Parashas Vaykhel-Pekudei

This week’s parashah describes the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its furnishings. The Torah relates (Shemos 37:1): “And Betzalel made the Ark of acacia [in Hebrew, shittim] wood.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 50:3):
It is written (Yirmiyah 30:17): “For I will provide for you a cure; from your wounds I will heal you.” Mortal men smite with a knife and heal with a dressing, but the Holy One Blessed Be He heals with the very thing with which He smites. Thus it is written (Shemos 15:23): “And they came to Marah, and they could not the drink water of Marah.” Why? “Because it was bitter” (ibid.). [The Torah relates later:] “He [Moshe] cried out to Hashem, and Hashem directed him to a tree; he threw [a branch of] it into the water, and the water became sweet.” [The Midrash presents various opinions about what tree branch Moshe threw into the water; the common denominator is that they all are bitter.] Thus it is written (Yirmiyah 30:17): “Through your wounds I shall heal you” [interpreting ממכותיך not in its plain sense of from your wounds, but rather in a homiletical sense, as meaning through your wounds]. … Thus, similarly, the People of Yisrael sinned in Shittim [Bamidbar 25:1], and were healed through shittim, as it is written: “And Betzalel made the Ark of shittim wood.” [The sin at Shittim occurred nearly 40 years after the construction of the Mishkan, but Maharzav explains that Hashem prepared the Torah, which the Ark contained, in advance so that the Jewish People could learn how to repent from the sin.]
In his commentary on this Midrash, the Maggid begins by noting that when Hashem says that “through your wounds I will heal you,” He is not simply saying that He heals us with the same instrument that He used previously to smite us. Rather, He is saying that the blow itself is the means through which He heals us. The Maggid then sets out to explain why it is important for us to know this fact.
He quotes the following Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 43:3):
“And Moshe pleaded” (ויחל משה) (Shemos 32:11, in the episode of the golden calf). Here, ויחל is a term denoting sweetening (חילוי). … When the People of Yisrael came to Marah … Moshe began to wonder: “This water, why was it created? What benefit is it to the world? It would have been better had it not been created.” … The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: “Don’t speak like that. Is this water not the work of My hands? Is there anything in the world that was not created for a purpose? Let Me tell you what you should say instead. Say like this: ‘Make the bitter sweet.’” How do we know that the Holy One Blessed Be He instructed him to speak this way? [The Midrash recounts the episode of the waters of Marah, stressing that the Torah does not say that Hashem showed (ויראהו) Moshe the tree, but rather that He directed him to the tree (ויורהו – a term denoting instruction, related to the word תורה).] When did Moshe make use of this teaching? When the People of Yisrael [committed the sin of the calf] and God sought to annihilate them, Moshe said to Him: “Master of the Universe! Do You seek to destroy the People of Yisrael and wipe them off the earth? Did You not teach me at Marah: ‘Plead, and say: “Make the bitter sweet”’? So now, sweeten (חלי) the People of Yisrael’s bitterness and heal them.”
Moshe asks what the bitter waters of Marah were created. The Maggid remarks that it is indeed a great wonder that Hashem brought the Jewish People to Marah, where they could not drink the water, so that it was necessary to sweeten them. Why did Hashem do this? Couldn’t He have brought them to a place where there was sweet water?
The Maggid explains as follows. The same question that Moshe raised about the waters of Marah could be raised about around half of all creation. The way the world appears to us, there are many more harmful creations than beneficial creations. Yet Shlomo HaMelech teaches us that Hashem “made everything beautiful in its time” (Koheles 3:11) and made everything “for His sake, even the evildoer for the day of retribution” (Mishlei 16:4). Everything in the world serves some beneficial purpose. Creations that we categorize as good are beneficial continually, and creations that we categorize as bad still provide benefit at the appropriate time, for example, when they are used as medicines.
The Torah concludes its account of creation by saying (Bereishis 1:31): “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Expounding on this statement, the Midrash presents a long list of creations that are generally very bad, but provide a wondrous benefit in certain circumstances. Included in this list is the evil inclination. The Midrash notes that were it not for the evil inclination, a man would not build a house or marry. But when the evil inclination is stirred at an inappropriate time, Hashem has to “sweeten” it for us and keep it from causing us harm. This is the lesson Hashem taught Moshe at Marah: When we encounter something we experience as bad, we should not wish that it had not been created. Instead, we should understand that it is beneficial in its time, and when we find it bitter we should ask Hashem to sweeten it for us. Hashem is always at our side to help us. Thus David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 121:5-7): “Hashem is your guardian; He is your shadow at your right hand … Hashem will guard you from all evil; He will guard your soul.”
