Shabbos Parashas Bamidbar – The Book of Ruth

With Shavuos coming right after this Shabbos, I present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuos. Naomi, Elimelech’s widow, and her daughter-in-law Ruth return from Moab destitute, and Ruth sets out to glean in the field behind the harvesters. We are told (Ruth 2:3‑5):
And her fate made her happen upon a plot of land that belonged to Boaz, who was of Elimelech’s family. And, behold, Boaz came down from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers: “May Hashem be with you.” And they said to him: “May Hashem bless you.” And Boaz said to the young man he had appointed over the reapers: “To whom does that young woman belong?”
Now, the main theme of the Book of Ruth is the great kindness Hashem showers upon those who come to take shelter in Him by converting to the Jewish faith – how He raises them up from lowliness. The Maggid remarks that the initial exchange of greetings between Boaz and his workers seems to have nothing to do with this theme. He then proceeds to explain how it actually helps to bring this theme out.
The key is to realize that the Hashem carefully guided all the events that the Book of Ruth records, with every event designed as a kindness to Ruth, who revered Hashem and placed her hopes on His compassion. Boaz’s query about Ruth might appear to be a mere natural occurrence, for it is common for someone who sees something new to ask about it. But in fact Hashem staged this event, just as He led Ruth to “happen upon” one of Boaz’s fields in the first place and led Boaz to come to this specific field precisely when Ruth was there. The whole chain of events was directed by Hashem for Ruth’s benefit. Hashem watched over Ruth with loving care, and led her to glean in the field of a righteous man, where the workers would not disturb her.
Our passage shows this strikingly. Let us think about how Boaz acted here. Usually, when an owner comes to inspect his property, he plans out what he wants to examine. His visit typically will be prompted by certain matters of major importance. While there he will also check on lesser matters that would not call for a special trip, but still are of concern to him. He might also ask, by the way, about some side matters that are of no special consequence to him.
But clearly not everything gets the same attention. The matters he made the trip for take first priority; he will deal with them right away. The lesser matters he will turn to later. And then, after he has taken care of all his business, he might chat over some inconsequential matters.
Thus, when Boaz came from Bethlehem to check on his field, we would have expected him to begin by asking about matters related to the reaping. But instead, the very first question Boaz asks, after greeting his workers, is a seemingly tangential one: “To whom does that young woman belong?”
This shows that, in Hashem’s plan, Ruth was actually the main reason for Boaz’s visit to the field. Hashem led Boaz to visit the field to take note of Ruth and show kindness to her. Thus, Boaz began by asking about Ruth, just as anyone on a business visit begins by asking about the matter for which he made the trip. The other matters were set aside for later, as being of lesser importance. Boaz’s greeting is recorded to show that the first thing Boaz asked about, right after greeting his workers, was Ruth. This proves that Hashem directed the whole episode. Hashem, the Master Planner, reversed the natural order of things for the benefit of Ruth, who had taken shelter in Him.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Bechukosai

