Monday, August 28, 2006

Elul 5631 First Ma'amar

The month of Elul and the third meal of Shabbos are especially propitious times. During these periods we can attain God’s compassion. The mechanism by which God showers us with compassion is the thirteen attributes of mercy. Why are these needed? God is infinite in every way. We would expect God’s compassion to permeate our world at all times. How, then, can one period be better than another period? Why is it necessary for God’s compassion to be channeled, as it were, through the thirteen attributes of compassion? Why is this tool needed? Why can we not receive God’s compassion directly?

The Sfas Emes explains that we only experience by way of contrast. We will not notice something that is ubiquitous. God is infinite and does not change. We can only notice the bounty that He showers upon us by contrast to periods of time when we do not receive that bounty or when we receive less of it. For us to notice God’s goodness, it must be channeled. By restricting His bounty, we notice it by contrast. The mechanism that God uses to channel His bounty is the thirteen attributes of compassion. Once we understand the idea of God’s goodness being restricted and channeled, if follows that there can be periods during which His goodness is more accessible or less so. What is God’s goodness, after all, if not a connection to Him. He Himself is the ultimate good. During the Elul and the third Shabbos meal, God Himself is more easily accessible.

Even though God’s goodness is more accessible during the month of Elul, actually receiving it is dependent on us. The Sfas Emes explains that to receive the good we must emulate God and restrict our own desires and actions. Excess is the opposite of this. Excessive eating, excessive speech, excessive exercise, excessive idleness are all the opposites of the moderation required to emulate God’s moderation. This is the meaning of the piyut/liturgical poem from the Hoshanas that we say on Succos, “Om ani choma/The nation says, ‘I am a wall.’” The Midrash explains that Avraham Avinu (and by extension his progeny) tells God, “I am a wall.” He sets his good deeds like a wall. The Sfas Emes understands that a wall has a two fold function. First, it protects that which is within it. Additionally it restricts that which is within it. A wall restricts and prevents that which is within from flowing out. Comparing himself to a wall, Avraham Avinu is saying that he will not allow excess in his deeds.

By moderating our actions and practicing balance we can bring the light of the Torah and God’s compassion in the measured doses that we can receive. We thus connect to God even though He is infinite.

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