Pesach – Shir HaShirim

On Pesach we read Shir HaShirim, so I present a selection from the opening essay in the Maggid’s commentary Kol Yeshorer on Shir HaShirim.
The Midrash states (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:11):
In all the songs [of the Bible, aside from the Shir HaShirim], either He [Hashem] praises them [the Jewish People] or they praise Him. In Moshe’s [first] song [at the Sea of Reeds], they praise Him and say (Shemos 15:2): “This is my God and I shall glorify Him.” And in Moshe’s [last] song [just before his death], He praises them (Devarim 32:13): “He would make them ride on the high places of the earth.” But here [in Shir HaShirim], they praise Him and He praises them. He praises them (Shir HaShirim 1:15): “Behold, you are beautiful, My beloved.” And they praise Him (ibid. 1:16): “Behold, You are handsome, my Beloved, and also pleasant (אף נעים).”
This Midrash contrasts Shir HaShirim with the other songs in the Bible. The root of the difference is that all the other songs relate to the past, whereas Shir HaShirim relates to the future.
In all the situations that arise over the course of time, Hashem and the Jewish People always have opposite perspectives: Either Hashem praises the Jewish People, or they praise Him, but not both at the same time. Sometimes Hashem shows anger toward the Jews and makes them poor and downtrodden, in order to chastise them. In such times He praises them, for the afflictions cause them to mend their ways. But they do not praise Him, for He is not granting the prosperity and comfort that they want. At other times, Hashem shows the Jewish People a smiling face and grants them an abundance of blessings. In such times they praise Him for these blessings, but He does not praise them, for the blessings cause them to fall from their ideal level.
Shir HaShirim, though, relates to the golden era of the future, when the Jewish People’s fear of Hashem will rise to perfection. Then they will be able to receive abundant blessing without suffering spiritual harm. At present they are like sick people, who cannot handle rich foods, but instead must take bitter medicines to fortify their ailing bodies. But in the future, they will be like a completely healthy person who can eat anything without risk of harm. And so Hashem and the Jewish People will praise each other simultaneously: Hashem will praise the Jewish People for their righteousness, and the Jewish People will praise Hashem for His bounty.
Later in Shir HaShirim it is written (verse 7:7): “How beautiful and how pleasant you are, O love laden with delights!” This verse refers specifically to the future. At present, Hashem chastises those whom He loves. Thus, Hashem’s love is accompanied not by delights, but rather by rebukes and afflictions. But in the end of days, Hashem’s love will be accompanied by delights: Out of His love for us, Hashem will grant us long life, blessing, and success – and these blessings will not divert us from serving Him properly.
Our present situation is reflected in Shlomo HaMelech’s saying (Koheles 7:3): “Anger is better than geniality.” On this saying, our Sages make the following well-known remark (Shabbos 30b): “The anger that the Holy One Blessed Be He shows the righteous in this world is better than the geniality that the Holy One Blessed Be He shows the wicked in this world.” Hashem’s anger toward the righteous is indeed good, for it keeps them on the proper path. But it is not pleasant – it is harsh and bitter. It is a mode of guidance that we find uncomfortable, for we would rather receive Hashem’s beneficence than face His anger.
At the end of days, however, the situation will be completely different. Then we will no longer need to face Hashem’s anger. On the contrary, it will be Hashem’s blessing that will elevate our souls – increased blessing will enhance our fear of Hashem and our holiness. This mode of guidance will be a delight. And so we will be able to exalt Hashem’s way of treating us with a double praise: It will be not only handsome, but also pleasant (אף נעים). Hashem’s anger (אף) will be replaced by a pleasant (נעים) mentorship as the means of guiding us along the path of His commandments.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Metzora

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 15, beginning
We continue with our analysis of the blessing that follows the morning Shema:
True and certain, established and enduring, right and steadfast, beloved and cherished, delightful and pleasant, awesome and mighty, correct and accepted, good and beautiful is this word unto us forever and ever.
We examine now the term established (נכון). The word נכון is related to the word מוכן, meaning ready or prepared, and can also bear this meaning [as in Nechemia 8:10, “send portions to those who do not have anything prepared (אין נכון לו)]. We will consider how the word prepared applies to the Torah.
In Bereishis Rabbah 11:7, the Sages teach: “Everything in creation needs preparation: Mustard needs sweetening, lupines need sweetening, and wheat needs be to be ground.” And given that these creations of Hashem need preparation, it is all the more so with man-made things. Thus it is, in particular, with man-made codes of social behavior. A large contingent of men with great minds is required to develop such a code, even though it is to apply over a limited domain for a limited time. They need to consider what should be done and how it should be done. And they need to consider the various circumstances that can arise and the different factors that can come into play, such as the place, the time, and the nature of the people for whom the code is intended. Consequently, each enactment must be spelled out with thousands of details, corresponding to the thousands of cases that can arise.
