Friday, November 13, 2015

This week’s parasha relates the story of the three wells that Yitzchak’s servants dug.  Avimelech’s shepherds argued with Yitzchak’s shepherds regarding ownership of the first two wells.  Over the third well, however, there was no argument.  Yitzchak called the first two wells Eisek and Sitnah respectively.  He called the third well Rechovos.  What is the significance of this story?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that digging a well in search of water is a metaphor for the search of the Godliness hidden in the physical world.  The first two wells Eisek and Sitnah represent this search during the days of the week.  Eisek means to work at and Sitnah comes from the word hate as in hating the evil inclination.  Rechovos has the same root as the Hebrew word for expansion - הַרְחָבָה.  Rechovos represents the culmination of the search on Shabbos.  On Shabbos there is an expansion of holiness in the physical world.  During the week, by performing mitzvos and learning Torah, we attempt to reveal the spiritual Godly light that is hidden in the Creation.  According to the extent of our work during the week we merit a revelation on Shabbos.   

The Sfas Emes explains that our very purpose in this world is to uncover the spiritual within the physical.  Everything in this world is a tool for us to use. When we use the physical world to perform mitzvos and learn Torah we elevate the physical world to a higher spiritual level. In this way we uncover the Godliness underlying the Creation.  The Sfas Emes teaches that this was the main work of our forefathers.  

We find this in a Midrash Tanchuma[1] regarding learning Torah as well.  The Tanchuma brings a pasuk from Mishlei (1:20), “חָכְמוֹת בַּחוּץ תָּרֹנָה בָּרְחֹבוֹת תִּתֵּן קוֹלָהּ/Wisdoms shout in the street; in the streets she gives forth her voice.”  The Midrash says that Shlomo HaMelech is referring to studying Torah.  At first glance the pasuk seems to be saying that Torah should be studied anywhere, even in the streets.  However, the Midrash makes it clear that the streets in this pasuk are referring to the “streets of Torah”, those study halls and gathering places that are designated for Torah study. 

Why should we study Torah specifically in the study halls?  As we made clear earlier, the word בָּרְחֹבוֹת/in the streets, has the same root as the Hebrew word for expansion - הַרְחָבָה.  The Midrash says that Torah should be studied in a place where it can be expanded.  The Sfas Emes explains that this expansion of Torah is more than just better learning.  It is an expansion of the Torah’s light into the physical world.  The Midrash is teaching us more than the physical place where we should study Torah.  The Midrash is teaching us that we need to study Torah so that its light will be brought into the physical world.  How do we do this?  

Torah learning affects the physical world.  The Sfas Emes explains that this is an aspect of Torah Shebe’al Peh (lit. the Oral Law).  How so?  The essence of Torah Shebe’al Peh is our ability to produce חִידוּשׁ/novelty through our Torah learning.  By studying Torah, we bring novelty into the physical world.  Bringing the Torah’s light into the physical world and uncovering the Godliness in the Creation is one and the same thing.  

The Midrash[2] in this week’s parsha also hints at this idea.  The Midrash associates each of the wells Yitzchak dug with one of the books of the Torah.  Rechovos is associated with the book of Devarim based on the pasuk in Devarim (12:20), “כִּי-יַרְחִיב ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ.../When God your Lord expands your borders …” since, as we’ve noted, the word יַרְחִיב/expands has the same root as Rechovos.  The Sfas Emes explains that the deeper meaning of this pasuk is that God is expanding His holiness throughout nature.  The well named Rechovos, as the Chiddushei HaRim taught, represents Shabbos, the day on which holiness expands into the physical world.

As we’ve said, our forefathers’ main work was to uncover the light of the Torah, the Godliness in the Creation.  Yitzchak spent his life striving to reveal the Godliness within everything.  In fact, Eisav was able to play on this to fool his father.  When Eisav asked Yitzchak how to tithe salt and straw, Yitzchak viewed this as another way of uncovering the Godly life force in even the most mundane things of this world.  Through tithing, the No’am Elimelech explains, the food is raised to a higher spiritual level.  Eisav’s scheme was to fool Yitzchak by appearing to want to find ways of bringing out the holiness in even the lowliest objects.[3]

Chazal teach us that we should strive to uncover the Godliness in everything in the Creation even to the extent of using our evil inclination to do so.  The pasuk says, “וְאָהַבְתָּ ... בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ.../And love … with all your heart …” (Devarim 6:5)  The Hebrew word for heart contains the letter beis twice even though it could be written with one beis.  Chazal teach us that this alludes to our two inclinations, the good and the evil, emanating from the heart.  The Torah is teaching us that we should use both to serve God.  May we merit emulating our forefathers and, through our actions and Torah learning reveal the spiritual in the physical world.

