Friday, June 26, 2015

Chukas 5632 Second Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha the nation sings tribute to the well which miraculously followed them during their forty year sojourn in the desert. “בְּאֵר חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם בִּמְחֹקֵק בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה/The well carved by princes, dug out by the generous of the people, by the lawgiver, with their staff.  From the desert, it was a gift.” (Bemidbar 21:18)

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that digging a well in search of water is a metaphor for the search to uncover the Godliness hidden in the physical world.[1]  This Godliness, or spirituality is the light of the Torah that is in every component of the Creation.  The Chiddushei HaRim says that the well represents specifically Torah Shebe’al Peh (lit. the Oral Law).  This is because the essence of Torah Shebe’al Peh is our ability to create and produce חִידוּשׁ/novelty through our Torah learning. 

The Sfas Emes broadens this idea.  According to the Sfas Emes the essence of Torah shebe’al Peh includes not only the novelty we produce through our Torah learning, but any novelty that we produce that involves a revelation of the hidden spiritual light that permeates the Creation.  Torah shebe’al Peh, then, represents our effective action in this world.  Bringing the Torah’s light into the physical world and uncovering the Godliness in the Creation is one and the same thing.  It is the reason we exist.

How do we produce such novelty?  How do we reveal the hidden spiritual light inherent in every part of the Creation?  Following the metaphor through the pasuk, we can learn how to reveal the hidden light of the Torah. 

חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים/carved by princes” – The princes in the metaphor are those who have succeeded in ruling over their natural inclinations. 

כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם/dug out by the generous of the people” – The generous of the nation are those who direct their generosity and desires towards the service of God alone.  Because they align their own will with God’s so that all their activities are an expression of God’s will, they reveal God’s will – the hidden light – in everything they do and with everything that they come into contact.

בִּמְחֹקֵק/by the lawgiver” – The lawgiver represents the boundaries that are built into the Creation.  God is infinite and His bounty is infinite.  We finite beings and by extension the entire Creation cannot receive God’s infinite revelation.  So God restricts His revelation, as it were.  He reveals Himself to us in measured doses so that we can experience Him.  Everything in the Creation is governed by boundaries.  We too, by working within the boundaries that God built in to the world, moderating our actions and practicing balance, can draw out the[2] light of the Torah in the measured doses that we can receive. 

בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם/with their staff” – Even though Torah sheBe’al Peh represents our ability to create and produce novelty, the ultimate effectiveness of our actions is completely dependent on God.  The staff alludes to our reliance on God for all things.

וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה/and from the desert it was a gift” – When we realize that we do not merit anything as a result of our own efforts, rather it is God who helps us in everything we do, we experience His revelation as a gift.

[1]                      See Sfas Emes Toldos 5631 for more detail on this concept from the Chiddushei HaRim.
[2]                     See Sfas Emes Elul 5631 for more detail on this.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Korach 5635 First Ma'amar

The Zohar on this week’s parsha states that the world can only exist when there is peace in the Creation.[1]  What is “peace in the Creation?”  What is so important about peace that the world’s very existence is contingent upon it? 

To answer these questions we first need to define peace.  According to the Sfas Emes peace and unity are synonymous.  The opposite of peace is separation and disparateness.  Before the Creation, there was only the unity of God.  In fact, the Sfas Emes defines creation as disparateness.  It is what God created.  But how can this be?  As some Rishonim[2] have asked, how is the existence of disparateness, which implies outside of or separate from God, possible?

The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches, is that disparateness only implies “outside of God” if we assume that each creation has an autonomous existence.  Each creation, though, is really just a manifestation of God’s will.  There is unity, and therefore peace, in the Creation when each component of it is fulfilling God’s will with no ulterior personal motives.  The Sfas Emes understands this from Chazal’s[3] explanation of the pasuk in Iyov (25:2) “... עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו/… He makes peace in His high places.”  Chazal explain that the spiritual entity governing water and that governing fire make peace and work together in order to fulfill the will of God.  Even though fire and water are opposites, they are united in fulfilling God’s will.  Paradoxically, they are at peace with each other.
The very first time the entire Creation worked as one to fulfill God’s will, was at the completion of the Creation on the first Shabbos.  When all parts of the Creation work in harmony to achieve God’s will, the Creation is at peace.  We learn this concept from the Zohar in this week’s parsha which states that in order for the Creation to continue to exist, God introduced peace into it.[4]  How?  By creating Shabbos. 

