Thursday, May 26, 2016
How to Use Our Intelligence to Serve God
“אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ .../If you will follow my statues …” (VaYikra 26:3) Chazal teach us that בְּחֻקֹתַי/my statutes, refers to mitzvos that have no apparent reason. “תֵּלֵכוּ/You will follow” on the other hand, from the root הָלוֹךְ/go, implies a reasoned decision. People generally think about where they want to go, decide, then go. It seems that חֹק/statute with הָלוֹךְ/go is an awkward combination.
Addressing this issue, the Midrash quotes a pasuk in Tehillim (119:59), “חִשַּׁבְתִּי דְרָכָי וָאָשִׁיבָה רַגְלַי אֶל עֵדֹתֶיךָ/I considered my ways and returned my feet to Your testimonies.” “עֵדֹתֶיךָ/Your testimonies” refer to the mitzvos. David HaMelech is saying that to attain clarity in action and thought it is not enough to rely on our logical faculty. It is not enough to “consider our ways”. We need to act. We must perform the mitzvos. A pasuk in Mishlei (3:5) goes even further. Not only is relying on our understanding not enough. The pasuk teaches, “... וְאֶל־בִּינָתְךָ אַל־תִּשָּׁעֵן/Do not rely on your own understanding.”
In what capacity, then, can we use our mental abilities, our logic in serving God? The Sfas Emes explains that we should use our intelligence to understand the need to perform God’s mitzvos and submit to Him. We need to understand and consciously consider before any act that this act is for the sake of God, lesheim shamayim. “... בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ .../… You will follow my statues …” then means, “Use your intelligence to submit to My will.”
We see this idea in the Midrash that Rashi quotes to explain, “אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ .../If you follow my statues …” The Midrash says that this cannot refer to performing mitzvos since the very next words in the pasuk are, “וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ/and keep my mitzvos.” Rather, the Midrash says, it is referring to laboring at studying the Torah. How do the words, “אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ .../If you follow my statues …” refer to laboring at Torah? According to the Sfas Emes, Chazal are teaching us that we must use our power of reason represented by “הָלוֹךְ/go” to know what to do to submit to God’s will represented by “חֹק/statute.”
The Sfas Emes is teaching us that we reach uprightness by performing mitzvos rather than trying to figure it out for ourselves. We use our intelligence to understand what we must do to submit to God’s will.
Clarifying the point further, Chazal tell us that regarding words of Torah a person should make himself like an ox to a yoke and a donkey to a burden. The Sfas Emes explains that just as an ox must go wherever the yoke leads him, so a person should follow the will of God wherever it leads him. Just as a donkey carries his burden, so a person carries with him the entire Creation which is elevated because of him.
This double comparison exactly parallels learning Torah and performing mitzvos. We need to learn Torah to determine the will of God and follow it just as an ox is lead by the yoke. When we learn Torah with this in mind, our actions are influenced as well. We take a moment before a mitzvah to consider, “I am doing God’s will.” Then our actions are elevated and become a vehicle for elevating the entire Creation just as the donkey carries his burden.
The results are illustrated in the next pesukim which describe a world of plenty. Our actions, with the proper intent, draw the power of Torah into the physical world even to the point where barren trees, representing the lowest most impure places, are imbued with that power and give fruit.
 BaMidbar R. 19:6 The prohibition against wearing a garment made of linen and wool, for example, is a decree having no apparent reason. It is a חֹק/statute.
 Viz. Sfas Emes Bechukosai 5638 First Ma’amar
 VaYikra R. 35:1
 Sifra BeChukosai 1:Introduction:1
 Avoda Zara 5b
 Rashi on VaYikra 26:4
Friday, May 20, 2016
We are Both God’s Servants and His Children. How Do We Relate as Servants? How Do We Relate as Children?
In this week’s parsha, God’s calls us His servants, “כִּי־לִי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים עֲבָדַי הֵם .../For the children of Israel are servants to me, they are my servants …” (VaYikra 25:55) Yet, Moshe Rabbeinu at the end of his life told the nation, “בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם .../You are children to God your Lord …” (Devarim 14:1) In what respect are we servants and in what respect are we children? How can our relationship with God reflect that of servants and children at the same time?
The Zohar in this week’s parsha addresses these questions and explains that a servant is required to do his master’s bidding whether or not he understands the reasoning behind it. A son, on the other hand, is permitted and in fact encouraged to search and understand the mysteries and secrets of his father.
The Zohar is teaching us that we are required to serve God both as servants and as sons. As servants, we are required to learn the plain meaning of the Torah in order to know how to fulfill the mitzvos. Even if we do not understand the reasons for the mitzvos we are enjoined to fulfill them simply because they are God’s decrees. As God’s beloved children, though, we are encouraged to delve into the mysteries of the Torah, to try our best to understand the Torah at deeper levels.
The Sfas Emes delves deeper into the nature of our relationship with God as reflected in the servant approach and the child approach. The Sfas Emes notes that it is a difficult task for a servant to fulfill his master’s bidding without knowing the reasoning underlying the request. A son, on the other hand, more easily understands his father. A son, unlike a servant, is naturally drawn after his father. It does not take a lot for the son to understand his father’s reasons or to agree with them. They are almost his own.