Indeed, Hashem promised us that He will heal us from the harm the evil inclination causes us. The Gemara in Berachos 32a and Sukkah 52b mentions three verses without which the feet of the Jewish People would falter. In one of these verses, Michah 4:6, Hashem states that He will gather in those whom He has done evil. In this verse, Hashem admits to having caused us difficulties by creating the evil inclination and promises to relieve these difficulties. Now, this statement might deflect us from working to serve Hashem and perform mitzvos: We might think that since Hashem takes the blame, so to speak, for the havoc the evil inclination wreaks on us, and has taken it upon Himself to repair the damage, there is no point in our exerting ourselves to break the evil inclination. Far be it for a blessing from Hashem to turn into a curse!
It is in order to prevent us from making this error that Hashem led us to the bitter waters of Marah and sweetened them for us. At Marah He demonstrated to us the process of sweetening the bitter: He instructed Moshe to take a bitter branch and sweeten the bitter with bitter. This exemplifies how Hashem sweetens the bitterness of the evil inclination: He brings bitter afflictions upon us until we are sweetened, just as He brought awesome plagues on Pharaoh to sweeten him and turn him from bad to good. The same idea underlies the verse from Yirmiyah that the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 50:3 quotes: “For I shall provide for you a cure; through your wounds I will heal you.” Hashem will provide us a cure, but the cure will come through blows that Hashem will cast upon us. We thus can understand literally the statement in the Midrash that Hashem heals with the very thing with which He smites – the purpose of the blow is to heal. Through the demonstration at Marah, we learned that it is not in our best interest to sit and wait for Hashem to sweeten our evil inclination.
It is in this vein that the Torah concludes its account of the episode at Marah with the following words (Shemos 15:25-26):
There He established for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them. And He said: “If you will hearken diligently to the voice of Hashem your God, and do that which is just in His eyes, and give ear to His commandments and observe all His statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the ailments that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I am Hashem your Healer.
Hashem is telling us that we have in our hands a means of sweetening the evil inclination: Torah and mitzvos. As the Gemara in Kiddushin 30b says: “I created the evil inclination, and I created the Torah as a remedy for it.” If we fail to make use of this remedy, then Hashem has to step in and sweeten the evil inclination through afflictions. As the Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 4:2 says: “The book and the sword came down from heaven bound together.” And as Yeshayah teaches (verse 1:19-20): “If you are willing and you listen, you will eat the good of the land, but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured with the sword.” At Marah, Hashem set the choice before us: We can sweeten the evil inclination ourselves through the statute and ordinance that Hashem established for us, or we can let Hashem sweeten the evil inclination for us through the method of sweetening the bitter with bitter. If we embrace the first method, we will not need to endure the second. As Hashem says: “I will not bring upon you any of the ailments that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I am Hashem your Healer” – through the Torah, a sweet and pleasant remedy.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Parah

The special haftarah for Shabbos Parashas Parah begins with the following passage (Yechezkel 36:16-21):
The word of Hashem came to me, saying: “Son of man, the House of Yisrael has been dwelling on their land, and they have they defiled it with their way and with their acts. Their way before Me has become like the ritual impurity of a menstruating woman. So I poured out My fury upon them, because of the blood they had shed upon the land, and because they had defiled it with their idols. And I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed among the lands – according to their way and according to their acts I judged them. They came into the nations, into which they came, and they desecrated My holy Name, when it was said of them: ‘These are the people of Hashem, but they left His land.’ And I had pity upon My holy Name, which the House of Israel had desecrated among the nations into which they came.”
Kochav MiYaakov presents an explanation of this passage that builds on the observation that Hashem first speaks of “their way and their acts,” afterward speaks only of “their way,” and then speaks again of “their way and their acts.” The starting point is an analysis of the terms “their way” and “their acts” (עלילותם). We find that the term “way” can be used to refer to a patter on thought. Thus, Koheles 11:9 speaks of a person following the ways of his heart, and Yeshayah 57:17 speaks of a person going “waywardly according to the way of his heart.” A person’s thoughts and the musings of his heart set the foundation for his actions. But a person’s thoughts are hidden from other people and are known only to Hashem. Thus, when someone thinks an evil thought, Hashem is aware of it but other people are not. A person’s acts, on the other hand, are out in the open and can be seen by all. This fact is reflected in the word עלילות, which is related to the phrase בעליל לארץ, meaning clear to the world, in Tehillim 12:7.