The righteous as well, by subordinating their personal desires in favor of God’s, are proliferating peace in the world thereby sustaining it.  Shabbos represents the ultimate tool for subordinating our desires in favor of God’s since the essence of Shabbos is refraining from physically creative activity.  We thus subordinate ourselves to God.  As we’ve said, this is the very definition of peace.

This concept gives us a deep understanding of a Midrash[5] in this week’s parsha that explains Korach’s sin.  The Midrash cites a pasuk in Mishlei (18:19) “אָח נִפְשָׁע מִקִּרְיַת־עֹז .../A criminal brother (who destroys) a city of strength …”[6]  The criminal brother is Korach.  The word עֹז/strength, the Midrash tells us, refers to the Torah as in the pasuk from Tehillim (29:11), “ה' עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן ה' יְבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם/God will give strength to His nation; God will bless His nation with peace.”  The Targum as well, translates the pasuk as, “God will give the Torah to His nation …”.  The Midrash says that Korach committed a crime against the Torah.
Korach wanted to be the high priest.  He wanted the opportunity to serve God as best he thought he could.  Korach, however, was not completely altruistic.  It is true that he wanted to serve God better, and that’s commendable and noble.  But since his motives were selfish as well, he was not promoting peace; he was fighting it.  This is why the Zohar tells us that Korach fought against peace.[7] 
What crime did Korach commit against the Torah, though?  From what we’ve seen, his crime was against peace rather than against the Torah.  The Sfas Emes learns the answer from the pasuk in Mishlei that the Midrash cites.  In order to understand the pasuk though, we first need to know that the Torah is the embodiment of God’s will in the Creation and through it the world exists.  The Zohar teaches that God created the world with the Torah.[8]  It is the source of the Creation and as the source, represents the unity of the Creation.

When we express our subordination to God’s will by keeping Shabbos, thus spreading peace in the world, the entire Creation is elevated towards the source, the Torah.  Shabbos and peace, then, lead towards the Torah.

The pasuk is very exact.  עֹז/Strength refers to the Torah.  קִרְיַת־עֹז/City of strength, the Sfas Emes explains, refers to Shabbos and peace.  Just as the city is the mechanism for cultivating and projecting strength, so too, Shabbos and peace are the mechanisms for cultivating and projecting the Torah.  They are the preparations for the Torah, the projection of God’s will in this world.  By fighting peace, Korach was ultimately against the Torah as well.

Korach’s argument with Moshe Rabbeinu, noble as it was in terms of his wanting to serve God better, was doomed because his motives were selfish.  In Avos we learn that an argument whose motives are completely altruistic – for the sake of Heaven – will survive.[9]  This is because both sides of the argument, even though they are at odds with each other, are pure expressions of God’s will, just as each disparate component of the Creation is a pure manifestation of God’s will.  Water and fire are at odds with each other and yet each is a pure expression of God’s will.  This is why we still mention Shamai’s views in his arguments with Hillel.  Shamai was totally altruistic.  As such, his views are a pure manifestation of God’s will to the same extent as Hillel’s views.  Even though they argued, they were united in a common cause and brought peace to the world.

If Korach were completely altruistic, he would have realized his mistake and he would have changed his tune.  Since his motives were selfish, he did not realize his mistake and did not change his mind.  His fate was sealed and he lost everything.

We learn from this some very practical advice.  When there is an argument, unless it is completely altruistic, it is doomed.  If it is completely altruistic, it is an expression of God’s will and will paradoxically always lead to peace and unity.  If we want to grow in serving God and our motives are not totally altruistic, we cannot be involved in argument.

[1]               Zohar 3:176a-b
[2]               Chovos Halevavos Shaar Hayichud 7-10; Moreh Nevuchim 1:51-53; Sefer HaIkrim 2:8,11,13
[3]               Bahir 9/11
[4]              Zohar ibid.
[5]               Bamidbar R. 18:14
[6]              Translation according to Rashi ad loc.  The simple translation though is, “(Better) a criminal brother than a city of strength.”
[7]               Zohar ibid.
[8]              Zohar Introduction 1:5a
[9]              Avos 5:17

Friday, June 12, 2015

Shelach 5631 First Ma'amar

In the beginning of parshas Shelach, God tells Moshe Rabbeinu to send spies into the land of Israel, “שְׁלַח־לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן .../Send out men who shall spy out the land of Canaan …” (Bamidbar 13:2)  However, in parshas Devarim when Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the story, he says that the nation asked him to send the spies.[1]  Furthermore, Chazal teach us that sending the spies did not find favor in God’s eyes.[2]  How can we reconcile the two versions of this story and why did God command Moshe Rabbeinu to send the spies if He was against it?

