Wednesday, December 27, 2006

VaYigash 5631 Second Ma'amar

“ויאמר יוסף אל אחיו אני יוסף העוד אבי חי ולא יכלו אחיו לענות אתו כי נבהלו מפניו/Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’ His brothers could not answer him because they were shocked before him.” The Midrash says that in this pasuk Yosef rebuked his brothers and they were not able to answer because of the shame they felt. The Midrash compares this with God’s rebuke on the ultimate day of judgment, “אוי לנו מיום הדין אוי לנו מיום התוכחה/Woe is to us on the day of judgment; woe is to us on the day of rebuke.” If the brothers could not withstand Yosef’s admonishment, how will we be able to withstand the ultimate admonishment before the redemption. Is the Midrash’s comparison simply one of degrees of rebuke or is there a fundamental connection between Yosef’s chiding his brothers and God’s chastisement on the final day of judgment?

The Sfas Emes explains that the rebukes are fundamentally the same. To understand why, we need to understand why the brothers were ashamed. The Sfas Emes explains that the brothers were mistaken about Yosef himself. The Zohar tells us that Yosef was שומר הברית/keeper of the covenant. Conventionally, this refers to his overcoming the temptations presented to him by the wife of Potiphar. The covenant that he kept was the covenant of the circumcision.

In this world holiness is hidden by gross physicality. The removal of the foreskin represents an unveiling of the holiness that lies within the physical world. (See VaYeira 5632 First Ma’amar for a detailed discussion of this concept.) Yosef, as the keeper of the covenant, represents the holiness that is within the physical world. The brothers, because this was hidden, did not realize it. Once Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, when they were confronted with their mistake, they stood in shame.

At the ultimate redemption as well, it will be made clear for all to see that the physical world in which we live is replete with holiness. God gave us the physical world and our circumstances to use to accomplish God’s will thereby rectifying ourselves and our environment. Before the final redemption, when this fact becomes clear to us we will look back at our lives and wonder how we could have used the physical world for purposes that were at odds with God’s will. Realizing our mistake, we will stand in shame before God. This is why the Midrash compares Yosef’s rebuke and the rebuke on the final day of judgment. They are fundamentally the same.

We can prevent the rebuke and our resulting shame by internalizing the understanding that everything around us and everything that happens to us are tools that God gave us in order to use to accomplish His will and come close to Him. On the day of judgment we will be able to stand before God, not in shame, but proudly having used these tools for their fundamental and ultimate purposes. Amen.

Monday, December 25, 2006

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. 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.

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?

To answer this question it will help to first understand the fundamental difference between Yosef and Yehudah in their approach to serving God. In the second ma’amar of parshas VaYeishev 5631 the Sfas Emes explains, in the name of his grandfather the Chidushei HaRim that Yosef and Yehudah are archetypes of different kinds of tzadikim. Yosef was completely dedicated to God. In this sense, he was removed from the mundane. Yosef saw the Godliness that gives life to everything physical. In fact, the Sfas Emes tells us that Yosef actually represents this hidden Godliness. The Torah calls him the most consecrated of his brothers (Breishis 49:26). Yehudah, on the other hand, revealed the holiness in the mundane. The Torah tells us, regarding Yehudah, “May God hear Yehudah’s voice and bring him to his people.” (Devarim 33:7) The Chidushei HaRim understands this as an allusion to Yehudah bringing God to His people.

There are tzadikim who do not have many followers. They are very holy and removed from the world around them. This is Yosef’s approach. On the other hand, there are tzadikim who have many followers. Their work is in influencing as many people as possible. They bring holiness into the mundane. This is Yehudah’s approach.

What did Yehudah gain by simply rehashing the recent events? The Chidushei 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 approach the level of Yosef. On this level he was able to approach Yosef, who represented the actual Godliness hidden in this world. The way he raised himself to Yosef’s level was by repeating the sequence of events leading to the present difficult situation, admitting and accepting, at each step, that it was all from God. The hidden Godliness within the events was thus revealed. The greatest good we can aspire to, is coming close to God himself. 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 save 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.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mikeitz 5631 End of Second Ma'amar

It is possible that Pharaoh’s dreams were also meant to prepare Yosef for the coming exile. In fact, the Midrash tells us that in the merit of Yosef, we were stringent regarding illicit relations, no mean feat in decadent Egypt. The Midrash says that this is one of the qualities we exhibited to be worthy of redemption.

Yosef represented the ability to find enlightenment even from within the spiritual concealment which typified ancient Egypt. Yosef is referred to as שומר הברית/shomer habris/keeper of the covenant. Conventionally this is a reference to his overcoming the temptation presented to him by his master Potiphar’s wife. However, when we think about the fundamental definition of a covenant we come to realize that this concept has broader applications. A covenant defines a relationship. It is the point at which two people or entities connect. In the case of the relationship between God and the Creation the point of connection is the spiritual essence that God sent into the physical Creation to give it life and existence. This spiritual essence is the sign that there is a relationship between the Creation and God. Accordingly, Yosef was a שומר הברית/shomer habris/keeper of the covenant in the sense that he connected to God by concentration on the spiritual essence of everything he did. He did this by subjugating his own desires before God’s in everything he did. This quality of Yosef was necessary to ameliorate the effects of the exile in Egypt. Indeed, the Midrash says that the exile of Egypt began only when we stopped keeping the covenant. When we stopped keeping the covenant, a new king arose in Egypt who decreed new decrees. The plain meaning of the Midrash refers to the covenant of circumcision. According to the Sfas Emes, though, the deeper meaning of the Midrash hints to the covenant defining our relationship with God.

This aspect of Yosef is a useful tool to help us find spiritual enlightenment not only in exile but also in any situation which is not ideally conducive to this. For example, it can be applied to lighting up our weekdays in spite of our daily distractions. How do we do this? Most of our actions during the week are spiritually neutral. In conventional terms we would not consider them to be mitzvos. We eat. We go to work. We relate to our spouses and family. However, depending upon our intent in the course of our daily activities, we have the ability to transform everything that we do into a mitzvah. Our intent enables us to find the spiritual essence hiding within every physical activity. The Sfas Emes explains that by subordinating our own desires and thinking instead about raising ourselves spiritually and coming close to God, we can all find the spiritual essence within everything we do.

The Sfas Emes explains this spiritual essence, its concealment and revelation, in terms of the days of the week and Shabbos. The concept of Shabbos is a revelation of the spiritual that is within the physical. By contemplating our actions beforehand we can find this concept during the week as well. The difference between Shabbos and the weekdays is that during the week finding this spirituality requires work whereas on Shabbos it is much easier if we are open to it.

We see this concept in a pasuk in Yechezkel referring to the third Beis HaMikdash, “שער החצר הפנימית הפונה קדים יהיה סגור ששת ימי המעשה וביום השבת יפתח וביום החדש יפתח/Sha’ar hechatzeir hapenimis haponeh kadim yehiyeh sagur sheishes yemei hama’aseh uvayom haShabbos yepasei’ach uveyom hachodesh yepasei’ach/The inner courtyard gate that faces east will be closed during the six workdays but on Shabbos it will be opened and on Rosh Chodesh it will be opened.” The gates of the temple opening and closing connote spiritual gates opening and closing. On Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh there is a spiritual revelation that we don’t find naturally during the week. According to the Sfas Emes, this pasuk is not only referring to the day of Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh. It is referring to the concept of spiritual revelation exemplified by Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh. In this sense, we can experience an aspect of Shabbos during the week as well.

We’ve seen that experiencing the concept of Shabbos entails contemplating coming close to God through our daily activities. What is the concept of Rosh Chodesh? Rosh Chodesh represents renewal. The Sfas Emes explains that Rosh Chodesh represents faith that in nature there is a continuous renewal of the continuing existence of the Creation.

Living our lives within the natural world, it is easy to become lulled into thinking that there is no renewal at all. Our observation of nature leads us to this conclusion. Today is the same as yesterday and yesterday was the same as the day before. Shlomo HaMelech wrote in Koheles, “אין כל חדש תחת השמש/Ein kol chadash tachas hashemesh/There is nothing new under the sun.” “Under the sun” is a metaphor for the natural world. Shlomo HaMelech is making our point. He is teaching us that within the natural world there is no indication of renewal. The inference is that “above the sun” – outside of nature – there is renewal. The Sfas Emes explains this as an allusion to the aspect of Shabbos that represents subordination to God’s will and the aspect of Rosh Chodesh that represents faith in continuous renewal. These are certainly qualities that transcend the natural world around us.

The idea of “שומר הברית/shomer habris/keeper of the covenant” includes both these concepts. When we desire to do God's will in our everyday activities and cultivate an understanding that because of the continuous renewal of the Creation, each moment is an opportunity to renew ourselves, we are emulating Yosef. This is a powerful tool. Applying it can transform our lives.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mikeitz 5631 First Ma'amar & beginning of Second Ma'amar

Pharaoh dreamt that seven fat cows came out of the Nile followed by seven emaciated ones. The emaciated cows devoured the fat cows. Even so, the lean cows looked the same as before. He then dreamt that seven fat ears of grain were devoured by seven withered ears. The withered ones looked the same as before.