Now, a social code relates only to how people deal with each other, in monetary matters and the like. It is aimed only at promoting mutual respect among people and establishing order in commercial affairs. It deals with mundane matters, and is not aimed at addressing the fundamental aspects of human existence. Nonetheless, in a short time numerous questions will arise regarding the application of the rules, including questions that the legislators themselves are unsure how to answer.
Let us now compare our precious Torah to man-made social codes. The Torah was given to us by the Creator and Master of the universe. All the affairs of our lives are dictated by the Torah. We depend on the Torah like a suckling depends on his mother. In addition, the reasons behind many of the Torah’s laws are hidden from us. We do not know why the Torah forbids us to eat certain things, such as the meat of certain animals, fish, and birds, insects and the like, or leavened bread during Pesach. Neither do we know the reasons behind the laws dealing with people experiencing certain bodily discharges, or the reasons behind the laws dealing with the disease of tzaraas. We do not fully understand why the Torah forbids us to be jealous of others, or take revenge, or to bear a grudge. And the Torah does not spell out all the reasons why we must fear and love Hashem and Torah scholars. But although the reasons may be hidden, the Torah dictates how we should act in every area of life.
The Torah applies equally to all sectors of the Jewish People – young and old, healthy and ill, poor and rich, lofty and lowly, Kohanim and prophets. It governs us for all generations; it is an eternal decree that will not change. Undoubtedly, given the myriads of situations that can arise, with the various time periods, places, and people involved, myriads of questions arise about how to act in various circumstances. Nonetheless, Hashem foresaw all the possible situations that can arise and gave us a Torah through which we can determine exactly how to fulfill each mitzvah in any set of circumstances. Our conduct is determined by the finest distinctions; as the Sages put it, the words of the Torah are “like mountains suspended on a hair” (Sifrei 235 on Devarim 32:46). For example, in regard to the laws of Shabbos, we have the Talmudic tractates Shabbos and Eiruvin and the works of the great Torah masters that explicate in the finest detail what these laws dictate in every situation.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Tazria

As we have noted before, parashas Tazria begins with a description of the laws of a woman who gave birth, which prompts the Midrash, and thus the Maggid also, to present some teachings relating to the role of man. We present here a selection from the Maggid’s discourses on this topic.
In connection with Tehillim 92, the psalm for Shabbos, the Midrash expounds (Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 843):
It is written (Tehillim 92:5): “For You have gladdened me, Hashem, with Your works.” Who led us to feel this joy? It came to us through the merit of the faith that our forefathers maintained regarding this world, that it is completely dark like the night. This it is written (ibid. 92:3): “To recount Your kindnesses in the dawn and Your trustability in the nights.”
We may ask: What does this have to do with Shabbos? We can answer as follows. It is indeed hard to observe Shabbos with its many laws. Nonetheless, since Hashem commanded us to do so, it must be within our ability. For it is written (Devarim 30:11): “For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, nor is it far off.” And likewise, Hashem declares (Michah 6:3): “O My people, what have I done to you, and how have I wearied you? Answer me!” However, to make himself amenable to observing Shabbos, a person must gain a firm grasp of two basic principles.
First, he must realize that wealth and possessions do not come to him through own efforts, but rather they are a kindness that Hashem bestows on him. And nothing prevents Hashem from bringing us salvation, irrespective of how much or little effort we invest toward this goal. When a person instills within himself a firm awareness of this fact, he will readily choose repose over labor. For will know that if Hashem wishes that he be successful, He can grant him blessing even without effort on his part. In Mishlei 10:22 it is written: “Hashem’s blessing brings wealth, and toil adds nothing thereto.” And the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 11:1 links this statement to Shabbos. For Shabbos brings blessing to one who observes it properly. But if a person does not recognize that Hashem is the source of all blessing, he cannot be serene on Shabbos, for he thinks that acquiring worldly assets depend on his own effort, and on Shabbos he must refrain from work.
Second, a person must realize that worldly assets and pleasures are vain, with no real substance. A person gains nothing of lasting value through worldly pursuits. Thus Iyov declares (Iyov 1:21): “Naked did I emerge from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return there.” When a person instills this principle in his heart, he will attain the level of the Jews who left Egypt, for whom the booty they acquired there was like a burden to them – the Gemara in Berachos 9b teaches that they collected this booty against their will. And then he will be pleased with Shabbos: He will enjoy the repose and yearn for the future day that is all Shabbos, and his rest will be the consummate rest that Hashem desires [cf. the Minchah Amidah of Shabbos].