The Sfas Emes finds the answer to these questions in the first Midrash on the parsha.[3]  The Midrash says that there is nothing as precious to God as a shli’ach mitzvah/one sent to do a mitzvah.  An emissary is one whose sole motive is to do the sender’s will.  If he has other personal motives, he is no longer simply an emissary.  He is on his own mission as well.  An emissary who has no personal motives in the mission is called, in the words of the Midrash, one who puts his soul into the success of his mission.

The Chiddushei HaRim, expounding on this point explains that it is highly significant that, according to Chazal, the two spies Yehoshua sent to Jericho disguised themselves as potters.[4]  Clay pots exemplify things with no intrinsic value.  Their value is defined solely by their functionality.  The spies were prepared to fulfill Yehoshua’s will with absolutely no personal ulterior motives. 

Both the version that Moshe Rabbeinu relates in Devarim and the version of our parsha are true.  The people wanted to send spies into the land.  Out of kindness, God commanded Moshe to send spies even though the nation had already asked for it and even though He was against it.  The spies were being sent on a dangerous mission.  It was physically dangerous and spiritually dangerous.  God turned the mission into a mitzvah in order to afford the spies protection.[5]    They became shluchai mitzvah/emissaries sent to do a mitzvah.[6]

In order to become true emissaries, though, they needed to suppress their own desires and motives and proceed with the mission only because God commanded it.  If they had done this they would have been protected.  Ten of the spies failed and the results were tragic.

This Midrash is teaching us something very important about our lives in this world.  The Chiddushei HaRim used to say that we are all shluchei mitzvah/emissaries sent do to a mitzvah.  God sent us into this world to fulfill His will.  In this sense, we are His agents.  However, we are only His agents, in the true sense, when our desire is solely to fulfill His will rather than for any ulterior personal motives.

This world is a dangerous place fraught with pitfalls and traps.  It is easy to be snared.  The advice we glean from the Midrash is to suppress our own desires to do the will of God.  We have the ability to transform all of our daily activities into mitzvos.  In fact, another Midrash in this week’s parsha says that God left nothing out.[7]  There is no action that cannot be transformed into a mitzvah.  By making everything we do a mitzvah we connect to the inner Godly life force that inheres in each action.  This connection affords us protection in this world.

There was, however, a positive mission that the spies were sent to accomplish.  Before entering the land of Israel, there was no need to work at attaining any physical need.  Every physical need was provided.  God was manifest in the daily lives of the people.  After entering the land of Israel, the nation would have to work within nature to satisfy their physical needs.  Maintaining the same level of faith while living within the boundaries of nature would not be easy.  The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the larger context of the spies’ mission was to help make this difficult transition as smooth as possible.  They were supposed to show that the light of the Torah exists within nature as well.  In fact, the word for spies, meraglim has the same root as hergeil/habit.  The spies were supposed to teach us how to bring the light of the Torah into our daily lives. 

This concept is alluded to in the Zohar[8] on a pasuk from this week’s parsha, “... וַיָּבֹא עַד־חֶבְרוֹן/… he came to Chevron.” (Bamidbar 13:22)  The Zohar explains that Chevron represents the Torah SheBe’al Peh/Oral Law.  The word Chevron has the same root as the Hebrew word for connection – chibur.  Furthermore, a person who studies the Oral Law is called a chaver.  All of a Torah scholar’s actions are drawn after the Torah.  His essence is connected to the Torah.  He brings the light of the Torah into his daily activities.  For this reason we say in our morning brachos, “שֶׁתַּרְגִילֵנוּ בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ/You have made us accustomed to Your Torah.”  In essence we are praising God for helping us to bring the light of the Torah into our daily lives, through the mitzvos.