This week’s parashah presents the tochachah, the litany of curses that will befall us if we do not observe the Torah. One of the main punishments is exile. The Maggid asks why Hashem chooses exile as a means of punishment. Seemingly He could just let us stay where we are and punish us there; He surely does not lack the means to do so. The Maggid sets out to answer this question.
Two sets of verses set the background. The first set consists of the verses in our parashah that discuss the exile (Vayikra 26:33-35, 43):
And you I will scatter among the nations … your land will be desolate … then the land will be appeased for its sabbaticals … the land will be rid of them and it will be appeased for its sabbaticals, and they must gain appeasement for their iniquities, for they have rejected My ordinances and their souls have become disgusted with My decrees.
The second set of verses comes from Yeshayah 2:6-8 (on which we previously presented another perspective from the Maggid):
For You have abandoned Your people, the House of Yaakov, for they became filled with [idolatries of] the east [Aram], and with divinations, like the Philistines, and they involved themselves with the children of foreigners. Its land became filled with silver and gold … full of horses … their land became full of false gods – everyone bows down to the work of his hands, to what his fingers have fashioned.
Initially, Hashem placed the Jewish People in the Land of Israel because the people and the land were perfectly matched to each other, as our Sages state in Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 563 (expounding on the statement in Havakkuk 3:6 that Hashem measured the earth) and in Bamidbar Rabbah 23:6 (expounding on the statement in Tehillim 16:6 that “the inheritance suits me beautifully”). The Land of Israel is uniquely suited to Torah. Thus, Yeshayah declares (verse 2:3): “For from Zion will come forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Yerushalayim.” And in Bava Basra 158b, the Sages say that the air of the Land of Israel makes one wise. Thus, while the Jewish People dwelled in the Land of Israel, the people flourished in Torah and mitzvos, while the land benefited from the positive influences generating from the people’s observance of the agricultural mitzvos (“mitzvos dependent on the land”). So long as the people observed the Torah, the people and the land remained together in harmony.
But later the Jewish People strayed and developed an interest in the vain enjoyments and customs in fashion in other parts of the world. When this occurred, Hashem separated them from the land and exiled them to the lands where the pursuits they became interested in were practiced. Thus, expounding on the Torah’s statement above that Hashem will scatter us among the nations, the Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 7:10): “Since you want idol worship, I will exile you to lands where there is idol worship.” The separation between the people and the land was along the lines of the separation between a husband and wife who have become disgusted with each other and no longer wish to live together. In the passage from the parashah, the words תרץ and ירצו, rendered above respectively as it will be appeased and they must gain appeasement, can be rendered as desire or be contented with. Thus, we can read the verse where these words appear as follows: “The land will be rid of them and it will be contented with its sabbaticals, for they desired their iniquities.” The message here is that the people chose a wayward path, and so, correspondingly, the land chose to be rid of them and become desolate. The separation was appropriate for both parties.
The Maggid brings out the idea with a parable. A certain rich man had a sort of inn where he would invite guests in and treat them to a free meal. These meals were lavish, and everyone could eat their fill. The host had the practice of sizing up each guest and serving him the type of food they he guessed would fit the guest’s constitution, and seating the guests accordingly. One day a guest came who was dressed in a fancy suit and appeared to be a delicate fellow.  The host seated him near the head of the table, where the more delicate foods were served. The host placed at this part of the table a plate of rice, at the next part of the table a plate of pancakes, further on a plate with beans, and at the far end a plate with vegetables. The guest in the fancy suit looked at the rice and smelled it, and did not know what it was. Afterward, he saw the other plates being placed at the table, and he stretched his arm out to the other end of the table and took some of the vegetables. A bit later, he stretched out his arm in front of the other guests a second time to take some more vegetables. At this point, the host approached him and said: “My dear friend, how about you get up from here and sit down at the other end of the table?” The guest was very surprised, and he exclaimed: “Why are you, with all your graciousness, embarrassing me by telling me to move?” The host replied: “Far be it from me embarrass anyone. I want only to give all my guests exactly what they want. When you first came in, I sized you up to be a delicate fellow, so I seated you here where the more delicate foods are served. But now that I saw you reaching for the vegetables, I figured I’d move you to the other end of the table with the vegetables, so that you can help yourself to them easily.”
The parallel is clear. As indicated in the Midrash on the verse in Havakkuk, Hashem sized up all the lands and all the nations, and assigned each nation the land that suited him, in accordance with the special qualities of the particular land and the nature of the people of the particular nation. Hashem sized up the Jewish People as a people suited to Torah study and observance, and so He placed them in the Land of Israel, which is especially conducive to the Torah lifestyle and to spiritual experiences such as prophesy, Divine inspiration, and insight into the Torah’s secrets. But then, as indicated in the passage in Yeshayah 2:6-8 quoted above, Hashem saw the Jewish People turn their back on the Torah and become disenchanted with the holy duties that the Torah calls for. And He saw the people, from their place in Yerushalayim, stretch out their hands to other lands: to Egypt for horses, to Aram for sorcery, and so on. And He said to them, so to speak: “If this is what you are doing, what good is there in your living here, where you have stretch out your hands to other lands to get what you are looking for? Go out to these other lands, and the plate you want to take from will be right in front of you.” And accordingly, Hashem took the Jewish People out of the Land of Israel, sending each person to the land that was best tailored to the pursuits he desired.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Behar