This is the idea behind the psalm for Shabbos. The psalmist declares (Tehillim 92:2-3):
It is good to thank Hashem and sing praise to Your Name, O Exalted One. To recount Your “To recount Your kindnesses in the dawn and Your trustability in the nights.”
Even though it seems far removed from us to sing and find joy in the cessation from work on Shabbos, nonetheless it is fitting to thank Hashem and sing praise to His Name on account of His having legislated for us this day of rest. And in order for us to appreciate Shabbos, we need only bear in mind two concepts: (1) Hashem’ kindness – that everything we have comes to us only through His kindness, and (2) Hashem’s trustability regarding the fact that our world that is, as the Midrash says, completely dark like the night – it is a world filled with empty vanities. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 19:8): “The testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple wise.” Initially, we must accept on faith the teaching of our Torah leaders that this world is vain, even before our intellect brings us to this conclusion. If we do so, then afterward our hearts will also grasp it. But if we have no faith at the start, in the end we will have no understanding.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Shemini

This week’s parashah recounts the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Moshe tells the Jewish People (Vayikra 9:6): “This is the thing that Hashem has commanded you to do, so that Hashem’s glory will appear among you.” The Midrash elaborates (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 521):
Said Moshe to the People of Israel: “Remove this evil inclination from your hearts, and let all of you have a single-minded fear of God and a unified agenda to serve before the All-Present One. Just as He is the sole power in the world, so, too, let your efforts be directly solely toward Him. … If you do so, Hashem’s glory will appear among you.
Previously we have presented two selections from the Maggid’s commentary on this Midrash [1] [2]. Here we present another selection.
The Midrash says (Bereishis Rabbah 67:8): “With the wicked, their hearts rule over them [examples: Eisav, Yeravam, Haman]; with the righteous, they rule over their hearts [examples: Chanah, David, Daniel].” Those who serve Hashem do not allow themselves to be led astray by passions of the heart such as desire or anger. Rather, from youth to old age, their conduct is driven solely by the intellect, and their intellect is guided by the laws of the Torah. They follow a single path their entire lives.
In Shir HaShirim 6:9 it is written: “My dove, My perfect one, is but one – she is but one unto her mother, she is the choice one of the one that bore her.” Hashem is speaking of the Jewish People. The statement “she is but one” refers to their inborn inclination, while the statement “she is the choice one of the one who bore her” refers to the pattern of conduct inculcated into them by their families. The righteous among the Jewish People all conduct themselves according to the will of Hashem as expressed in His precious Torah. Just as the individual person’s thought and conduct is directed by a single code, so, too, it is with the group as a whole. Although they vary in their physical characteristics, they are unified and bound to each other in their noble goal. And not only are the righteous Jews of a given generation bound to each other, but rather all righteous Jews of all generations are bound to each other. The wisdom and teachings of past generations, as recorded in our holy books, continue today to enlighten our eyes.
With the wicked, however, there is no such consistency. A wicked man’s conduct fluctuates from one day to the next. Yesterday we saw him happy and smiling, today he is upset and enraged, with his tongue lashing out like fire to those around him. One day he gorges himself, another day he gets drunk, and still another day he forsakes his family in the pursuit of honor. All the more so are two wicked people uncoordinated in their behavior, and even more so with a group of wicked people. On top of that, they have no memory of the acts of those of past generations; all is forgotten, like a lump of lead that has sunk in a raging sea. Today the righteous speak of “the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov,” but no one speaks of the God of Nimrod.
Hashem’s glory is shown by the righteous among the Jewish People because of their noble conduct. Just as Hashem is one, so, too, they are one, for they follow the path of Torah and service to Hashem. But no Divine glory is reflected from those who are ruled over by their passions.
Everything we have said is encompassed in Moshe’s statement: “This is the thing that Hashem has commanded you to do, so that Hashem’s glory will appear among you.” Moshe is saying that the way the Jewish People will show Hashem’s glory is through the uprightness they will exhibit constantly in their conduct – in the way they all will subordinate themselves to Hashem’s will. If we follow Hashem’s command, we will be united – although there are many types of people among us, we will all be in harmony with each other, and it will be as if we all are one being.
As the Gemara teaches (Berachos 6a): “The Holy One Blessed Be, said to the People of Yisrael: ‘You have made me a single entity in the world, and I will make you a single entity in the world.’” The Midrash we began with tells us how we can achieve this state – by removing the evil inclination from our hearts.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Tzav

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 14
We continue with our analysis of the blessing that follows the morning Shema:
True and certain, established and enduring, right and steadfast, beloved and cherished, delightful and pleasant, awesome and mighty, correct and accepted, good and beautiful is this word unto us forever and ever.
