Friday, April 17, 2015
The first half of this week’s parsha describes the procedure that a metzora/leper must undergo in order to return to a state of purity. Chazal teach us that tzora’as/leprosy is a consequence of slandering. The Midrash says that the word metzora alludes to this because the word can be split into two words, motzi ra/spew out evil (speech).
The Sfas Emes understands the word ra/evil here, homiletically as an allusion to the evil inclination. God created us with a good and an evil inclination. Chazal teach us that we are expected to serve God with both the good and the evil inclinations. How can we serve Him with our evil inclination? The evil inclination provides us with challenges and opportunities to grow. Acknowledging this makes it easier for us to accept the challenges that occur in our lives. We can even welcome them since they are the means by which we are able to grow closer to God and accomplish our mission in this world.
The Sfas Emes understands Chazal’s play on the word metzora - motzi ra - as an allusion to spewing out or expelling the evil inclination. If we expel our evil inclination and do not accept it for the tool that it is meant to be, then instead of helping us it becomes rather a hindrance in our service to God, a source of impurity.
This concept may be alluded to in the procedure for purifying the metzora. The procedure calls for two pure birds. The Sfas Emes says that these birds may represent the two inclinations within us, the good and the evil. However, even though one of those birds represents the evil inclination, the Torah also refers to it as pure just as it refers to our soul – which contains the evil inclination – as pure. The key is not to reject any part of the root of our soul but rather to take advantage of everything that God has given us even if at first glance it appears to be unhelpful. In reality, we need all of it to achieve the mission for which God sent us into this world.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
On the seventh day of Pesach the nation of Israel crossed the Red Sea and sang Shiras HaYam/The Song of the Sea.1 The Shirah starts with, “... אָשִׁירָה לַה' כִּי־גָאֹה גָּאָה .../I will sing to God for He is most exalted.” The double wording “גָאֹה גָּאָה/He is most exalted” implies that He is the epitome of exaltedness, of greatness. To say that the difference between God’s exaltedness and that of others is simply a matter of degree is difficult. Instead, the Sfas Emes explains that the double wording teaches us something about the relationship of the greatness of others to God. It implies that the greatness of all others are only for His glory whereas God’s glory is inherent. It has no ulterior reason. How so?
We find in Mishlei (16:18), “לִפְנֵי־שֶׁבֶר גָּאוֹן/Pride precedes destruction.” The greatness of the wicked glorifies God in their destruction. The greater they are, the greater the destruction when they fall and the greater God’s honor when they are destroyed. The greatness of the righteous glorifies God as well when the righteous person even in greatness subordinates himself to God and recognizes His benevolence. The greater the righteous the more he glorifies God when he acknowledges God’s kindnesses. We see that the greatness of others is not intrinsic. The greatness of others is defined by its relationship to God and how it brings out God's glory. God's glory, though, is independent.
According to this we can understand why we find in the Shirah, “אָמַר אוֹיֵב אֶרְדֹּף אַשִּׂיג .../The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will reach …” (Shmos 15:9) Why is this part of the Shirah? Do we care to know the intentions of the enemy? Is not the purpose of the Shirah to sing praises to God for having saved us? The Sfas Emes explains that this is exactly the reason that the enemy’s intentions are mentioned. The more impertinent the enemy the greater God’s glory when he is destroyed. The enemy’s intentions are followed directly with God’s action to destroy him, “נָשַׁפְתָּ בְרוּחֲךָ כִּסָּמוֹ יָם .../You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them …” (Shmos 15:10) The enemy’s impudence helped cause his own destruction.
1See Rashi on Shmos 14:5
Friday, March 27, 2015
Much has been written about the name of the Shabbos preceding Pesach – Shabbos HaGadol, the great Shabbos. Why is it called the great Shabbos?
In order to answer this question, we need to understand what significance keeping Shabbos has for us. Of course, keeping Shabbos is our testimony that God created the world. However, in addition to this, keeping Shabbos has significance for each of us personally. It is, after all, a day of rest. At the very least, on Shabbos we do not “go to work”. We stay home with our families.
A day of rest signifies that whoever is controlling our lives during the week, is not in control on Shabbos. Shabbos, then, sets us free from the rule of flesh and blood. At least for one day a week, we can subordinate ourselves to God. On this level of keeping Shabbos, Chazal1 tell us that even in Egypt, Moshe Rabbeinu requested and received permission from Pharaoh to grant the nation one day of rest per week from their backbreaking physical labor. In addition to the welcome physical rest, for one day a week the nation was free from the rule of Pharaoh and was able to accept the rule of God.
The Zohar2, however, mentions two levels of keeping Shabbos. There is the level of those who are enslaved and the level of those who are not enslaved and are able to subordinate themselves to God during the week as well. The significance of Shabbos for these people is that on Shabbos it takes less effort to experience God. To these people, Shabbos signifies a day on which they are free from the distractions of weekday activities. Spiritually as well, it is a day on which it is easier to experience God. This is a much higher level of keeping Shabbos.