Parashas Behar includes a section on caring for the poor. The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 34:9-10):
It was taught in the name of R. Eliezer: “Vengeance against Yisrael is at the hands of the poor, as it is written (Devarim 15:9), ‘And he [the pauper] will cry out against you to Hashem, and there will be a sin upon you.’ And vengeance against Edom is at the hands of Yisrael, as it is written (Yechezkel 25:14): ‘And I shall set My vengeance against Edom in the hands of My people Yisrael.’”
R. Abahu taught in the name of R. Eliezer: “We have to be grateful to the fakers among them [the beggars], for without these fakers, any time a beggar would ask a person for alms and be turned away, the person would be immediately punished by death. As it is written, ‘and he will cry out against you.’ And it is written (Yechezkel 18:4): ‘The soul that sins, it will die (הנפש החוטאת היא תמות).’”
The Maggid calls attention to the added wordהיא  in Yechezkel 18:4. This word could have been left out, and the verse would then read: “The soul that sins will die.” In the context of the original passage in Yechezkel, the import of the added word is very clear, for the passage is stressing that a son will not be punished for his father’s sins, nor a father for his son’s sin, but rather the sinner himself will be punished. But in the context of the Midrash, the import of the added word is not immediately clear. The Maggid sets out to explain the import of this added word.
The Maggid begins by analyzing the quotation from Devarim 15:9. The verse ends by saying “there will be a sin upon you” (והיה בך חטא). The Torah could have simply written וחטאת, and then the closing phrase would read, “and you will have sinned.” The word והיה bears a suggestion of something being already at hand, but it is not clear what.
To explain the matter, the Maggid refers us to his commentary on parashas Nitzavim, in a segment dealing with Devarim 29:17‑19. There he notes that in this world it actually happens quite often that the punishment for a sin falls on someone other than the sinner himself. This is in line with the principle that all Jews are responsible for each other; all Jews are, so to speak, guarantors for each other (כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה). It is common for the righteous and upright to bear the measure of punishment generated by the sins of their generation, and to be subjected to suffering, even though they are pure and innocent of any wrongdoing, and it is others who have sinned. In this vein, it is written (Yeshayah 53:4-6): “But in truth it was our ills that he bore and our pains that he carried … he was wounded on account of our rebellious sins and crushed on account of our iniquities … Hashem inflicted upon him the iniquity of us all.”
The message of the Midrash is along these lines. When the Midrash states that vengeance against Edom is at the hands of Yisrael, it is saying that Yisrael now suffers the afflictions that Edom deserves. In the end of days it will be different; as the Torah indicates in Devarim 30:7, the curses will then fall, as they should, on the sinners themselves. But now the pattern in force is as we have described. Similarly, when the Midrash states that vengeance against Yisrael is at the hands of the poor, it is saying that the poor among us suffer on account of the sins of the community at large.
We can now understand easily why it is incumbent on us to care for the poor.  Since the poor bear the yoke of suffering for our sins, it is only right that we bear the yoke of providing for them. Now, we might wonder why Hashem set up this system where some people suffer on account of other people’s sins. In fact, this system is an expression of Hashem’s wisdom and kindness, for it is designed to minimize the overall burden of punishment.
We can bring out the idea with a simple analogy. Suppose a person who owes money to several creditors runs away and disappears. If there was a guarantor on the loans, the creditors will turn to the guarantor. But the creditors will not insist that the guarantor pay the entire amount of the loans down to the last penny, for they realize that he received nothing from them. They will be satisfied if the guarantor pays a sizable percentage of the amounts owed. However, if the creditors manage to find the debtor himself, they surely will not be willing to forego anything. It is only with the guarantor that they will be lenient.
Similarly, Hashem set up a system where he releases sinners from punishment they deserve and imposes the punishment instead on others, in the capacity of guarantors, so that He can be lenient in dispensing the punishment. But this system works only if we are compassionate towards those who suffer, such as the poor. If we turn a blind eye to a pauper, he will cry out to Hashem, saying: “Why do I have to suffer more than others?” And then Hashem’s Attribute of Justice will be aroused to investigate the matter, so to speak, and it will come out that this pauper did not deserve the afflictions he suffered, but was subjected to them on account of someone else’s sin. This is what the Torah means when it says that the pauper will “cry out against you to Hashem, and there will be a sin upon you.” The sin the pauper is suffering from will be pinned on the person who actually committed it.
The Midrash goes on to say that we have to be grateful to the fakers among the beggars, for they give us an excuse for not giving charity. And then the Midrash describes the harsh treatment we would get if we did not have this excuse. If a person turned away a pauper who is suffering for a sin that the person himself committed, Hashem would reverse course and punish the person himself, and then the punishment would be in full measure – with no leniency, just as a creditor does not give to the debtor himself the leniency that he gives to guarantors.
This last point is reflected in the verse in Yechezkel that the Midrash quotes: “The soul that sins, it will die.” If a person commits a sin that carries the death penalty, Hashem might deflect the penalty from him and instead cast on another person the lesser suffering of poverty. If this happens, and then the sinner refuses to help the person who was made a pauper on account of his sin, Hashem goes back to the sinner himself. And once Hashem is dealing directly with the soul that sinned, it will die.

