Parashas Re’eh

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

Parashas Eikev

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

Parashas Vaeschanan

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

Parashas Devarim

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

Megillas Eichah

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

Parashas Pinchas

Parashas Pinchas begins as follows (Bamidbar 25:10-13):
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen, turned My wrath away from the Children of Yisrael …. Therefore say: ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace ….’”
The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:1): “Said the Holy Only Blessed Be He, ‘It is fitting that he should collect his reward.’” Last year, we presented an explanation by the Maggid of the above Torah passage and this Midrash taken from Kochav MiYaakov, haftaras Pinchas. We now present another explanation that the Maggid offers, taken from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Pinchas.
The Maggid takes as his starting point another Midrash on our parashah (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:3):
“Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace” – that he is still alive. As it is written (Malachi 2:5, in a passage dealing with Kohanim): “My covenant was with him of life and peace.”
The Sages understand Hashem’s statement to Pinchas as a promise to grant him eternal life that would be accompanied by peace – freedom from the hazards that abound in the world.
In Iyov 3:19 (according to Rashi’s interpretation), Iyov declares that only after death does it become evident whether a person was great or small. The Maggid brings out the idea with a parable. A number of merchants were traveling together as a group with their merchandise. It was a difficult trip, involving travel across rivers, some sea travel, and travel across roads beset with marauders. During the trip, one of the wealthier merchants criticized one of the lesser merchants, and the second merchant started arguing back. The wealthy merchant remarked: “I would never have imagined that you would be so brazen, and refuse to accept direction from someone more eminent than you.” The other merchant replied: “As long as we are traveling, your assets are not really your own, for at any moment you might lose them because of some mishap; for instance, robbers might come and take everything. It is only when we arrive safely home with our merchandise and other possessions can we start talking about which of us is more eminent.”
Now, this world is a place of great spiritual danger. In general, as long as a person is alive, he faces a constant stream of spiritual threats, just as a ship at sea is under constant threat of being overtaken by raging waters. Thus, Hillel teaches (Avos 2:5): “Do not be assured of yourself until the day of your death.” The great saints among the Jewish People spent their entire lives in a state of fear and trembling, worried that they might falter. Even such giants as Yaakov Avinu and David HaMelech were constantly gripped by the fear of sin, as the Gemara in Berachos 4a relates. As long as a person is in this world, he is never free of the risk that he will be ensnared by the evil inclination, which wages constant war with him, growing stronger every day (Sukkah 52b), always inventing new schemes to lure him into sin. Thus, in Bereishis Rabbah 9:5, the Sages teach: “Why is there a decree of death on saintly men? As long as they are alive, they battle their evil inclination, and when they die, they rest. As it is written (Iyov 3:17): ‘There [in the grave] the weary rest.”
Thus, in granting Pinchas eternal life, it was essential for Hashem to grant him also the blessing of peace – freedom from hazards, particularly spiritual hazards. Had Hashem granted Pinchas only eternal life, but not peace, it would not have been a true gift, for he would have been in a state of eternal spiritual danger and fear. Hashem therefore granted him peace as well, and gave notice that He was doing so: “Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace.” Hashem freed Pinchas of spiritual hazards, so that his eternal life would be serene and pleasant. Through the covenant of peace, Hashem made it fitting for him to receive the reward of eternal life. Indeed, the grant of peace automatically entailed that he would live forever, for once he was freed from spiritual hazards, there was no reason that he should ever die.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Trust in Hashem – A Recurring Issue in Sefer Bamidbar, Part 3

