even if a person has in mind to shun the Torah’s path, the Torah’s sublime teachings will bring him back. The Torah will, so to speak, spread its wings and gather him in. This is what David means when he says that the Torah restores the soul and makes the simple wise. [The Hebrew verb להשיב that appears in Tehillim 19:8, which means to bring back or to restore has the same grammatical root as the verb לשוב, meaning to come back (that is, to return, in the intransitive sense) and to repent. The opening word of this week’s haftarah, שובה, is the imperative form of this verb. The same root is shared by the word תשובה, meaning repentance.] And this is the portion of the person who contemplates his own existence and the existence of everything else in the world; through such contemplation a person gains knowledge from within his own self of the existence of the Creator. A person contemplates himself and ascertains that he is a being that came into existence through an act of volition, and that did not necessarily have to exist, and this gives him a clear sign of his Creator, a being that must always have existed and must always continue to exist forever. It is just like the way a drawing testifies to the one who drew it. Further, any trait that man possesses, such as wisdom and intellect, Hashem must also possess. As it is written (ibid. 94:9): “The One who implanted the ear, does He not hear? The One who fashioned the eye, does He not gaze forth?”
Let us return to the verse from Tehillim 139 that we quoted previously (verse 14): “I acknowledge You, for I am awesomely, wondrously fashioned; wondrous are Your works, and my soul knows it well.” In addition to the idea we brought out from this verse before, we can draw from it another lofty idea. The idea is based [if I am reading the Maggid correctly] on the fact that the phrase אודך על כי נוראות נפלאתי, which in the context of the verse means “I acknowledge You, for I am awesomely, wondrously fashioned” can also be rendered homiletically as “I thank you, for I am set apart from signs of awesomeness.” The idea we wish to put forward is that Hashem, out of His great kindness, overrode man’s natural tendencies (that is, the tendencies that he would have according the general rules governing the workings of the world) and blunted the degree of fear of Him that man would naturally have had. In Avos 3:1, Akavya ben Mehalallel teaches: “Look upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and where you are going, and before whom you will in the future have to render an accounting.” In truth, the fear of Hashem that we naturally should have goes well beyond the fear of death. The angels have an intense recognition of Hashem’s awesomeness and power, so much so that, as the Gemara in Chagiggah 13b teaches, the sweat of the Chayos [a type of angel] forms the River Dinur. We do not have the capability to withstand this degree of recognition and remain alive. It is one of the wonders of creation that our recognition of Hashem’s awesomeness is obscured, and we have Him to thank for this. Hashem placed in each person’s hand the choice of what degree of recognition he will maintain, according to what he is able to take a grasp of and bear. The more a person expands his mind and increases his ability to withstand feelings of fear of Hashem, the more fear of Hashem he will feel.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Nitzavim

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 6 (continued)
Let us give an analogy. Reuven and Shimon were walking in an unsettled desert through which no man had ever passed before. Reuven lost an object, and Shimon found it. Reuven asked Shimon to give him back the object. Shimon replied: “Give me a sign that it is yours.” Reuven retorted: “Even without a sign, surely you must know it is mine.” Shimon asked: “How?” Reuven explained: “You know that it isn’t yours. So it must be that it’s mine, since you and I are the only people here. What do you need signs and proofs for?”
It is the same with the question of the existence of a creator. There are two possible types of entities: one that necessarily must exist and one that could exist and also could not exist. An entity of the first type has no creator that preceded it and brought it into being. An entity of the second type exists by virtue of the fact that an entity that existed before it willed that it exist and brought it into being at a certain time and place. Now decide for yourself: Are you a being of the first type or the second type? You know you are not of the first type. Indeed, you know you did not bring yourself into existence, and in fact you have only a tiny degree of knowledge of the processes through which you came into being. So it follows that you were brought into existence by some other being. There must be some other being that created you and everything else in existence. This other being is Hashem, the Eternal One, our gracious and merciful creator.
