Friday, January 16, 2015

VaEira 5631 Third Ma'amar

In the beginning of this week’s parsha God commands Moshe Rabbeinu to tell the nation, “אֲנִי ה' וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם ... וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם /… I am God and I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt … and I will redeem you …” (Shmos 6:6) Why does the Torah need to tell us the sequence of events leading to the redemption? Obviously, when we are redeemed we are no longer subject to the burdens of Egypt. The Chiddushei HaRim explains that although the plain meaning of the pasuk refers to physical servitude, the deeper meaning refers to bearing the burden of the impurity, the evil and the decadence of Egypt. The Torah is not simply listing the sequence of events leading up to the redemption. The Torah is teaching us that the first event is a prerequisite for the next. When can the redemption begin? Only after decadence of Egypt becomes a burden to us – and we can not bear it any longer.

This also explains the deeper meaning of Moshe Rabbeinu’s response to God’s command to speak to Pharaoh. Moshe Rabbeinu said, “... הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה .../… Here, the children of Israel did not listen to me so how will Pharaoh listen to me? …” (Shmos 6:12) What is the logic here? The Torah states that the children of Israel did not listen to Moshe because of their anguished spirit and hard labor. This certainly did not apply to Pharaoh. What is the meaning of Moshe Rabbeinu’s response, then?

The Sfas Emes explains that Moshe Rabbeinu understood that before redemption the nation would need to become fed up with the decadence of Egypt. Since they did not listen to him, this obviously had not happened. They had not as yet fulfilled the first prerequisite of the redemption. Since they were not yet ready for redemption, Pharaoh certainly would not listen.

In truth, though, the decadence of Egypt had become unbearable for the nation and we were ready for redemption. Moshe Rabbeinu, however, was on a higher level than the nation. He was more removed from the impurity of Egypt than we were. For this reason Moshe Rabbeinu says clearly, “The children of Israel did not listen to me …” The emphasis here is on the word, “me.” Since they had not reached his level of disgust with Egypt, Moshe thought that we were not yet ready for redemption.

After enumerating the sequence of events leading to the ultimate redemption God tells Moshe Rabbeinu, “... וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם/… You will know that I am God your Lord who is bringing you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” (Shmos 6:7) Why does God mention specifically the first prerequisite of redemption? Why does He not say, “I am God … who has redeemed you from Egypt.”? The Sfas Emes explains that after the redemption is completed it is imperative for us to acknowledge that were it not for God’s help we would not have been able to fulfill even the first prerequisite of redemption. God told Moshe that He took us out from under the burdens of Egypt. Clearly, without God’s help we would still be under those burdens; we would still not be disgusted by the impurity of Egypt.

The Sfas Emes advises us, therefore, that in order to reach a personal redemption we need to work on ourselves to truly hate evil. Chazal1, in fact, teach us, “A person should always rile up his good inclination against his evil inclination.” This, the Sfas Emes teaches, is the beginning of redemption. May we merit it!

1Brachos 5a

Friday, January 09, 2015

Shemos 5631 Second Ma'amar

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ עַל-מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע אֶת-יוֹסֵף/A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Yosef.” (Shmos 1:8) Explaining this pasuk the Midrash1 says that after Yosef died the nation of Israel stopped circumcising their children. They said, “Let us be like the Egyptians.” As a result God caused the love the Egyptians had for us to turn into hatred. As a result, “a new king arose who did not know Yosef.”

Generally, Chazal give novel interpretations to pesukim when the simple meaning is difficult. What compelled the Midrash to explain this pasuk? What bothered Chazal in this pasuk? The key word in the pasuk is “new.” The Chidushei HaRim explains that novelty is an attribute of spirituality. When we contemplate the material world around us it is easy to conclude that nothing new happens. Nature follows predictable laws. Today is the same as yesterday which was the same as the day before. The Chidushei HaRim explains that while this may be the case for the material world it is not true of the spiritual. Shlomo HaMelech teaches this in the pasuk, “... וְאֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ/… and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Koheles 1:9) The implication is that above the sun – beyond nature – there is novelty and renewal. Originality, creativity and novelty are spiritual endeavors. The physical is merely a manifestation of that which already exists in the spiritual.