We continue with the discussion of bitachon (trust in Hashem’s providence), taken from the Maggid’s Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaBitachon.
Chapter 4
The second major reason why people lack bitachon is that it is not part of a person’s inborn nature. By proper exercise of his free will, a person can implant bitachon in his heart, but it is not there from birth. Hashem deliberately created man without a built-in tendency toward bitachon, in order to advance His plan for running the world. Hashem wanted us to procure the bounty He emplaces within the world through the work of our own hands. The work we do is the final stage of an extensive process, whose other components are much more numerous and powerful – the heavens give forth rain, the earth provides its resources, oxen do plowing, and so on. But, nonetheless, our work plays the central role; without the work of human beings, the world would lie desolate. If a person does not plow his field or tend his orchard, no produce will come forth. Thus it is written (Bereishis 2:5): “No trees or shrubs of the field were yet on the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprouted, for Hashem, God, had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil.”
If bitachon were an inborn trait of man, we would disdain worldly endeavors and would not put exertion into them, since we would know with perfect clarity that the flow of sustenance we receive is not brought about by these endeavors, but rather by Hashem’s decree. And we would reason that even if we engaged only in the easiest worldly endeavors, Hashem, in His benevolence, would provide us our sustenance. A person would say: “Why do I need to exert myself with tiring labor, or travel long distances for business? Why do I need to put myself at risk of injury, illness, or death? Whatever Hashem decrees that I should have, He can bring to me without all this – I can stay at home and my portion will come to me there. Is He God only from a distance and not from nearby? [cf. Yirmiyah 23:23].”
Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishnah, in the preface to Seder Zeraim, says that if not for crazy people the world would be desolate. And indeed we see that certain items are made available only by people who lack bitachon. For example, some people deal in goods, such as precious stones, that have to be conveyed from place to place, and they go through wearying ordeals, sometimes putting themselves in danger, to acquire and sell their merchandise. It is part of Hashem’s master plan that people engage in such activities. He therefore did not instill us with bitachon, but rather left our level of bitachon to our own free choice. If a person arouses himself to cast away the tempestuous emotions that are part of ordinary human nature and implant firm bitachon into his soul, he can enjoy a life of serenity. Thus, there are saintly people who have seen the light of truth and refrained from engaging in any worldly endeavors that involve significant exertion, as a result of their high level of bitachon and their clear awareness that sustenance comes from Hashem alone. But many people have much less bitachon, and invest considerable effort in worldly endeavors.
Another aspect of Hashem’s master plan is that people have a natural liking for certain commodities, such as gems, pearls, and so on, even though they are not necessary for normal living. If not for this liking, people would exert themselves only for basic necessities such as bread. But Hashem did not create anything for naught. He wants all creations to continue in existence and be available to man; each creation has its own special qualities that make it important, even if we are unaware of what they are. He therefore implanted within us a natural liking for various commodities, so that we will be stirred to exert effort to acquire and maintain them. The harder a commodity is to acquire and maintain, the stronger the natural liking for it that Hashem implanted within us.
We see the same pattern in the love that parents have for their children. A parent has more natural affection for a younger child than for an older one. The affection that a parent has for a very young child is enormous, almost boundless. The affection diminishes and becomes measured as the child grows older. A parent may even come to hate a child. The reason the affection is so great when the child is young and diminishes over time is as we have described in connection with commodities – the level of affection that parents have for a child is proportionate to the effort they need to invest to care for him or her. The care of a young child involves a huge effort: the child has to be fed, dressed, carried, and taught. Hashem therefore implanted parents with a huge amount of affection for a young child.
At the same time, Hashem gave us the power to modulate our natural inclinations. We can decide for ourselves what we will put effort into. Thus, the Sages say (Bereishis Rabbah 13:7 on Bereishis 2:5): “Man was created to toil. If a person merits, he toils in Torah; if a person does not merit, he toils in the land. Well-off is one who toils in Torah.” It is true, as Rambam says, that without crazy people the world would be desolate. But we can each ask ourselves: “Why should you be one of those crazy people? You have before you the Torah, which spans the length of the world, more precious than pearls or the finest gold. Delight in your love of it!” 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Trust in Hashem – A Recurring Issue in Sefer Bamidbar, Part 2

We continue with the discussion of bitachon (trust in Hashem’s providence) that we began last week, taken from the Maggid’s Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaBitachon. At the end of last week’s discussion, we presented the Maggid’s teaching that we should put all our trust in Hashem, without relying on other people who are created beings just like we are, and that we should therefore strive to follow Hashem’s directives, so that He will view us with favor and grant us blessing. We now pick up from that point.
Chapter 2 (conclusion)
The principles we have just discussed are elementary, and a person could easily come up with them on his own. We definitely have the capability to find favor in Hashem’s eyes and lead Hashem to bless us. Thus, Daniel criticized Belshatzar for failing do so, saying (verse 5:23): “You have praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone … and the God in Whose hand your soul lies, and unto Whom are all your ways, you have not glorified.” Nonetheless, our evil inclination blocks out the light of our understanding, seals our hearts, and leads us astray by means of various false ideas that are entrenched within us from youth, before our eyes were opened so that we could behold Hashem’s great and awesome works. Through specious arguments the evil inclination leads us to place our trust in natural factors and develop false hopes; in the words of Yirmiyah 2:13, we hew out broken cisterns that cannot hold water. The evil inclination befuddles us so that we forget Hashem, and distracts us from serving Him; it incites us to violate Hashem’s will. We seek security in false shelters, we forget the Torah, and we end up wandering around in unfamiliar lands, seeking food to sustain ourselves. We fail to understand that it benefits children to rely on their father and servants to rely on their master, as it is written (Tehillim 123:2): “Like the eyes of servants toward their master and like the eyes of maidservants toward their mistress, thus our eyes look toward Hashem our God, until He shows us graciousness.” We now discuss the basic factors that lead a person not to have bitachon.
Chapter 3
One major reason why people do not have bitachon in Hashem is that He conveys His bounty to us in an indirect manner, through intermediate agents. Hashem conveys the bounty to the angels in the upper realms of heaven, who pass it on to the beings in the lower realms of heaven, level after level, in a chain of succession. These heavenly beings have no power of their own; they simply pass on what Hashem conveys. The heavenly beings at the lowest level convey Hashem’s bounty to our world, and this, too, is done through intermediate agents – the various mechanisms of the physical world. One person makes use of an ox for plowing, another makes use of a donkey to carry loads, and some receive their allotment of bounty through other people, either by doing business or receiving a gift. We do not know why Hashem set up the universe this way; it is a secret which only He knows.
A person must seek some natural endeavor that will serve as the intermediate mechanism to bring his allotment of bounty from Hashem to him. Thus, the Torah says in Devarim 9:14 that we are to gather our grain, and in connection with this statement the Gemara in Berachos 35b reports R. Yishmael’s opinion, which is to be followed by everyone except the most saintly, that a person must engage in a worldly occupation. We are engaged in natural endeavors constantly from our youth to our old age. The problem is that we get so entrenched in natural endeavors that we put our trust in them and forget Hashem, our true Shepherd and Provider, who manages all the mechanisms of the natural world. We focus exclusively on what we see immediately in front of our eyes – the natural endeavors we are involved in on a daily basis. We think that these natural endeavors are the cause of the bounty that comes to us. And when we see a person gaining wealth and honor after having engaged in some particular natural endeavor, we feel a strong urge to engage in that endeavor as well, hoping that we will thereby become wealthy. We lose awareness that Hashem is the One who is behind everything. The natural mechanisms of this world are agents of Hashem, but they also operate as a thick screen dividing us from Hashem. We must work hard against our natural tendencies to maintain an awareness that Hashem is managing all our affairs.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Trust in Hashem – A Recurring Issue in Sefer Bamidbar