It is written (Tehillim 100:3): “Know that Hashem is God, He made us v’lo anachnu.” In the traditional written text, the word v’lo is written ולא (and not), but according to the traditional interpretation of the text it is to be understood as meaning ולו (and His). According to the traditional interpretation, the second half of the verse means “He made us and we are His,” whereas according to the written text it means, as the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 100:1 says, “He made us and not we” – we did not make ourselves. This is a deep teaching. We know innately that we did not make ourselves. We know that we do not have the capability of bringing ourselves into being, and, indeed, have little understanding of how we came into being.
The world is filled with a variety of creatures and objects, all mingled together and interacting with each other. The way they function is a marvel. Anyone who beholds them can see that they are the work of a skilled artisan, who manages the world with wisdom and arranges its various components with understanding.  David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 19:2): “The heavens relate God’s glory, and the firmament tells of His handiwork.” The creations on earth cannot properly discuss Hashem’s works, for they do not have the necessary knowledge. They are not even aware of how much they do not know. Man, however, has the wisdom and understanding to ponder his existence, his composition, and his capabilities, and is truly aware that he has no knowledge of his construction and has made no contribution to it. We quote David HaMelech again (ibid. 139:14): “I acknowledge You, for I am awesomely, wondrously fashioned; wondrous are Your works, and my soul knows it well.” David is saying that our souls know well that we do not know, along the lines of the saying: “The bottom line of what we know is that we do not know.”
Let us quote again from Tehillim 19 (verse 4): “There is no speech and there are no words; their voice is not heard.” We can bring out the idea here with an analogy. Suppose someone owes us money and we want to send an agent to the debtor to collect the debt. If the debtor is a deceitful person, we have to send an agent who is well skilled in talking to people and can argue with the debtor. But if the debtor is trustworthy, so that we know he will not deny the loan or push it off with a “come back later” tactic, we can even send an agent who is unable to speak. All the agent needs to do is present the bill of debt, and the debtor will pay right away. Similarly, if we had any serious intellectual basis for questioning Hashem’s existence, Hashem would have had to grant the heavens the power of speech so that they could testify that He exists. But since in fact we have nothing to say – there is no speech and there are no words – Hashem need not make the voice of the heavens heard.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Ki Savo

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 6 (continued)
Consider: Where did you come from? How were you brought into existence? How do you get your life force? How is your soul kept in existence? For what purpose were you brought into existence and placed in this world? Do not be misled by your familiarity with yourself and the world, to which you have been accustomed from the time you were born. Consider an analogy. Suppose you owed someone a certain sum of money, and you had been unable to pay him back for a long time, and finally you got the money. Would you hold back from repaying him now, just because you had not paid him for such a long time? It is the same with the person who up to now had not put his mind to ponder and understand Hashem’s handiwork, and then Hashem aroused his soul to do so. Such inspiration from above should lead you to imagine that you were just now brought into existence from nothingness. You are amazed at what you behold, and you are led to wonder. You have a yearning to understand, just as a hungry person has a yearning for food.
And after you ponder your having come into existence from nothingness, you come to realize three basic facts about your existence, which form the foundation of belief in the Creator. First, you realize that you did not come into existence out of your own volition and through your own power. You did not make a reckoning and decide to bring yourself into existence. You did not even pray to some being that preceded you to bring you into existence, for the very fact that you did not exist implies that you could not do so. Second, you realize that just as you were brought into existence by a force outside yourself, so, too, your existence is being maintained now by an outside force. You are like a stranger to yourself. All the parts from which you are formed, all your organs and limbs – your heart, your brain, your kidneys, and so on, and all the forces that operate within you are all being maintained by an outside force; you are not the one maintaining them and controlling their operation. You cannot ensure your own continued existence. You barely have a trace of understanding of your nature, how your various organs and limbs are constructed and connected together, and how the various forces that operate within you work and maintain your existence. And if you do come to gain some understanding of these things, it is only through a process of investigation in which you examine yourself as if from the outside, in the way you come to know a friend.
[In this vein, the Mishnah states (Avos 4:22): “Independently of your will you were created, independently of your will you were born, independently of your will you live, independently of your will you will die, and independently of your will you are destined to give an account before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He.”]
Now, it is true that you tend to your body in various ways, which its natural forces lead it to demand of you. You eat, you drink, you eliminate bodily wastes, you put on clothes, you rest, and you sleep. But you know clearly that the way you tend to your body is like the way a servant tends to his master, pouring his cup and ministering to him in other ways – not out of his own volition but rather on account of his master’s command. You are not like the head of the house who rules over his house as he pleases. You tend to your body only because of bodily forces that compel you to do so. The force of hunger prompts you to eat, the force of thirst prompts you to drink, and so on. Just try to “rebel” and hold back from obeying your body’s commands, and see what happens. Your body will press you fiercely until you appease it. You may even get sick and be forced to undergo medical treatment.
Third, through pondering the above, you come to realize your lowly stature. You have minimal control over what happens to you at any given moment. All the more so, you do not know what will happen to you in the future, even just at the very next moment. You are like a blind man who cannot see what is in front of him and is being led by a sighted man, held by the hand. Similarly, your life hangs in the balance before you, until you are granted the life force that enables you to survive the next moment.
After your mind has grasped these truths, you will realize and recognize with clear knowledge that that they imply that there is a Creator. Certainly your existence is not something that necessarily must be; you know you are not keeping the world going, so it is certainly possible to imagine a world in which you do not exist. In addition, you did not bring yourself into existence out of your own volition and power, and you are not maintaining yourself in existence. It therefore must be that there is another being that willed that you exist, brought you into existence, and maintains your existence. What need do you have for outside proofs? The facts we have described above are facts of which you have innate knowledge – your knowledge of these facts comes from within your own self, and you are sure they are true. And from these facts it follows immediately that there is a Creator.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Ki Seitzei

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 6 (beginning)
Knowledge and recognition of the true nature of something comes in three forms: innate knowledge, knowledge through hearing, and knowledge through intellectual investigation. Innate knowledge comes from within a person’s own being and is implanted within him. It includes knowledge of things he himself made, actions he himself performed, and ideas he himself conceived. It includes also knowledge of his own native faculties and of the data they convey to him. Knowledge through hearing consists of information a person knows only because he heard it from others. Knowledge through intellectual investigation consists of knowledge that comes neither from within the person’s own being or from a report from another person, but instead is acquired through logical reasoning, whereby the person infers from what he knows something he did not know before.
Innate knowledge is very strong – it is certain, and therefore holds up forever. Knowledge through hearing can be of various strengths, depending on the trust a person has in the source from which he heard the information. We will discuss later the means though which this type of knowledge is acquired and contradicted. Knowledge through intellectual investigation is like a quarry of precious gemstone, for it is built up through deep, clear, and straight thinking.
In regard to processing information heard from others, there are three types of people. The first type is the person who believes and accepts everything he is told, without evaluating the information reported and the source reporting it to determine whether it is worthy of belief or not. This is the way of simpletons and fools, as Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 14:15): “A simpleton believes everything.” It is not the proper way. In particular, the holy Torah warns us not to believe someone who seeks to contradict something that it states, even if the person has good credentials – for example, if he has performed signs and wonders. Thus it is written (Devarim 13:4): “Do not listen to the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of a dream, for Hashem your God is testing you to know whether you love Hashem your God with all your heart and all your soul.” 
The second type is the stiff-necked person who does not believe anything. An example is Pharaoh, who hardened his heart even after seeing great signs and wonders; only when his masses were ravaged and his glory was cut down did his uncircumcised heart submit and accede to belief in Hashem. This type of stubbornness is a very bad trait. Such people are called “strong-hearted” (Yeshayah 46:12). Another example of this type of person is Achaz, king of Yehudah. Yeshayah told him (verse 7:11): “Request a sign for yourself from Hashem your God, either in the depths or in the heights.” But Achaz replied (ibid. 7:12): “I will not request; I will not test Hashem.” The reason for this response was described earlier in the passage (ibid. 7:9): “If you do not believe this, it is because you lack faith.” Believing in everything and believing in nothing are both very bad, and readily lead to sin.