We examine now the term certain (יציב), which we can also render as authoritative. This term is related to the term נצבים that appears in Shmuel Beis 8:14: “He [David HaMelech] appointed authorities (נצבים) in Edom.” The term points to the rule of Torah, service to Hashem, and fear of Hashem over our bodies and souls. All our desires must give way to the Torah. We see that the observance of some mitzvos runs counter to human desire: Circumcision, cessation of work on Shabbos, avoidance of forbidden unions, avoidance of nonkosher foods, and the like. It would be impossible for us to harness ourselves and adhere to these requirements, were it not for the fact that they are imprinted upon us from birth, inculcated in us generation after generation – fathers handing down the Torah tradition to their sons, and the sons conforming to their fathers’ teachings, with the chain stretching all the way back to generation of Jews who stood at Mount Sinai and heard the word of Hashem Himself.
We see how hard it is for a person who wishes to accept a prohibition upon himself to refrain from what he has been accustomed to do. Yet the Torah imposes upon us a wide range of prohibitions, and dictates our daily conduct in the way a master dictates orders to his servant. We do not eat, drink, smell, speak, or perform any deed, great or small, except within the bounds the Torah sets for us. We see the extensive array of rules the Torah dictates in the area of eating. Not only does the Torah forbid us from eating the meat of certain animals and fowl, but even in connection with the foods the Torah permits it imposes rules: kosher slaughter, salting meat to remove blood, avoiding eating meat and milk together, and specification of various defects that renders an animal’s meat unfit for eating. In the area of clothing as well, the Torah lays down rules: placing fringes (tzitzis) on the corners of four-cornered garments and not wearing clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen (shaatnez). The Torah also lays down rules in a range of other areas: what we may and may not say, what we may look at, what we may listen to, and what we may indicate through gestures. It commands us to curb our desires and to avoid jealousy and hatred, and it imposes rules on our patterns of thought.
In the end, there is no moment of time, no location on earth, and no entity in our world that the Torah’s laws do not reach. We are not allowed to move any limb, to say any word, or engage in any thinking in a manner that runs counter to what the Torah dictates. And we may not break off from serving Hashem. Although the Torah permits us to tend to our physical needs, and earn a livelihood by engaging in labor or business, Shlomo HaMelech exhorts us (Mishlei 3:7): “In all your ways, know Him.” Thus, the activities we engage in to tend to our physical needs also come within the scope of service to Hashem. The relationship we have with Hashem is not like the relationship a person has with a neighbor or friend, whose home he may visit occasionally, and with whom he may break off relations, either because of some offense that triggered anger, or simply because he has had enough of his company. The relationship we have with Hashem is the relationship of a created being to his Creator.
The Torah does not show favoritism, neither to young nor to the old. It constantly demands of us more and more. Thus, the Gemara in Bava Metzia 31b teaches that in the case of a Torah scholar, unintentional lapses are regarded as intentional sins. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech declares (Koheles 1:18): “For with great wisdom comes great torment, and one who increases his knowledge increases his grief.”
What we have discussed above gives us a deeper understanding of the term ויציב. There are three terms in Hebrew that signify standing: עמידה, קימה, and הצבה. These terms reflect three progressively greater levels of stature. The term עמידה signifies simply standing, with no special power. The term קימה signifies elevation. The term הצבה signifies rulership and dominion. The different shades of meaning in the latter two terms is reflected in Yosef’s dream about the sheaves (Bereishis 37:7): “Behold! My sheaf arose (קם) and stood (נצבה), and – behold – your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” In a similar vein, our holy Torah arises and stands high. No one rules over the Torah except Hashem Himself.
We, the Jewish People, have been through over three thousand years. During this period, people of tremendous wisdom have arisen, but they have not been able to change the Torah one iota, to permit what the Torah has forbidden. The Torah forbids a Jewish king to have many wives, lest he stray. Shlomo HaMelech tried to circumvent this law, saying “I will have many wives and not stray” (Sanhedrin 21b). In the end, he wound up saying (Koheles 1:18): “For with great wisdom comes great torment, and one who increases his knowledge increases his grief.” And he declared further (ibid 2:12): “What can man who comes after the King do? It has already been done.” We also are not allowed to set down additional prohibitions beyond those in the Torah, except as “fences” to keep us from violating the Torah’s prohibitions.