Shabbos Parashas Emor

In his commentary on parashas Emor, the Maggid presents, building on a Midrash on the parashah (Vayikra Rabbah 32:2), an essay dealing with the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The essay is not really related to the parashah, but since we are now in the period leading up to Shavuos, the time of the Giving of the Torah, now is a good time to present a digest of this essay.
In the days leading up to the Giving of the Torah, Hashem told Moshe to tell the Jewish People that if they will observe the Torah, He will forge a special relationship with them. In Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:14, the Midrash relates that the Jewish People told Moshe that they wanted to hear the proposal from Hashem Himself. In his commentary on parashas Yisro, the Maggid explains that Moshe was initially embarrassed to convey to Hashem this reply, because he felt it was audacious, but ultimately Hashem drew the message out of him. Hashem assented to the request, and revealed Himself openly to the people when He gave them the Ten Commandments. Afterward, the Jewish People told Moshe (Devarim 5:20-23):
Behold, Hashem our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire; today we have seen that God will speak to man and he can live. But now, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of Hashem our God any longer we will die. … You approach and hear all that Hashem our God will say; you speak to us whatever Hashem our God will speak to you, and we will hear it and do it.
The Maggid explains that Moshe felt that the people had spoken improperly; initially they insisted that Hashem speak directly to them, but afterward they asked him to serve as an intermediary. But Hashem said (ibid. 5:24): “I have heard the voice of the words of this people, that they have spoken to you; they have done well in all that they have spoken.” The Maggid sets out to explain why everything the Jewish People said, both before and after the Giving of the Torah, was proper.
When Hashem issued the Ten Commandments to the Jewish People, the entire nation attained the level of prophesy. But right afterward, when they asked Moshe to serve as an intermediary, they descended from this level. One may ask, then, what did the Jewish People gain from just a brief moment of prophesy? The Maggid develops an answer from a teaching in Niddah 30b. The Gemara says that when a baby is in the mother’s womb, an angel teaches him the entire Torah, but just before birth the angel strikes the baby on the lips and the baby forgets everything. It is not pointless, however, for the baby to have heard the Torah; although he forgets it afterward, an impression remains. When the baby grows and starts learning Torah, the impression eases the way for him to grasp the Torah he is learning, and also gives him a strong desire for Torah.
Similarly, at Sinai, Hashem shone on the Jewish People the brilliant light of His Presence and His Torah, in order to give them the opportunity to experience the sweetness of this light and infuse within them a strong to desire to behold it again. For ultimately, in the end of days, Hashem will shine this light enduringly on us all. Thus, Yeshayah declares (verse 40:5, in haftaras Nachamu): “Hashem’s glory will be revealed and all flesh together will see it, for the mouth of Hashem has spoken.” Hoshea states (verse 2:18): “‘And it shall be on that day’ – the word of Hashem – ‘that you will call [Me] אישי and you will no longer call Me בעלי’” [both אישי and בעלי mean my husband, but the term אישי reflects greater closeness]. Regarding this statement, the Gemara comments (Pesachim 87a): “Like a bride in her father-in-law’s house, and not like a bride in her father’s house.” The revelation at Sinai was a preview of the closeness to Hashem that we will experience in the future.
In this vein, it is written (Yeshayah 35:10 and 51:11): “Those redeemed by Hashem shall return and come to Zion with exuberant song, with eternal joy (שמחת עולם) upon their heads.” The Gemara in Shabbos 88a states that the phrase שמחת עולם can be read as שמחה שמעולם – the joy of yore. The Gemara is saying that the overwhelming Divine revelation that we experienced at Sinai for a brief moment will be granted to us again, this time permanently, in the end of days. Similarly, In Taanis 31a, the Gemara says that in the end of days Hashem will arrange the righteous in a circle with Him in the center teaching them Torah.
We can now understand why it was correct for the Jewish People to initially request that Hashem speak to them directly and afterward ask Moshe to act an intermediary. The people said: “Behold, Hashem our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire; today we have seen that God will speak to man and he can live.” They understood that a brief exposure to the light of Hashem’s Presence and His Torah was sufficient to implant within them an impression of this light, along with the knowledge that in the end of days Hashem will speak to man and he will be able to live. The people then continued and said: “But now, why should we die?” They were saying that, with the impression having been made, it was unnecessary for them to risk their lives by continuing to have Hashem speak directly to them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos Parashas Acharei Mos – Kedoshim

