Friday, October 10, 2014

Succos 5634 Fourth Ma'amar

There is a famous allegory mentioned by Chazal[1] comparing the relationship between the nation of Israel and God to that between a bride and bridegroom.  The Sfas Emes elaborates and relates it to Succos.  The Exodus is considered the marriage as the pasuk states, “אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם: הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם .../I am God who sanctifies you, who takes you out of the land of Egypt.” (VaYikra 22:33:34)  The Hebrew word for marriage – kidushin – is the same as the word for sanctify.  The underlying meaning of both is to become dedicated.  A married woman is “dedicated” to her husband in the sense that her marriage permits her to him and prohibits her to all others.  In the same sense, when God sanctifies us, He makes us dedicated to Him alone.

A Jewish marriage transaction, though, comprises two parts.  The first part is the marriage/kidushin by which the husband makes his wife dedicated to him alone.  The second part is the chupah by which he takes her into his home.  The canopy – chupah – under which a couple marries, symbolizes the husband’s act of taking his wife into his home.  When the nation of Israel left Egypt, God took us to live in huts in the desert, “... בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם .../… I settled the children of Israel in huts when I took them out of the land of Egypt …” (VaYikra 23:43)  The Sfas Emes teaches that these huts symbolize the completion of the marriage transaction – the chupah – as it were,  between us and God.

That God separated us from among the nations to be dedicated to Him alone causes vulnerability.  Separateness draws attention.  The huts of the desert symbolize God’s protection over us.  He separated us from the nations and made us unique.  But He also provided us protection.  We find another pasuk which hints at this as well, “ ... וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת .../… and for his livestock he made huts …” (Breishis 33:17)  This pasuk is referring to Yaakov Avinu however it alludes to God.  The word for livestock has the same root as the word for acquisition.  The pasuk can therefore be translated as, “… and for His acquisition He made huts …”, implying the nation of Israel whom God “acquired” by taking us out of Egypt and over whom He spread his protective canopy.  Along the same lines we say in Ma’ariv, “הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ/He spreads a canopy of peace on us.”  The word poreis/spread, also implies a portion (as in אֲכִילַת פְּרַס/eating a piece.) hinting, as well, that God separated us.

Clearly God chose us to be His nation from among the nations.  The pasuk states explicitly, “ ... חֵלֶק ה' עַמּוֹ .../… God’s portion is His people …” (Devarim 32:9)  The Sfas Emes asks, though, that since God is the ultimate completeness, why would He choose only a portion?  A portion seems to contradict wholeness.  Should God not have chosen all the nations?

When we think about this, though, we realize that the question really does not start.  The reason is that wherever God reveals Himself, there is completeness.  Where does God reveal Himself?  Where does He dwell, as it were?  The prophet Yeshayah stated, that God dwells specifically with “broken vessels”, “אֶשְׁכּוֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל־רוּח/I will dwell with the despondent and lowly of spirit.” (Yeshayah 57:15)  These are the righteous whose hearts are broken in their service to God.  The Zohar[2] explains that although they are “broken vessels” they are really more complete than any other place.  
God Himself, chooses to dwell within the righteous and makes them whole.  This is a deeper meaning of, “הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ/He spreads a canopy of peace on us.”  As we’ve said, poreis/spread, also means a portion.  Shalom/Peace has the same root as the word for whole – shalem.  This brachah, then, is saying that God separated us from the nations of the world but then protected us with His canopy of peace, making us whole. 

It is our duty to spread an awareness of God to the rest of world.  God structured the physical world so that there is a spiritual life force inherent in every creation.  This spiritual life force, actually a revelation of God in a sense, is a point of completeness within the physical.  So too, the nation of Israel is the point of wholeness among all the nations. 

