Friday, July 15, 2016
Disciples of Avraham and Disciples of Bil'am
Chazal in a Mishna in Avos teach us that the disciples of Avraham Avinu are recognized by three character traits. They are generous, humble and live simply. The disciples of Bil’am the wicked have three opposite qualities, stinginess, arrogance, and greed. Bil’am’s students have poor character traits, to be sure. But one need not be a disciple of Bil’am to learn these traits. In fact, any fool can develop these bad character traits without learning from anyone. What exactly, then, do the disciples of Bil’am learn from him? Conversely, what do the disciples of Avraham Avinu learn from him?
The interesting thing about Bil’am is that he subordinates himself to God. For example, in response to Balak’s appeal that he curse the nation of Israel, he claims that even if Balak would give him his entire estate filled with silver and gold he cannot transgress the word of God. Yet, from this very response Chazal learn that Bil’am was greedy. Why do Chazal consider him to be so wicked? The Sfas Emes explains that Bil’am viewed himself as a very important person who does God’s will notwithstanding his own importance.
Bil’am used service to God for his own ends, to increase his own egotism. This idea is alluded to in the pasuk describing Bil’am, “... נֹפֵל וּגְלוּי עֵינַָיִם/… fallen and revealed to him.” (Bamidbar 24:4) True, he falls before God. But he does so only to achieve a higher level to feed his bloated ego. Bil’am teaches his students to use service to God to achieve personal goals.
The righteous, on the other hand, have a simple soul. They ask nothing for themselves. Their sole desire is to be close to God, the source of life. They want to be God’s tool in this world, like an axe in the hands of a wood chopper.
In fact, this is the only way to merit the next world. Chazal tell us that this world is a corridor leading to the next world which is compared to a hall. The corridor is the only path to the hall. The only way to get to the next world is through this one. This is because the next world is so completely holy and spiritual that it is beyond our comprehension. It is impossible for someone who is completely disconnected from anything spiritual to merit the next world. What must we do, then, to merit it? The Sfas Emes explains that by revealing holiness in this world we connect to holiness, to God’s life force. This connection enables us to experience the next world.
The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that this is the meaning of the second half of the mishnah quoted above. The second part of the mishnah states that the disciples of Avraham Avinu benefit (lit.אוֹכְלִין /eat) in this world and נוֹחְלִין/inherit in the next world. The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that Chazal are not simply listing the rewards awaiting the disciples of Avraham Avinu. Rather they are teaching us about the relationship between this world and the next. Chazal alluded to this relationship by using the word nochlin for inherit instead of the more common יורשים. נוֹחְלִין/Inherit has the same root as the word נַחַל/stream. The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that benefiting from this world is not part of the reward. Rather, it is part of the work. Whenever we benefit from this world we must channel the stream of God’s life force into the activity. Chazal are telling us that we must inject some of the next world’s holiness into our activities in this world.
By revealing the hidden holiness inherent in this world, we will merit experiencing the hidden holiness of the next world. The mishnah brings proof from a pasuk in Mishlei (8:21), “לְהַנְחִיל אֹהֲבַי יֵשׁ וְאֹצְרֹתֵיהֶם אֲמַלֵּא/I have something to bequeath those who love me and I will fill their storehouses.” The next world is referred to as אַיִן/nothing because it is not tangible and it is beyond our comprehension. When we reveal hidden holiness in this world, we develop a connection to it. This connection allows us to see and experience the אַיִן/nothing of the next world as יֵשׁ/something.
This, then, is the teaching of Avraham Avinu. Once we view ourselves as agents of God and consider that God is the absolute and singular force giving life and existence to everything, then generosity, humility, and living simply, follow.
Bil’am teaches his students exactly the opposite. He teaches that we can and should gain personally even from subservience to God. Chazal in fact teach us that that any kindness the nations of the world did, they did for their own benefit. This is why the mishnah states that the students of Bil’am inherit gehinom. Gehinom represents God’s concealment, the opposite of the next world. By introducing evil into the good that they do, Bil’am’s disciples conceal even the Godliness that would otherwise have been revealed by their positive actions. They, thus, inherit the ultimate concealment of God.
May we merit being the disciples of Avraham Avinu. Amen!
Friday, July 08, 2016
Understanding Mitzvos that Have No Apparent Reason
The first part of our parsha describes the mitzvah of the red heifer. The ashes of a red heifer are mixed with water and sprinkled on one who is spiritually impure through contact with a corpse. Because this mitzvah seems to have no apparent logic, Rashi quotes a Midrash that states that this is one of the mitzvos about which the nations of the world and the satan chide the nation of Israel. Our answer to them is that this mitzvah is a divine decree which we must adhere to even though it has no apparent reason. For this reason, the pasuk introduces the mitzvah with, “זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה .../This is the decree of the Torah …” (Bamidbar 19:2)
The Sfas Emes asks that this answer does not seem to be an answer at all. The nations of the world tell us that our religion contains elements of illogic and we answer that our religion contains elements of illogic!
In order to understand this, we must know that every decree in the Torah is based on a good, valid reason. There is no such thing as a decree for its own sake. What then is the meaning of the Midrash? The Midrash is teaching us that decrees represent a category of mitzvos whose underlying reasons cannot be attained directly. The only way to attain an understanding of the decrees in the Torah is by embracing them even without understanding.
This is so because the reasons for these mitzvos are spiritual in nature. They can only be approached by distancing ourselves from the physical. A mitzvah, like the entire Creation, has a physical component – the act of the mitzvah – and a spiritual component. The performance of a mitzvah creates spiritual effects. The mitzvah’s reason is part of its spiritual component.
By living spiritual lives, we prepare ourselves to understand even the decrees of the Torah. This concept is borne out by Chazal who teach us that during the time of David HaMelech, the children who had not yet tasted sin, were able to understand the reasons behind even the most esoteric laws of purity and impurity.
In the poem that the Arizal composed for recital before Kiddush on Shabbos morning we find, “יְגַלֵּה לָן טַעֲמֵי דְבִתְרֵיסַר נַהֲמֵי/reveal to us the reasons behind the twelve loaves (of showbread). There are reasons even though they are not apparent to us. We ask God to reveal them to us.
In fact, the Sfas Emes teaches that our purpose is to reveal the reasons. By revealing the spiritual, we reveal the reasons as well.
As the Sfas Emes states in many ma’amarim, the spiritual component of the Creation is more revealed on Shabbos than during the week. As such, on Shabbos we are closer to understanding the reasons underlying the existence of the entire Creation. We find a hint to this idea in the musaf of Shabbos, “טוֹעֲמֶיהָ חַיִּים זָכוּ/Those who savor it will merit life.” The Hebrew word for “savor” is the same as for “reason”. So, this can be understood as, “Those who receive the reasons (having prepared themselves) merit life. In fact, our work during the days of the week should be geared towards preparing ourselves so that we can reach higher levels of spirituality on Shabbos.
Friday, June 24, 2016
The Spies’ Mistake and How We Can Apply the Lesson to Our Own Life Challenges
“... וְלֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם .../… and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes …” (Bamidbar 15:39) Rashi on this pasuk explains that the word תָתוּרוּ/wander, comes from תּוּר/spy or scout. He writes that the heart and eyes are like the body’s spies. “The eyes see, the heart desires and the body does the sin.”
It is no coincidence that this pasuk appears in the same parsha as the story of the twelve spies. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that there is an underlying similarity between these two seemingly disparate subjects. In order to understand this similarity, we need to first understand why the spies were sent and what they did wrong.
The Chiddushei HaRim explains. The nation in the desert lived with explicit miracles. They ate food that dropped from the sky every day. They saw the clouds of glory and the pillar of fire. Coming into Israel they would be living within nature. The challenge would be to maintain their high level of faith. The challenge would be to realize that just as God provided for them in the desert in an explicit way, He is within nature as well, albeit, implicitly. Success in this challenge would be to reach a level of understanding that nature is a bigger wonder than the miracles of the desert. As part of the transition to living within the bounds of nature, the spies were sent to scout the land. Their ultimate mission was to maintain the level of faith they had in the desert where they experienced open miracles on a daily basis. Their ultimate mission involved seeing the land and its inhabitants and realizing that even though the inhabitants were strong and live in fortified cities, and according to the laws of nature they were unable to enter the land, God is within everything. God would help them if they would only subordinate themselves to His will. In this, ten of the twelve spies failed. They did not maintain their high level of faith. They were fooled by what they saw. They realized that they did not have the physical strength to enter the land and overcome its inhabitants. And because of this, they in fact, did not enter the land.
According to the Sfas Emes, this is exactly the meaning of the admonition at the end of the parsha to not follow our eyes and heart. Our eyes and heart (i.e. our desires) see the external physical world. The Torah is admonishing us to recognize instead the Godliness that underlies the external physical world. This explains the next pasuk, “לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתָי .../So that you will remember and you will do all of my commandments …” (Bamidbar 15:40) The beginning of this pasuk seems awkward. The pasuk tells us to remember but does not tell us what we should remember. If the pasuk were telling us to remember the mitzvos in order to do them it would state, “So that you will remember my commandments …” The pasuk seems to be stating two separate things. Remember and then do the mitzvos. Remember what? The Sfas Emes explains that the word for “remember” in Hebrew means more than simply recalling. It is much deeper. It means to internalize something until it becomes a part of the person. At that point there is no possibility of forgetting. The beginning of this pasuk is really a continuation of the previous pasuk. The Torah is telling us, “Do not follow your physical eyes and desires so that you may internalize the underlying Godliness of everything physical. Through this internalization you will be able to do all My mitzvos – even the ones that according to your nature perspective you do not think you can do.”
The Sfas Emes teaches that this approach applies to any mitzvah and service to God. Viewing challenges solely according to the laws of nature, many times leads us to believe that we cannot succeed. According to the laws of nature, for example, Avraham Avinu was unable to have children. Avraham Avinu had children because he believed God’s promise to him, “וְהֶאֱמִין בַּה' .../and he had faith in God …” (Breishis 15:6)
When we imagine that we cannot succeed either because of previous sins or because of a general feeling of unworthiness, we have succumbed to the advice of the evil inclination. This way of viewing things considers only external physical circumstance rather than the underlying spiritual reality. Believing that we can accomplish and succeed at any mitzvah with God’s help will lead us inexorably to success in Avodas HaShem.