Parashas Kedoshim includes several mitzvos relating to how a Jew should deal with his fellow man, including the prohibition against theft (Vayikra 19:13). With this background, the Maggid quotes a teaching of Shlomo HaMelech (Mishlei 22:22): “Do not steal from the poor, for he is poor.” The Maggid points out an obvious question: Why did Shlomo add the phrase “for he is poor”? The Torah forbids stealing from anyone, regardless of whether he is rich or poor. The Maggid sets out to explain what Shlomo is telling us.
Hoshea exhorts (chapter 4 – below is an excerpt, but the reader should see the whole chapter):
Hear the word of Hashem, O Children of Yisrael! For Hashem has a grievance with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, no kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, theft, and adultery! They break all bounds …. Therefore the land will be destroyed …. Meantime [you say], “Let no one contend; let no one reprimand.” Yet your people contends with the Kohen …. As much as they have increased, so they have sinned against Me. I will exchange their honor for shame. …
We need to understand the nature of Hashem’s grievance with the Jewish People.
The relationship between Hashem and us, whereby we love Him, fear Him, and obey His word, is founded on two mechanisms, one spiritual and one material. Hashem gave us Torah and mitzvos, His secret treasure (Shabbos 88b), to enlighten our eyes and teach us His sublime ways. In addition, Hashem provides us our material needs. When we are in our ideal state, with the Beis HaMikdash, Hashem provides us with wondrous bounty, and channels it through a spiritual conduit. As a nation during the three pilgrimage festivals, and individually throughout the rest of the year, we would go to the Beis HaMikdash and bring offerings. The Kohen would take the offerings from us, perform with them the service that the Torah specifies, and pray to Hashem to bless us generously with His bounty. In addition, as we observed the Kohanim performing the service and heard the Leviim sing, our souls would be nourished by the holy environment and we would be inspired to love Hashem, fear Hashem, and sanctify ourselves.
But now, without the Beis HaMikdash, everything is different. The Gemara in Berachos 32b says that from the day the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, an iron wall separates us from Hashem. We no longer receive our sustenance directly from Hashem’s Hand, so that we can recognize clearly the great kindness our Father in Heaven is doing for us, and thereby be led to love Him. Wicked people collect for themselves all the good things of the material world, while we must resort to extremes to gain our sustenance.
In Hoshea’s prophesy, Hashem is quarreling with us in connection with the breakdown that has occurred in the two mechanisms that maintain the relationship between us and Him. Hashem says: “There is no truth, nor kindness, nor knowledge of God in the land.” There has been a breakdown in truth – meaning Torah, for Torah is called truth. And there has been a breakdown in kindness – meaning the bounty that Hashem seeks to grant us. As a result of the breakdown of these two key mechanisms, we have lost knowledge of God.
Yet, we fail to do our best to repair the relationship. Instead, we stray into misbehavior: “Swearing, lying, and murder, theft, and adultery.” The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of our past sins, and remains unrebuilt because of our continuing sins. But we have forgotten about the Beis HaMikdash. Given our current circumstances, with the Beis HaMikdash gone and the material assets that Hashem grants us drastically reduced, we should live modestly. But instead we seek to make lavish enhancements to our earthly homes. We strain to acquire wealth to finance these enhancements, and in the process we employ means that the Torah forbids. We violate mitzvos in both of the two main categories, mitzvos that govern our dealings with Hashem and mitzvos that govern our dealings with our fellow man.
In connection with the latter category of mitzvos, let us consider an analogy. Suppose some people are seated at a table for a meal, and the amount of food served is just enough for each person to take a modest portion. In this situation, if one person takes a very large portion, he is stealing from the others and causing them to go hungry. Similarly, since Hashem is now granting us only minimal material assets, if one person has amassed an unusually large portion, it is likely that he is holding onto assets that should be in the hands of others, such as money he should have given to charity.
In this vein, in Yeshayah 3:14-15, Hashem indicts the elders and officers of the Jewish People, saying: “You have consumed the vineyard, what you have stolen from the poor man is in your houses.” Hashem then indicts the women of Zion for their haughtiness, and speaks of how He will remove all their ornaments from them, presenting a long list of different ornaments. It must be that because of the great sums of money that they spent on ornaments, they improperly cut back on their contributions to charity. [The Maggid quotes other Scriptural passages conveying the same idea.]
We can now understand well what Hashem meant when, in the message he conveyed through Hoshea, He declared: “As much as they have increased, so they have sinned against Me.” Hashem is saying that one can determine how much the people have sinned by seeing how much they have increased their wealth.
And now we can also understand Shlomo’s exhortation: “Do not steal from the poor, for he is poor.” Shlomo is not speaking here of outright stealing. Rather, he is saying that if someone remains poor to the extent that he lacks food to eat, it is because we have failed to give proper amounts of charity, and this failure can be likened to stealing.