This idea relates particularly well to the holiday of Succos.  Chazal[3] teach us that Succos is for the nations of the world as well as for us.  Seventy cows, representing the seventy nations, were sacrificed.  The water libation, unique to Succos, represents the nations of the world as well.[4]  The point of this is that Godly abundance comes to the nations through us, the nation of Israel.  It is our duty not to keep God, as it were, to ourselves.  Rather we are required to request that the kingdom of God spread throughout the Creation.  We find a hint to this in Avos (1:3),  “אַל תִּהְיוּ כַּעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְשִׁים אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנַת לְקַבֵּל פְּרַס/Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward.”  Rather we should serve God altruistically.  The Tanna uses the word pras for reward.  As we’ve seen, pras also means a portion.  Therefore, the Tanna is hinting that we should not serve God only for ourselves but rather we should seek to spread awareness of Him throughout the world.

Succos, then, is a culmination of the process by which God established the nation of Israel as the point from which completeness and abundance spreads to the rest of the world.  It is also the beginning of the process of spreading the abundance to the rest of the world.  Succos represents the culmination of the “marriage” between the nation of Israel and God, God’s protection and making us whole.  It also represents our spreading an awareness of God and His abundance to the entire world.  May we merit being God’s channel.

[1] See Mechilta BaChodesh 3
[2] Zohar 3:90b
[3] Succah 55b
[4] See Gur Aryeh on Rashi, Bamidbar 29:18, remez lenisuch hamayim

Friday, October 03, 2014

Yom Kippur 5641 First Ma'amar

It is a mitzvah to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur in preparation for the fast.[1]  Chazal also teach us that we are required to begin fasting while it is still daytime.[2]  In the language of Chazal מוֹסִיפִין מֵחוֹל עַל הַקוֹדֶשׁ/We add to the holy from the profane.  The Torah and Chazal impart significance to the day before Yom Kippur.  It is important, on the one hand to eat on Erev Yom Kippur.  It is so important, in fact, that Chazal consider one who eats on Erev Yom Kippur, as if he fasted on that day as well.  On the other hand, it is also important to actually begin fasting on Erev Yom Kippur.  What is the relationship between Erev Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is a day which enables us to come as close to God as a physical being can.  The laws of Yom Kippur, which require us to abstain from physical pleasure, are designed so that we may enact a next-world spiritual experience.  The less physical and the more spiritual we are, the closer we can come to God.  The reason for this is that closeness to God entails breaking any barriers that separate us from Him.  Our physical bodies and needs are major barriers that keep us from coming close to God. 

This is why the ultimate coming close to God occurs after our soul leaves the physical body.  Then, there is a complete nullification of the self to God.  God, as it were, completely engulfs us.  The prophet Yirmiyahu hinted at this concept when he said, “מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל ה'/God is the hope of Israel.” (Yirmiyahu 17:13)  The word for hope – מִקְוֵה, also means a mikveh – a purifying bath.  According to Chazal, the prophet is teaching us that just as a mikveh purifies, so too, God purifies.[3]  And just as a mikveh purifies only when a person immerses his entire body in the waters, so too, God purifies only when a person nullifies himself completely to God.  This happens when a person’s soul is no longer bound by his physical body.  Minimizing bodily pleasures on Yom Kippur, therefore, enables us to come close to God. 

Since the greatest bliss we can experience is coming close to God, Yom Kippur is a day of joy.  Our physical needs, though, prevent us from properly experiencing the joy of connecting with God.  In order to enter Yom Kippur in a state of joy, therefore, the Torah commands us to eat and drink on Erev Yom Kippur.  Rabbeinu Yonah in Sha’arei Teshuvah, in fact, makes this very point.[4]  He says that since we cannot experience the joy that comes from the holiday meal on Yom Kippur, we have a mitzvah to be joyful on Erev Yom Kippur through eating and drinking. 

Even from a state of joy, though, we do not enter Yom Kippur directly.  Our state of joy allows us to first experience the aura of Yom Kippur which “spills over,” so to speak, onto the moments directly preceding and following the day itself.  We therefore abstain from food and drink and other physical pleasures during the moments preceding Yom Kippur.  From the experience of connecting with the aura of the moments preceding Yom Kippur from within the state of joy we are in, we can connect with the enlightenment of Yom Kippur itself.   The moments preceding Yom Kippur are a necessary segue into the holiness of Yom Kippur itself.

In order to properly experience Yom Kippur, therefore, it is important, to eat and drink on Erev Yom Kippur with the intent of reaching a state of joy.  From within this state, when our physical needs are no longer an issue, we can nullify ourselves to God and experience in some sense a glimpse of the next world.

[1] Yoma 81b
[2] Ibid.
[3] Yoma Mishna 8:9
[4] Sha’arei Teshuvah 4:9

Friday, September 19, 2014

Nitzavim 5631 First Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha we find the following pasuk.  “לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ ... כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד .../It is not in Heaven [so as] to say, ‘Who will ascend to Heaven to take it for us? … rather it is very close to you …” (Devarim 30:12)  Rashi[1] cites Chazal[2] who say that if the Torah were in Heaven, we would in fact, be required to ascend to Heaven to learn it.  What does this mean?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Chazal are teaching us something very significant about learning Torah.  Intuitively we understand that we need to work hard to attain goals that are far from us.  We view the goal as static so if it is far away we need to move a long way to get to it.  When the goal is close, we do not need to work as hard to attain it.  The Torah, however, is not static.  When our goal is the Torah and and we work hard for it, the Torah itself responds and comes close to us.  It appears that it was never far from us.  When, however, we do not work for it, it remains far away.

Chazal are teaching us that when we want to connect to the Torah so much, with all our heart, that we would search for a way to get it even if it were in Heaven, then it is indeed very close.  It is specifically because we would ascend to Heaven to get it, if required, that it is very close to us.

[1] Rashi ad loc.
[2] Eiruvin 55a

Friday, September 05, 2014

Teitzei 5631 First Ma'amar

כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ/When you go to war against your enemies and God, your Lord delivers him into your hands and you capture his captives.” (Devarim 21:10)

The Sfas Emes explains this first pasuk of the parsha homiletically as referring to our ongoing battle with the evil inclination to search out and discover the hidden Godliness in the world.  This struggle has a time structure.  The cycle of weekdays followed by Shabbos entails hard work during the week after which God is revealed on Shabbos.  By keeping Shabbos we are testifying that God created the world and that the act of creation is constant.  During the week we need to struggle to reveal the Godliness that keeps the world in existence each moment.  Even though on Shabbos there is no struggle, God allows Himself to be revealed only in proportion to the work we did during the week.  
This is the meaning of Chazal’s maxim that whoever struggles (to prepare) on Erev Shabbos will eat on Shabbos.[1]  It follows that Shabbos can be defined as a state of God’s revelation.  

This state can be reached to some extent during the week as well.  The word erev/eve alludes to this because erev also means to mix together.  Therefore Erev Shabbos/Shabbos Eve implies that we can mix aspects of Shabbos into the weekdays.

Although we work hard during the week to uproot our evil inclination and to discover God, we cannot succeed without God’s help.  God does not uproot our evil inclination for us.  Rather he gives us the strength to do it.  This is the meaning of the second part of the pasuk, “...וּנְתָנוֹ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ .../… God, your Lord delivers him into your hands …”  “Into your hands” implies that God puts the strength needed to deal with the enemy – the evil inclination – in our hands but it is still we who must use this God-given strength to uproot the evil and reveal God. 

We find this idea in a pasuk in Tehillim (62:13) “וּלְךָ-ה' חָסֶד כִּי-אַתָּה תְשַׁלֵּם לְאִישׁ כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ/And you God have kindness for you repay a man according to his action.”  Chazal[2] note the apparent contradiction in the pasuk.  Repaying a man according to his action does not seem to be an aspect of kindness.  Does a person not deserve to be repaid according to his action?  However, the question is based on the premise that man can act independently of God.  If man’s actions are independent of God then repaying a person according to his deeds is indeed justice, not kindness.  When we realize, though, that it is God who gives us the strength to act, the question becomes moot.  God repays man according to his action even though the very ability to act comes from God.  This truly is kindness.