God told Moshe, “... וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן .../… and they shall spy out the land of Canaan …” (Bamidbar 13:2)  “וְיָתֻרוּ/And they shall spy out” has the same root as the word for Torah.  God wanted the spies to show the nation that it was possible to bring the light of the Torah into the physical world.  It was possible to live in the physical world, to work within the boundaries of nature and still live a spiritual life.  This was the spies’ ultimate mission.  This is our ultimate mission as well and it is accomplished by realizing that in every aspect of our lives we are shluchai mitzvah/emissaries to do a mitzvah in this world.

[1]Devarim 1:22
[2]Bamidbar R. 16:7
[3]Bamidbar R. 15:1
[5] See also Ramban 13:2, in the middle starting with והנראה אלי לפי פשט הכתוב, says very similar
[6]A person sent to do a mitzvah is protected against harm (Pesachim 8a)
[7]Bamidbar R. 17:5,6
[8]Zohar 3:16a

Friday, May 08, 2015


The Zohar teaches that God used the Torah to create the world.[1]  The Zohar is teaching us that the Torah is much more than the physical scrolls that are its physical manifestation.  The Torah is a powerful spiritual entity that Chazal metaphorically refer to as “fire.”[2]  Since God created the world through the Torah and keeps it in existence continually, it follows that God’s life-force permeates the entire Creation.

This life-force, though, is not apparent in the Creation.  The Creation itself acts as a barrier that hides the Godly life-force.  When we look around us, we see the physical world, not the spiritual life-force underlying it.  Our mission, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is to search and find the light of the Torah in all things.  How can we do this? 

The Midrash[3] in this week’s parsha teaches us through metaphors on the following pasuk in Mishlei (18:21), “מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁוֹן .../The tongue (i.e. speech) has the power of death and life …”  How does speech have the power of death and life?  Speech represents the life-force within us because we use our breath to speak.  Breath, the Torah tells us, is life, “וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים/He blew the breath of life into his nostrils.” (Breishis 2:7

The power of life and death, means the power to reveal or hide the Godliness that is within everything.  The Midrash compares this to blowing or spitting on coal.  When we blow on a coal, if flames up while spitting on it extinguishes it.  The flame in the coal is a metaphor for the spiritual within the physical in this world.  The flame is hidden within and attached to the coal[4] until we blow on it and reveal it.  So to, the spiritual is hidden within and attached to the physical.  When we acknowledge the spiritual within us we can recognize the spiritual in everything.  The spiritual within the physical is then revealed.  In the words of the metaphor, “Blowing on the coal causes it to flame.” 

If, however we do not recognize the spiritual within us, we cannot recognize the spiritual in the physical world around us.  Again, in the words of the metaphor, “… spitting on the flame, extinguishes it.” 

The Midrash also compares the power of life and death – the power to reveal or hide the Godliness within the physical world – to eating food that has been tithed or not tithed.  Eating food before it has been tithed is death through the tongue.  Eating food after it has been tithed is the power of life through the tongue.

The Sfas Emes explains the significance of this allegory.  Tithing our food to fulfill God’s commandment is a way of expressing our belief that the food, and by extension everything, is from Him.  The acknowledgement that the food is from God, reveals the Godliness inherent in the food.  Food that is not tithed can be viewed as being wrapped in a shell preventing its spiritual life-force from being experienced.

May we merit acknowledging the Godliness within us and as a result the Godliness that permeates the entire world.  Amen!

[1]  Zohar 1:5a
[2]  Ta’anis 7a
[3]  VaYikra R. 33:1
[4]   Sefer Yetzira 1:7

Friday, May 01, 2015

Emor 5632 First Ma'amar

Parshas Emor begins with the laws of purity of priests.[1]  Something which is pure is not mixed with anything else.  When we say that gold is pure, for example, we mean that it contains nothing but gold.  When we say that a person has pure intentions, we mean that his actions have no ulterior motives.  The priests’ service in the mishkan exemplifies serving God with purity.  How can we serve God with purity?  What technique can we apply in order to serve God with no ulterior motives? 

The first Midrash[2] on this week’s parsha addressing this question brings the pasuk in Tehillim (12:7), “אִמְרוֹת ה' אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת .../God’s sayings are pure sayings…”  “אִמְרָה/Saying” alludes to the ten מַאֲמָרוֹת/sayings with which God created the world.  The Sfas Emes explains that the saying itself gives existence to the Creation.  The creating power of God, through the saying, is hidden within the Creation.  It follows that the saying is the source of purity within everything.  To stress the point, the beginning of this week’s parsha, dealing with the laws of purity of priests, repeats the word “say”, “אֱמֹר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם .../Say to the priests the children of Aharon and say to them…” (VaYikra 21:1)  The redundancy is glaring. 