According to Yosef’s interpretation, Pharaoh’s dreams referred to seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of famine. Yosef suggested that Egypt prepare during the seven years of plenty so that they would be able to survive the subsequent famine.

Every physical thing has a spiritual counterpart which causes it to continue to exist. Even evil owes its continued existence to the Godly life force that is hidden within it. Pharaoh’s dreams are an allusion to this idea.

Describing the lean cows devouring the fat ones Pharaoh tells Yosef, “…they entered them, but one could not tell that they were inside.” When we look at the physical world around us, it seems that the world is autonomous. It looks like it exists on its own. Evil certainly seems to have autonomous power. The S’fas Emes teaches us that this is not the case. Even evil (along with everything else) gets its power to exist from the Godly life force within it.

The children of Israel were about to be exiled. They were going to be under Pharaoh’s rule. Pharaoh viewed himself as a god. The point of the dream was to show Pharaoh, at the outset of the exile in Egypt, that even though the children of Israel were to be under his rule, he had no power against God.

Continuing the line of thought that the good is an allusion to the Godly life force and evil owes its existence to that life force which hides within it, we can learn an important lesson. During the period that the Godly life force is revealed (e.g. seven years of plenty/seven fat cows) we should prepare ourselves for the days when the holiness is hidden. King Solomon teaches us in Koheles (7:14), “On a day of good, be in the good and on a day of evil, see.” This means that we should take full advantage at a time when God reveals Himself to establish the light within us so that it is there during the periods that God hides Himself. If we do this, then we will know how to act during the periods when the holiness is hidden.

Essentially, God hides himself to test us. Before every test, there is a Godly enlightenment. Knowing how to act during the test is a direct result of being aware of this enlightenment and assimilating it. This is the ultimate lesson of Pharaoh’s dreams.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Chanukah 5631 Third Night

In Maseches Shabbos we find two opposing views regarding which side of the doorway to light the Chanukah candles. The Sfas Emes explains this debate. He notes the pasuk in Mishlei, “אורך ימים בימינה בשמאלה עושר וכבוד/Orech yamim bimina bismolah osher vechavod/Length of days is in its right hand; in its left hand are riches and honor.” Right and left are common analogies for the principle aspect of something vs. a related aspect of secondary importance. Consequently, Chazal teach us that the first part of this pasuk refers to the next world while the second part of the pasuk refers to this world. This world is a tool for us to reach the next world. This world is subordinate to the next world.

“Left” also suggests pushing away. Chazal teach us regarding child rearing among other things that one should push away with the left hand and bring close with the right. In this world we push away the physical in favor of the spiritual.

Since the right indicates the main thing, we place the mezuzah on the right side of the doorway. This also explains the view that we light Chanukah candles on the right side of the doorway. However, the halachah follows the other view of lighting on the left side of the entrance. Why? In order to understand this we must understand the main point of the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles. The principle spiritual effect of this mitzvah is to displace spiritual darkness with spiritual enlightenment. This was the effect of the original miracle and continues to be the effect of the mitzvah each year. The left side represents spiritual darkness. This is why we light specifically on the left side. It is there that the spiritual power of this mitzvah is needed and is effective. It is specifically in the spiritual darkness represented by the left side that there is room for us to rectify the world and ourselves.

Rashi explains the pasuk, “ימינך ה' נאדרי בכח ימינך ה' תרעץ אויב/Yemincha HaShem nedari bako’ach yemincha HaShem tir’atz oyeiv/Your right hand, God, is most powerful; Your right hand, God, crushes the foe.” He answers the question why the pasuk repeats the words, “your right hand.” Rashi says that when revenge is taken against the wicked even the “left” becomes the “right.” The significance of the “left” becoming the “right” is spiritual light vs. spiritual darkness. Adding to God’s honor and glory is symbolized by the “right.” Lighting Chanukah candles on the left side of the doorway represents bringing spiritual light to the left side thereby turning it into the “right side.”

There is an obvious connection between the first half of the pasuk in Mishlei and the mitzvah of mezuzah. The mezuzah is attached to the right doorpost and the pasuk in Mishlei states, “… אורך ימים בימינה/Orech yamim bimina …/Length of days is in its right hand …” Regarding the mitzvah of mezuzah the Torah states, “... למען ירבו ימיכם .../… lema’an yirbu yemeichem …/… in order to lengthen your days …” However, why is the left side associated with riches and honor?

In order to answer this question we first need to understand what wealth means. The mishnah in Maseches Avos teaches that a wealthy person is one who is happy with his lot. The Maharal explains that the mishnah is giving us a definition of a wealthy person. A definition must relate only to the person and not to any external cause. Something external to the person cannot define him. This is why the mishnah does not say that a wealthy person is someone with lots of money. Having lots of money, in and of itself, does not automatically define a person as rich. He could have been born into a family with lots of money. He could have won a lottery ticket. In either case, the fact that he has a lot of money does not define him. Only that which comes from within us - our outlook and actions - can define us. The mishnah teaches us that this outlook is our attitude towards our assets.

This is why the Mishnah brings as a proof the pasuk, “יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך/Yegi’a kapecha ki sochal ashrecha vetov lach/If you eat the toil of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you.” A person can be defined as wealthy if he eats the labor of his own hands. A person who was born into wealth is not necessarily a wealthy person. This is God given money. God gives each of us exactly what we need. Wealth is that which we do for ourselves above our needs.

The Sfas Emes explains that this definition of wealth refers not only to money. It applies to every aspect of what we do in our lives. Every action that replaces spiritual darkness with spiritual light, every action that turns the “left” into the “right”, every action whose result is a rectification, adds to our “wealth and honor.” This is why the end of the pasuk in Mishlei associates the left with riches and honor. The "left" is where we can grow and rectify ourselves and the world. The left represents the darkness to which we can add light. Riches and honor are the result of our actions, not what God gives us unconditionally.

May we all merit, through our actions, especially the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights to supplant darkness with light, to turn the “left” into the “right.”

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chanukah 5631 Second Night

When the Beis HaMikdash was standing, God’s presence was easily experienced. At that time it was obvious to all that God was the continuing source of all life. It was obvious that our souls are directly connected to the Source. After the destruction, this was hidden. Nevertheless, we can find this spark of holiness within us. The way we can find it is dependent upon how we perform the mitzvos.

There is a hint to this in an apparently unrelated Gemara in Maseches Pesachim. The Gemara brings several pesukim regarding searching with candles. A pasuk in Tzefania states, “... אחפש את ירושלם בנרות .../… achapeis es Yerushalayim baneiros …/… I will search Yerushalayim with candles …” From this pasuk we see that candles are used to search. The Gemara then brings the following pasuk from Mishlei, “נר ה' נשמת אדם חפש כל חדרי בטן/Neir HaShem nishmas adam chofeis kol chadrei vaten/Man’s soul is the lamp of God which searches all one’s inner chambers.”

Metaphorically, Yerushalayim refers to God’s presence. As we explained in the ma’amar of the first night of Chanukah, נרות/neiros/candles represent the mitzvos. The pasuk in Tzefania is teaching us that we can use the mitzvos to search for God’s presence. From the pasuk in Mishlei we learn that we can find God’s presence within us. In fact Rav Elazar states in Maseches Ta'anis that a person should always consider that holiness is within him.[1] This is the deeper meaning of the pasuk, “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם/Ve’Asu li mikdash veshachanti besocham/Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.” God declares that if we make ourselves into a sanctuary for Him – by doing the mitzvos – He will dwell within us. This pasuk is not teaching us that God is in us. Obviously, He is everywhere. The pasuk is teaching us that we can experience God’s presence.

The Sfas Emes teaches that the way to use the mitzvos to discover God’s presence within us is to do the mitzvos with our entire being. He points out that נר/neir/candle stands for נפש/nefesh/soul and רוח/ru’ach/spirit. Also, the Zohar says that the gematria of נר/neir/candle is 250. This equals our 248 limbs with which we perform the mitzvos with love and awe. (i.e. 248 limbs + love + awe = 250) When we concentrate on doing a mitzvah with our entire being the holy life force within us is awakened and we experience it.

Chanukah is particularly suited for discovering and experiencing the holiness latent within us. The very fact that at the time of the miracle of Chanukah the priests were not able to light the menorah symbolizes spiritual darkness. The miracle of the oil was God’s help to bring us spiritual light once more. Just like the mitzvos in general, the Chanukah lights in particular are a powerful tool for experiencing God’s presence.

Expounding on this theme, the Kedushas Levi explains that the word חנוכה/Chanukah can be broken into two words, חנו/chanu/they rested, and כה/ko/thus. Rest represents a level of enlightenment reached after a struggle the way Shabbos rest/enlightenment follows the struggle of the days of the week. כה/Ko/Thus is the word with which all the prophets begin there prophecies as in “כה אמר ה'/Ko amar HaShem/Thus says God.” Moshe Rabeinu as well sometimes began prophecies this way. However, he began some prophecies with, “זה הדבר/Zeh hadavar/This is the thing.” Chazal tell us that these two ways of beginning a prophecy indicate a fundamental difference in the way the prophet received the message. Moshe Rabeinu’s prophecy was clear whereas there was a certain lack of clarity in the messages received by the other prophets. The Kedushas Levi explains that the word חנוכה/Chanukah indicates that on Chanukah there was an enlightenment/rest even for the aspect of God’s concealment, of spiritual darkness, as it were, represented by כה/ko/thus.

Chanukah is an opportunity for us to discover this enlightenment. By contemplating these concepts before lighting the Chanukah candles we can take advantage of this special mitzvah for what it was truly intended, to awaken the spiritual life force within us as the pasuk says, “חופש כל חדרי בטן/... chofeis kol chadrei vaten/… search all of one’s inner chambers.”

[1] Tosfos on that Gemara says that this refers to God being within him.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

VaYeishev 5631 First Ma'amar

This week's parsha relates the story of how Yosef was kidnapped and separated from his father Ya'akov for 22 years.[1] The Midrash says that after his struggles with Lavan, Eisav, and Shechem, Ya'akov Avinu wanted to live a life of peace and calm. This was not to be. Specifically because this was his desire, the distress of Yosef was brought upon him.[2] We usually interpret this Midrash as referring to the physical struggles that Ya'akov endured during the course of his life. However, the Sfas Emes explains that this Midrash is actually referring to Ya'akov Avinu's spiritual struggles culminating in his final spiritual struggle represented by Yosef.

The difficulty for Ya'akov in his journey to and travails with Lavan, Esav, and Shechem was that these troubles took him away from a life of holiness in a place which was conducive for connecting with God, sheltered from the ugliness of the outside world. Metaphorically, Ya'akov's departure from the house of his father Yitzchak, all that happened to him during his exile, and his subsequent return, parallel the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week. Shabbos is not only a time conducive to connecting to God because we are not distracted by our weekday activities. It is spiritually a higher level day on which the entire world is truly closer to God than during the days of the week. As such, Shabbos is also a concept representing a certain level of closeness to God.

Before Ya'akov went to Lavan, he was on a level of Shabbos in his relationship with God. Just as Shabbos is separate from the days of the week so to Ya’akov was completely separate from anything worldly. His efforts with Lavan, Esav, and Shechem represented a descent into the physical world, a descent from a level of complete separation from the distractions of the world around him, a level of Shabbos, into a level of the days of the week. Ya'akov needed to work hard, paralleling the work of the days of the week, to maintain his connection to God even as he lived in Lavan's house with its accent on the physical world. The beginning of this week's parsha suggests Ya'akov's return to a level of Shabbos, "וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב .../Ya'akov dwelt ..." (Breishis 37:1) The first word of the parsha, וַיֵּשֶׁב/He dwelt, comes from the same root as the word Shabbos.

The difficulties that Ya'akov experienced with Lavan, Esav and Dina were an attempt to separate him from God. Living a life of serenity, of Godliness, even in the physical world is the ultimate desire of the righteous. It means spreading an awareness of God in the physical world, a place were He is normally hidden. It means bringing the level of Shabbos into the physical world. This concept is symbolized by Yosef. This is the deeper meaning of the distress of Yosef mentioned in the Midrash. How so? The word Yosef means to add. The strength of Yosef was the ability to spread an awareness of God in the physical world. If Ya'akov Avinu was on a Shabbos level of attachment to God, then Yosef, the Sfas Emes explains, was tosfos Shabbos/an addition to Shabbos. The Midrash says that this is why Ya'akov Avinu was prepared to meet Esav only after Yosef was born. With Yosef he was able to overcome the this-worldliness that Esav represented.

Shabbos is made for connecting to God. We learn from Ya'akov that we can live a life in which we reveal God during our daily activities as well. We do this by cultivating a desire that the result of our activities be a greater awareness of God. Accepting Shabbos early symbolizes this work because when we accept Shabbos early we are actually bringing the holiness of the Shabbos into what would otherwise be a part of the week. Working to raise our weekday experiences to a Shabbos level, essentially yearning for Shabbos during the week, enables us to accept Shabbos early.
[1] Breishis chapt. 37
[2] Breishis R. 84:3

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Chanukah 5631 First Night

The pasuk in Mishlei states, “... נר מצוה ותורה אור .../… neir mitzvah veSorah or…/… a commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light …” Just as the oil, wick and light need a lamp to hold them, so too, the light of the Torah needs a vessel to contain it. The vessel that holds the light of the Torah in this world is the mitzvos. The Zohar explains that Shlomo HaMelech associated mitzvos with a lamp because we perform the mitzvos with our 248 limbs with love of God and fear of Heaven. Two hundred forty eight limbs + love of God + fear of Heaven = 250 which is the gematria of neir/lamp. The Zohar is teaching us that we can rectify our deeds and limbs in this world by imbuing them with the light of the Torah. We do this by performing the mitzvos. Each mitzvah holds a unique aspect of the spiritual light of the Torah. When we do a specific mitzvah we draw the unique spiritual force associated with it into the physical world.

This concept applies not only to the 613 mitzvos mentioned in the Torah. It also applies to those mitzvos that were instituted by Chazal including, of course, the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah. What is the unique spiritual force triggered by the mitzvah of Chanukah lights? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah contains the spiritual enlightenment of the original miracle of the menorah in the Beis HaMikdash on the first Chanukah. Lighting the Chanukah candles draws the enlightenment of the original miracle once again into the world. In fact, the Tur Shulchan Aruch writes that we light Chanukah candles in order להזכיר/lehazkir/to mention the miracle. Notice that he does not write, “in order לזכור/lizkor/to remember the miracle.” The nuance is not as apparent in English but in Hebrew, these two words are actually two forms of the same verb. להזכיר/lehazkir/to mention is a stronger form of לזכור/lizkor/to remember. It implies an action that is being done to the object of the verb.[1] Since the object of the verb here is the miracle, the Tur is telling us that by lighting the Chanukah candles we are bringing to light the actual original miracle. Lighting the Chanukah candles is not merely a way of remembering the original miracle. By lighting the candles we are triggering the same latent spiritual force that caused the original miracle (i.e. bringing it to life.)

This is why the prayer that we say after lighting the candles starts with the words, “הנרות הללו קודש הם/HaNeiros halalu kodesh heim/These candles are holy.” Generally, the objects that we use to perform mitzvos (e.g. lulav, matzah) are not considered holy. They may be tossed once they are no longer needed. The same principle should apply to the lights of Chanukah. Yet, the prayer states that they are holy. Why? According to the Chiddushei HaRim, though, it is clear. They are holy because they contain the spiritual force of the original miracle.

This explains the language of the brachah that Chazal instituted before lighting the Chanukah lights. We say, “להדליק נר חנוכה/lehadlik neir Chanukah/to kindle the Chanukah lamp.” We don’t say, “להדליק נר בחנוכה /lehadlik neir beChanukah/to kindle a lamp on Chanukah.” The language of the brachah suggests the original Chanukah lamp. Performing the mitzvah activates the spiritual force of the original Chanukah menorah.

This concept helps us understand a puzzling halachah about the Chanukah lights. A person who sees Chanukah lights is required to say the blessing, “שעשה נסים לאבותינו/she’asah nisim la’avoseinu/who made miracles for our forefathers” even if he himself does not light. Generally one is required to say this blessing upon seeing the place where a miracle occurred either to him or his forefathers. Why do Chazal require us to say this particular blessing upon seeing Chanukah lights? According to what we’ve said, though, it is clear. Since the Chanukah lights contain the spiritual force of the original miracle, seeing the Chanukah lights is akin to seeing the actual place of the miracle. This is why Chazal required the blessing usually reserved for seeing the place the miracle occurred.

Each of us has the ability to release the spiritual force of the original miracle of the menorah by lighting Chanukah candles. Our very souls are intimately connected with the mitzvos. A clear awareness of the spiritual effect of our physical action strengthens that spiritual effect. Contemplating this concept while lighting the Chanukah lights is the best way to draw the spiritual force inherent in the mitzvah into the world.

[1] Other examples: לשמוע/lishmo’a/to listen and להשמיע/lehashmi’a/to make others listen; לחתום/lachtom/to sign and להחתים/lehachtim/to sign up others. The first is more passive whereas the second means the person is doing something to the verb’s object.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Vayishlach 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו .../Ya’akov sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esav …” (Breishis 32:4) The word מַלְאָכִים/messengers also means angels. The Midrash tells us that the messengers Ya’akov Avinu sent to Esav were actual angels.[1] Why did Ya’akov send angels to meet Esav?

To answer this question we must understand what angels signify. Chazal teach us that we create an angel each time we do a mitzvah.[2] The angels that Ya’akov sent to Esav represented Ya’akov’s mitzvos. Why did Ya’akov feel compelled to send his “mitzvah angels” to Esav? Angels are the vehicle through which God directs nature.[3] Our mitzvos affect nature. The means by which our mitzvos affect nature is through the angels that our mitzvos create.

Meeting Esav and, for that matter, traveling to Lavan represent Ya’akov entering and interacting with the physical world. Ya’akov himself was on a level above nature. He connected to God without the need for mitzvos and their effects (i.e. the angels). However, when he lowered himself into the physical world he needed the mitzvos and their power to affect the physical world around him and to bring him close to God even from within the natural world. This idea is clear in a pasuk in Tehillim (91:11), “כִּי מַלְאָכָיו יְצַוֶּה-לָּךְ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בְּכָל-דְּרָכֶיךָ/For He will command His angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways.” The angels/mitzvos will protect you as you move through the material world.

We see this concept clearly in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week. On Shabbos the physical world automatically becomes closer to its spiritual roots. In fact, Shabbos as a concept represents this connectedness to the spiritual. This is why Ya’akov who was on a level above nature in his connectedness to God, represents an aspect of Shabbos. We have the ability to reach this spiritual level during the week as well but it requires work. It requires a high level of mitzvah observance. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk “שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ/Six days shall you labor and accomplish all your work” (Shmos 20:9,10) refers specifically to the mitzvos. Significantly the word מַלְאָךְ/angel has the same root as the word מְלָאכָה/work. We spend the days of the week doing מְלָאכָה/work (i.e. mitzvos) to create מַלְאָכִים/angels.

In order to interact with Esav representing the physical world, Ya’akov Avinu had to send his מַלְאָכִים/messengers, his mitzvos, which affect the physical world, to afford him protection. We learn from Ya’akov Avinu that each of us has the ability to immerse and act in the physical world, really to use the physical world, to come close to God. We are intimately connected with the way the world works both spiritually and physically. The Zohar says that our 613 limbs and tendons – 248 limbs and 365 tendons – parallel 613 specific spiritual forces in the world.[4] There are also 613 mitzvos in the Torah – 248 positive mitzvos and 365 negative mitzvos. Each time we do a mitzvah, we rectify that part of the Creation associated with the specific limb and activate that spiritual force that conforms to that mitzvah. We create an “angel.” In this way we remove God’s concealment and come close to Him from within the physical world.

Spiritually, Ya’akov Avinu’s successful return from Lavan and Esav represents an ascent from a level of weekday work to a level of Shabbos. This is why the Midrash in this week’s parsha explains that Ya’akov Avinu entered the land of Israel and came to Shechem on Erev Shabbos.[5] He prepared for Shabbos and kept it before it was given. This is also the reason the pasuk says, “וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם .../Ya’akov came safely to the city of Shechem …” (Breishis 33:18) שָׁלֵם/Safely also means “whole.” His successful return from Esav and Lavan represents a spiritual completeness. It also suggests Shabbos as the Zohar says that Shabbos is שָׁלוֹם/peace[6] which has the same root as שָׁלֵם/complete. As Ya’akov, may we merit connecting to God through the mitzvos even as we live and work within the physical world.

[1] Breishis R. 75:4
[2] Zohar Chadash 57a and 92a; also see Avos 4:13
[3] See Breishis R. 10:6 - There is no blade of grass that does not have a spiritual force telling it to grow.
[4] Zohar 1:134b
[5] Breishis R. 79:6
[6] Zohar 3:176b

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

VaYeitzei 5632 First Ma'amar

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶך חָרָנָה/Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva; he went towards Charan.” (Breishis 28:10) The immediate question that arises, the question the Midrash asks and which Rashi quotes is that the beginning of this pasuk seems extraneous. We know where Ya’akov Avinu lived. Unless there is an indication otherwise, we can assume that his point of departure was Be’er Sheva, his hometown. Why does the Torah make a point of telling us the place from which he left?

Going to Charan was a drastic step for Ya’akov Avinu. He was leaving his father’s house and the Yeshiva of Ever – holy places – for Charan an impure place far from the holiness to which he was accustomed. Such a trip required preparation. The pasuk is making exactly this point. Be’er Sheva is a metaphor. Be’er/Well represents the spiritual and Sheva/Seven represents the physical Creation (e.g. seven days of creation, seven days of the week.) Be’er Sheva, then, represents the spiritual within the physical. It represents that point of spiritual force which gives sustenance and existence to the physical Creation. The pasuk is telling us that Ya’akov Avinu was able to journey to Charan only because he was coming from Be’er Sheva. He was able to journey to the impure city of Charan because his point of departure was a total and complete connection to the spiritual force represented by Be’er Sheva.

The first Midrash on the parsha alludes to this idea. The Midrash cites a pasuk in Mishlei (3:23), “אָז תֵּלֵךְ לָבֶטַח דַּרְכֶּךָ .../Then you shall go securely on your way …” The Midrash says that this pasuk is referring to Ya’akov Avinu’s journey from Be’er Sheva to Charan as it states in the Torah, “וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע .../Yaakov left Be’er Sheva …” What compelled the Midrash to give this interpretation? Furthermore, what proof is the Midrash bringing from the first pasuk in our parsha?

The Sfas Emes explains that the first word of the pasuk אָז/Then is the clue. The gematria of the word אָז is 8. As we’ve noted, seven denotes nature while eight denotes that which is beyond nature. The Midrash understands that this pasuk is referring to Ya’akov because he was on a level beyond nature. It is hinting that the reason Ya’akov Avinu was able to journey securely to Charan was because he first subjugated himself completely to God. Because he was connected completely to that which was beyond nature, he would not be affected by the impurity that would soon surround him. The Midrash knows this because the Torah makes a point of telling us that Ya’akov left from Be’er Sheva. Ya’akov was able to journey securely because his point of departure was that spiritual level represented by Be’er Sheva.

The first pasuk of the parsha is actually imparting good advice. The Torah is teaching us that we can grow spiritually even through the most mundane activities. The key is to prepare before the activity. First realize that there is more to the physical Creation than meets the eye. There is an underlying spiritual force that gives life, existence and meaning to the physical world. Following Ya’akov Avinu’s example, by submitting completely to God, by wanting to connect to the spiritual within the physical, we grow spiritually even from our most mundane activities. The key is to prepare beforehand and remember during the activity.

By the same token, this advice applies to the Exile. The Torah is teaching us that just as Ya’akov prepared himself and was therefore able to grow even in Charan, we, too, can improve ourselves and grow even while outside of the land of Israel.

The same idea applies to Shabbos and the days of the week as well. On Shabbos we can all receive a spiritual revelation if only we are open to experiencing it. Experiencing this revelation actually draws spirituality into the following week. The key here, too, is to remember the spiritual during the days of the week when we are involved in mundane apparently non-spiritual activities. This is also alluded to in the first pasuk of the parsha. Be’er Sheva represents an aspect of Shabbos - Be’er Sheva: lit. the Well of Seven alludes to Shabbos, the seventh day of the week - and Charan represents an aspect of the days of the week. By preparing on Shabbos we can grow spiritually during the days of the week as well.

The Sfas Emes explains that this idea is the deeper meaning of the first Rashi in the parsha. Rashi, in answer to the question first posed above, quotes the answer given by the first Midrash of the parsha. The Midrash says that the pasuk starts with, “וַיֵּצֵא/He left” in order to teach us that when a righteous person leaves a city it is noticed. When the righteous person is in the city, he is the city’s glory, brilliance and splendor. When the righteous person leaves the city, the glory, brilliance and splendor leave with him.

The Sfas Emes explains that the righteous person in the city is an analogy for the spiritual within everything physical. When we remember this during our daily activities, we bring out the spiritual meaning inherent in those activities. This is the hidden glory, brilliance and splendor that we are able to unveil. However, when we go about our daily activities without contemplating the underlying spirituality inherent in everything we do, then our activities really are just mundane. The glory, brilliance and splendor are gone.

Our challenge is to prepare for each day’s activities. We have the ability to transform our mundane activities into meaningful spiritual events which shine. The key is in the preparation.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Toldos 5631 First Ma'amar

This week’s parsha relates the story of the three wells that Yitzchak’s servants dug. Avimelech’s shepherds argued with Yitzchak’s shepherds regarding ownership of the first two wells. Over the third well, however, there was no argument. Yitzchak called the first two wells Eisek and Sitnah respectively. He called the third well Rechovos. What is the significance of this story?

The Chidushei 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. The first two wells Eisek and Sitnah represent this search during the days of the week. Eisek means to work at and Sitnah comes from the word hate as in hating the evil inclination. Rechovos has the same root as the Hebrew word for expansion. Rechovos represents the culmination of the search on Shabbos. This is because on Shabbos there is an expansion of holiness in the physical world. During the week, by performing mitzvos and learning Torah, we attempt to reveal the spiritual Godly light that is hidden in the Creation. According to the extent of our work during the week we merit a revelation on Shabbos.

The Sfas Emes explains that our very purpose in this world is to uncover the spiritual within the physical. Everything in this world is a tool for us to use. When we use the physical world to perform mitzvos and learn Torah we elevate the physical world to a higher spiritual level. In this way we uncover the Godliness underlying the Creation. The Sfas Emes tells us that this was the main work of our forefathers.

We find this in a Midrash Tanchuma regarding learning Torah as well. The Midrash Tanchuma quotes a pasuk in Mishlei (1:20), “חָכְמוֹת בַּחוּץ תָּרֹנָה בָּרְחֹבוֹת תִּתֵּן קוֹלָהּ/Wisdoms shout in the street; in the streets she gives forth her voice.” The Midrash says that Shlomo HaMelech is referring to studying Torah. At first glance the pasuk seems to be saying that Torah should be studied anywhere, even in the streets. However, the Midrash makes it clear that the streets in this pasuk are referring to the “streets of Torah”, those study halls and gathering places that are designated for Torah study. The word בָּרְחֹבוֹת/in the streets, has the same root as the Hebrew word for expansion - הרחבה. The Midrash says that Torah should be studied in a place where it can be expanded. The Sfas Emes explains that this expansion of Torah is more than just better learning. It is an expansion of the Torah’s light into the physical world. The Midrash is teaching us that Torah needs to be studied so that its light will be brought into the physical world. This Torah learning, the Sfas Emes explains, is an aspect of Torah Shebe’al Peh (lit. the Oral Law). The essence of Torah Shebe’al Peh is our ability to produce חִידוּשׁ/novelty through our Torah learning. Essentially when we study Torah we are effecting change in the physical world. Bringing the Torah’s light into the physical world and uncovering the Godliness in the Creation is one and the same thing.

The Midrash in this week’s parsha also hints at this idea. The Midrash associates each of the wells Yitzchak dug with one of the books of the Torah. Rechovos is associated with the book of Devarim based on the pasuk in Devarim (12:20), “כִּי-יַרְחִיב ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ.../When God your Lord expands your borders …” since, as we've noted, the word יַרְחִיב/expands has the same root as Rechovos. The Sfas Emes explains that the deeper meaning of this pasuk is that God is expanding His holiness throughout nature. The well named Rechovos, as the Chidushei HaRim taught, represents Shabbos, the day on which holiness expands into the physical world.

As we’ve said, our forefathers’ main work was to uncover the light of the Torah, the Godliness in the Creation. Yitzchak spent his life striving to reveal the Godliness within everything. In fact, Esav was able to play on this to fool his father. When Esav asked Yitzchak how to take tithe salt and straw, Yitzchak viewed this as another way of uncovering the Godly life force in even the most mundane things of this world. Through tithing, the No’am Elimelech explains, the food is raised to a higher spiritual level. Esav’s scheme was to fool Yitzchak by appearing to want to find ways of bringing out the holiness in even the lowliest objects.

Yitzchak was particularly open to this because he used every possible avenue in serving God. We find a hint to this in the pasuk referring to Yitzchak’s success, “... וַיֵלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וְגָדֵל עַד כִּי גָדַל מְאֹד/… and he grew constantly greater until he had grown very great.” The Zohar in this week’s parsha, referring to a Midrash in Breishis, explains that the word מְאֹד/very alludes to the evil inclination. The Midrash explains the pasuk, “... והנה טוב מאד/… and it was very good.” This pasuk refers to God’s observation of the Creation when it was completed. The Midrash says that this refers to the evil inclination and the angel of death. The evil inclination is needed, the Midrash explains, because without it people would not marry, build houses, etc. The angel of death is necessary, the Zohar explains because the fear of death is a main motivator for teshuvah. The pasuk, “and it was very good” refers to the evil inclination and the angel of death because the world as we know would not be able to function without them. The pasuk is teaching us that Yitzchak used everything, even the evil inclination, to reveal God in the world.

Chazal teach us that we should strive to uncover the Godliness in everything in the Creation even to the extent of using our evil inclination to do so. The pasuk says, “וְאָהַבְתָּ ... בכל לבבך.../And love … with all your heart …” (Devarim 6:5) The Hebrew word for heart contains the letter beis twice even though it could be written with one beis. Chazal teach us that this alludes to our two inclinations, the good and the evil, emanating from the heart. The Torah is teaching us that we should use both to serve God. May we merit emulating our forefathers and, through our actions and Torah learning reveal the spiritual in the physical world.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Chayei Sarah 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים .../And the life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years …” (Breishis 23:1) In every other instance that the Torah tells us the length of an individual’s life, the language is clear and straightforward. For example, “These are the days that Adam lived, 900 years and 30 years.” Another example from the end of this week’s parsha is, “And these are the years of Yishma’el’s life, 100 years and 30 years and 7 years.” Stating that the life of Sarah was 127 years seems awkward. The pasuk is apparently teaching us something in addition to the number of years that Sarah lived.

The first Midrash of the parsha sheds light on this pasuk. The Midrash mentions an enigmatic pasuk in Tehillim, "יוֹדֵעַ ה' יְמֵי תְמִימִים .../God knows the days of the complete ... " (Tehillim 37:18) What does this mean? After all, God knows everything. What is David HaMelech teaching us?

The Sfas Emes explains each word in this pasuk. יוֹדֵעַ/Know, connotes connection. We find, for example, “And Adam knew his wife Chava …” (Breishis 4:1) He connected with her. Another example from last week’s parsha is when God says, referring to Avraham Avinu, “For I have known him …” (Breishis 18:19) Rashi explains that this is an expression of God's love for Avraham Avinu because loving implies drawing someone near and knowing that person.

"יְמֵי/The days of" suggests nature - the physical world - since time was created together with the physical world and only applies in the physical world. The life force that underlies everything in the Creation is outside of time. The righteous, though, through their actions, brings the entire Creation closer to its life giving source. How? What is special about the actions of the righteous? The righteous, after all, also live in the physical world. Their days are also filled with many mundane activities that make up our lives just like everyone else. The difference is the intent behind their actions. The righteous understand that spirituality underlies everything physical. Physical actions, even mundane actions can have spiritual purpose. We are here to uncover the spiritual purpose that underlies everything. The righteous connect to the spiritual purpose of all their physical activities.

Finally, the word תְּמִימִים/complete in the pasuk also has this connotation. A person who connects the physical and spiritual in his actions is performing “complete” actions. His actions make him complete as well. The Midrash on this pasuk in Tehillim conveys this point. The Midrash says that just as the righteous are complete, so too, their years are complete. What is the Midrash teaching us when it says that their years are complete? The actions of the righteous elevate the natural world to a level on which the connection between the physical world and its spiritual underpinnings is revealed. During their years, the Creation is complete.

This is the meaning of a pasuk in Mishlei (13:16), כָּל-עָרוּם יַעֲשֶׂה בְדָעַת וּכְסִיל יִפְרֹשׂ אִוֶּלֶת/Every cunning man acts with knowledge, but a fool spreads stupidity." The Sfas Emes understands that a cunning man in this pasuk refers to one who is righteous. As we've noted, knowledge connotes connection. When Shlomo HaMelech says that the righteous act with knowledge he is essentially saying that they connect their physical actions to their underlying spiritual purpose. Ultimately, physical activity is a tool for connecting to the Source. The fool, on the other hand, separates his physical activities from their spiritual purpose (The Hebrew word in this pasuk for spread – יִפְרֹשׂ – has the same letters as the Hebrew word for separate – יִפְרֹשׁ.) The pasuk in Tehillim, "God knows the days of the complete" is thus understood as, "God connects with the physical world through the actions of the righteous.”

With this understanding we can explain the first pasuk in this week's parsha. The pasuk is teaching us more than just the number of years that Sarah lived. The pasuk is teaching us that during her years, because of her actions through which God connected to the physical world, the physical world was elevated. The word for life in the pasuk is not referring to her own life but rather to the life/existence of the Creation. The pasuk is saying that the existence/life of the Creation was "hers" as Chazal teach us in Maseches Avos that the righteous sustain the world which was created with ten commands. The ten commands represent the Godly force that underlies the Creation. Chazal are saying that the righteous sustain the world by elevating the physical to the spiritual force that is the foundation of the physical world.

As a result of her actions, God bestowed bounty and blessing on the world. This is hinted at by the end of the pasuk in Tehillim mentioned earlier, יוֹדֵעַ ה' יְמֵי תְמִימִים וְנַחֲלָתָם לְעוֹלָם תִּהְיֶה/God knows the days of the complete and their inheritance is forever.” The word for inheritance has the same root as the word for river – נַחַל . When, because of the actions of the righteous, God connects to the physical world, the result is a river of bounty to the world.

Our challenge is to emulate the righteous, to elevate the physical world to a level of completeness. We can do this by performing complete actions, physical actions whose purpose is to connect to God.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Vayeira 5632 First Ma'amar

Iyov said, “וְאַחַר עוֹרִי נִקְּפוּ זֹאת וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/After my skin was stricken they pierced this, and from my flesh I perceive God.” (Iyov 19:26) The Midrash in this week’s parsha attributes these words to Avraham Avinu as well. Avraham Avinu continues, “If I had not circumcised myself how would God have been revealed to me?” (Breishis R. 48:2)

Why is God’s revelation to Avraham Avinu dependent upon his circumcision? Furthermore, God spoke to Avraham several times before he was circumcised. What, then, is the meaning of Avraham Avinu’s statement that he received revelation only after the circumcision?

The Sfas Emes explains. The Creation was not a one time act. The act of creation is constant and continuing. There is a spiritual force emanating from God which gives continued existence to every facet of the Creation. Revealing this point of spirituality – by believing it is there – is in essence revealing God’s presence in the world.

Avraham Avinu first realized this when he was commanded to circumcise himself. The removal of the foreskin represents the removal of the outer physical shell hiding God’s presence. When it is removed, God’s presence is automatically revealed. This realization prompted him to declare, “... וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/… from my flesh I perceive God.” Avraham Avinu is not referring only to God’s revelation in his immediate prophecy. He is rather referring to his perception of God’s revelation in the entire Creation.

This is why the first pasuk of the parsha states, “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו .../He appeared to him …” (Breishis 18:1) instead of “וַיֵּרָא ה' אֶל-אַבְרָם .../God appeared to Avrum” (Breishis 12:7) as the pasuk states when God spoke to him earlier before the circumcision. “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו .../He appeared to him …” is more general. The pasuk is telling us that God’s presence concealed in every part of Creation, giving life to every part of Creation, was now revealed to him.

The idea that there is a life giving spark of Godliness concealed in every part of the Creation is alluded to by the first word of the parsha, “וַיֵּרָא/He appeared.” This word is closely related to, “וַיַּרְא/He saw.” In the description of the Creation at the beginning of parshas Breishis, as each stage of Creation comes to a close we find the declaration, “וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים כִּי-טוֹב/God saw that it was good.” (Breishis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25) Finally when the entire Creation is complete the pasuk tells us, “וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד .../God saw all that he had done and behold it was very good …” (Breishis 1:31) The Sfas Emes explains that the first part of each of these pesukim caused the second part. Everything that God created was good because He saw it. God bestows “good”/life upon His Creation by observing it. It is God’s observation or Providence which gives life to the Creation.

We see this concept clearly in the deeper meaning of the pasuk referring to God’s Providence upon the land of Israel, “... תָּמִיד עֵינֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בָּה .../… God’s eyes are constantly upon it...” (Devarim 11:12) The land of Israel is the point from which life extends to the entire world. The reason that life and existence extend to the entire world from the land of Israel is because God’s Providence is always upon it.

The circumcision is a metaphor for revealing God’s presence in the world. In general terms, this is, in fact, our mission on Earth. When we recognize this and apply this recognition to our daily activities, we are, so to speak, removing the physical shell that conceals God’s presence. We, thus, reveal God’s presence in the world.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lech Lecha 5632 First Ma'amar

... לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ/Leave your country, your birth place and your father’s house for the land that I will show you.” (Breishis 12:1) Why did God not reveal the land to Avraham Avinu immediately? The reason, according to the Midrash, was to make the task more precious to him and to give him a reward for each step that he took to get there.[1]

Coming to the land of Israel represents a quest to understand and achieve God’s will. We can understand God’s will by subordinating our own to His. We show God that we want to subordinate our own will to His by being willing to sacrifice all to see His will. This is the lesson we learn from Avraham Avinu. He had such a burning desire to know God’s will that he was ready to leave everything he knew behind him to pursue it. When he did this, God’s will revealed to him.

We learn an important principal from Avraham Avinu. Many times God’s will is beyond our ken. We do not understand what God wants from us. We do not understand why things happen to us. We find it difficult to leave behind that which we understand, know and are comfortable with to delve into uncharted territory. However, if we express our desire to understand by always being open to hear and accept God’s will even at the expense of suppressing our own, even if it is beyond our current understanding and knowledge, it will be revealed to us. This is clear from a pasuk in Tehillim (45:11), “שִׁמְעִי בַת וּרְאִי וְהַטִּי אָזְנֵך וְשִׁכְחִי עַמֵּךְ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ/Listen daughter and see and incline your ear and forget your nation and your father’s house.” An attitude of openness and acceptance, a mode of listening, seeing and hearing even at the expense of current understanding and knowledge, is needed. This open attitude of acceptance of that which is beyond our grasp is the prerequisite for understanding God’s will.
[1] Breishis R. 39:9

Thursday, October 26, 2006

No'ach 5631 First Ma'amar

... נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק/… No’ach was a righteous man …” (Breishis 6:9) The word צַדִּיק/righteous has the same root as צֶדֶק/justice and צוֹדֵק/correct. Just as in a court room, a house of justice, there is a struggle between two sides until one side emerges "correct," so too, a righteous person is one who has emerged victorious from various struggles with his evil inclination. A חָסִיד/pious individual, on the other hand, is on a higher level. He no longer has a struggle with his evil inclination. David HaMelech alludes to this level when he says in Tehillim (109:22) , “... וְלִבִּי חָלַל בְּקִרְבִּי/… and my heart has died within me …” According to Chazal, David HaMelech is saying that his evil inclination had died within him. David HaMelech had reach a stage at which there was no longer a struggle with his evil inclination.

One who struggles with his evil inclination is one who is not fully aware of God’s presence. The person who is fully aware of God’s presence will not be tempted by his evil inclination. The evil inclination goes hand in hand with the physical world. In the physical world it is difficult indeed to be completely conscious of God. In a sense, the חָסִיד/pious, who, despite his physical surroundings is totally aware of God, can be said to be above nature. The צַדִּיק/righteous person, on the other hand, is one who struggles within the physical world and finally emerges from his trials victorious.

These two levels, חָסִיד/pious and צַדִּיק/righteous person, are exemplified by Avraham Avinu and Ya’akov Avinu. Avraham Avinu was on the level of the חָסִיד/pious. He no longer struggled with his evil inclination. He was completely aware of God’s presence. The physical world presented no barrier for him. Ya’akov Avinu, on the other hand, was on the level of the צַדִּיק/righteous person. He struggled within the physical to discover God.

This struggle and subsequent victory can be understood in terms of the days of the week and Shabbos. We struggle during the week to become more aware of God in spite of the distractions that surround us. The Sfas Emes uses a metaphor of a closed gate that during the week prevents us from being more aware of God’s presence. Our struggle ends on Shabbos when we rest from the week’s distractions and can spend time immersed in the spirituality of Shabbos. On Shabbos, the gate opens. How much the gate opens for us, how much we experience the spirituality on Shabbos, is in direct proportion to how much we worked during the week to become more aware of God’s presence.

In line with this metaphor Chazal tell us that Ya’akov Avinu kept Shabbos. He struggled to become more aware of God in spite of his physical surroundings. He reached a level, through hard work, on which he became as aware of God as possible within the physical world. He reached a level on which the physical world no longer presented a barrier to his awareness. This is the deeper meaning of Chazal when they say that Ya’akov Avinu received an inheritance with no boundaries. The plain meaning refers to his inheritance of the land of Israel. The deeper meaning, though, refers to his victorious struggle over the physical which prevented a total awareness of God’s presence.

Significantly, Chazal do not mention that Avraham Avinu kept Shabbos. Shabbos, representing the culmination of a struggle, did not apply to Avraham Avinu. This is because the physical world never presented a barrier to Avraham Avinu’s awareness of God’s presence. We find this idea in a Midrash which says that the word in parshas Breishis, “בְּהִבָּרְאָם/in their creation” (Breishis 2:4) refers to Avraham Avinu because it comprises the same letters as אַבְרָהָם/Avraham. Chazal are teaching us that Avraham Avinu’s awareness of God was on a level whereby the physical world did not conceal Him. In this sense Avraham Avinu’s awareness of God precedes the Creation.

Like Ya’akov, No’ach also struggled. As noted earlier, the pasuk calls No’ach a צַדִּיק/righteous person. Chazal, in fact, make this distinction between No’ach and Avraham Avinu. Referring to No’ach the pasuk says, “... אֶת הָאֱ-לֹהִים הִתְהַלֵך נֹח/… No’ach walked with the Lord.” (Breishis 6:9) Avraham Avinu, however, says, “... ה' אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלַכְתִּי לְפָנָיו .../… God before Whom I walked …” (Breishis 24:40) The different wording indicates that No’ach needed God’s help to walk with Him. He struggled and required help. Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, was able to walk alone before God without help.

The idea that No’ach struggled within nature to reveal God explains an enigmatic Zohar. The Zohar says that No’ach is an aspect of Shabbos. (Tikunei Zohar 70:138b) Of course, No’ach’s very name means rest which happens on Shabbos (וַיָּנַח בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי/He rested on the seventh day. (Shemos 20:10)) but what is the significance of this? According to what we’ve said, though, it is clear. No’ach was righteous. As we’ve made clear, this means that he struggled within nature and emerged victorious. No’ach connected to God after a struggle. This, as we’ve seen, parallels exactly our struggle to connect to God during the days of the week culminating in revelation/rest on Shabbos.

God gave us the gift of Shabbos, a day on which the gate is opened. We can take full advantage of this gift by recognizing that our activities during the week affect how much the gate opens for us. As No’ach the tzadik and Ya’akov Avinu before us, our struggle to become aware of God’s presence during the week results in our fully experiencing the gift of God’s revelation on Shabbos. May we merit it!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Breishis 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיְכַל אֱ-לֹהִים בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ... /On the seventh day God completed his work that he did …” (Breishis 2:2) This pasuk implies that God’s work was completed on the seventh day itself, not before. What work did God do on the seventh day? Rashi answers that the world was still lacking מְנוּחָה/rest. God created rest on the seventh day.

We usually think of rest as a cessation from activity. Rashi, however, relates to rest as something positive. What is this positive entity called מְנוּחָה/rest? God created the world to bestow His light and good. The vehicle that God uses is nature. Since God’s good comes through nature, His hand is not apparent. Looking around us, it seems as if the universe operates autonomously. The Chidushei HaRim points out that God’s concealment in the Creation is alluded to by the Hebrew word for world – עוֹלָם – which has the same root as the word for concealment – הָעָלַם.
There are places and times when God’s presence is more strongly felt just as there are places and times when His presence is not felt at all. When we view the Creation as a whole, though, when we see the harmony that exists in the universe, each part of the Creation performing its unique task, doing the will of God, so that the entire system that we call the universe works, we become aware of God’s presence in the Creation. The universe, then, while concealing God, is also a tool for revealing Him.

The following p’sukim and Chazal allude to the idea that the completed universe is a tool for revealing God's glory. “כָּל פָּעַל ה' לְמַּעֲנֵהוּ/Everything that God made, He made for His own sake.” (Mishlei 16:4). Chazal tell us, too, that He created everything for His honor. Also, we find in this week’s parsha, “וַיַּרְא ה' אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד/ God saw all that he had done and behold it was very good.” (Breishis 1:31) Since God Himself is the ultimate “Good”, the deeper meaning of this pasuk is our concept; the completed Creation, as a whole, reveals God. The common denominator in these p’sukim and the Mishnah is the word כָּל/everything implying completion. The completed Creation enhances God's glory.

This idea is hinted at also in the pasuk signifying the completion of the Creation which begins, “וַיְכֻלוּ/ They were completed.” (Breishis 2:1) This word has the same root as the Hebrew word for vessel and tool - כְּלִי. The Midrash says that once the Creation was completed, it became a tool. The completed Creation is a tool for revealing God’s glory. The word “וַיְכֻלוּ/ They were completed” also has the same root as the Hebrew for yearning as in the pasuk in Tehillim (84:3), “... כָּלְתָה נַפְשִׁי ... /… my soul yearns …” indicating that each part of the Creation yearns to do the will of God.

Before the Creation was completed, the harmony of the universe was not apparent. It was not apparent that every creation was fulfilling the will of the Creator. The universe was not yet a single system working together. However, once the Creation was completed and there was a cessation from creative activity, it became apparent that the Creation was one complete system wherein every part, by doing it’s own unique function, accomplishes God’s will. This state that the universe achieved on the first Shabbos is what Rashi refers to as מְנוּחָה/rest. A system can be said to be at rest when all its parts are working smoothly and efficiently. There is no “noise” in the system.

This idea sheds light on an enigmatic Zohar which states that Shabbos is the name of God, a name that is complete in every aspect. The Sfas Emes explains that God’s name represents His influence in the Creation. God, of course, does not change. He was One before the Creation and He is One after the Creation. The Creation is the mechanism by which God reveals Himself, His Oneness, as it were. When the entire Creation works harmoniously to do God’s will, God is essentially revealing Himself through the Creation. The Creation reflects God, in a manner of speaking. When the prophet says that God’s Name is One , he means that God’s oneness is revealed in the harmony we see in the Creation. On the first Shabbos the universe became a completed tool for revealing God’s greatness. On the first Shabbos, His Name became One. This is why the Zohar associates Shabbos with the name of God. The first Shabbos was the first time it became possible to recognize God’s oneness through the harmony of the completed Creation.

The Hebrew for complete – שָׁלֵם – has the same root as the word for peace –שָׁלוֹם. On the first Shabbos with completeness came peace. Chazal teach us that only a vessel of peace can hold blessing. When the Creation became complete, it became a vessel that was able to receive God’s blessing.

All the different creations that make up the universe were created to do the will of God. When we subordinate our own will to the will of God we, too, work with the rest of the Creation to reveal God’s glory. Then we find מְנוּחָה/rest and שָׁלוֹם/peace in the Creation and merit God’s blessing.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Succos 5632 Fourth Ma'amar (VeZos HaBracha)

... ה' מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן ... /… God came from Sinai, He shone to us from Sei’ir, He appeared from Mount Paran …” What is the meaning of this pasuk? God is everywhere. What does it mean to say that God came from a specific place? Chazal answer that each of these places represent one of the nations of the world. Before giving us the Torah God offered it to the nations. When the pasuk says that God came to us from a specific place, the significance is that He offered the Torah to the people of that place before coming to offer it to us.

The Zohar elaborates further that the word “from” in the pasuk does not mean from the place but rather from what was said by the people who lived in those places. So the pasuk would translate, “… He shone to us from what the children of Sei’ir said – that they are unwilling to accept the Torah …” As a direct result of their unwillingness to accept the Torah, God enlightened us and added light and love.

Thinking about Chazal’s explanation two questions come to mind. Firstly, why did God ask the nations of the world to accept the Torah? Secondly, did God make giving us the Torah dependent on whether the nations of the world accept it or not?
Chazal tell us that when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, the angels complained to God that man is too puny for the Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu answered that the Torah was made for man. He gave examples from the mitzvos which are obviously only possible in the physical world. Why, then, did the angels want the Torah? The Sfas Emes explains that the Torah can be understood on many levels. The angels, of course, had no use for the mitzvos that are possible only in the physical world. However, the angels understood the Torah on the higher level of sod/secret mystery. Their complaint makes sense on this spiritual, non-physical level.

The Sfas Emes is teaching us that the Torah is understood and accepted by each according to his level. The angels understood the Torah on the very high level of sod. The nations of the world are a natural part of the physical world. It follows that when God offered the Torah to the nations of the world, he offered them the Torah on its most physical level. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, is not associated with this level. We are not part of the natural order of the world. We received the Torah in a way that was beyond nature. On this level we received it unconditionally. However, once the nations of the world rejected the Torah we received their path of Torah as well. This is the meaning of the Zohar. God enlightened us with an additional path in the Torah because this path was rejected by the nations of the world.

This idea sheds light on a Midrash that explains why the Torah starts from Breishis instead of from the first mitzvah. The Midrash brings a pasuk in Tehillim, “כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ לָתֵת לָהֶם נַחֲלַת גּוֹיִם/He declared the strength of his works to his people to give them the heritage of nations.” The Sfas Emes explains that the strength mentioned in this pasuk is referring to the strength of the Torah that is the underlying force giving life and existence to God’s works, the Creation. The Torah begins with a description of the physical world because God is declaring to the nation of Israel that the strength of the Torah underlies the Creation. He did this in order to give us the aspect of the Torah that was meant for the nations – the Torah in nature.

This idea also explains why Moshe Rabbeinu’s blessings in parshas VeZos HaBracha are material. He blesses the tribes with physical strength, bountiful crops, etc. The nation of Israel received the spiritual levels of the Torah unconditionally. For this we needed no encouragement and blessing. However, Israel received the physical aspect of the Torah by default once the nations of the world forfeited it. Since this aspect was not naturally meant for Israel, Moshe Rabbeinu made a point of blessing us with it. Moshe Rabbeinu blessed us with life from the Torah through nature.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Succos 5632 First Ma'amar

On Rosh HaShanah God gives life for the coming year. Succos and Shemini Atzeres are the mechanism through which that life spreads out to the Creation. This is the reason for the special water libation (nisuch hamayim) that is poured in the Beis HaMikdash only on Succos. Water suggests life.

The seven days of Succos represent the physical life of this world. The nations of the world are also an intrinsic part of the natural order. Because of this the nations of the world have a part in Succos as well. The seventy cows that are sacrificed during Succos represent the seventy nations.

The physical world owes its continued existence to the spiritual that is hidden within the physical. This spirituality is embodied by the Torah. The very nature of the physical world is fraught with pitfalls and obstacles that prevent us from discovering the spiritual and leading spiritual lives. In order to avoid the pitfalls and to overcome the obstacles we need protection. The Succah symbolizes the protection that God affords us in the physical world. It is God’s testimony that our primary existence is not the physical but rather the spiritual – the Torah and the spiritual life of the next world. That we need protection at all is an indication that this physical existence is not the main thing. The Zohar calls the Succah “tzila demehemnusa/shade of faith.” It is a shade which protects us from the physical world allowing us to cultivate and nurture our spirit. The Sfas Emes in other ma’amarim quotes Chazal who tell us that the Succah is hekdesh/dedicated to God just like the sacrifices that are brought during the holiday. God’s presence resides on the Succah the same way as it resided in the Mishkan.

Shemini Atzeres, on the other hand, represents the spiritual life of the next world. For this reason the nations of the world, who are part of the physical natural order, have no part in Shemini Atzeres. In a sense, Shemini Atzeres is similar to the Succah itself. Shemini Atzeres represents the Torah and the spiritual life of the next world and the Succah is a spiritual place that protects us from the physical. This is why the mitzvah of Succah does not extend to Shemini Azteres. There is no need for protection on Shemini Atzeres since the day itself is like the Succah. If Succos is the culmination of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeres is the culmination of Succos. It is a day dedicated to the special relationship between the nation of Israel and God.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Yom Kippur 5640

It is a mitzvah to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur in preparation for the fast. Chazal teach us that whoever eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishrei is considered to have fasted on both the ninth and tenth of Tishrei. It is certainly a good idea to eat before a fast. But why is this not simply good advice? Why is it actually a mitzvah, a biblical requirement? A mitzvah implies that the activity has value in and of itself. What value does the activity of eating on Erev Yom Kippur have aside from preparing for the fast?

Chassidic masters write that eating on Erev Yom Kippur rectifies all the eating of the entire year. The masters are not referring to eating non-kosher food. Rather they are referring to eating kosher food. Why does our eating need rectification? Chazal tell us that this world is likened to a hallway leading to a hall. Chazal teach us that we need to prepare ourselves in the hallway of this world in order to merit entering the hall of the next world. We need to use this world to prepare for entering the next world. Eating and drinking are essentially neutral activities. Our intent imbues the activity with meaning. If we partake of the pleasures of this world represented by eating and drinking, for the sole purpose of preparing ourselves for the next world, we’ve performed a mitzvah. If we partake of this world’s pleasures merely to satisfy our desires and lusts, we are using this world in an inappropriate way and we’ve sinned.

The Sfas Emes explains that this physical world enclothes the next world, which is spiritual, similar to the way our physical bodies enclothe our souls. Just as our actions affect our souls, physical activity in this world has spiritual ramifications in the next. We find, for example, a pasuk in Iyov, “Yachin vetzadik yilbash …/He (the wicked) will prepare and the righteous will wear it …” This refers to the gross physicality that enclothes the spirituality of the righteous. Our sinful actions therefore require rectification. They have caused damage that needs to be and can be fixed.

The acts of eating and drinking with improper intent require rectification. In order to help our repentance on Yom Kippur we need to reenact the deed by eating and drinking on Erev Yom Kippur. Why? Chazal teach us that repentance is denied the one who sins rationalizing that he will eventually repent. The Sfas Emes explains that this is because the sin is in the repentance itself. During the act of the sin, the sinner is thinking about the eventual repentance. From this we learn that the opposite is the case as well. Thinking about the act of the sin during the repentance rectifies that act. We reenact the activity of the sin with proper intentions in order to remind us of the sinful act during repentance.

Yom Kippur represents the next world. Just as in the next world so too on Yom Kippur there is no eating or drinking. Eating and drinking on Erev Yom Kippur in preparation for Yom Kippur reminds us that we are supposed to partake of this world’s pleasures to prepare for the next world.

The act of eating and drinking in preparation for the fast reminds us of the correct approach to eating and drinking during the entire year and in fact rectifies the eating and drinking that we did during the year merely to satisfy our desires. Experiencing the proper approach to eating and drinking on Erev Yom Kippur is a powerful tool to ensure a complete repentance on Yom Kippur. May we merit it!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Shabbos Teshuvah Ha'azinu 5635

At the most basic level repentance means that a person regrets having sinned and determines not to repeat it. However, we know that a person’s actions have ramifications both in the spiritual and in the physical. A sinner has caused damage. He has caused damage in the spiritual realms and this has resulted in damage to the physical world as well. When the sinner repents what happens to the damage the sin has caused? Is it simply wiped away? Furthermore, he has distanced himself from God, the source of all life. How does repentance repair the damage and restore the sinner’s connection with God?

We can gain insight from a Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi explains that on Rosh HaShanah we become new beings. The Sfas Emes explains that repentance is the mechanism for drawing new life to the sinner. In fact, the Sfas Emes says that this is the primary function of repentance. New creations are created from nothing. Before God created light there was, “… tohu vavohu vechoshech …/… chaos, emptiness and darkness …” The first step for the penitent, then, is to realize that because of his sin he has lost the privilege to exist. He exists solely because God is bestowing upon him underserved existence. The Sfas Emes explains that the Hebrew word for repentance – teshuvah – hints at this idea because it contains the same letters as “tohu vavohu/chaos and emptiness.” In addition it contains the letter shin hinting at the third word choshech/darkness.

Once the sinner realizes that he has lost his privilege to exist, he is ready to be created anew. It is at the point of this realization that the heavenly gate opens and he receives new life. This is the meaning of the piyut/liturgical poem which describes God as, “… haposei’ach sha’ar ledofkei bis’shuvah/… He opens the gate for penitents who knock on it.” This is based on a pasuk in Yechezkeil which describes the third Beis HaMikdash. The pasuk states that during the six days of the week the inner courtyard gate facing east will be closed. The gate of heaven is closed. God will open it though for those who knock; for those who realize that their sins have caused the gate, through which life and existence flows, to be closed to them.

The pasuk continues that on Shabbos the gate will be opened. For this reason, the Sfas Emes explains, it is easier to repent on Shabbos. The gate is already open. God gave us a tool to return to Him. He gave us Shabbos Teshuvah. Let us take advantage of this tool to return to Him.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rosh HaShanah 5632 First Ma'amar

There is a popular custom to eat specific fruits and vegetables on the night of Rosh HaShanah. Each food represents some specific thing that we want for the coming year.[*] When contemplating this custom one is struck by the difference between the custom and the actual prayers of Rosh HaShanah. Whereas the foods that we customarily eat represent the requests that we would ask of God, the actual prayers do not even contain a hint of these requests. Why not simply insert the requests into the prayers?

The reason we do not find requests in the Rosh HaShanah prayers is because the Zohar says that we do not ask for material things on Rosh HaShanah. The thrust of the Rosh HaShanah prayers is to attain a closer relationship with God. We ask that God should place His awe upon all His works. We ask that He rule over us directly instead of through intermediaries. We want to come close to Him. On Rosh HaShanah we proclaim His Kingship over all. This is the point of the Rosh HaShanah prayers.

Since requests for material things are purposely omitted from the Rosh HaShanah prayers, why is it permitted to ask in the form of a symbol? The Sfas Emes explains. God created everything with symbolic meaning that we can use in our service to Him. The Zohar calls this "remiza dechachmesa/hint of wisdom." We can look at every thing and find in it a hint, a symbol, that points to serving God. In fact, the symbolic meaning could well be the main reason for their existence. Using symbols to ask for material things points to this concept. To the extent we want the material things to help us to better serve God, we are permitted to ask for our material needs through the symbolism of the foods,. After all, the very existence of these foods is intertwined with what they symbolize.

On Rosh HaShanah God gives the Creation new life for another year. How can we partake of the blessing that God bestows upon the Creation? The key lies in our intention when we accept the life (and all the things) that God gives us. We receive according to our intention to use what we are given to serve Him. May we merit intending to use everything God gives us to better serve Him!

[*] For example, we eat leek because in Hebrew the word for leek is karti which has the same root as the word for cutting down. We say that this should be a sign that God will cut down our enemies. The Amora Abayei is the source of this custom. It is based on the principle that symbols have significance (simana milsa hi).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Nitzavim VaYeilech - First Ma'amar of VaYeilech 5631

... וְאָעִידָה בָּם אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ/… And I will call upon the heavens and the earth to testify about them (i.e. the nation of Israel).” The heavens and the earth represent the entire Creation. How does the Creation testify? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the entire Creation is affected by the actions of the nation of Israel. When we do good, the Creation responds positively. When, God forbid, the opposite is the case, the Creation responds accordingly. By its response the Creation testifies regarding our actions. When we think about this we come to the realization that it is actually we who are clarifying the inner workings of the Creation. If the Creation responds to our actions then it is as if we are testifying, through our actions, that God is the force that directs everything.

The concept that we are witnesses to the Godly force that underlies the Creation is an aspect of Shabbos. How so? The Zohar says that Shabbos is called a testimony. When we say the pesukim of VaYechulu we are giving testimony that God created the world. Shabbos is the testimony that we give. Chazal say, in fact, that when we say the pesukim of VaYechulu we become partners with God in the Creation. This is because Shabbos as the culmination of Creation represents the entire Creation.

Although generally, nature hides God, nature hides nothing from those who know without doubt that God is the force underlying the Creation. The Sfas Emes goes further and explains that nature does not have the power to hide God from us. The reason is because the source of our souls is above the physical Creation. Chazal tell us that all the souls of the nation of Israel have a single source which is a very high spiritual place, so to speak. In fact, it is such a high place that there is nothing that stands between God, as it were, and the soul of Israel. This is the meaning of the first pasuk of parshas Nitzavim, “אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם .../This day you are all standing before God, your Lord …” The Sfas Emes explains that standing before God implies that there is nothing separating us from Him. There is nothing between us. The implication is that we are between God and the rest of the Creation, so to speak. Anything that comes to the Creation must necessarily come through us.

Rashi alludes to this idea with the following Midrash: Why does the parsha of Nitzavim directly follow the curses of parshas Tavo? The Midrash answers that after the nation heard the curses they became quite upset and complained, “Who can possibly withstand these?!” Moshe Rabeinu, upon hearing this consoled them with parshas Nitzavim where it states, “לְמַעַן הָקִים-אֹתְךָ הַיּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם .../In order to establish you this day as a nation unto Him …” The Midrash explains that the pasuk is comparing the nation to “this day” which is dark at night and light during the day. The Sfas Emes explains that darkness and light come through the nation of Israel. As we explained, this is because the nation of Israel is first in the spiritual structure of the Creation. Because of this, through our actions we have the ability to turn things around.

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים ... לִפְנֵי ה .../You are standing … before God …” also suggests prayer. Standing before God connotes acceptance of and submission to Him. We accept God’s yoke and submit to Him by identifying with the nation of Israel whose collective soul is always before God.