This realization that even though it is we who perform mitzvos, it is God who gives us the strength and directs us to do so, is key in serving God.  We are God’s messengers in this world.  He sent us here to perform mitzvos thereby revealing Him in the world. A messenger by definition is one who acknowledges that someone sent him.  If the messenger does not acknowledge the sender, he is no longer a messenger.  He is an independent agent.  This is the meaning of the words at end of the pasuk  “... וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיו/… and you capture his captives.”  These words have the same root as the Hebrew for return - הַשָׁבָה.  The pasuk can thus be translated as, “… and you return your actions to Him (by acknowledging that we are doing on His behalf.)”  The pasuk is teaching us that it is not enough to overcome the evil inclination and do good.  We need to acknowledge that we are God’s agents and not acting independently.  A key part of serving God is affirming our role as God’s messengers and His role in sending us and giving us the ability to act on His behalf.  May we merit it.  Amen! 

[1] Avoda Zara 3a
[2] Rosh HaShanah17b

Friday, August 29, 2014

Shoftim 5631 First Ma'amar

A pasuk in Mishlei (31:23) states, “נוֹדָע בַּשְּׁעָרִים בַּעְלָה .../Her husband became known at the gates (of the city) …”  The Zohar[1] explains this pasuk as a metaphor for the relationship between the nation of Israel and God.  The wife represents the nation of Israel and the husband represents God.  The city’s gates represent the gates of the heart.  The Hebrew word for gate has the same root as the word for conjecture.  The pasuk can be translated metaphorically as, “God becomes known to the nation of Israel according to the level on which we contemplate Him and His greatness.”  Each of us have different and unique abilities and talents.  Accordingly, each of us contemplates God differently.  The way we contemplate God determines the way and level at which He makes Himself known to us.  

The Chiddushei HaRim applies the Zohar’s metaphor to the first pasuk of the parsha, “שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֵּן־לְךָ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ .../Place judges and enforcers in all your cities (lit. gates) that God your Lord gives you …” (Devarim 16:18)  The Chiddushei HaRim understands this pasuk homiletically as referring to the gates of the heart. 

According to the metaphor the entire pasuk relates to each of us individually.  The first word of the parsha, Shoftim/Judges, implies self judgment.  She’arecha/Your cities (lit. gates), refers, as we’ve said, to the gates of the heart.  The pasuk is teaching us that after all is said and done, after each of us contemplates God from his unique perspective, when we judge ourselves and realize what we are in relation to God, the knowledge of and connection to God that follows is His gift to us.  This is the meaning of the next part of the pasuk, “... אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ .../… that God, your Lord gives you …”.  The pasuk implies a gift.  God owes us nothing.  Any connection and revelation that we achieve is His gift to us.

The Sfas Emes explains the first pasuk of the parsha a little differently.  Our desires and feelings originate in the heart.  The pasuk teaches us that we must pay close attention to our desires and feelings when they first pass through the gates of the heart.  It is important not to allow our desires and feelings to develop uncontrolled but rather we must notice them, using our intellect to steer them toward God alone.  If we use our God-given understanding and knowledge in this way, we merit that the gates of our hearts will open up to receive God’s enlightenment.

We find this idea in the beginning of the piyut/liturgical poem written by the Ari z”l and sung Friday night.  The piyut begins, “אֲזַּמֵר בִּשְׁבָחִין לְמֵעַל גוֹ פִּתְחִין .../I will sing with praises to enter inside the gates …”  The commentaries explain that Azameir/I will sing also means, “I will cut” as in the pasuk in parshas Behar (25:4), “... וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר/… and you will not prune your vine.”   The Ari z”l is saying that with praises to God we will cut away and remove the outer layers that hide the revelation of God.  Once we do that, we will be able to enter inside the gates.  The gates of our hearts open to receive revelation from God.

This is also the reason for saying Pesukei DeZimra/Verses of Song before praying each morning.  The word Zimra/Song, as we’ve said, also means “cutting away.”  The Sfas Emes explains that when we sing praises to God before prayer we are sending away the Satan – the block that prevents us from connecting with and experiencing closeness to God.  This enables us to more easily connect with God when we pray.

Both the Chiddushei HaRim and the Sfas Emes are teaching us the importance of contemplating God’s greatness and its results.  The Chiddushei HaRim teaches us that God opens our hearts as a gift so that we can receive His enlightenment.  The Sfas Emes teaches us that we need to notice the desires and feelings emanating from our hearts and steer them toward God.  Using our God given intellect in this way and praising Him results in a cutting away of the outer layers that separate us from God.

[1] Zohar 1:103b