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R’ Yehuda He’chassid (Germany; died 1217) writes: We read (Bereishit 2:3), “Elokim blessed the Seventh Day.” The Torah does not say in what way the Seventh Day (Shabbat) is blessed. However, we do find a person (Iyov) who cursed his day [in his case, referring to the day he was born]. Since we find a day cursed in these ways, it is reasonable to assume that the Seventh Day is blessed with the opposite. Iyov said (Iyov 3:5-8), “May thick darkness snatch that night; may it not have joy among the days of the year. . . May that night be desolate; may no joyful song come into it. May those who curse the day curse it. . . May it crave light but have none; may it not see the glimmer of dawn.” Therefore, writes R’ Yehuda He’chassid, Shabbat is blessed with light. Furthermore, it is a mitzvah to sing on Shabbat, as it is written (Tehilim 92:1), “A psalm, a song for the Shabbat day. It is good to thank Hashem and to sing praise to Your Name.” Also, on Shabbat, one should rejoice with His mitzvot, which bring joy to the heart (see Tehilim 19:9). (Sefer Chassidim 271)

R’ Betzalel Stern z”l (rabbi of Melbourne, Australia, and Vienna, Austria; died 1988) notes that when R’ Yehuda He’chassid speaks of rejoicing on Shabbat, he refers only to spiritual joy (“rejoice with His commandments, which bring joy to the heart”), not to physical joy. On yom tov there is a mitzvah to rejoice with food and drink, but not on Shabbat. There is, however, a mitzvah to have pleasure from food and drink on Shabbat. (B’tzail Ha’chochmah vol.1, 68:10)

“This is the decree of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded . . .” (19:2)

Rashi z”l comments: Because the satan and the nations of the world taunt Yisrael, saying, “What is the nature of this command [parah admuah / the red heifer] and what reason is there for it?”–therefore, the Torah uses the term “decree” to describe it, implying: “I have made a decree, and you have no right to question it.”

R’ Shmuel Shmelke Guntzler z”l (1838-1911; rabbi of Oyber-Visheve, Hungary for 45 years) writes: We read in Tehilim (119:5-6), “My prayer is: ‘May my ways be firmly guided to keep Your decrees; then I will not be ashamed when I gaze at all your commandments’.” In these verses, King David is noting the tension between our obligation to try to understand G- d’s Will, on the one hand, and our duty to serve Him as subjects, i.e., not because we understand or approve of His mitzvot but simply because they are His commandments. How can a person evaluate whether he is serving Hashem for the right reason (as a subject) or the wrong reason (because the person has evaluated the mitzvot and decided they make sense to him, in which case he is serving himself, not G-d)?

The answer is that one should look at how he performs those mitzvot that do not seem to be logical. If a person performs the decrees with the same enthusiasm with which he performs the “logical” mitzvot, then he knows that he is behaving as a subject. This is what King David meant: If I am firm in my commitment to Your decrees, then I will not be ashamed when I perform the “logical” commandments. Rather, I will know that those mitzvot, as well, I am performing as a subject and not because they make sense to me. (Meishiv Nefesh)

“He shall purify himself with it on the third day and on the seventh day he will become pure . . .” (19:12)

Literally, this verse teaches that one who has become defiled by contact with a corpse must be sprinkled with water containing the ashes of the parah adumah / red heifer on the third and seventh days.

R’ Chaim Tirer z”l (1760-1817; rabbi in several Bessarabian cities and early chassidic figure) offers an additional lesson:

The “third day” refers to the Torah, which the Gemara (Shabbat 88) refers to as the “Tripartite Torah.” [Some interpret this as referring to the three parts that make up the acronym Tanach – Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim.] The “seventh day” refers to Shabbat. The only way for a person to purify his soul is through study of Torah and observing the sanctity of Shabbat. (Be’er Mayim Chaim)

“You shall bring forth for them water from the rock and give drinks to the assembly and to their animals.” (20:8)

Rashi z”l comments: “From this we see that Hashem has concern for the possessions of Yisrael.”