Thus, there are two categories of sins: evil thoughts and evil acts. Yechezkel 14:5 describes Hashem saying that He will seize idolatrous Jews for what is in their hearts. The Gemara in Kiddushin 39b infers from this statement that a person can be punished for idolatrous thoughts. This category of sin includes not believing that Hashem watches over and runs the world, believing that the world was created or is run by multiple deities acting in partnership, disbelieving the words of the prophets, believing that the Torah can be changed, and other heretical thoughts. These sins all involve matters between a person and Hashem. In parallel with such offenses are sins involving matters between a person and his fellow man, such as theft, murder, evil speech, gossip, and so on. The sins in this second category all involve overt action and thus they are called עלילות.
In the passage from our haftarah, Hashem initially speaks of both categories of sins, referring to them with the terms “way” and “acts.” The term “way” refers to sins in matters between a person and Hashem that a person commits through thought, while the term “acts” refers to sins in matters between a person and his fellow man that a person commits through overt action. Hashem says that the Jewish People defiled Eretz Yisrael with both types of sin. Afterward, Hashem focuses on the sins consisting of evil thoughts. He likens these sins to the ritual impurity of a menstruating woman. Just as a menstruating woman’s state is known only to her husband, so, too, sins consisting of evil thoughts are known only to Hashem. To emphasize this point, Hashem describes these sins as being “before Me,” meaning that they are detectably present before Him alone and not before any mortal man. Hashem then continues by saying that He has poured out His fury upon the people, because of the blood they had shed upon the land and because of their having defiled it with their idols. Hashem mentions the bloodshed first and the idolatry afterwards. The message here is along the lines of a teaching in Menachos 41a: Although Hashem usually does not punish people for evading positive commandments, in a time of wrath He does. The outpour of Divine fury described in our passage was initially triggered by the overt sins involving evil acts that people committed against others. Had the people been guilty only of sins of thought, involving matters between each Jew and Hashem, an outpour of fury would not have resulted. But once the evil acts against others had triggered Hashem’s fury, in the process Hashem also exacted retribution for the sins of thought.
Hashem thus continues and says: “And I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed among the lands; according to their way and according to their acts I judged them.” Here, in mentioning both “way” and “acts,” Hashem is indicated that He is punishing the people both for evil thoughts and for evil actions. Hashem’s statement that He “scattered them among the nations” relates to sins consisting of heretical thoughts. Because the peoples’ faith in Hashem was faulty, involving distorted views of Hashem’s relationship with the world, Hashem scattered them among the nations and reduced His level of watchfulness over them, thus diluting His relationship with them. In parallel, His statement that the people were “dispersed among the nations” relates to sins involving evil acts against others. The Hebrew word for dispersed, נזורו, resembles the Hebrew word זר, meaning stranger. Because the people despised each other and treated each other like strangers, Hashem dispersed them among the nations and put them in the position of being strangers. Following His usual practice, Hashem tailored the punishments according to the sins, measure for measure.
Hashem then says further: “They came into the nations, into which they came, and they desecrated My holy Name, when it was said of them: ‘These are the people of Hashem, but they left His land.’” Although Hashem was forced, so to speak, to act toward the people the way He did because of their sins, the exile of the people produced a desecration of His Name. As Rashi explains in his commentary on our passage, the nations of the world thought that, far be it, Hashem did not have the power to save the Jewish People and their land from the calamity that came upon them. And so Hashem concludes by saying: “And I had pity upon My holy Name, which the House of Israel had desecrated among the nations where they came.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Tetzaveh

This week’s parashah begins with the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 27:20): “And you shall command the Children of Yisrael, that they shall take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for light, to kindle a lamp continually.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 36:2):
Hashem said: “It is not that I need these lights. Rather, it is so that you should provide light for Me just as I provided light for you. Why? In order to exalt you before all the nations of the world, that they should say that the People of Yisrael provide light for the One who provides light to all.”
We can explain with a parable about a sighted person and a blind person who were walking together. The sighted person said to the blind person: “Come, and I will support you.” Thus the blind person was able to walk along. When they entered the house, the sighted person said to the blind person: “Go and light the lamp and provide light for me, so that you will not be beholden to me because I accompanied you.” … The sighted person in the parable is the Holy One Blessed Be He, of whom it is written (Divrei HaYamim Beis 16:9): “For Hashem’s eyes roam throughout the land.” And the blind person in the parable is the People of Yisrael, of whom it is written (Yeshayah 59:10): “We grope the wall like the blind, and like the eyeless we grope; we stumble at noon as in the dark of night.” At the sixth hour of the day, they erred with the golden calf, and the Holy One provided light for them and guided them, as it is written (Shemos 13:21): “And Hashem went before them by day.”