The third type is the person who is a straight thinker with a wise heart, who believes what is worthy of belief and rejects what deserves to be rejected. Criteria for being worthy of belief include being consistent with the senses and being reported by a reliable person in whom we have never seen any crookedness or deceit, and who has no vested interest in the matter. Sometimes we have to believe something that goes against nature, because of the stature of the person reporting the information. But the statement must not contradict the Torah. We must not believe anything that is at odds with any detail of any mitzvah in the Torah, even if the person who said it satisfies all the criteria for reliability. If someone comes to nullify anything in the Torah, turn away from him and pass him by.
We will now elaborate on the three forms of knowledge that we identified at the outset. We begin with innate knowledge. In Avos 3:1, Akavya ben Mehallalel lists three things we should bear in mind to keep ourselves from coming to sin. The first is to know where we came from. An important message is being conveyed here. It is human nature for a person who encounters something he has never seen before and of whose nature he knows nothing to have a burning desire to comprehend it. Even if the matter in question has no bearing on him at all, a person still desires to know. All the more so, a person should have a desire to know where he and the rest of existence came from.
Let us consider the matter. Suppose Hashem has just now made you aware of yourself and the world around you. You recognize that you exist. You see that you are constructed with wondrous wisdom, with various organs and various capabilities. You find yourself in a grand world which is also constructed with wondrous wisdom. And you find within this world everything you need, from basic necessities to things that bring extra enjoyment. This world contains many different types of objects, including inanimate objects, plant life, and animal life. You stand amidst all these objects – you are affected by them, you make use of them, and you exercise dominion over them. And you do not recall or recognize what you are doing here. Who brought you into existence? Who brought into existence all the creations that surround you, right and left, above and below? Such a splendid palace! Brilliantly shining orbs bring you light both during the day and at nighttime. Your own self and all that you see are new, and you never knew or heard about how or why you and the world around you came to be.
Let us now consider for a moment an analogy. Suppose you wake up and you find yourself in the middle of the forest among the trees, in a house that was built for your honor. You have several servants who serve you and give you whatever you ask. And you have no recollection whatsoever of who brought you to the house and provided all the amenities you enjoy there. Surely you would be struck with a strong sense of wonder and amazement, and you would go around asking and investigating to try to find some explanation for all this.
All the more so you should be struck with wonder and amazement over the wondrous sight that you see – that you have been brought into existence and placed in world containing everything good. How could you not be utterly amazed?
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Shoftim

In last week’s d’var Torah, we presented the Maggid’s commentary on the following teaching of R. Elazar (Devarim Rabbah 4:3):
From the moment the Holy One Blessed Be He made this statement at Sinai, “it is not from the mouth of the Most High One that evil and good emanate” (Eichah 3:38, homiletically). Rather, they come automatically – evil comes to those who do evil and good comes to those who do good.
The Maggid explains that the reward or punishment that come our way when we observe or violate Hashem’s directives are not imposed on us legislatively, but rather are natural consequences of our actions. He explains further that through the very same influence Hashem simultaneously brings good to those who do good and evil to those who do evil. I now present more of the Maggid’s discussion of these themes.
It is written (Yeshayah 31:7-9):
On that day everyone will reject his idols of silver and his idols of gold …. And Assyria will fall by the sword …. His rock will pass away in terror and his officers will be devastated by a miracle – the word of Hashem, Who has a fire in Tziyon and a furnace in Yerushalayim.
In this passage, Yeshayah likens the influence that Hashem is bringing down to a fire, which has both the power to give light and warmth and the power to consume and destroy. The Assyrians were wicked, and therefore they were consumed.
Iyov’s companion Elihu declares (Iyov 34:10-11): “Far be it for God to commit evil and for the Almighty to commit crookedness. He repays a man [for] his deeds and brings forth for a man [what suits] his ways.” Elihu is saying that Hashem does not actively bring affliction to evildoers, but rather the affliction they suffer is a natural consequence of their evil behavior.
The idea that reward and punishment come about as natural consequences of our behavior is reflected also in the following teaching (Sifrei, Eikev 40): “The loaf and the stick came down bound together from heaven. Hashem said to them: ‘If you keep the Torah, here is the loaf for you to eat. And if not, here is the stick for you to be beaten with.’”