Shabbos Parashas Tazria-Metzora

Parashas Tazria opens with a section describing 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.
In regard to the reward for serving Hashem, the Torah mentions only reward in our material world. Thus, at the beginning of parashas Bechukosai, the Torah states (Vayikra 26:3-13): ““If you walk according to My statutes, and guard My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit….” And in the second paragraph of the Shema, the Torah states (Devarim 11:13): “If you hearken diligently to My commandments … I will give the rain of your land in its season … so that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.” Similarly, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 99a teaches: “The prophets all prophesied only regarding the days of Mashiach, but regarding the world to come – [it is written (Yeshayah 64:3, homiletically)] ‘No eye has seen, O God, other than You, what You will do for those who await You.’” The Maggid notes that many commentators have addressed the issue of why Hashem did not reveal to us the nature of the reward in the world to come. One commonly-given reason is that we are incapable of comprehending the nature of this reward. The Maggid discusses another of the commonly-given reasons.
In comparing between two items or situations, the Maggid says, one can be judged better than the other in two ways: either one of them is very bad, which makes the other better, or one of them is very good, which makes the other inferior. For example, if you go into a store and find merchandise that is mediocre but unflawed, and then you go into another store and find merchandise that is grossly flawed, you will obviously buy from the first store. But if you go to the second store and find merchandise of outstanding quality, you will obviously buy from the second store – although the merchandise in the first store is unflawed, the merchandise in the second store has special merits that the merchandise in the first store does not have. In the second case, in order for you to pick the better store, the staff of the second store will have to point out to you the special merits of their merchandise, for otherwise you will see no reason not to buy from the first store. Now suppose that the first store has grossly flawed merchandise while the second store has excellent merchandise. In this case, the second store is better on two counts. But the staff of the second store do not need to make a special effort to point out to you the special merits of their merchandise, because you would anyway buy in their store, once you see that their merchandise does not suffer from the flaws you saw in the first store’s merchandise.
This is how it is with the comparison of this world and the world to come. The reward in the world to come is tremendous. Still, if circumstances in this world were good and presented no problems, then Hashem would have to describe to us the special merits of the reward in world to come to induce us to work to earn it. But in fact life this world, aside from offering only ephemeral pleasures, is riddled with problems. Thus, even without knowing about the reward in the world to come, it makes sense for us to shift our focus away from life in this world and toward keeping the Torah and earning reward in the world to come. If we forsake the Torah and focus on life in this world, we are doing ourselves a disservice on two counts. In this vein, Hashem admonishes us (Yirmiyah 2:13): “My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and they have hewed for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”
The Ramchal’s discussion in the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim parallels the Maggid’s discussion above. The Ramchal writes:
You can see, in truth, that no intelligent person can believe that the purpose of the creation of man is his station in this world. What is life in this world? Who is truly happy and content in this world? [It is written (Tehillim 90:10)]: “The days of our life are seventy years, and for the strong eighty years, and their prime is but toil and pain.” So many different kinds of suffering, and illnesses, and pains, and hassles, and after all this – death!
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Pesach – Shir HaShirim