The word ויציב is in the future tense, signifying continuing rulership. This usage reflects the great preciousness the Torah has in the eyes of those who learn and support it – to the extent that in every generation substantial new stringencies are introduced, on account of a lack of complete understanding on our part of what the Torah dictates. We see this in the stringencies observed in determining whether the meat of a particular animal is fit to eat, those observed in the area of marital relations, those observed in regard to reciting blessings, and those observed in many other areas. We observe these stringencies out of concern that our understanding of the Torah’s laws may be imperfect; we prohibit some things that the Torah permits, as a “fence” distancing us from prohibited areas, so that we do not slide into them. And we accept all these stringencies upon ourselves gladly and with love, because of the Torah’s great sweetness.
Link to PDF version of this post
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vayikra

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 13, end
The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 20:4 relates that a certain Roman philosopher sought to determine the length of the gestation period of a snake. He found snakes mating, put the females in a barrel, and fed them until they gave birth. When some Torah scholars came to visit Rome, the philosopher asked Rabban Gamliel how long the gestation period is, and Rabban Gamliel could not answer. Later that day Rabban Gamliel encountered R. Yehoshua and told him what happened, and R. Yehoshua told him that the answer was seven years. R. Yehoshua explained: “The dog is a nonkosher roaming animal and its gestation period is fifty days. A nonkosher farm animal’s gestation period is twelve months. Now, regarding the snake, it is written (Bereishis 3:14): ‘Accursed are you beyond all the farm animals and beyond all beasts of the field.’ Just as the farm animals are cursed seven times more than the beasts of the field, so, too, the snake is cursed seven times more than the farm animals.” Towards evening Rabban Gamliel returned to the philosopher and gave him the answer. The philosopher banged his head on the wall and exclaimed: “What took me seven years of toil to determine, this fellow conveys to me with the ease of passing a reed.”
Similarly, in Koheles 1:13, Shlomo HaMelech declares that he set his heart “to survey (לָתוּר) and probe with wisdom all that is done beneath the heavens,” and in Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:7, the Midrash expounds:
What does it mean “to survey” (לָתוּר)? It means to be a scout for wisdom. As it is written (Bamidbar 13:2): “And they scouted (וְיָתֻרוּ) the land of Canaan.” Whoever was well-versed in Scripture, he [Shlomo] would go to him; whoever was well-versed in Mishnah, he would go to him. … And not only for Torah teachings was Shlomo a scout, but rather for everything that takes place under the sun, such as how mustard and lupines are prepared. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to him: “You went searching for Torah teachings? By your life, I will not deprive you of your reward. Behold, I am going to infuse you with Divine inspiration.”
Now we can ask, how did Shlomo permit himself to investigate such things as how to prepare mustard and lupines, and thereby interrupt his Torah study? A Jew is obligated to study Torah at all times. Thus, The Gemara in Menachos 99b relates:
Ben Damah the son of R. Ishmael’s sister once asked R. Yishmael, “May one such as I who has studied the whole of the Torah learn Greek wisdom?” R. Yishmael read him the following verse (Yehoshua 1:8): This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, and you shall meditate upon it day and night.” Go then and find a time that is neither day nor night and then learn Greek wisdom.
The reason Shlomo permitted himself to investigate such things as how to prepare mustard and lupines is that he set his heart to determine these things from the words of the Torah. We can compare the matter to a merchant who can find out what his inventory is without examining the merchandise, simply by reading his records. The Torah is a record book that contains information on everything beneath the heavens.
In Avos 5:22 the Mishnah states: “Probe it [the Torah] again and again, for everything is in it. Set your gaze upon it; grow old and gray over it, and do not budge from it, for you have no better portion than this.” A person can live far from a settled area and not observe anything, and still, by attaching himself among Torah scholars, gain the knowledge and understanding to give advice on anything a person might ask. He will have intimate knowledge of what results from any action, at any place and at any time. Look in the Torah and see the curses listed for sinning, and take note of how everything the Torah spoke of has come to pass. Shlomo spoke well when he said (Mishlei 23:26): “My child, give your heart to me, and your eyes will desire my ways.”
Now, given what we have discussed, what need do we have for proofs of the truth of the Torah. Anyone who beholds its glorious wisdom will recognize its truth. The truth speaks for itself!
Link to PDF version of this post
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Pekudei

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 13, continued
We said that no wisdom can exist without having been transmitted by a Primal Intellect. It is the fortunate lot of the Jewish People to have received from Hashem an abundance of wisdom. We are a great and exalted people, to whom Hashem has granted an inborn capacity for understanding. The Jewish People has a natural proficiency in all areas of intellectual inquiry. We see for ourselves how our youths display wondrous wisdom. Because of our astuteness, we have a critical eye, and when we are presented with a claim, it is hard to convince us all to believe it. At the same time, when we encounter a self-evident truth, we accept it readily, for Hashem has implanted in our hearts a natural tendency to recognize truth.