At the beginning of parashas Re’eh, Moshe declares (Devarim 11:26-27): “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing – that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God, that I command you today. And the curse – if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God ….” The Maggid asks: What is the import of the word today? The blessings and curses were not coming down at the moment Moshe spoke; rather, they were going to come down later in due course, according to the good deeds each person does and the sins he commits as time unfolds. The Maggid answers his question as follows. In a typical employer-employee relationship, usually the employer does not pay the employee on the spot at the moment he does a given task. Rather, at the end of each month, the employer pays the employee his wages for all the work he did that month. And similarly, the employer often will not discipline the employee on the spot at the moment he commits an infraction, but instead will wait until the employee accumulates a significant record of infractions and then discipline him. By contrast, the reward we receive for our mitzvos and the punishment we receive for our lapses are automatically triggered immediately as natural consequences of our actions, through a system that Hashem set into place the day He gave us the Torah at Sinai.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Re’eh

This week’s parashah begins (Devarim 11:26-27): “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing – that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God, that I command you today. And the curse – if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God ….” R. Elazar expounds (Devarim Rabbah 4:3):
From the moment the Holy One Blessed Be He made this statement at Sinai, “it is not from the mouth of the Most High One that evil and good emanate” (Eichah 3:38, homiletically). Rather, they come automatically – evil comes to those who do evil and good comes to those who do good.
The principle underlying this teaching, says the Maggid, is one stated by our early sages regarding reward and punishment for observing or violating Hashem’s directives. In the human legal system, punishment for crimes is set by legislation. For example, a human legal code may specify that a thief is punished by whipping, or jail, or death. This punishment does not come upon the thief as a natural consequence of his act of theft, in the way that ingesting a poison naturally causes death. Rather, the punishment is imposed on the thief by legal fiat. By contrast, the reward or punishment that come our way when we observe or violate Hashem’s directives are not imposed on us legislatively, but rather are natural consequences of our actions. Observing the laws of Hashem’s holy Torah naturally fortify us. Violating these laws naturally cause us harm. Thus Yirmiyahu declares (verse 2:19): “Your evil will afflict you, and your backsliding will chastise you.” The affliction is a natural consequence of the evildoing. In a similar vein, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 9:10): “There is no act, or reckoning, or knowledge, or wisdom in the grave.” Shlomo is saying that the punishment we receive for violating Hashem’s word is not like the punishment we receive for violating a man-made law, which involves human judges applying their knowledge and making a reckoning. Rather, as Yeshayah puts it (verse 64:6): “You melt us away in the hands of our iniquities” – the iniquities themselves bring us suffering. This principle is well known to those well-versed in our traditional sources, and the Maggid notes that he discusses it often. Here, the Maggid seeks to bring out a new insight.
A person might think, the Maggid says, that despite the fundamental difference just noted between man-made systems of reward and punishment and Hashem’s system of reward and punishment, the two systems are the same in one respect: The means of dispensing punishment differ from the means of dispensing reward. A human government imposes the death penalty by a lethal agent such as poison and rewards a person by giving him some benefit such as the opportunity to indulge himself. We might think that Hashem operates via a similar two-pronged system – punishing people by means of the afflictions of Gehennom and rewarding people by means of the delights of Gan Eden. But the books of the prophets contain many declarations explicitly stating that reward and punishment in fact come through the same pipeline.