The repetition is significant and gives us a clue as to how we can attain purity in our own actions.  A similar repetition in parshas Ki Savo sheds light on our parsha.  In parshas Ki Savo we find, “אֶת־ה' הֶאֱמַרְתָּ הַיּוֹם/Today you have made God unique.” (Devarim 26:17)  In the next pasuk we find, “וַה' הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם/And God has made you unique today.”  Chazal[3] explain that the nation of Israel made God unique by declaring, “שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד/Listen Israel, God is our Lord, God is One.” (Devarim 6:4)  God made Israel unique by declaring, “מִי כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל גוֹי אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ/Who is like your nation Israel, one nation on earth.” (Shmuel II 7:23

When we consider a relationship to be unique, we mean that there is a special connection that we have that excludes all others.  The relationship is pure in the sense that it applies to one and to no other.  Considering God unique to us is the essence of pure service.  We reject all others.  We reject our own desires and we subjugate ourselves to the will of God.  The word used for “unique” in these p’sukim has the same root as “אִמְרָה/saying.”  

In parshas Ki Savo we learn how to attain a level of pure intentions in serving God.  There is a two step process in attaining purity.  First God brings us close to Him.  He makes us unique among the nations.  Then, we accept this closeness and make Him unique.  Instead of following our own desires, we will follow only His.  This is the essence of purity.  To the extent we subordinate our own desires to God’s we become pure.

The Torah contains other examples of this two step process in reaching a level of pure intentions in our actions.  Each example serves to clarify the process so that we are better able to apply it to our daily lives. 

The first example is the relationship between the Exodus and the mitzvah of counting the Omer.  First God brought us close to Him by bringing us out of Egypt.  Our subservience to Him was a natural reaction to the miracles and revelation which we witnessed.  In addition to freeing us from our bondage to the Egyptians, He freed us from our bondage to our own desires and subjugated us to Him.  Then, during the period of Sfiras HaOmer we accepted His closeness, quelled our own desires in favor of His and our worship became pure. 

The Sfiras HaOmer itself hints at the idea of accepting God’s closeness and purity of worship.  But how can we finite beings come close to the infinite God.  How can we receive anything from or even relate to Infinity?  In order to be able to receive from and relate to God, He created a mechanism through which the finite Creation can draw God’s infinite blessing into it.  This mechanism is called midos/measures[4] implying that although God is infinite, His blessing reaches us in measured doses that we can receive. 

There are seven midos which correspond to the seven primary personality traits[5].  Each of the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos corresponds to one of these midos.  It is a time that is particularly conducive to working on our personality traits to use them only according to God’s will; to draw upon the Godly midos to this end.  We did this between the Exodus and receiving the Torah and it applies today as well.  In fact, purification is one of the reasons for the mitzvah of Sfiras HaOmer.  The prayer following Sfiras HaOmer begins, “Master of the Universe, You commanded us … to count Sfiras HaOmer in order to purify us …”

A second example of the two step process in attaining pure intention is found in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week.  On Shabbos, God is more manifest in the Creation.  It is easier to focus only on God.  God brings us close to Him on Shabbos so that after experiencing Shabbos, we can draw that special revelation into the week.

Finally, the redundancy at the beginning of our parsha, as well, alludes to this process.  “אֱמֹר/Say” connoting connection and purity, suggests that God brings us close to Him.  We are a unique nation unto God.  “וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם/And you will say to them” suggests that we accept His closeness in everything that we do and in our desires.  He is unique to us.  To the extent that we accept God in our actions, our motives become pure.

[1]           VaYikra 21:1-6
[2]           VaYikra R. 26:1
[3]           Brachos 6a
[4]           The midos are also referred to as sefiros in Kabbala literature.  See Terumah 5631 First Ma'amar Sfas Emes Trumah 5631for more on the concept of midos.
[5]           The seven midos are Chessed-Lovingkindness, Gevurah-Restraint, Tiferes-Beauty, Netzach-Dominance, Hod-Empathy, Yesod-Foundation, Malchus-Kingship.  For an illuminating discussion of the midos see the excellent book Inner Space, Chapter 4, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan zt”l.