So when they set out to build the Mishkan, Hashem called out to Moshe and told him: “They shall take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for light.” Said the People of Yisrael: “We have said (Tehillim 18:29), ‘for You light my lamp,’ and You are telling us to provide You light?” Hashem replied: “It is to elevate you, that you should kindle lights before Me, just as I provided light for you.”
The Maggid takes note of the double language in the verse from Yeshayah that the Midrash quotes: “We grope the wall like the blind, and like the eyeless we grope.” He explains that the purpose of the double language is to rule out both of the two possible ways a blind person can manage to make his way through the streets. One way is through enlisting the help of sighted people to guide him. The other way is through calling on his memory about the streets, from the time when he was able to see. Neither of these ways is available to a person who was never able to see and is now among people who are also blind. This is how the Jewish People describe themselves in Yeshayah’s prophecy. Their intent is to describe in expansive terms the severe blindness that the evil inclination imposes on the soul by cutting it off from light. Hashem, in His great kindness, guides us with His hand so that we do not fall into the traps that the evil inclination lays for us.  It is as David HaMelech says (Tehillim 37:32-33): “The wicked one watches for the righteous one and seeks to kill him, but Hashem will not leave him to his hand.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Terumah

This week’s parashah begins with Hashem telling Moshe to tell the Jewish People that “they should take Me a portion” (Shemos 25:2). The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 33:1):
“They should take (וְיִקְחוּ) Me a portion.” It is written (Mishlei 4:2): “For I have given you good counsel (לֶקַח, literally acquisition) – Do not forsake My Torah.” Do not abandon the possession that I gave you. Sometimes a person purchases an item which has gold but not silver. And sometimes a person purchases an item that has silver but not gold. But the possession that I have given you has silver … and it has gold …. Sometimes a person buys a tract that has fields but not vineyards. And sometimes a person buys a tract that has vineyards but not fields. But this possession has both fields and vineyards …. Also, have you ever seen a transaction where the seller sells himself along with the object of purchase? Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to the People of Israel: “When I ‘sold’ you My Torah, I ‘sold’ Myself to you with it, so to speak.” As it is written: “They should take Me [as] a portion.”
The Maggid expounds on this Midrash in his commentary on Esther 1:1 in Kol Yaakov. He links it to another Midrash that comments on the meeting between Yisro and Moshe after the Exodus. The Torah states (Shemos 18:8): “And Moshe told his father-in-law all that Hashem had done ….” The Midrash comments (Yalkut Shimoni I:268): “That He gave Torah to His People Israel.” [There is a difference of opinion among the authorities as to whether the meeting between Yisro and Moshe took place before or after the Torah was given. Evidently this Midrash follows the view that the meeting took place after the Torah was given.] The Maggid asks: How can the plural term all refer to the giving of the Torah, which is just a single specific event? He answers by saying that the Torah encompasses all there is. The Midrash on Shemos 25:2 quoted above conveys the same message.
The Sages teach (Avos 6:1): “Whoever involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things ….” The Maggid asks: What is the meaning of the phrase “many things”? What does it come to add beyond the specific things that the Mishnah enumerates immediately afterwards?
The Maggid answers by drawing an analogy between the Torah and the manna that the Jewish People ate in the wilderness. Our Sages tell us that each person tasted in the manna whatever he desired (Yoma 74b and Rashi ad loc.; see also Mechilta Yisro 1). Now, the effect of the manna depended on what the person eating it had in mind. If a person ate the manna with an a priori desire to experience the taste of a specific food – meat, for example – then the manna would reflect just that specific taste. If, however, a person ate the manna without anything particular in mind, he would taste in it all types of delicacies.
It is the same with the Torah. If a person involves himself in Torah in order to satisfy some particular desire, be it riches or honor or whatever, then he is granted the particular blessing that he wished for, but no more. But if a person involves himself in Torah purely for its own sake, without desiring to attain any material benefit, then it provides him with all the blessings in the world. This is what the Sages mean when they say that “whoever involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things.” 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mishpatim

One segment of this week’s parashah deals with lending money, especially to the poor, and not taking interest. The Torah states (Shemos 22:24): “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a pursuing creditor; do not lay interest upon him.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 31:14):
Come and see: Anyone who lends with interest commits all the transgressions described in the Torah, and he cannot find anyone to raise points in his defense. What does this mean? When a person commits a sin and stands in judgment before the Holy One Blessed Be He, angels are present, some raising points in his defense and some raising points of indictment. As it is written (Divrei HaYamim Beis 18:18): “I saw Hashem sitting on His throne, and all the heavenly hosts were standing to His right and to His left.” But for someone who lends to a Jew with interest, none of them raise points in his defense, as it is written (Yechezkel 18:13): “[If he] lends with usury and takes interest, should he live? He shall not live!”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He builds on another Midrash that follows right afterward, which expounds as follows (Shemos Rabbah 18:15):
Come and see how all the Holy One Blessed Be He’s creations borrow from each other. The day borrows from the night, and the night from the day, and they do not litigate against each other as men do. … The moon borrows from the stars and the stars from the moon …. Light borrows from the sun, and the sun from light …. The Holy One Blessed Be He’s creations borrow from each other and make peace with each other without taking interest. But with man, one lends to another and seeks to swallow him up with interest and theft.
A person who lends with interest, the Maggid explains, is the type of person who will not do anything for someone else unless he will gain some benefit in return. In the heavenly court, they deal with him in the same way, in line with our Sages’ teaching that “with the same kind of measure that a person measures with, they measure out for him” (Mishnah Sotah 1:7). The angels could help him and raise points in his defense, but they hold back from providing him a benefit for free, just as he was unwilling to provide someone else a benefit for free.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Yisro

The Gemara (Shabbos 88b-89b) records that when Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Shamayim to receive the Torah, the angels balked. They said: “This secret treasure that You hid away 974 generations before the world was created, You plan to give to flesh and blood? ‘What is a mortal, that You are mindful of him – a man, that You take note of him? O Hashem, our Master! How mighty is Your Name throughout the world, You Who has set Your glory [the Torah] within the Heavens!’ (Tehillim 8:5,2).” We have previously presented three reasons the Maggid offered to explain why the angels protested even though it is clear from a straightforward reading of the Torah that its mitzvos are relevant only to man and not to the angels. Here we elaborate on one of the reasons, presenting the parable that the Maggid used to bring out the point.
The parable runs as follows. A certain great Torah scholar served as the rabbi of a big city for a number of years. As he reached old age, he decided to retire from this hectic position, which required him to attend to the many needs of the city’s large community and to adjudicate their many thorny legal disputes. He planned to seek an alternate post as the rabbi of a nearby small town. Since the community there was small, he would be able to live restfully. He called in the big city’s leaders, and asked if they would assent to his plan. They told him: “Rabbi, do whatever you feel is best.” So the rabbi wrote to the leaders of the small town, asking if they would accept him as their rabbi. The town leaders met and decided to accept him. They chose some people to take wagons and travel to the big city to bring the rabbi over, along with his family and his belongings.
When the wagons arrived at the big city, the city leaders gathered together and tried to stop the rabbi from leaving. The rabbi said to them: “I asked you beforehand and you assented to my plan. Why are you now trying to hold me back?” They replied: “Rabbi, far be it from us to do such a thing. The wagons are here – go with them as you wish.” But, as the wagon drivers hitched up the coach, the city leaders began to beat them fiercely. They unhitched the coach and shouted: “You came to take our esteemed rabbi out to your town? Well, you came for nothing!” The wagon drivers went to the rabbi’s house and told him what happened. The rabbi called in the city leaders and said to them: “Tell me, why are you fighting with these men? They are innocent, for they came in good faith, after you assented to my plan.”
The leaders of the city replied: “Rabbi, we deliberately staged this scene for your benefit. You wrote to the leaders of the nearby town, asking them to accept you as their rabbi. Who knows what the people there are thinking about this. Maybe they imagine that we became disgusted with you for some reason and decided to throw you out of here. If so, they will have low regard for you. They will say among themselves: “Who is this who has come to live here and act as a judge over us?”  Therefore we decided to act as we did, so that the people of the other town will see how much we honor and cherish you. They will see that we would not let you leave us except with great difficulty. And then they will know how careful they must be to treat you with proper respect. They will realize that the only reason we are letting you go is because you need some relief from the many concerns of a large community.”
The Maggid explains that a similar process took place when Hashem decided the time had come to convey the holy Torah to the Earth below, and give it to humans beings constituted from a fusion of physicality and spirituality.  The angels knew that the Torah was meant all along to be given to the People of Israel. Nonetheless, in order to show how much they cherished the beauty of Torah, they decided to stage a protest against giving it to man.
They had an important goal in mind in doing this. The angels, who appreciate the precious value of Torah more than lowly humans, were concerned that after the Jewish People received the Torah, they would fail to regard it with the proper respect. They would treat it, so to speak, as the natives of a country treat a foreigner. They would say to themselves: “If the Torah is so great, why did the heavenly hosts allow it to be brought down here?” Indeed, all the great wonders that Hashem performed for the Jewish People in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds were in order that the Jewish People would serve Him at Mt. Sinai and accept the Torah. There might be room to think: “If the Torah is such an obviously wondrous treasure, why was it necessary for Hashem to go to staggering lengths to impress the people who were supposed to receive it? Who would be foolish enough to turn away a princely treasure?”
Therefore, when Moses went up on high to receive the Torah, the angels attacked him and turned to Hashem with a heated argument against him: “Keep Your glory set within the Heavens! What is a mortal, that You are mindful of him – a man, that You take note of him?” The angels deliberately acted this way so that the Jewish People would know how much the Torah is cherished in the upper worlds, and that it was being passed on to the Earth below only so that the Jewish People could become purified. The Jewish People then would get the message that they must be careful to honor and glorify the Torah fittingly.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Beshallach

Parashas Beshallach begins with the following verse (Shemos 13:17): “And it was, when Pharaoh sent the people out, that God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines (דרך ארץ פלשתים), for it was near.” The Maggid examines a Midrash on this verse that builds on the fact that the Hebrew word ארץ can mean land or earth, and the phrase דרך ארץ is a standard Hebrew expression which is used (among other uses) to mean the way of the world (i.e., the way the world ordinarily operates). The Midrash states as follows (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 226):
It is the way of the world that water comes from above and bread comes from below. But here, bread comes from above, as it is written (Shemos 16:4), “Behold, I will cause bread to rain down from heaven for you,” while water comes from below, as it is written (Bamidbar 21:17), “Then Yisrael sang this song: ‘Rise up, O well’” [referring to the miraculous well that followed the Jewish People through their travels in the wilderness and provided them water].
The Maggid explains this Midrash in terms of two modes of operation that Hashem uses to provide us with our needs. The first mode is through our efforts in serving Hashem, particularly during the time when we were well settled in our land and had the Beis HaMikdash, where we brought offerings that generated closeness between us and Hashem, and caused blessing to flow down to us. The Maggid refers to this mode as “ordinary providence,” likening it to the situation of a father providing his son with a sum of money and teaching him the ways of business, so that he can support himself through his own efforts. The second mode is a mode of special compassionate care that Hashem puts into effect when we lack the means to sustain ourselves through our service to Him. The Maggid refers to this mode as “transcendent providence,” and likens it to the situation of a young child who lives in his father’s house and has all his needs provided for him by his father. We have previously presented an essay from Ohel Yaakov, parashas Vayeitzei where the Maggid discusses these concepts. Transcendent providence is the mode that was in effect while we were in the wilderness, before we settled into Eretz Yisrael and were in a position to obtain our sustenance through ordinary providence. And this is the mode that is in effect at present, when we are in exile and unable to serve Hashem at the level at which we served Him when we had the Beis HaMikdash.
Now, if we had gone through oppression in Egypt for the full length of time that Hashem initially designated, we would have gone directly into Eretz Yisrael and entered the framework of ordinary providence. But because we could not withstand the severe oppression that Pharaoh imposed upon us and the exposure to Egyptian decadence, Hashem was led to redeem us before the designated time. We were not yet worthy, however, of entering Eretz Yisrael. Accordingly, Hashem led us into the wilderness and cared for us through transcendent providence. We can understand in this vein our parashah’s opening verse. When Pharaoh sent the people out – Pharaoh caused us to leave Egypt before designated time, because he made the yoke of slavery extremely onerous – God did not lead them according to the way of the world – it was not possible for Hashem to deal us with through the mode of ordinary providence, but instead it was necessary for Him to care for us through the mode of transcendent providence.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Bo

Parashas Bo begins with Hashem telling Moshe (Shemos 10:1-2):
Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, so that I can present these of Mine in his midst of them, and so that you may relate in the ears of your son, and of your son’s son, about the way I toyed with Egypt and about My signs which I have done among them – so that you may know that I am Hashem.
The Maggid sets out to elaborate on this statement. Moshe might think it was pointless for him to go to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Jews go, since Hashem told him in advance that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart and he would refuse to comply. Hashem therefore explained the actual purpose behind the events He was orchestrating. His purpose in sending Moshe to Pharaoh was not to induce him to let the Jews go, and His purpose in sending the plagues was not to take revenge against Pharaoh for his disobedience. Rather, the purpose of the plagues was to instill the Jews with a recognition of His power and infuse their hearts with fear of Him, so that they would be prepared to receive the Torah.
In recounting the plagues, Moshe said (Devarim 6:22): “And Hashem cast signs and wonders, great and terrible, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon his entire house, before our eyes.” And elsewhere, speaking of the uniqueness of the Jewish People’s experience, Moshe said (ibid. 4:34): “Or has any god ever come miraculously to take for himself a nation from the midst of another nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, and with war, and with mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with greatly awesome acts, in the manner of all that Hashem your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” The phrase before our eyes in these two statements indicates that Hashem brought about all the awesome signs and wonders so that the Jews would behold them and understand clearly that Hashem is Master of the Universe – that the entire universe is His, and He rules over every element of it. This lesson was drilled into the Jews when they saw with their own eyes, time after time, how Hashem overrode the laws of nature with the plagues. Accordingly, Hashem began the Ten Commandments with the declaration (Shemos 20:2): “I am Hashem your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The wonders the Jews beheld in Egypt gave them knowledge of Hashem.
After relating the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds, the Torah reports (Shemos 14:31): “Yisrael saw the great hand that Hashem had inflicted upon Egypt, and the people feared Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in His servant Moshe.” This declaration is a summing-up of the onslaught against the Egyptians, just in the way that a merchant who has finished a business venture makes an accounting of his profits. The onslaught achieved its intended purpose – instilling fear of Hashem in the hearts of the Jewish People.
Based on the principle we just discussed, we can understand why Hashem gave Pharaoh a public warning before most of the plagues. The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. A man who committed some offense was tried before a judge. He realized that he was going to be convicted, and the judge would issue an order for some of his property to be confiscated. So he approached the judge secretly and said: “I’ll give you over in secret whatever you demand from me. But please don’t cause me public embarrassment by convicting me in court.” The judge replied: “Am I really interested in the property itself? The only reason I’m going to order that the property be confiscated is so that people will see and will be deterred from doing what you did. The more embarrassment you suffer, the stronger the deterrent effect will be.” The parallel is clear from what we discussed before.
The way we understand the reason behind the plagues makes a crucial difference. If the plagues were meant only to take revenge against Pharaoh, we would have no reason to remember the plagues and pass the story of the plagues down from generation to generation. Our redemption from Egypt and the revenge against Pharaoh would be over and done, and there would be no need to remember these events. But since, as we explained, the true purpose of the plagues was to instill within us faith in Hashem and fear of Hashem, we can see that recounting the story yields great benefit. As a person contemplates the miracles carefully, his faith in Hashem and fear of Hashem will be strengthened. Accordingly, the Torah mentions the Exodus from Egypt innumerable times, for every time we review the events their message is more deeply instilled within us.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Shabbos Rosh Chodesh

This week we read the special haftarah for Shabbos Rosh Chodesh. Speaking of Tziyon (Zion), it is written (Yeshayah 66:7): “Before she feels labor pains, she will give birth; before travail comes upon her, she will deliver a son!” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 85:1): “Before the first enslaver was born, the final redeemer was born.” The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He takes as his starting point the following Gemara passage (Megillah 13b):
The Holy One Blessed Be He does not strike a blow to Yisrael unless He creates for them a cure for them beforehand. As it is written (Hoshea 7:1, homiletically): “When I healed Yisrael, the iniquity of Ephraim became revealed.”
It seems, the Maggid says, that the verse in Hoshea does not serve to prove the Gemara’s assertion that the cure precedes the blow. Rather, the Sages knew by tradition that Hashem, in His great mercy, prepares the cure before delivering the blow, but they wanted to explain why Hashem follows this course. The Maggid explains the idea as follows. The main purpose of exile is to heal and purify our souls. Yet the exile also exerts a negative spiritual influence on us, as it is written (Tehillim 106:35): “They mingled with the nations and learned their ways.” The verse in Hoshea describes the problem Hashem is faced with: He seeks to heal us through exile, but the exile leads us to exhibit increased iniquitous behavior. Hashem therefore had to prepare the redeemer in advance, when we still had some merit to our credit, before we reached the point of spiritual mortal danger, lest it happen, far be it, that when the time for the redemption approached we would be unworthy of being redeemed. Thus, even before the first enslaver came on the scene, Hashem set the final redeemer in place.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Shemos

This week’s parashah describes how the Egyptians enslaved and oppressed us, and Hashem sent Moshe to redeem us. Hashem tells Moshe (Shemos 3:7): “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their screams on account of their taskmasters, for I have known of their sufferings.” We have previously presented several of the Maggid’s commentaries on this verse. We now present another one, based on a Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 4:7. The Midrash expounds on Devarim 12:20, which speaks Hashem’s expanding our borders. The Midrash states:
This is as it is written (Tehillim 31:8-9): “I jubilate and rejoice in Your kindness, that You saw my affliction and recognized the troubles of my soul. And You did not give me over into the hand of the enemy; You set my feet in a broad place.” I jubilate and rejoice in Your kindness. This statement pertains to Knesses Yisrael. Said Knesses Yisrael: “Master of the Universe! We jubilate and rejoice in the kindness that You did for us. For even if You had only exacted vengeance from the Egyptians without giving us their money, we would have rejoiced. Now we rejoice and jubilate also over Your having given us their money.” That You saw my affliction. This statement pertains to Knesses Yisrael, of whom it is written (Devarim 26:6-8): “And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried out to Hashem, the God of our fathers, and Hashem heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And Hashem brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand ….” And recognized the troubles of my soul. As it is written (Shemos 1:14): “And they embittered their lives ….” And You did not give me over into the hand of the enemy. The enemy is the wicked Pharaoh, as it is written (Shemos 15:9): “The enemy said, ‘I will pursue ….’” You set my feet in a broad place. As it is written (Devarim 12:20): “When Hashem Your God expands your borders ….”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. There is a difference between the misfortunes that come upon us and those that come upon other nations. The downfall of other nations comes about incidentally, so to speak, amidst the tides of fortune. Hashem does not take any direct action against them. Rather, He simply withdraws from watching over them, and misfortune comes upon them automatically. This idea is expressed in the Song at the Sea. The Jewish People declare (Shemos 15:12): “You inclined Your right hand and the earth swallowed them up.” [The Hebrew word נטית is usually rendered stretched forth – the rendering inclined here follows Rashi’s commentary.] Rashi explains: “When Hashem tilts His hand, the wicked fall and perish, for everything is held in His hand, and it falls when the hand is tilted. Thus it is written (Yeshayah 31:3), ‘When Hashem inclines His hand, both the one who helps will stumble and the one who is helped will fall.’ It is like a set of glass vessels in a person’s hand – if the person tilts his hand a bit, they fall and break.” It is different with the Jewish People. Everything that comes upon them comes about through Hashem’s individualized supervision. In this vein, it is written (Shir HaShirim 2:6): “His left hand is beneath my head, and His right hand embraces me.” That is, even Hashem’s left hand, i.e., His Attribute of Justice, is an instrument of His benevolent care, just as a father gives his son harsh medicines to heal him. All this is included in Yirmiyahu’s prophecy (verse 29:11): “‘I know the thoughts that I am thinking over you,’ says Hashem, ‘thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.’”
The nations of the world do not recognize this principle. They believe that we as well as they are given over to the tides of fortune. However, when Hashem exercises justice on our behalf and wages war against our enemies, He clearly demonstrates His direct supervision of our affairs: Out of His love for us, He steps in and brings calamity on our oppressors by direct action. We see this in how Hashem dealt with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, smiting them with wondrous plagues overriding the laws of nature. And we see that Egyptians acknowledged the truth and did not deny that it was through Hashem’s hand operating directly, and not through the tides of fortune, that they were struck down. Yet we can imagine them claiming that the blows Hashem dealt them were motivated only by His anger toward them and His desire to reprimand them, and not out of love for us. They might say to themselves: “The Jews are also wicked and sinful in Hashem’s eyes. Hashem cast the plagues against us only because He regards us as having meddled in a dispute that was not our business when we set out to oppress the Jews, and He wanted to punish us for this offense.” But the fact that Hashem gave us their money proves that the awesome onslaught that Hashem brought upon them was motivated by His love for us and His kindness toward us.
We can bring out the point with an analogy. Suppose someone sees a person stealing money from a thief. He will lash out in anger against the person he saw stealing; he will take the money away and rail at him, saying: “Scoundrel! What business do you have stealing?” But, at the same time, he will not return the money to the victim of the theft he observed, for the victim himself is a thief. But now suppose he sees a person stealing money from an upright and righteous person. He then will surely return the money to the victim of the theft he observed. Thus it was with the way Hashem acted in Egypt during the period described in the first few parshios of Sefer Shemos. The fact that He gave us the Egyptians’ money showed that He regarded us as innocent victims, and His decision to deviate from His usual mode of operation and take direct action against the Egyptians was motivated by love for us.
This idea is reflected in the passage from Tehillim 31 that the Midrash quotes. Knesses Yisrael declares: “I jubilate and rejoice in Your kindness, that You saw my affliction and recognized the troubles of my soul.” We are describing how Hashem watched intently over us while we were enslaved in Egypt and saw what was happening to us there, as portrayed in the statement by Hashem to Moshe that we quoted at the outset: “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their screams on account of their taskmasters, for I have known of their sufferings.” We then speak of how Hashem saved us from Pharaoh’s hand. His compassion toward us was aroused, and He stepped in and smote the Egyptians on our behalf, as an act of direct Divine supervision. Hashem’s decision to step in was motivated by love for us and not merely by a desire to punish the Egyptians. In proof of this fact, we say: “You set my feet in a broad place” – we speak of how Hashem gave us the Egyptians’ money, as the Midrash relates.
David Zucker, Site Administrator