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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Re'ei 5631 First Ma'amar

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה/Look, I place before you today blessing and curse.” (Devarim 11:26)  The Chiddushei HaRim notes that this pasuk establishes that we are each able to distinguish between good and bad, between blessing and curse, and to choose the blessing.  This is the meaning of the first of the blessings we say each morning, “... הַנוֹתֵן לַשֶׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין .../… Who gives the heart understanding to distinguish …”  

We find this concept in the Midrash[1] on the pasuk, “... וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים .../… and you shall choose life …” (Devarim 30:19)  God not only places the choices before us.  He also teaches us to choose life.  The implication is that we have the ability to make a choice.  

Often, we feel that we are the victims of circumstance.  Being a victim implies powerlessness.  The Chiddushei HaRim is teaching us that God always gives us a choice and empowers us to choose.

[1] Devarim R. 4:3

Friday, August 15, 2014

Eikev 5633 First Ma'amar

Chazal[1] teach us that the entire nation of Israel has a portion in the world to come.  The world to come is the primary venue for receiving reward for the mitzvos we do in this world.  But not all mitzvos are equal.  There are difficult mitzvos which require a lot of time, energy and money to perform and then there are mitzvos which are easy to do.  

The Torah does not elaborate about the rewards for the mitzvos.  Accordingly Chazal[2] teach us that we should perform easy mitzvos with the same enthusiasm with which we perform more difficult ones.  Still, the Sfas Emes teaches that certainly we receive greater reward for performing a more difficult mitzvah than for performing an easier one.

With this in mind it is difficult to understand the Tanchuma[3] on the first pasuk in our parsha, “וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה .../And it will be, because you will heed these laws …” (Devarim 7:12)  The word, eikev/because, appears awkward.  The pasuk could have said simply,  “If you will heed these laws …” as it says in other places.  Rashi[4], addressing this question, quotes the Midrash Tanchuma that the word eikev/because, which also means heel, refers to easy mitzvos that people tread on with their heel, so to speak.  If we keep even those mitzvos that people tend to neglect, then God will give us great rewards.  As David HaMelech wrote, “גם עבדך נזהר בהם בשמרם עקב רב/When Your servant is scrupulous in them, there is also in observing them great reward.”  (Tehillim 19:12) The word eikev in this pasuk means reward and alludes to the easy mitzvos.  The Tanchuma quotes another pasuk in Tehillim as well, “מה רב טובך אשר צפנת ליראיך .../How abundant is Your goodness that You have stored away for those who fear You …” (Tehillim 31:20)  The Tanchuma asserts that this pasuk, as well, is referring to the easy mitzvos.

Why do the easy mitzvos receive such great rewards?  Certainly the more difficult a mitzvah, the greater the reward!  The clue to the answer is in the word, “ליראיך/to those who fear You”.  The fact is that when we perform mitzvos that demand our time, energy and money, it is easy for us to feel that we deserve a just reward.  After all, these mitzvos were difficult (i.e. I paid a lot of money for that esrog) and we did them!  Easy mitzvos are different.  We generally don’t do them for the reward.  They’re easy to do and so we don’t expect much of a reward anyway.  We do the easy mitzvos because we want to do God’s will.  We do them because we are in awe of God.  This purity of intent truly deserves great reward.  In the words of David HaMelech, “How abundant is Your goodness that You have stored away for those who fear You …” 

The Sfas Emes teaches us that this idea applies not only to the easy mitzvos.  It’s just more common with them.  This idea applies anytime we pursue the path of truth in our service of God.  The path of truth requires us to serve God because that is His will and not for the promised reward.  To the extent that we succeed we consequently merit God’s “abundant goodness”.

[1] Sanhedrin 90a
[2] Avos 2:1
[3] Tanchuma Eikev 1
[4] Rashi ad loc.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New Blog - Sfas Emes Index

I'd like to introduce everyone to a new blog called Sfas Emes Index.  The tag line of the blog is, "Categorizing Sfas Emes - One Thought at a Time".  Sounds promising and exciting.  It would be great to have an index of the Sfas Emes by subject.

There is an index of sefer VaYikra that was published a few years ago by Rav Druckman's yeshiva, the same people who republished the Sfas Emes with sources but for some reason it was not continued.  

I wish the blogster Yechiel much success!  Hatzlacha Rabba!

I've added the blog to my blog roll.  Here's the link: