Sunday, October 16, 2016
“... תָּמִיד עֵינֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ מֵרֵשִית הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה/… God your Lord’s eyes are always upon it, from the beginning of the year until the year’s end.” (Devarim 11:12) Although the plain meaning of this pasuk refers to God’s constant Providence over the land of Israel, Chazal understand from this pasuk that at the beginning of the year, God blesses all our activities for the entire coming year.
While we are assured of God’s blessing for the entire year, whether we actually receive the blessing depends a great deal on our state of nearness to Him. At the beginning of the year, having been through the process of repentance that begins on Rosh Chodesh Elul and culminates forty days later on Yom Kippur, we are in a purified state. The Torah tells us clearly, “כִּי־בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם .../For on this day He will atone for you to purify you …” (VaYikra 16:30) Everyone of us should believe that by the end of Yom Kippur we are purified.
In a purified state we are able to receive God’s blessing. However, with the higher spiritual level comes a higher level of kitrug as well. How can we thwart the kitrug and retain this purified state through the coming year so that we can receive God’s blessing for the entire year?
The Sfas Emes teaches us that God gave us the holiday of Succos after Yom Kippur specifically to help us receive God’s blessing for the entire year. A primary theme of Succos is the togetherness of the nation of Israel. Chazal tell us that although each of us needs his own lulav on the first day of Succos, Chazal learn from a pasuk that the entire nation can fulfill the mitzvah of succah in a single succah. Owning the succah is not a prerequisite for fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling in it.
Furthermore, the Torah calls the holiday, חַג הָאָסִיף/the holiday of gathering. The plain meaning of this name refers to gathering the grain left in the field to dry during the summer. However, it is also an allusion to the gathering of the nation together.
The Sfas Emes teaches that the way to receive God’s blessing for the entire year is to identify strongly with and be subsumed within the nation of Israel. Chazal say this clearly regarding the mitzvah of the four species. Each one of the four species represents a different type of Jew. The aravah/willow branch which has neither taste nor smell represents those who have neither Torah nor good deeds. Just as the aravah is no less an integral part of the mitzvah as the other species, so too, are Jews represented by the aravah protected as part of the nation when they connect with the nation.
The Torah calls the willow branch עַרְבֵי נָחַל/willows of the brook. Halachically, it makes no difference where the willow grows. Nevertheless, the Torah associates the willow with a stream. In the Zohar we find that a stream represents the spiritual mechanism by which abundance is brought into this world. The Torah mentions the stream specifically regarding the willow branch to show that even the Jew who does not have Torah nor good deeds can merit the stream of abundance because of his inclusion within the nation.
This is a powerful lesson to take into the holiday. The days of the holiday, days during which we gather together unencumbered by our usual activities, are particularly conducive to identifying with and feeling a part of the nation. This feeling of identification and inclusiveness has the additional advantage of propagating peace and harmony amongst our people. As part of the nation we can merit God’s blessing for the entire year. And the entire nation can merit receiving blessing as Chazal teach us that peace is the vessel that can hold blessing.
Friday, September 30, 2016
Do We Have a Natural Inclination To Do Good? What about Free Will?
At the end of this week’s parsha Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation, “הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ .../Today, I bring the heavens and earth as witnesses (that I have warned) you …” (Devarim 30:19) What is the significance of the heavens and earth that God chose to bring them to testify? Rashi explains that God is referring to the heavens and earth in order to admonish us and encourage us to fulfill His will. The heavens and the earth always fulfill God’s will. The sun always rises in the morning. Wheat seeds always produce wheat, never barley. They fulfill the will of God even though they receive no reward for doing so and are not punished if they transgress. We, who receive reward upon fulfilling the will of God and are punished when we transgress, should certainly be moved to fulfill God’s will.
How, the Sfas Emes asks, can the nation be compared to the heavens and the earth, though? The heavens and the earth always fulfill the will of God because they have no free will. They have no choice, make no decision. We have free will. Confronted with a situation, we need to decide what we are going to do.
The Sfas Emes explains that Moshe Rabbeinu is teaching us a fundamental lesson in serving God. We learn from the heavens and the earth that fulfilling God’s will is built into the Creation. It is a part nature. We too, if not for the overpowering influence of our evil inclination, would be drawn to fulfill God’s will just like every other creation. To the extent that we do not allow our evil inclination to overpower us, we are automatically inner-directed towards good.
With this concept we can understand a pasuk in Tehillim (62:13), “וּלְךָ־ה' חָסֶד כִּי־אַתָּה תְשַׁלֵּם לְאִישׁ כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ/And you God have kindness for you repay a man according to his action.” The Gemara notes the difficulty in the pasuk. Repaying a man according to his action does not seem to be an aspect of kindness. Does a person not deserve to be repaid according to his action?
However, the question is based on the premise that our decisions are not influenced in any way neither for good nor for bad. If there is nothing influencing us, then repaying a person according to his deeds is indeed justice, not kindness. However, if the desire to do good is built into nature, and our job is to refrain from being drawn after the evil inclination, the question becomes moot. God repays man according to his action even though the yearning to accomplish His will comes from Him. This truly is kindness.
This concept answers a question regarding fulfilling mitzvos of the heart. One of the Torah’s cardinal mitzvos is the requirement to love God – Ahavas HaShem. Since this is a mitzvah of the heart – it requires no action – how does one fulfill this mitzvah if he does not feel love towards God? The Rambam teaches that we can reach Ahavas HaShem/Love for God through contemplating the wonders of the Creation.
The Sfas Emes answers that Ahavas HaShem/Love for God, is naturally built into our hearts. If we do not feel it, it is because the evil inclination is drawing us after illicit passions which hide the natural passion for God that is within us. By being careful not to be drawn after illicit desires, our entire being, heart and soul, naturally gravitates towards God. May we merit it!
Rashi ad loc.
 See Ramban on Devarim 30:6 says exactly this, “… but after the Mashiach comes choosing good will be part of nature
Moreh Nevuchim 3:28; Yad HaChazakah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:1-2