R’ David ben Shmuel Halevi z”l (1586-1667; the “Taz”) asks: How can Rashi infer from the mention of the animals that Hashem has concern for the possessions of Yisrael? Maybe the animals are mentioned because Bnei Yisrael had complained (in verse 4): “Why did you bring the congregation of Hashem to this wilderness to die there, we and our animals?”

He explains: We read in Tehilim (36:7), “You save both man and beast,” on which the Midrash Rabbah comments: “If Bnei Yisrael are not worthy, Hashem gives them rain out of compassion for their animals.” Thus, writes the Taz, when Bnei Yisrael said, “Why have you brought the congregation of Hashem to this wilderness to die there, we and our animals?” that can be interpreted: “If Hashem will not give us water in our merit, let Him do it for the animals!” But, once Hashem answered, “Give water to the assembly,” He had already indicated that He was responding directly to the people, and not to their animals. Thus Rashi felt the need to explain why the animals are mentioned also, and he concluded that we see from this that Hashem has concern for the possessions of Yisrael. (Divrei David)

“Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation before the rock and he said to them, ‘Listen now, you morim / rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?’” (20:10)

Rabbeinu Nissim z”l (“Ran”; Spain; 1290-1380) writes: Moshe Rabbeinu was punished for these words because he generalized in criticizing Bnei Yisrael. It’s true that the individual Jews whom he was addressing were “morim” / “rebels.” However, our Sages say that one should be in awe of any tzibbur / assembly of Jews. Jews as a group can never be labeled by a derogatory term, for even if the individuals in the group lack redeeming qualities that others in the group possess, the group as a whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Even if one is an intentional sinner in his own right, if he is part of a gathering that is serving Hashem, the group is enhanced because that sinner is part of it.

How so? Our Sages find a precedent in the ketoret / incense in the Temple, which had one foul-smelling spice in it–the chelbenah. The Ran says that this spice served to “awaken” the fragrance of the other spices [presumably through a chemical reaction]. Similarly, when people with different strengths and weaknesses get together, they awaken previously dormant positive traits in each other.

However, the Ran continues, this is true only if the group is not made up entirely of like-minded resha’im / wicked people. If all the members of the group have exactly the same bad traits, then they merely strengthen each other’s wickedness. (Derashot HaRan: Drush No. 1)

Letters from Our Sages

This letter was written by R’ Yoel Sirkes z”l (1561-1640), rabbi of Belz, Brisk and Krakow, Poland. He is commonly known as the “Bach,” after his important halachic work Bayit Chadash. The subject of the letter from which this excerpt is quoted whether rabbis and teachers of Torah may receive a salary and whether the community is obligated to make them wealthy so that their words will be heeded by other wealthy members of the community.

. . . One cannot bring a proof from Hillel the Elder or Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa [both of whom performed physical labor for their livelihoods] because they had enough for their needs and people respected them, so they had no need to take money in order to become wealthy. Furthermore, there is no proof from Hillel, for at the time he was a woodcutter he had not yet been appointed the nasi / president [of the Sanhedrin]. Likewise, one cannot bring a proof from the stories of Abba Chilkiyah (Ta’anit 23b) and Rav Yehuda (Nedarim 49b), who had no clothes to wear and yet they did not take money from others; at the time of those events, they had not been appointed to leadership positions. Furthermore, they may have gone beyond the letter of the law. According to halachah, however, a rabbi has to be paid enough that people will respect him.

As for the mishnah (Avot ch.4), “Do not make them [the words of Torah] a crown for your head”–that refers to someone whose entire goal in learning Torah is to receive glory or to earn a living as a result of his learning. However, one who studies Torah out of love for it and in order to fulfill it, and for no other purpose, may also receive pay for it–even to the point of becoming wealthy as a result so that people will be more likely to listen to his words. Regarding this it is written (Mishlei 3:16), “In her left hand is wealth and honor,” i.e., it is not his primary intention. One’s primary intention, i.e., that which one holds with his stronger right hand, should be to attain that day which is never-ending [i.e., Olam Haba]. (She’eilot U’teshuvot Ha’Bach Ha’chadashot No. 52).