Friday, September 16, 2016

Teitzei 5631 Third Ma'amar

Shilu'ach HaKein - Mercy or Decree

In this week’s parsha we find the mitzvah of shilu’ach hakein.[1]  If person comes upon a bird’s nest and wants to eat, he mustn’t take the mother bird thus leaving the chicks to die.  Rather he must take the chicks.  The Torah, in an apparent show of mercy, directs us to first send the mother bird away from the nest before taking its chicks or eggs.  In fact, the first Midrash on our parsha states emphatically that from this mitzvah we see that God is full of mercy towards birds.[2] 

A Mishna[3] in Maseches Brachos though, teaches that we silence one who says, as part of his prayers, that God is merciful and His mercy reaches the bird’s nest since He commanded us to send away the mother before taking the chicks.  Rather, we must view all of God’s commandments as decrees.  Why is this? 

The Sfas Emes explains that even though, in truth, the mitzvos are an expression of God’s mercy, we are nevertheless required to relate to them only as decrees and to fulfill them as a servant who fulfills his master’s instructions.  We silence one who attributes the mitzvah to God’s mercy, even though he speaks the truth, because his words indicate that he performs the mitzvah in order to express God’s mercy rather than to fulfill God’s decree. 

This is a subtle difference.  Indeed, why is it wrong to perform the mitzvah in order to express God’s mercy?  Why must we silence this person?  The reason we silence him, the Chazal explain, is because he makes God’s mitzvos mercy when in fact they really are decrees.[4]  According to this, God’s mitzvos are not an expression of His mercy.  They are in fact decrees that we are required to fulfill without regard to, and perhaps without even knowing, their ultimate reasons. 

This explanation clearly contradicts the Midrash.  To reconcile the Midrash with this Gemara we need to gain a clear understanding of how the mitzvos express God’s will.  Unquestionably, the mitzvos are a manifestation of God’s will.  However, since God is infinite, it follows that every characteristic we can attribute to God is infinite as well.  God’s mercy, for example, is infinite.  The mitzvos, of course, are finite.  How, then, can the finite mitzvos manifest God’s infinite will? 

The answer to this question can be understood from the words the Gemara above uses for mitzvos and decrees, midos and gezeiros respectively.  The word mida also means a measure.  In order to enable us to fulfill His will, God “shrunk” His will, as it were, into measured doses.  These measured doses of God’s will are the Torah and the mitzvos.

Although the source of the mitzvah of shilu’ach hakein is certainly God’s infinite mercy, its physical manifestation in this world is only a representation of God’s mercy.  It is a mida/measured dose.  The Zohar teaches that it is called a gezeira/decree because it is nigzar/cut from God’s infinite mercy but it is not His infinite mercy. 

The one who prays and says that God’s mercy reaches the birds implies that we can understand God’s mercy, but we cannot because it is infinite.  The physical can never completely express any attribute of God.  To say or imply that it does is an unwarranted constriction of the infiniteness of God’s attributes and a dangerous misunderstanding of how they are expressed in the finite physical world.  While we, of course learn mercy from this mitzvah, our approach to performing it and all other mitzvos needs to be as a servant who performs his master’s will regardless of the reason.

[1]Devarim 22:6-7
[2]Devarim R. 6:1
[3]Brachos Mishna 5:3
[4]Brachos 33b

Friday, September 02, 2016

Re'ei 5631 Second Ma'amar

Transforming Curse into Blessing

The first Midrash[1] on the parsha says that when reading the curses and rebukes in parshas Ki Savo, it is impermissible to stop in the middle.  The Midrash explains that God does not want the curses.  Rather, He wants us to learn from them.  When we contemplate the curses and rebukes and then return to God we transform the curses and rebukes into blessings.  The Zohar[2] says that a person who accepts his tribulations with love and returns to God transforms those torments into torments of love – יסורין של אהבה.  He understands that, through the torments, God has shown him a way to return.

Based on this the Sfas Emes explains the first pasuk in this week’s parsha, “רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה/Look, I place before you today blessing and curse.” (Devarim 11:26)  Conventionally, this means that God is giving us a choice between doing good and receiving blessing and doing evil and receiving curses.  The Sfas Emes teaches, though, that God is not giving us a choice between two exclusive options.  Rather, He gives us both blessing and curse, implying that we have control over them.  The purpose of the curse is to guide us to return to God.  If we return to God because of the curse, it becomes a blessing.  We have the ability to transform the curse into blessing.  This is why the Midrash teaches us not to stop in the middle of reading the rebukes in the Torah.  The rebukes and curses are not separate from the blessing.  Everything is potentially blessing and we are empowered to make it so. 

[1]Devarim R. 4:1
[2]Zohar 3:46a

Friday, August 19, 2016

Va'Eschanan 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

Prayer vs. Repentance

The Midrash[1] in this week’s parsha compares the efficacy of prayer vs repentance through an allegory.  Prayer can be compared to a mikveh whereas repentance can be compared to the sea.  A mikveh is open sometimes, closed sometimes.  The sea, however, is always open.  The gates of prayer are sometimes open, sometimes closed.  The gates of repentance, though, are always open. 

The Midrash seems to be teaching us that there are times when prayer is more easily accepted and other times when it is not.  David HaMelech said clearly, “וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי־לְךָ ה' עֵת רָצוֹן אֱ־לֹהִים בְּרָב־חַסְדֶּךָ עֲנֵנִי בֱּאֶמֶת יִשְׁעֶךָ/As for me, may my prayer to You, God, be at a time of desire; Lord, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.” (Tehillim 69:14)  There is a time of desire when prayer is more easily accepted and a time that is not “of desire”.  Repentance, on the other hand, is always accepted.  

Is this really the case?  Are there times that God is more desirous of our prayers and other times when He is less desirous of them as this pasuk implies and as the Midrash seems to be saying?  This is only so, if we take the Midrash at face value as pitting prayer against repentance.  The Sfas Emes explains though that the gates of prayer and the gates of repentance are not comparable.  The gates of prayer are in our hearts.  Prayer, Chazal teach us, is a “service of the heart”.  Repentance, though, is a rectification of our relationship with God.  

When Chazal call prayer a “service of the heart”, they are teaching us something fundamental about prayer.  In essence Chazal answer the following implied question.  How is it possible to ask God for something?  How does prayer help?  If we deserve that for which we are praying, then God should grant it without prayer and if we do not deserve it then what difference our prayers? 
Chazal therefore teach us that prayer is not simply asking God for something.  Prayer means working on one’s self.  It is a “service of the heart”.  What must we do?  How do we work on ourselves?  The Sfas Emes explains based on the Midrash’s metaphor comparing prayer to a mikveh and repentance to the sea.  A mikveh, as opposed to the sea, is an enclosed concentration of water.  The word mikveh means this.[2]  Water is a metaphor for Godly enlightenment.  The Sfas Emes explains that we are each like a mikveh.  Just as the mikveh contains water, so too, do we contain Godly enlightenment.  Successful prayer starts with accessing the Godly enlightenment within us.  The way to do this is by discarding all our desires in favor of what we will receive from the enlightenment that is in us.  This discarding is what Chazal refer to as a service of the heart which itself is prayer.  Sometimes we are able to do this and sometimes we are not.  Sometimes, sin acts as a barrier preventing us from accessing the Godly enlightenment within us.  In the words of the Midrash, the mikveh is sometimes open, sometimes closed.  

Prayer, according to the Sfas Emes’s understanding, is very introspective.  Repentance, on the other hand, is a rectification of the sinner’s relationship with God.  Repentance, literally return, is the tool that the sinner needs in order to repair the connection with God that was severed to some extent by sin.  The gates of repentance are always open because our sins don’t affect God.  He always wants our return.  As long as we truly return to Him, as long as we dedicate ourselves totally to Him, He is always ready to accept us even though we’ve sinned.

This is the meaning of the pasuk in our parsha, “כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱ־לֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה׳ אֱ־לֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/For who is the great nation who has God so close to them, as God, our Lord is whenever we call to Him.” (Devarim 4:7)  Although conventionally, this pasuk is referring to prayer, the Sfas Emes understands it as referring to the dedication that is needed for the process of returning to God to be successful.  He translates, “בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/whenever we call to Him”, as, “when all our calls are to Him.”  The pasuk, then, is teaching us that God is close to us “when all our calls are to Him” – when we are totally dedicated to Him.

May we merit that the gates of prayer – in our own hearts – as well as the gates of repentance – dedicating ourselves totally to God – always be open to us.

[1] Devarim R. 2:12
[2]See Breishis 1:9