For example, Malachi declares (verses 3:19-20): “For, behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the wanton and all the evildoers will be like straw – that coming day will set them ablaze …. But for those who fear My Name, for you the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays, and you will go out and flourish like calves [fattened] in the stall.” In connection with this prophesy, R. Shimon ben Lakish states (Nedarim 8b): “There is no Gehennom in the world to come – rather, the Holy One Blessed Be He will take the sun out of its sheath, and the righteous are healed by it while the wicked are judged through it … and not only that, but the righteous delight in it.” We see that the same agent brings both reward and punishment, depending on the state of the person being acted upon. In the same vein, in Avos D’Rabbi Nosson chapter 37 it is stated: “Two eat from the same bowl; this one tastes according to his deeds and this one tastes according to his deeds.” For a person with a healthy spiritual constitution, the delights are enjoyable, but for a person with a diseased spiritual constitution, the delights are unpleasant and harmful. Regarding the episode in which Sancheirev’s army laid siege to Yerushalayim and were miraculously struck down (Melachim Beis 19), R. Yitzchak Nafcha states in Sanhedrin 95b that Hashem opened the ears of Sancheirev’s soldiers and enabled them to hear the singing of the heavenly beings, and from the sound of the singing they died. Here, the same heavenly singing that brings delight to the righteous brought death to the wicked. We find this idea encapsulated in the psalmist’s declaration (Tehillim 77:11): “On account of my sickness the Most High One’s right hand has changed over.” The same Divine right hand has changing effects, depending what spiritual condition a person is in.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Eikev

This week’s parashah begins as follows (Devarim 7:12-19):
And it shall come about as a result, if you heed these laws and take care to fulfill them, that Hashem your God shall safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. He shall love you, and bless you, and multiply you. … And you shall consume all the peoples that Hashem your God will deliver unto you …. If you say in your heart, “These nations are more numerous than I; how will I be able to drive them out?” do not be afraid of them; remember well what Hashem your God did to Pharaoh and all of Egypt – the great tests that your eyes saw, and the signs, and the wonders, and the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, with which Hashem your God took you out. So shall Hashem your God do to all the peoples before whom you are afraid.
The Maggid sets out to explain the second half of this passage. It cannot be, he says, that the Torah is simply telling us not to fear enemy nations, for the Torah already conveyed this message many times elsewhere. Rather, the Torah’s intent is to offer us a different sort of encouragement.
It is a basic principle that the degree of aid Hashem grants a person depends on the degree to which he puts his trust in Him and takes refuge in Him. In this vein, David HaMelech entreats (Tehillim 33:22): “May Your kindness be upon us, Hashem, as we hoped in You.” And Yeshayah declares (verse 30:15): “For thus said my Lord, Hashem/Elokim, the Holy One of Yisrael, ‘In stillness and peacefulness shall you be saved; in quiet and in confidence shall be your might.’” In Shir HaShirim 6:3 it is written: “I am unto my Beloved and my Beloved is unto Me.” The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, part III, ch. 51, explains that Hashem draws close to a person to the same degree that the person draws close to Him. Similarly, Hashem watches over a person and aids him in proportion to the degree of trust the he puts in Him. Reflecting the negative side of this relationship, Iyov declares (verse 3:24): “I harbored a fear and it overtook me, and what I dreaded came upon me” –  because Iyov was overtaken with fear and did not maintain trust in Hashem, in the end he suffered the calamity that he had feared. Because of this principle, the Torah dictates that Jewish soldiers going out to battle against their enemies be charged not to harbor any fear (Devarim 20:3-4): “Do not let your heart be faint; do not fear, do not panic, and do not be broken before them. For Hashem, your God, is the One who goes with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.”
Yet, it can still happen that an individual soldier, in the middle of battle, will be struck suddenly with fear, and, recognizing that his level of trust in Hashem has dropped, will conclude that his hopes of succeeding and emerging from the battle unharmed are now lost. It is to such a person that the second half of the passage from the parashah is addressed. The Torah says: “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are more numerous than I; how will I be able to drive them out?’ do not be afraid of them.” The Torah is telling us: “If you are taken aback and feel fear in your heart, do not conclude that you are now finished and give up. Even in this situation, Hashem is ready to grant salvation.” As proof, the Torah cites the Jewish People’s experience in Egypt. At that time, under the yoke of harsh oppression, the Jewish People were gripped with terror. Nonetheless, Hashem came to their aid and rescued them. And He will do likewise, the Torah says, in other situations where we are faced with an enemy and, taken aback, are struck with doubts; we should not be afraid, for despite our doubts Hashem will still stand by us and save us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vaeschanan

This week’s parashah begins with Moshe describing his (unsuccessful) prayers to Hashem to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. In connection with this, the Midrash presents a variety of teachings.  I present here the Maggid’s commentary on two of these teachings.
1. Our first Midrash relates specifically to Moshe. The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 2:2):
It is written (Tehillim 39:12): “You chasten man for iniquity by way of rebuke, and like a moth You wear away his desire; indeed, every man is futility. Selah.” On account of a single iniquity that Moshe committed – that he rebuked Your children [overly sharply] and said to them (Bamidbar 20:10), “Listen, now, O rebels” – You chastened him and rebuked him. The term “man” in our verse refers to none other than Moshe, of whom it is written (Bamidbar 12:3), “the man Moshe was very humble.” What does it mean, “Like a moth You wear away his desire”? You melted away all the desire that Moshe had to enter the land, like a moth that enters into clothes and causes them to rot. For Moshe, “his desire” was none other than Eretz Yisrael, of which it is written (Yirmiyah 3:19), “I shall give you a desirable land.” If such a fate befell the saintly Moshe, it is all the more so with other men, that they are destined for futility and destined for the day of judgment. Thus, “indeed, every man is futility.”
In truth, the Maggid says, this “all the more so” argument doesn’t seem valid, for the Gemara in Bava Kamma 50a teaches that Hashem is exacting with the righteous to a hairsbreadth. The Maggid explains the Midrash as follows. Hashem surely did not treat Moshe more strictly than he deserved. The reason we experience lighter treatment than Moshe is that Hashem treats us more leniently than we deserve on account of our lowly stature. The Maggid brings out the point through an analogy to how a creditor behaves. A creditor is aware of the financial state of the various people who owe him debts, and he modulates the degree to which he presses a given debtor for payment according to the debtor’s financial state. Suppose now that one of his debtors is a well-known pauper, and he doesn’t press him at all. And suppose that this pauper takes pride in the “special treatment” that the creditor is showing him. People would then chide him, saying: “What are you so proud about? The reason you are getting a break is your poverty and lowly stature.”
The Midrash interprets Tehillim 39:12 as speaking of Moshe. The verse describes Hashem’s chastening Moshe for iniquity. The intent here is that Hashem chastened Moshe to a degree exactly commensurate with his iniquity, and, far be it, not any more than he deserved. Now, if the saintly Moshe received such a severe punishment for such a small sin, then all the more so the rest of us, who are guilty of much more serious sins, deserve severe punishment. But, as the verse says, every man is futility – we all are of low stature – and therefore Hashem treats us more leniently than we deserve. This perspective should infuse us either with a feeling of fear or a feeling of humility and lowliness.
2. Our second Midrash deals with prayer in general. The Midrash expounds (Devarim Rabbah 2:11): “Said Moshe before the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘Master of the Universe! When You see Your children in pain and there is no one to ask for mercy toward them, answer them right away.’” Moshe is asking Hashem to answer us on the day of distress itself, without any delay – along the lines of David HaMelech’s statement in Tehillim 20:2 that “Hashem will answer you on the day of distress,” which is expounded on in a nearby segment in Devarim Rabbah. The Maggid links Moshe’s request with David’s plea in Tehillim 143:7: “Quickly, Hashem, answer me. My spirit is failing. Do not hide Your face from me, lest I become like those who go down into the pit.” He brings out the idea with a parable. A person suffered from an illness that affected his appetite. Usually he had no desire to eat at all. Only occasionally did he feel a desire to eat, and then only for a few minutes. Once he visited a large inn where there was a large crowd of people waiting to be served a meal. He called out to the innkeeper, saying: “Quickly, please, serve me first. For soon I will lose my appetite and I won’t be able to eat anything.” The parallel is as follows. In Eichah Rabbah 3 (letter ס), R. Yose ben Chalafta teaches that we should aim to offer our prayers at times of Divine favor. But this teaching applies only to those who have a strong fear of Hashem and are spiritually whole, and are therefore able to pray at any time. It is not so with us. Our hearts are tangled with worries and our souls are immersed in ruminations, and we are aroused to pray only on rare occasions – a moment here and there, sparsely scattered, when the clouds of anguish temporarily clear. When we experience such a moment of spiritual arousal we have to grab the opportunity to approach Hashem and plead to Him to help us. And we have to beg Hashem to answer us quickly and not hide His face, for soon our urge to pray will fade away.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Devarim – Megillas Eichah

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