Thus, the belief in Hashem and His servant Moshe is universal among all classes of our people: the young and the old, the common people and the elite, and so on. Even among young Jewish children, who cannot yet tell good from bad, we find many who are God-fearing and continually engaged in Torah and mitzvos; fear of Hashem can be seen on their faces as part of their nature.
Let us consider how our commentators explain Tehillim Chapter 19. The chapter begins by saying that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament tells of His handiwork.” After elaborating on this statement, the chapter goes on to speak of the Torah: “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul. The testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple one wise.” The chapter begins by praising the sun, and then proceeds to praise the Torah. The sun and the Torah are our steadfast luminaries. Just as the sun was created to shine light on the earth for the benefit of our bodies, so, too, the precious Torah was given to us to shine light on our souls and open the eyes of our intellect. And just as our physical eyes are receptive to light, so, too, our intellect is geared to absorb wisdom. And the Torah is the fountain of wisdom, from which we draw counsel for dealing with all the various challenges of life. One who safeguards the Torah and observes its dictates will proceed through life securely, without stumbling. We find wise counsel in great measure in the homiletical teachings of the Sages, which provide guidance in dealing with all kinds of illnesses and difficulties.
Moreover, the Torah contains comprehensive information on nature of all creatures: how they are conceived and born, how they move from place to place, what agitates them and what calms them, and so on. Some of this information is presented in Scriptural passages devoted to these topics, while some is presented incidentally in metaphorical statements. One example of the second type is found in Tehillim 42:2: “As the deer longs for brooks of water, so my soul longs for you, my God.” Another example is found in Mishlei 17:12: “Better for a man to encounter a bear bereft of its offspring than a fool in his foolishness.” Likewise, the Torah contains information on all other creations, both those under the sun and those above it, without exception. Regarding every creation, the Torah provides information about its nature and behavior, its beginning, middle, and end, its genesis and its purpose, what benefits it and what damages it, its source, its appointed time, and where it is from and where it is going.
Link to PDF version of this post
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Vayakhel

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 13, beginning
We now explain the blessing that follows the morning Shema:
True and certain, established and enduring, right and steadfast, beloved and cherished, delightful and pleasant, awesome and mighty, correct and accepted, good and beautiful is this word unto us forever and ever.
The term true denotes a fact whose truth is self-evident, without need of proof. An example is given by the Gemara in Sotah 9b:
It is written (Shoftim 16:18): “And Delilah saw that he [Shimshon] had told her all that was in his heart.” How did she know? Said R. Chanin in the name of Rav: “From here we see that words of truth are recognizable [meaning, according to Rashi, that they sit well with the listener].”
Now, Shimshon was an established liar in his dealings with Delilah, having lied to her three times. Thus, in view of the one making the statement, it was more likely to be false than true. Nonetheless, the statement itself was recognizable as true.
We see from this, and we must know and firmly believe, that a person has a natural sense, which Hashem implanted in him, whereby he can recognize the truth without any proof. We can draw an analogy with seeing. One way to determine the nature of an object is through an identifying mark. Another way is through the object having previously made an impression on the eye, even it has no identifying mark. Thus, in a discussion of returning lost objects in Bava Metzia 24a, our Sages taught, in their pure wisdom, that recognition by sight based on a prior impression on the eye is better than an identifying mark. The same holds with the sense of hearing: In some cases, a person believes what he hears because of compelling evidence or a compelling logical proof, while in other cases he believes something without any proof, just because his heart tells him it is true.
Now, the law stated in Bava Metzia that a lost object can be returned solely on the basis of a prior impression on the eye applies only to a Torah scholar, who is able to see things clearly. Similarly, the fact that a person believes something does not mean it is true unless the person has clear mental perception. A person’s belief cannot be trusted if the person is a fool who believes anything, today believing one thing and tomorrow its opposite. It is different with a person who has a skeptical nature, and does not tend to believe what he hears. With such a person, if he believes some proposition, this is reliable testimony that the proposition is self-evidently true.
Yirmiyah 10:10 states: “Hashem, God, is true.” In connection with this statement, the Rambam in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:4 states that Hashem alone is absolutely true – nothing else is true in the way He is true. In order to us to be able to conceive of any entity that may or may not exist, we must first have firm knowledge of the One who necessarily must exist. There must not remain in our minds any doubt of Hashem’s existence and His unity – that there is no power aside from Him.
This is the meaning of the word true at the beginning of the blessing that follows the morning Shema. It is self-evident that no entity can exist in this world without having had a Creator, and no wisdom can exist without having been transmitted, out of graciousness, by a Primal Intellect.