A recurring issue in Sefer Bamidbar is the issue of bitachon – trust in Hashem’s providence. Bitachon involves the understanding that Hashem watches over us and protects us at all times, and orchestrates everything that happens in our lives solely for our benefit. On the one hand, the Jewish People of Moshe’s generation are praised for following Hashem’s instruction to go into the wilderness despite their having no natural means of surviving there. Thus it is written (Yirmiyah 2:2): “I remember on your behalf the devotion of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land unsown.” On the other hand, several events in Sefer Bamidbar indicate that the Jewish People were lacking to a degree in the area of bitachon. We read, for example, of the various occasions that the Jewish People complained about their circumstances. In addition, we read of the episode of the spies who were sent to Eretz Yisrael and came back saying that it would be impossible to conquer the land. A further example is the episode of Korach that we read about in this week’s parashah, where Korach was dissatisfied with the position Hashem had assigned him, and organized a rebellion against Moshe to gain a higher position. Accordingly, I present here a portion of the Maggid’s discussion of bitachon in Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaBitachon.
After the discussion of serving Hashem, I thought it fitting to place next the discussion of bitachon, for only when a person has bitachon can he fulfill his obligation to serve Hashem to the maximum possible extent. For if a person lacks bitachon, and places his faith in certain other people, he has not given himself over completely – his entire body, soul, and strength – to Hashem, but instead has given over some part of himself to those in whom has placed his faith. He is like those of whom it is written (Tehillim 106:20): “They exchanged their Glory [Hashem] for the likeness of a grass-eating ox.” A person with bitachon does not place his hopes in any man. Of him, Tehillim 40:5 states: “Well-off is the man who places his trust in Hashem, and does not turn to the arrogant and the strayers after falsehood.” Tehillim 32:6 states: “The one who trusts in Hashem, kindness surrounds him.” And in Tehillim 131:2, David HaMelech declares: “Indeed I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a suckling child at his mother’s side, like the suckling child is my soul.” Yirmiyah 17:5-7 teaches: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and has made a being of flesh his strong-arm, and has turned his heart from Hashem. … Blessed is the man who trusts continually in Hashem; Hashem will then be his security.” Our ancestors were praised greatly for their bitachon, as it is written (ibid. 2:2): “I remember on your behalf the devotion of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land unsown.” Accordingly, it is fitting to discuss the nature and elements of bitachon and describe systematically the factors that lead to a weakening of bitachon.
Chapter 1
One must know that, just as Hashem originally brought each creation into being from nothingness, so, too, its continued existence now is brought about through His direct action. Thus it is written (Nechemiah 9:6): “You are the Sustainer of them all.” If the Creator and Maintainer of the universe would completely cut off His gracious sustaining force for a moment, everything would revert to nothingness, just as a garden withers when its water supply is cut off. Rambam discusses this matter in Moreh Nevuchim, Part 1, Chapter 69. Just as Hashem is absolutely complete, and needs nothing to make Him complete, so, too, conversely, His creations have absolutely nothing of their own, and cannot continue in existence for even a moment without the flow of Hashem’s sustaining force.
In regard to human beings, the support Hashem provides consists of several elements of varying levels of importance. Some elements are so crucial that if Hashem ceased to provide them, the person would immediately die. In this vein, Yeshayah 42:5 describes Hashem as the One Who “gives a soul to the people upon [the earth] and a spirit to those who walk upon it” – the verse says gives, in present tense, indicating the giving is constantly ongoing. (The Zohar, Bereishis 205b, quotes this verse in connection with the creation of man.)  Other elements, such as food and water, are not needed at every moment but are necessary to sustain life: A person can live for some amount of time without food, perhaps even a few days, but eventually his natural bodily mechanisms will force him to eat in order to replenish what has been depleted from him. At the next level are things that are not absolute necessary for life, but without them a person cannot live at a normal level of comfort – for example, clothing. Further down the chain are luxuries such as fine apparel and jewelry. All these things, like the produce of the field and all other commodities, are available to mankind at large, but, aside from those things without which a person would immediately die, some people lack certain things, in accordance with what Hashem has decreed for them. And Hashem, the Creator of all creatures of the world, watches directly over each one, irrespective of whether the creature is aware of Hashem’s supervision or not. Hashem sustains each one, from the great wild ox to the tiniest insect, and provides each its appropriate portion.
Chapter 2 (first three paragraphs)
Every person is a created being, whose coming into existence was not brought about through his own will or even with his awareness, but rather through the kindness of Hashem, who graciously created and sustains everyone. A person who contemplates this fact, bearing in mind that the purpose of all creation is so that people should recognize Hashem’s greatness and unceasing kindness [see Ramban, end of parashas Bo], should have complete faith that Hashem will take care of him. Just as before he came into being he was unaware to matters pertaining to his existence, and did not know that Hashem would create him out of pure nothingness, so, too, now, he should refrain from worrying about how he will maintain his existence, for surely the One Who brought him into being will sustain him.
Now, man is distinguished from all other creations in that he has free will. If he chooses good, Hashem will show grace and kindness toward him. A person must take care that his deeds are good and proper – that his conduct is pleasing to Hashem. If he does so, Hashem will grant him life and blessing, and he will not lack anything good. But if he rebels against Hashem and vexes Him through evil deeds, Hashem’s anger will be aroused against him, and He will withhold blessing from him [so as to prompt him to change his ways]. Thus the Torah says (Devarim 11:26-28): “See, I place 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, and you turn aside from the path that I command you today ….”
A person must therefore exert himself with all his strength to serve Hashem and gain His favor, and he should turn his eyes in hope toward Hashem, “like the eyes of servants toward their master and like the eyes of maidservants toward their mistress” (Tehillim 123:2). We should overtly fear Hashem and avoid sin, so that Hashem will not reduce the sustaining forces and resources that He provides us to maintain our existence in this world, thereby placing us into a less favorable life situation. We should recognize with a full heart that we receive no aid except through Hashem. Who else has the power to sustain us? Hashem is the sole master of the world; there is no other. He created us from nothingness, we continue in existence through His decree and will, and He supervises our affairs in wondrous fashion. Anyone that we might think of to rely on is in the same basic position as we are: His existence depends entirely on Hashem’s will and the care Hashem provides him. We should not put our faith in someone who is a created being just as we are; rather, we should put our faith in the One Who graciously brought us into being, and strive to serve Him and find favor with Him, as we explained before. Thus David HaMelech declares (ibid. 37:3): “Trust in Hashem and do good.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shelach