[1]Tanchuma Bechukosai 3
[2]Breishis R. 64:8
[3]Yitzchak was particularly open to this because he used every possible avenue in serving God.  We find a hint to this in the pasuk referring to Yitzchak’s success, “... וַיֵלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וְגָדֵל עַד כִּי גָדַל מְאֹד/… and he grew constantly greater until he had grown very great.”  The Zohar in this week’s parsha, referring to a Midrash in Breishis, explains that the word מְאֹד/very alludes to the evil inclination.  The Midrash explains the pasuk, “... וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד/… and it was very good.”  This pasuk refers to God’s observation of the Creation when it was completed.  The Midrash says that this refers to the evil inclination and the angel of death.  The evil inclination is needed, the Midrash explains, because without it people would not marry, build houses, etc.  The angel of death is necessary, the Zohar explains because the fear of death is a main motivator for teshuvah.  The pasuk, “and it was very good” refers to the evil inclination and the angel of death because the world as we know it, would not be able to function without them.  The pasuk is teaching us that Yitzchak used everything, even the evil inclination, to reveal God in the world.

Friday, October 30, 2015

VaYeira 5632 First Ma'amar

Iyov said, “וְאַחַר עוֹרִי נִקְּפוּ זֹאת וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/After my skin was stricken they pierced this, and from my flesh I perceive God.” (Iyov 19:26)  The Midrash in this week’s parsha attributes these words to Avraham Avinu as well.  Avraham Avinu continues, “If I had not circumcised myself how would God have been revealed to me?” (Breishis R. 48:2)

Why is God’s revelation to Avraham Avinu dependent upon his circumcision?  Furthermore, God spoke to Avraham several times before he was circumcised.  What, then, is the meaning of Avraham Avinu’s statement that he received revelation only after the circumcision?

The Sfas Emes explains.  The Creation was not a one time act.  The act of creation is constant and continuing.  There is a spiritual force emanating from God which gives continued existence to every facet of the Creation.  Revealing this point of spirituality – by believing it is there – is in essence revealing God’s presence in the world. 

Avraham Avinu first realized this when he was commanded to circumcise himself.  The removal of the foreskin represents the removal of the outer physical shell hiding God’s presence.  When it is removed, God’s presence is automatically revealed.  This realization prompted him to declare, “... וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/… from my flesh I perceive God.”  Avraham Avinu is not referring only to God’s revelation in his immediate prophecy.  He is rather referring to his perception of God’s revelation in the entire Creation.

This is why the first pasuk of the parsha states, “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו .../He appeared to him …” (Breishis 18:1) instead of “וַיֵּרָא ה' אֶל־אַבְרָם .../God appeared to Avrum” (Breishis 12:7) as the pasuk states when God spoke to him earlier before the circumcision.  “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו .../He appeared to him …” is more general.  The pasuk is telling us that God’s presence concealed in every part of Creation, giving life to every part of Creation, was now revealed to him.

The idea that there is a life giving spark of Godliness concealed in every part of the Creation is alluded to by the first word of the parsha, “וַיֵּרָא/He appeared.”  This word is closely related to, “וַיַּרְא/He saw.”  In the description of the Creation at the beginning of parshas Breishis, as each stage of Creation comes to a close we find the declaration, “וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב/God saw that it was good.” (Breishis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25)  Finally when the entire Creation is complete the pasuk tells us, “וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹד .../God saw all that he had done and behold it was very good …” (Breishis 1:31)  The Sfas Emes explains that the first part of each of these pesukim caused the second part.  Everything that God created was good because He saw it.  God bestows “good”/life upon His Creation by observing it.  It is God’s observation or Providence which gives continued and stable existence to the Creation[1]

We see this concept clearly in the deeper meaning of the pasuk referring to God’s Providence upon the land of Israel, “... תָּמִיד עֵינֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בָּה .../… God’s eyes are constantly upon it...”  (Devarim 11:12)  The land of Israel is the point from which life extends to the entire world.  The reason that life and existence extend to the entire world from the land of Israel is because God’s Providence is always upon it. 