Because novelty is a spiritual attribute, it is particularly associated with the nation of Israel. But the pasuk associates novelty with Egypt. This begs an explanation and is the issue that the Midrash addresses.

The key to change and creativity is the realization that everything physical contains within it spirituality. When we disregard external physical appearances and relate to the underlying spirituality in our actions, the power of creativity is ours. In Egypt we disregarded the spiritual and allowed ourselves to be affected by the physical environment of decadent Egypt. As the Midrash notes, we wanted to be like the Egyptians. So, novelty was taken from us and given to the Egyptians instead.

What, though, is the significance of breaching the covenant of circumcision? After all, in Egypt we fell to very low levels. Why does the Midrash single out circumcision as the reason for losing our connection with God, with novelty?

The Sfas Emes explains. The Torah calls Yosef the keeper of the covenant referring to the covenant of the circumcision. The plain meaning is that he resisted the temptations of Potiphar’s wife. However, on a deeper level, circumcision represents unveiling the spiritual that is concealed by the physical.   Yosef is called a keeper of the covenant of circumcision because he believed that although the material world around him was decadent, spirituality was concealed within it. Yosef’s belief was total. He did not notice the physical decadence. He saw only the spiritual.

In our daily lives, we many times see barriers and obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals. We can overcome them by cultivating the belief that the physical is a mask that hides the spiritual. On a spiritual level, there are no barriers. They are illusory. Everything starts with belief that the spiritual light exists but we don’t see it because it is behind a screen. We find a hint to this in the brachah following Sh’ma at night. The bracha starts, “אֱמֶת וֶאֱמוּנָה/Truth and faith.” At night, a time of darkness when we do not see light, Chazal advise us to believe that it is there anyway.

We see this again when Moshe Rabbeinu says in response to God’s request to return to Egypt to begin the process of the redemption, “... וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ לִי .../… and they will not believe me …” (Shmos 4:1) Faith is a prerequisite for redemption. In order to merit redemption – seeing God – we must have faith during the preceding darkness of concealment.

Responding to Moshe Rabbeinu’s concern, God gives him a sign which gives expression to this concept. God tells Moshe to throw his staff to the ground. When he does this it turns into a snake. When he grabs it, it turns back to a staff. In reality it was a staff. The snake was an illusion. The way to see the reality behind the illusion is by believing it is there, grabbing on to it, connecting with it and, importantly, disregarding external appearances. The staff appeared as a snake. God told him to disregard this and to grab its tail. Upon doing so the snake reverted to a staff. God powers external appearances as well.

God gives existence to the screen that we call reality even when the screen appears to contradict spirituality and holiness. The truth, though, becomes clear to us according to the level of our faith. We can actually experience the spiritual that underlies the physical world by first believing it is there. Once we believe, no physical obstacle can stand between us and our goals. We are connected directly with the source of novelty, creativity and originality.

The Sfas Emes applies this concept to exile and redemption. Exile means that God is concealed. Redemption means that God is revealed in the world. As we’ve said, a strong belief that the physical world is powered by the spiritual is a necessary prerequisite for redemption to occur. During exile this idea is concealed. If it were revealed there would be no possibility of exile.

We find this concept explained in the Zohar.2 The Zohar uses the analogy of sound vs. speech to explain God’s presence vs. His influence in the world.
Undifferentiated sound represents God’s oneness. He is everywhere always. In terms of God’s presence, there is no difference between one place and another. Speech is “processed” sound. It is the method by which we relate to and influence others. Speech, therefore, represents God’s influence and revelation in the Creation. With regard to God’s revelation, there are differences between one place and another. Exile means that God’s influence in the world is not apparent. It is concealed. For this reason the Zohar3 tells us that in Egypt, speech was in exile. God’s influence was not apparent.

Realizing this and believing it means to understand that although we see things differentiated in the physical world, underlying every separate thing is Oneness. The “undifferentiated sound” is ubiquitous. To the person who internalizes this belief totally, there is no fundamental difference between revelation and concealment. This is the deeper meaning of Chazal4 telling us that faith is the one basic principle as the prophet Habakuk (2:4) said, “The righteous person lives by his faith.” May we merit it!

1Shmos R. 1:8
2Zohar 2:3a
3Zohar 2:25b
4Makkos 24a

Friday, January 02, 2015

VaYechi 5631 Second Ma'amar

הקבצו ושמעו בני יעקב ושמעו אל ישראל אביכם/Gather and hear, children of Ya’akov, and listen to your father Yisrael.” (Breishis 49:2) Since the pasuk uses the word אל/to instead of the shorter conjunctive form ל/to, the Midrash1 says that Ya’akov Avinu is comparing himself to God which is also spelled, א-ל. Ya’akov Avinu is telling his children, “Just like God creates worlds, so too, your father creates worlds.” What does this mean and why is Ya’akov telling this to his children?

The physical world exists because of the spiritual life force within it. This spiritual life force emanates from God through a spiritual hierarchy until it reaches the physical world. Ya’akov Avinu was part of this spiritual hierarchy. Ya’akov Avinu was therefore the vehicle through which the spiritual life force that was responsible for the continuing existence of Egypt and the Egyptians descended. This is why the parsha starts with the words “ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים/Ya’akov lived in the land of Egypt …” (Breishis 47:28) instead of the more usual “וישב יעקב .../Ya’akov dwelt.” ויחי/He lived suggests that he also gave life to the land of Egypt. Ya’akov compared himself to God as a creator of worlds in the sense that he gave life to Egypt.

Why, though, did God use Ya’akov as the mechanism for giving life and existence to Egypt? A Zohar2 in parshas VaYeishev gives us a clue. The Zohar says that the redemption from Egypt could only have happened because the brothers treated Yosef like a slave. What is the connection between the redemption and the way that Yosef’s brothers treated him? Since the relationship between the brothers and Yosef was one of masters to a slave – they sold him – and Yosef ruled over the Egyptians, it follows that the brothers were also rulers over the Egyptians. The fact that we were slaves to the Egyptians for a period of time was a temporary anomaly which was corrected with our redemption from Egypt. If the brothers had not sold Yosef, had not treated him as a slave, and we had subsequently gone to Egypt, we would not have been redeemed from Egypt, according to the Zohar. This Zohar is teaching us that for redemption to occur, the seeds of redemption must have been planted before the exile.

This concept explains our Midrash as well. God used Ya’akov as the vehicle for imparting life to Egypt in order to subordinate Egypt to Ya’akov. This was another seed of the redemption which God planted before the exile. It made the redemption possible. Ya'akov wanted to encourage his children on the eve of the exile. He therefore explained to them that the seeds of the redemption were already at hand.

1Breishis R. 98:3
2Zohar 1:184a

Friday, December 26, 2014

VaYigash 5631 First Ma'amar

At the end of parshas Mikeitz, Yosef frames his younger brother Binyamin. He decides that as a punishment he will keep Binyamin as a servant and free the rest of his brothers.1 In the beginning of our parsha, Yehudah tries to convince Yosef to take him instead of Binyamin. To this end he recounts the sequence of events from the brothers’ initial encounter with Yosef to the present.2 The question that immediately presents itself is that Yehudah’s argument adds nothing that is not already known. He simply recounts the events leading up to the current situation. What is the point of this?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Jews are called Yehudim in Hebrew, after Yehudah. The name Yehudah comes from the root word hoda’a which means “thanks” and “admission.” Jews are called Yehudim because we thank God for everything, large and small. We know that everything comes from Him.

Yehudah understood that everything, even the most difficult situation, is from God. Yehudah knew that to be saved he would have to accept God’s providence in the entire sequence of events leading up to the present. By accepting God’s hand in the events, by acknowledging that God was “in” the events and their cause, he was removing the screen that hid God. He was saying, in essence, “I recognize that God is the cause of these events,” thus revealing God. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains in parshas Mikeitz that Yosef himself symbolized the Godliness hidden in the material world.3

The greatest good we can aspire to, is coming close to God himself, experiencing God, as it were. Therefore, revelation itself is redemption. That is why immediately following Yehudah’s argument, the Torah tells us that Yosef was no longer able to contain himself and he revealed himself to his brothers. Once the Godliness was revealed, the brothers were saved.

The Torah is teaching us an important lesson. Any time we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we have the tools with which to extricate ourselves. We need to first understand that God is hidden in even the most difficult circumstances. Even if a person thinks that his own mistakes caused his current situation – the Torah tells us that Yosef’s brothers blamed themselves for their predicament – when he recognizes that God is the life giving force behind his predicament and asks God for help, he will be answered. May we merit it!

1 Breishis 44:2-17
2 Breishis 44:18-33
3 Mikeitz 5631 Second Ma’amar

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Chanuka 5631 Eighth Night

The eighth day of Chanukah is called Zos Chanukah/This is Chanukah, after the Torah reading for this day which contains the words “zos chanukas hamizbei’ach …/this is the dedication of the altar ...” (Bamidbar 7:84)  Aside from the nice play on words what is the significance of the name?

The Sfas Emes explains that Zos Chanukah indicates something very fundamental about Chanukah.  The Chanukah story begins with the persecution of the Jews by the Assyrian Greeks.  The situation was bleak indeed.  The gentile rulers were powerful.  How could we overcome them?  From the depths of this darkness came the salvation.

The word zos/this, is laden with symbolism. In the Zohar[1] we find the word zos alluding to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Heaven.  The Midrash[2] says that the word zos/this in the pasuk, “... בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ/… in this I trust,” (Tehillim 27:1) is an allusion to God – in God I trust.  The early kabbalists[3] teach that zos alludes specifically to that point of spirituality through which God gives existence to the physical. David HaMelech as well, asked God to preserve this recognition of His presence within us, “... שָׁמְרָה־זֹּאת לְעוֹלָם לְיֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבוֹת לְבַב עַמֶּךָ .../… Preserve this forever – the product of the thoughts of Your people’s hearts …” (Divrei HaYamim 1 29:18)

Zos, then, is a reference to the Godliness hidden within us and all of Creation.  Knowing that everything, including God’s obscurity is powered by this point of God-given spirituality, essentially, knowing that God is “in” everything and that everything is therefore “good” is a tremendous tool for strengthening one’s faith particularly in times of exile.  This, in fact, is the fundamental meaning of the pasuk in Eicha (3:21), “זֹאת אָשִׁיב אֶל־לִבִּי עַל־כֵּן אוֹחִיל/This I will bear in mind; therefore I have hope.”  The prophet is teaching us that when we bear in mind zos – that the exile as well is from God and that He is present even in the darkness of it – we have good reason for hope.

This concept is the lesson of Chanukah.  The salvation came when the nation realized that God was with them in the darkness as well.  We find this idea as well in the following pesukim from Tehillim (112:7-8), “מִשְּׁמוּעָה רָעָה לֹא יִירָא נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה': סָמוּךְ לִבּוֹ לֹא יִירָא עַד אֲשֶׁר־יִרְאֶה בְצָרָיו/He will have no fear of evil tidings; his heart is firm, confident in God. His heart is steadfast, he shall not fear, he will even [expect to] see [vengeance upon] his tormentors.” When a person trusts in God, he knows that salvation is at hand. The Chiddushei HaRim points out that, significantly, the last letters of the words, “נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה׳ סָמוּךְ/his heart is firm, confident in God, steadfast” spell out חֲנוּכָּה/Chanukah.

The chapter in Tehillim that we say on Chanukah bears out this idea. “הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה/You have transformed my lament into dancing for me; You undid my sackcloth and girded me with happiness.” (Tehillim 30:12)  The word for transformed – הָפַכְתָּ – also means to overturn or to turn inside out. The difference between lament and dancing is whether God is hidden or revealed. Dancing is lament turned inside out, as it were. The important point is that God is present in both. The Midrash[4] on the curses in parshas BeChukosai makes this point when it says that the difference between the blessings and the curses is that the blessings are in the order of the Hebrew alphabet whereas the curses are backwards.

The second half of the pasuk continues this idea. It is important to understand that the sackcloth, a clear reference to exile and God’s concealment is only a cover. When the sackcloth is undone, when the concealment is removed, God is revealed in the form of salvation and closeness to Him. Then we are girded with happiness. This is the meaning of Chanukah, the days of miracles, when the nation of Israel was at a very low point and God helped us. It is encouraging to know that according to the extent of concealment so is the extent of the good since everything is from God and everything is for good. And according to our recognition of this fact and our trust in God so the underlying good will be revealed and we will merit salvation.

[1] Zohar 1:93b-94a
[2] VaYikra R. 21:4
[3] Sha’arei Ora 1:14a-b
[4] VaYikra R. 35:1