At the end of this week’s parashah, the Torah presents the mitzvah of tzitzis (fringes): Any four-cornered garment that a Jewish man wears must have fringes on each corner. (It is standard practice for a Jewish man to wear a four-cornered garment regularly in order to fulfill this mitzvah.) The Torah explains the reason for this mitzvah, saying (Bamidbar 15:39-14): “And they shall be unto you as fringes, that you may look upon them and remember all the commandments of Hashem and fulfill them … I am Hashem your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God – I am Hashem your God.” The Midrash comments (Bamidbar Rabbah 17:6):
We can draw an analogy: A person fell into the sea, and the ship’s captain passed him a rope and said, “Grasp this rope in your hand and don’t let it go. If you let it go, your life is lost.” Similarly, the Holy One Blessed Be He said to the Jewish People: “As long as you cling to mitzvos, you will remain alive.” As it is written (Devarim 4:4): “But you who cling to Hashem your God, you all are alive this day.” And similarly it is written (Mishlei 4:13): “Hold fast to moral counsel, do not let up. Guard it, for it is your life.” … The Holy One Blessed Be He said further to the Jewish People: “In this world, because of the evil inclination, you separate yourselves from the mitzvos. But in the end of days I will uproot it from you.” As it is written (Yechezkel 36:27): “And I will place My spirit within you, and I will make it so that you will follow My statutes and observe My ordinances and fulfill them.”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. His explanation revolves around our basic obligation to study Torah and serve Hashem. We serve Hashem by performing the mitzvos in their proper time and place. The obligation to study Torah, however, is not limited to a specific time. We are commanded to study, teach, and ponder the Torah day and night, in order to guard it and fulfill it. Thus, the Gemara states (Berachos 17a):
A pearl of wisdom regularly heard from R. Meir’s mouth: “Study with all your heart and all your soul, to know My ways and keep diligent watch at My Torah’s doors. Safeguard My Torah in your heart, and let the fear of Me be before your eyes. Guard your mouth from all sin, and purify and sanctify yourself from all wrongdoing and iniquity, and I shall be with you everywhere.”
Here, R. Meir describes Hashem exhorting us twice regarding the Torah: Hashem tells us to “keep diligent watch at My Torah’s doors” and to “safeguard My Torah in your heart.” The Maggid explains the double language as follows. Our obligation to perform the mitzvos necessarily entails an obligation to study their laws. We have to learn and know what we are supposed to do, when, how, and in what amount. But to perform the mitzvos, it is enough for us to study the laws of a mitzvah when the time comes to fulfill it – to study the laws of Pesach when Pesach is at hand, and so on. Moreover, it is enough for the people of each community to appoint a communal Rabbi to teach them the laws of the mitzvos, delivering lectures and answering questions about the mitzvos, each one in its time.
However, beyond fulfilling mitzvos, it is an obligation in its own right for us to pore over the Torah day and night. The realm of Torah study includes even study of laws that we cannot practice today, such as the laws of offerings and other acts of service in the Beis HaMikdash, and the laws of ritual purity and impurity. Such study is called “keeping diligent watch” – shekeidah. The Hebrew word shekeidah bears a connotation of hastening, as in the following passage (Yirmiyah 1:11-12): “And the word of Hashem came upon me, saying, ‘What do you see, Yirmiyah?’ And I said, ‘I see a staff of an almond tree (shahked).’ And Hashem said to me, ‘You have seen well, for I shall hasten (shohked) in doing what I have said.’” Studying the laws of mitzvos that will be practiced only in a future era can be viewed as hastened study. Such hastened study necessarily entails a need to remember and safeguard in our hearts the laws we have learned until the time comes to put them into practice.