The circumcision is a metaphor for revealing God’s presence in the world.  This is, in fact, our mission on Earth.  When we recognize this and apply this recognition to our daily activities, we are, so to speak, removing the physical shell that conceals God’s presence.  We, thus, reveal God’s presence in the world.

[1]               See too Ramban (Breishis 1:4),  "אבל הסדר במעשה בראשית כי הוצאת הדברים אל הפועל יקרא אמירה ... וקיומם יקרא ראיה וכו'" 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lech Lecha 5632 Third Ma'amar

In the beginning of our parsha God commands Avraham Avinu, “לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ ... אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ: וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל .../‘Leave your land … to the land that I will show you.  And I will make you into a great nation …” (Breishis 12:1)  Ramban[1] asks the following question.  Generally, the Torah tells us that receiving God’s bounty is dependent upon our righteousness.  One example is, “אִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ ... /If you follow my laws …”  (VaYikra 26:3)  God tells us that if we listen to Him, He will bless us with His good.  However, here, with no introduction whatsoever, God grants Avraham Avinu an incredible gift.  What did Avraham Avinu do to deserve this blessing?

The Sfas Emes explains that the command, “לֶךְ-לְךָ/Leave” itself is the clue.  This is essentially a command to leave behind those things with which we are familiar in order to follow God and do His will.    The command does not even define God’s will.  God told Avraham Avinu simply to leave all he was familiar with to follow God to wherever he was led. 

It is a command that God is constantly sending to each of us.  Most people, though, are not tuned in and do not hear it.  The Zohar on this week’s parsha says that people tend not to think about why the world exists and what keeps it in existence.  The Zohar (1:77a) says, “Woe to those who are asleep who do not know and do not think …”  Avraham Avinu was awake.  He was searching.  When God commanded, he heard and acted.  This is the reason that he merited God’s blessing.

Like Avraham Avinu, even if we do not know what God requires of us, the very intent to fulfill God’s will, to leave behind the familiar and enter uncharted territory in a quest to come close to God, God gives us the understanding and we merit it.  Avraham Avinu, as well, did not know where God was leading him.  Yet, his desire to come close to God was so strong that he was willing to leave all that was familiar to him behind to do so.
May we all merit hearing God’s command to follow Him and do His will.

[1] Ramban on Breishis 12:2, viz. vehyeh bracha

Friday, October 16, 2015

Noach 5631 Second Ma'amar

אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק .../These are the offspring of No’ach; No’ach was a righteous man …” (Breishis 6:9)  The strange construct of this first pasuk of our parsha requires an explanation.  Rashi cites the Midrash which explains that the offspring of the righteous are their good deeds.  What does this mean?  What are Chazal teaching us?  After all, not only the righteous perform mitzvos.  What is special about the mitzvos that the righteous perform and what does it mean when Chazal say that those mitzvos are their “offspring”?  
In order to understand this Midrash we need to understand that actions are imbued with meaning by the intent of the one who performs them.  Two people can fulfill the exact same mitzvah, perform the same action, and yet the results of their actions can differ.  Certainly every mitzvah, regardless of who performs it, has spiritual ramifications.  God structured the world so that effects in spiritual realms are dependent upon our physical actions in the material world.  A tzadik, though, can lay claim to the spiritual effects of his mitzvos.  They affect him directly.  The reason, the Sfas Emes explains, is that the tzadik identifies so strongly with the mitzvos he does.  The tzadik puts his life energy into the mitzvah that he performs.  In Iyov we find, “... וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/… and from my flesh I will perceive God.”  (Iyov 19:26)  To the extent we put our life energy towards the fulfillment of a mitzvah, we perceive its effects. 

To the extent we do a mitzvah with all our strength and for the moment of the mitzvah, are totally dedicated to it, we will experience the spiritual effect of the mitzvah. 

The Sfas Emes, therefore, understands this first pasuk of the parsha literally.  Because No’ach united with his wife as a tzadik, for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah, the result of the union were offspring who were worthy as they reflected his intent.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Succos 5634 First 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 with 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