On Pesach, we read Shir HaShirim, so I present here a selection from the Maggid’s commentary on Shir HaShirim in Kol Yaakov. It is written (Shir HaShirim 8:1): “Would that you would be like a brother to Me …. I shall find you in the open, I shall kiss you – and I shall not be mocked.” Rashi and other commentators interpret this verse as a statement by the Jewish People to Hashem, but the Maggid interprets the verse as a statement by Hashem to the Jewish People. He develops one of his explanations of the verse from a Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 39:1:
“And Hashem said to Abram: ‘Go you forth from your land’” (Bereishis 12:1). R. Yitzchak spoke up [quoting Tehillim 45:11]: “Hear, O daughter, and see. Incline your ear and forget your people and your father’s house.” [The Midrash expounds on this verse and then continues:] “For the King desires your beauty, for He is your master” (ibid. 45:12). “For the King desires your beauty” – to beautify you within the world.
The end of this Midrash indicates that Hashem desires to adorn a righteous man with lavish worldly blessings. Yet we know that certain righteous men suffer. The major Torah commentators all deal with the question of why this is so.
They answer that Hashem imposes suffering on a righteous man when he cannot resist the temptation to chase after luxuries, which cause spiritual harm. Hence a completely righteous man, who is immune to this risk, is granted a life of blessing. The completely righteous man partakes of his worldly bounty only to the extent needed to sustain himself; he has no hankering at all for luxuries. We know of supremely pious men who were blessed with great wealth, but drew from it only the minimum required to satisfy their basic needs.
For example, our holy teacher Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi raised his ten fingers upward just before his death and declared (Kesubos 104a): “Master of the Universe! It is revealed and known before You that I toiled in Torah with my ten fingers and I took no benefit [from material blessings] even with my little finger.” Hashem knew that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi would not be harmed by wealth, for he would make use of it only to the extent necessary, without indulging in luxuries. Hence Hashem granted him great wealth, in order to increase his fame.
The Midrash we quoted above brings out this idea. The Midrash begins by quoting Tehillim 45:11: “Hear, O daughter, and see. Incline your ear and forget your people and your father’s house.” This verse is telling us to cast off our inborn physical desires. If we do so, then we merit the blessing indicated in the verse that follows, Tehillim 45:12: “For the King desires your beauty, for He is your Master.” Hashem will adorn us with wealth and honor, for we will be immune to the spiritual harm that such blessing can cause.
Our verse brings out this idea as well. Hashem exclaims: “Would that you would be like a brother to Me!” Hashem exhorts us to subjugate our drives under the rule of our intellect: to totally cast off our hankerings for illusory worldly pleasures, so that our every move is dictated solely by intellect. If we do so, Hashem tells us, then: “I shall find you in the open, I shall kiss you – and I shall not be mocked.” Hashem is saying: “When you fortify yourselves spiritually, I will be able to shower you with material blessing. I thus will be able to dispose of the cynical claim of the wicked, that I hate righteous men and therefore grant them only a bare minimum of material good. They will be forced to admit that I love righteous men, and seek only to promote their welfare. The wicked will see that I withheld material blessing from the righteous only out of a desire to protect them from spiritual harm. It is only when the righteous were not yet spiritually strong enough to handle material blessing that I held it back. But when they became strong enough, I granted them blessing in great abundance.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Shabbos HaGadol

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

Shabbos Parashas Vayikra

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

Shabbos Parashas Vayakhel-Pekudei

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