Link to PDF version of this post

Shabbos Parashas Ki Sissa

This week’s parashah recounts the sin of the golden calf. The Maggid explains that this sin was only a temporary lapse; the Jewish People’s normal state is to follow the proper path. He expounds on this theme at great length. We present here a selection from this essay.
The Gemara in Shabbos 88a-b relates the following episode:
A certain Sadducee saw Rava engrossed in his studies while the finger[s] of his hand were under his feet, and he ground them down, so that his fingers spurted blood. “You rash people,” he exclaimed, “who gave precedence to your mouth over your ears [by accepting the Torah with the words “we will do and we will hear” (Shemos 24:7)]– you still persist in your rashness. First you should have listened, and if within your powers, accept; if not, you should not have accepted.” Said he to him, “We who walked with wholeheartedness, of us it is written (Mishlei 11:3): ‘The wholeheartedness of the upright shall guide them.’ But of others, who walked in crookedness, it is written (ibid.): ‘But the crookedness of the treacherous shall destroy them.’”
The Maggid sets out to explain how Rava’s reply was substantive and not merely rhetorical.The starting point is the fact noted above that the Jewish People, although susceptible to being led astray by the evil inclination, have a natural inclination toward good. The Jewish People’s natural goodness can be seen strikingly by way they accepted the Torah. Why did the Jewish People accept the Torah right away without worrying at all that the evil inclination inside them would keep them from observing it, while other nations that Hashem approached were afraid to accept it?
The Maggid answers this question by analyzing an episode that took place during the Jewish People’s sojourn in the wilderness. The Torah relates (Bamidbar 11:4-6): “The rabble that was among them craved a craving, and the Children of Yisrael also cried again and said, “Who will feed us meat? …” Let us explain what took place here. The Jews, like the Egyptian rabble that tagged along with them, experienced a craving for meat and other foods. But while doing so they cried, lamenting in their hearts the fact that the evil inclination was swelling up within them and leading them to feel this craving. If someone had approached the Jews and offer to cure them of this craving, they would have accepted eagerly, for they recognized that physical pleasures are vain, and they craved these pleasures only because they were overcome by their evil inclination. But in regard to the rabble, the Torah says that they “craved a craving” – they chose willingly to cultivate a craving. Had someone offered to cure them of the craving, they would have declined.
Now, a person may size up his evil inclination and think that he does not have the capabilty to hold it at bay, but in truth he does have this capability. As our Sages teach in Kiddushin 30b, Hashem tells us: “I created the evil inclination, and I created the Torah as an antidote.” If a person immerses himself in Torah, its light will lead him back to the right path. It is for this reason that the Jews accepted the Torah even though they knew that the evil inclination would urge them to stray from it. They had faith that by engaging in Torah study their evil inclination would be subdued and the flame of desire would die out. But the Torah’s power to subdue physical desires is relevant only to one who wants to rid himself of these desires. Those who craved a craving did not want the Torah – they were not interested in its curative powers. They took the view that it is better to revel in worldly pleasures.
With this background, the Maggid says, we can understand well Rava’s reply to the Sadducee. The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. Two blind men went from city to city together, going door to door to collect alms. One of them was a good person, while the other was wicked. The first one was very upset about having to wander from place to place and experience the embarrassment of begging, but his dire circumstances forced him to do so. The second one, by contrast, enjoyed the wandering and the freedom from responsibility. Once they came to a city where there was an expert eye doctor. The first blind man invested great effort in arranging to visit the doctor and get cured of his blindness. The second one was not interested; he said that his blindness was the cornerstone for his making a living through begging and it made no sense to cast it aside. The doctor heard about these two men. To the one who was seeking to get cured, he said: “May Hashem grant you a better way of making a living than begging, so that you and your descendants may live in wealth and honor, as is your wish. To the other one he said: “May it be that you remain forever in poverty, for this is what you have chosen.”
The Jews who remain loyal to the Torah tradition are like the first beggar, while the heretical Sadducees are like the second one. When the Sadducee cast at Rava his critical remark, Rava replied: “We who walked with wholeheartedness, of us it is written: ‘The wholeheartedness of the upright shall guide them.’ But of others, who walked in crookedness, it is written: ‘But the crookedness of the treacherous shall destroy them.’” Rava was saying: “We have firmly rejected the path of wallowing in empty worldly pleasures. Our only desire is to purify ourselves and bring our souls to a state of redemption. It is merely incidental that occasionally our evil inclination overtakes us. Our main focus is on doing good. Our wholeheartness will lead us to our redemption. But you have chosen to embrace worldly pleasures and have rejected the upright and good. Because of this choice, you are headed for poverty and destruction.”