The Sfas Emes teaches us that this dichotomy between the “servant” approach to learning Torah and performing the mitzvos and the “son” approach, is apparent in the difference between Shabbos and the days of the week.
During the week it is difficult to be sensitive to the Godliness that permeates everything in the Creation. Godliness is more concealed during the week and more revealed on Shabbos. Also, we are busy during the week with our own issues. Nevertheless, we must work at overcoming our own desires and God’s concealment, cultivate a strong belief that God permeates the Creation and strive to fulfill His will. This is not an easy task. The Sfas Emes relates it to the “servant” approach of serving God. Just as the servant needs to fulfill his master’s wishes even though he may not understand them, so too, must we fulfill God’s wishes even though He is not revealed to us. Both require work. Significantly, the Hebrew for servant – עֶבֶד – has the same root as the word for work – עֲבוֹדָה.
On Shabbos it is far easier to experience the spiritual. Chazal quote God as saying, “I have a good gift in my treasure house and it is called Shabbos.” A treasure house is generally a hidden place. One does not open his treasure house to the world. God’s treasure house is a metaphor for the hidden spiritual light that is inherent in the Creation. When God says that His treasure house contains Shabbos, He is alluding to the spiritual light that is hidden during the week and more easily revealed on Shabbos.
The Sfas Emes relates Shabbos to the “son” approach of serving God because a son is close to his father and more easily understands him. Like the relationship between a son and his father, on Shabbos it easier for us to approach God and experience Him, to understand His mysteries and secrets than during the week.
May we merit fulfilling the dictate of the Zohar, serving God both as servants, because He decreed it, and as children, delving into His mysteries and secrets.
Friday, May 13, 2016
Identifying with the Nation of Israel – Key to Serving God in Purity
The first pasuk of our parsha states, “... אמור אל הכהנים ... ואמרת להם .../… say to the the kohanim … and say to them …” Why the redundancy? The Sfas Emes explains according the Midrash.
To continue to exist, the physical world needs to constantly receive spiritual sustenance. The ten sayings – עשרה מאמרות – with which God created the world is the mechanism for infusing this life force into the physical world. The ten sayings are more than just God’s speech. They are actual spiritual entities. When God said, “Let there be light” (Breishis 1:3) , the words themselves were the spiritual entity that created light. Through the ten sayings the world receives the spiritual sustenance it needs to continue to exist. A pasuk in Tehillim (19:3) suggests this, “יוֹם לְיוֹם יַבִּיעַ אֹמֶר .../Day to day utters speech …” The plain meaning of this pasuk is that each day the workings of the universe cause us to utter praises to God for each day the Creation is renewed. The Sfas Emes explains that the word אוֹמֶר/speech in this pasuk alludes to these אמירות/sayings through which spiritual power comes into the world. According to the Sfas Emes’ understanding, the translation would be, “Each day expresses a saying.” The Creation is the physical manifestation of the spiritual sayings.
The chapter in Tehillim continues by comparing the rising of the sun with a groom who emerges from his chamber in the morning. The Midrash explains the comparison. Just as a groom enters in purity and emerges impure so too the sun goes from purity to impurity. The Midrash refers to the physical in relation to the spiritual realms as impure because the physical needs the spiritual to exist much like a body is only alive if it contains a soul. When the spiritual departs, what is left is impure. Since the groom engaged in the most physical of acts, the Midrash calls this impure in relation to the spiritual. So too, the sun manifesting physically as it rises is called impure. Each day God renews the workings of the Creation and draws new life from the source of life to all the creations. In this context purity represents life that comes from the source of life whereas impurity is the physical Creation without the spiritual.
We see that אֲמִירָה/saying connotes a connection with the source of life. How do we connect to the source? How can we live spiritual pure lives even in the physical and mundane world? The answer according to Sfas emes is hinted at in the Midrash which, explaining the redundancy in the first pasuk of the parsha, teaches us that Israel needs two אֲמִירוֹת/sayings. The first saying, is God’s imbuing the physical world with spirituality as we explained above. But this alone is not enough. The spirituality is latent. It is concealed and does not affect us. As the Midrash said before, the physical without the spiritual is impure.
For us to connect with the spiritual we need to desire to become pure and to connect with God’s “sayings”, the spiritual embedded in the physical that gives the physical existence. The way to do this is to identify and feel a part of the nation of Israel. This is because the spiritual entity called Knesses Yisrael is the prime conduit for bringing God’s “sayings”, His spiritual sustenance into the physical world. This then is the meaning of the second “saying” in the pasuk. The second saying is each individual Jew acknowledging God’s spirituality in the physical world by identifying with the nation of Israel, the conduit for bringing that spirituality into the world.
Significantly, another Midrash in this week’s parsha states that slander (may God save us from it!) prevents purity. According to the Sfas Emes, this is because a person who slanders another Jew is not feeling a part of the nation of Israel. He is therefore missing the second “saying.”