We first experienced this higher level of Shabbos as a nation on the Shabbos preceding the redemption. Prior to this Shabbos Moshe Rabbeinu promised us that after the coming plague we would be leaving Egypt for good. We finally left the servitude of Pharaoh and became subordinate to God alone. We were thus able to experience the higher level of Shabbos. In commemoration of the first time we experienced the higher level of Shabbos, we refer to the Shabbos before Pesach as the great Shabbos.
1 Shmos R. 1:28
2 Zohar Raya Mehimna 3:29b
Friday, March 20, 2015
Chazal1 relate a story about the Tanna, Rebbi Elazar ben Arach. After the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, Rebbi Elazar ben Arach went to a certain city expecting his students to follow him. They didn’t. Alone in a city known for its decadence, he forgot his Torah learning. When he had the opportunity to read from a Torah, instead of reading, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you,”2 he read, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf”, a seemingly innocuous mistake. The Chiddushei HaRim3, however, understands that this was not an innocuous mistake. The mistake was actually a hint to Rebbi Elazar to leave the city.
The Chiddushei HaRim understands this from a Midrash4 which implies that the leaders of Israel have the power to lead the people and steer them onto the right path. If instead they allow themselves to be led by the people, they fall. Rebbi Elazar understood the words that he mistakenly said as applying to the inhabitants of the city of his exile. He understood that he would not be able to improve them, would be drawn after their evil ways and should therefore leave.
The Sfas Emes gives another interpretation to this story. The new moon/month symbolizes renewal. The Hebrew words for “month” and “new” are the same, חֹדֶשׁ and חָדָשׁ, respectively. In order to experience the light of renewal, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you,”5 the Sfas Emes explains, we first must experience the darkness of deafness, represented by, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf”.
We could only experience God’s revelation at the redemption from Egypt after having first experiencing the darkness of His concealment in the exile. In fact, we define exile and redemption as God’s concealment and revelation respectively. The redemption is simply a removal of the screen that hides God. We merited this renewal of our relationship with God by first living through and bearing His concealment.
This idea underlies the need for the four kingdoms – Babylon, Medes, Greece and Rome – before the final redemption. Each of the four kingdoms is a rectification for an aspect or aspects of God’s concealment. A complete rectification will manifest at the ultimate redemption as, “מַלְכוּתְךָ מַלְכוּת כָּל־עֹלָמִים .../Your kingdom is a kingdom spanning all worlds …”6, the culmination of the historical process.
Rebbi Elazar ben Arach went to the city knowing that the inhabitants were on a low spiritual level. He wanted to experience an atmosphere of God’s concealment so that subsequently he could find a renewed revelation.
The Zohar7 as well teaches us that purity implies a preceding period of impurity. Attaining purity from a state of impurity means that the mask hiding God is removed. We find this in the following pasuk, “מִי־יִתֵּן טָהוֹר מִטָּמֵא לֹא אֶחָד/Who can produce purity from impurity? No one!”8 The Midrash9 translates this pasuk as, “Who produces purity from impurity? Is it not the One?” God produces purity from impurity by removing the screen that hides Himself.
We can only experience God's revelation by subordinating ourselves to Him. This is also symbolized by the ashes of the red heifer. The ashes represent our own subordination. We only attain purity when we are sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer. When we subordinate ourselves and our own desires for God’s, we “connect” to Him and attain a state of purity.
When purity is reached we are open to a renewed relationship with God. This is the meaning of the pasuk, “לֵב טָהוֹר בְּרָא־לִי אֱ־לֹהִים וְרוַּח נָכוֹן חַדֵּשׁ בְּקִרְבִּי/Create a pure heart for me, Lord, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Tehillim 51:12) First David HaMelech asks God for purity - revelation. This naturally leads to a desire for renewal.
Parshas Parah representing attainment of purity from within an impure state therefore precedes Parshas HaChodesh representing spiritual renewal. May we merit it!
Friday, March 13, 2015
This week we read the laws of the red heifer. The red heifer's ashes purify. The Torah tells us to burn not only the heifer, but also wood from a cedar and a hyssop, and a scarlet thread.
Rashi1 cites a Midrash2 explaining that metaphorically the entire procedure of the red heifer is a purification and atonement for the sin of the golden calf. In this context the cedar tree which is very tall represents one whose arrogance causes him to sin. The hyssop grows low to the ground and the scarlet thread in Hebrew is synonymous with the Hebrew word for worm. These represent humility. The Midrash states that a haughty person who sinned should humble himself like a hyssop and a worm. Haughtiness causes a person to sin. Humility prevents it.
The Sfas Emes asks, why is the cedar wood in the ash mixture? The cedar representing arrogance is what we want to stay away from. Shouldn't the mixture contain only the symbols of humility, the character trait that we strive to attain?
The Sfas Emes explains that the cedar wood is part of the ash mixture because arrogance can actually be used as a tool for reaching humility. When a person who is arrogant contemplates God, he is moved to ask himself, how can his heart be filled with arrogance before the Master of everything? Inevitably he is humbled and overcome with shame.
This itself is a rectification for the sin of haughtiness. May we merit it. Amen!
1 Bamidbar 19:22, Eitz Erez
2 Bamidbar R. 19:3