Link to PDF version of this post
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Tetzaveh

Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas (Gate of the Intellect), Chapter 12
We now explain the nature of the time a person spends in this world. As we discussed earlier, a person’s body has a defined extent and composition. It has a beginning and an end. It is composed of organs and limbs, joints, muscles and tendons, and bones. And all of these components are essential for a person to exist in a complete state. Each has its unique function. Similarly, the time a person spends in this world has a defined extent and composition. Regarding the extent of a person’s lifetime in this world, it is written (Tehillim 90:10): “The days of our years among them are seventy years, and if with strength, eighty years.” Likewise, the masters of deeper Torah wisdom teach that a complete lifetime in this world consists of seventy years. In addition, a person’s lifetime is divided into different stages, each with its own character.
Thus, the Mishnah in Avos 5:21 teaches: a five-year-old is involved in Scripture, a ten-year-old is involved in Mishnah, a thirteen-year-old begins observing mitzvos, a fifteen-year-old is involved in Gemara, an eighteen-year-old goes to the marriage canopy, a twenty-year-old is involved in pursuit of a livelihood, a thirty-year-old attains full strength, a forty-year-old attains understanding, a fifty-year-old is fit to give counsel, a sixty-year-old attains seniority, a seventy-year-old attains ripeness of age, an eighty-year-old exhibits strength ….” Here, in their wisdom, the Sages incisively analyzed the course of a person’s lifetime in this world, listed its stages, and identified the unique function of each stage.
Further, we see that time is made up of different units. A day is made up of 24 hours, seven days make up a week, four weeks make up a month, twelve months make up a year, seven years make up a shmittah cycles, and seven shmittah cycles make up a yovel. The division of time into units, each with a special name, reflects the differing functions of the different units, as is known to the masters of deeper Torah wisdom.
But one must not think that the function of each segment of time will come about automatically, without any effort on our part to bring our lives to completion. It is not so, my brother! Just as we must exert effort to maintain our physical existence, so, too, we must exert effort in order for the stages of life to lead us to a fitting spiritual level. We have to infuse our lives with fear of Hashem and serve Hashem appropriately every day and every year. We have to make sure not to leave anything out. If we exert the proper effort, then will we reach our proper station. We will be infused with knowledge, understanding, and discernment, and each stage of life will lift us higher and higher, until we are even able to attain Divine inspiration (and prophesy, during the time of the prophets).
Moreover, if we exert the proper effort Hashem will assist us and adorn us with a crown of splendor. In all our activities we will see success, without any anguish, all in a proper and straight manner. We will enjoy constant success until the time comes for Hashem to take us from this world, to bring us into the world to come, the world that is pure good, to revel in its delights. There as well our time will rise with us as a pleasing fragrance to Hashem and we will be clothed in a robe of glory. The Zohar describes this process. Regarding Avraham, the Torah says (Bereishis 24:1): “And Avraham was old, he had come to days.” Expounding on this statement, the Zohar teaches:
Come and behold: Avraham came close to Hashem. All his days, this was his desire. But Avraham did not come close in one day or at one time. His good deeds brought him closer every day and he rose level by level, until he reached a lofty level. When he got old, he entered the supernal levels as befit him.
But if you betray Hashem and do not observe what He commanded you in every segment of time, then the foreigner within you – the evil inclination – will rise up over you. Your time will be infused with abounding insanity and blindness, until you end up striving vainly to find the door to regret. For just as the successive segments of time bring a righteous man to increasingly higher levels, so, too, they push a wicked man lower and lower. Thus the Gemara in Shabbos 152a teaches: “With elder Torah scholars, the more they grow older the more wisdom they acquire … but with elder ignoramuses, the more they grow order the more foolish they become.” Similarly, the Gemara in Sukkah 52a teaches: “Regarding the evil inclination, initially it seems like a strand of a spider’s web, but in the end it becomes like a wagon’s ropes.”
A person has the choice, if he wishes, to uproot and destroy. Initially, Hashem holds back from subjecting a sinner to the judgments his evil deeds generate, but when he becomes a full-fledged scoundrel, He will subject him to full judgment. Testimony will be brought of all his evil deeds and thoughts. As the Gemara teaches (Chaggigah 5b): “Even about the excessive conversation between a man and his wife will testimony be brought on the day of judgment.” He will be surrounded by enemies. Attacks will be hurled against him like arrows shot at a target. In the words of the prophet (Yeshayah 33:1): “When you finish pillaging you will be pillaged; when you end your treachery, they will be treacherous with you.”
Link to PDF version of this post
David Zucker, Site Administrator