Proper Torah study requires that a person review what he has learned many times, so that he will retain the material firmly in his mind. In this vein, the Gemara relates a saying (Kesuvos 77b): “Well-off is one who comes here with his learning in hand.” And, as we said just above, we are obligated to study diligently – with appropriate review – even the laws the laws that we will fulfill only at a later time. We should be as familiar with these laws as with the laws of the mitzvos we perform all the time, such as the mitzvos of tzitzis and tefillin. Now, we do not know the full extent of what we accomplish by studying the Torah’s laws, including laws not currently practiced. Only those in Hashem’s inner circle, the angels, possess this knowledge. The Gemara in Shabbos 88b relates that when Moshe came before Hashem to receive the Torah, the angels battled him and sought to smite him. They cried out to Hashem, in the words of Tehillim 8:2: “Keep Your glory [the Torah] set within the heavens.” The angels wanted to keep the Torah with them in heaven, even though they have no connection to the practical fulfillment of mitzvos. It must be that Torah study in itself brings about wondrous effects, beyond providing the knowledge needed to perform mitzvos.
As we said, we do not really know what these effects are. Nonetheless, it is fitting for us to try to gain some understanding, within our limited power of comprehension, of why Hashem obligated us to study diligently and keep firmly in our memory the laws that will be practiced only in the era of Moshiach. What is the rationale for such study and what benefit do we gain through it?
The Maggid answers as follows. As a general matter, we are obligated to act toward Hashem the same way He acts toward us. Now, when we were slaves in Egypt, we were not fit to serve as Hashem’s holy ministers. Thus, when Hashem told Moshe to tell Pharaoh to free us, Moshe asked (Shemos 3:11): “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Yisrael out of Egypt?” Moshe saw that we were bereft of good deeds, and, as the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 3:4 explains, he was asking Hashem what merit we had that made us deserve being taken out of Egypt. Hashem responded (ibid. 3:12): “For I shall be with you – and this is your sign that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” That is, Hashem, in His great goodness, freed us on account of what He knew we would do later – that we would accept the Torah. In the same way, it is our duty to study diligently the mitzvos that we are unable to fulfill now on account of the fact that Hashem will later redeem us from our state of exile and grant us the opportunity to fulfill these mitzvos. Thus, in the passage in the Torah that presents the mitzvah of tzitzis, which is meant to remind us of the mitzvos in general, Hashem concludes by saying: “I am Hashem your God, who took you out of Egypt, to be a God unto you.” Hashem is saying: “Just as I took you out of Egypt on account of the fact that you would later accept Me as your God and pledge to serve Me, so, too, you must act toward Me, and act in anticipation of what I will do for you later.”
The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 17:6, which we quoted initially, explains what benefit we gain by studying sections of the Torah dealing with laws that we will fulfill only later. The Midrash tells us that the Torah is what gives us life, and to stay alive we must hold on to it without letting up. We must cleave to Torah, and we can do so fully only if we study all of it diligently, including the sections dealing with laws that we will fulfill only in the end of days, and safeguard it firmly in our memory. The Midrash goes on to conclude by saying that in this world we occasionally separate ourselves from the mitzvos, because the evil inclination prevents us from appreciating them, but in the end of days Hashem will uproot the evil inclination from within us, and we will then be able to see the wondrous benefit we derive from them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator