Wednesday, July 26, 2006
The Torah, because it is the source of life and our connection to God, can free all languages from their constraints. The Torah can be explained in any language. Although we may intuitively think that this is obvious, it is not. Moshe Rabbeinu, for example, was unable to formulate God’s message in a way that Pharaoh would understand. Before the Torah was given Moshe Rabbeinu told God, “לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי/I am not a man of words.” Yet, after the Torah was given, “אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה .../These are the words that Moshe spoke …” and “…הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת/… Moshe began to explain this Torah.” Chazal teach us that Moshe Rabbeinu explained the Torah in seventy languages. We see that before the Torah was revealed in this world, God’s message could not be explained in any language. However, after the Torah was revealed, it could.
The Midrash Tanchuma brings a pasuk in Yeshayah to explain this idea, “אָז יְדַלֵּג כָּאַיָל פִּסֵּחַ וְתָרֹן לְשׁוֹן אִלֵּם .../Then the lame shall skip like a hart and the tongue of the mute shall sing …” At the final redemption the lame and the mute will be healed. The Sfas Emes explains that because all life will connect to its source there will be no sickness. All will be healed. The Torah, as we’ve said is the source of existence. It therefore has the power to heal the tongue.
The first Midrash in this week’s parsha develops this concept further. A pasuk in Mishlei states, “מַרְפֵּא לָשׁוֹן עֵץ חַיִּים .../A soothing tongue is a tree of life …” The simple meaning is that a person who speaks in a soothing manner to someone, gives that person life. However, the word marpei/soothing also means healing. Chazal tell us that eitz chayim/tree of life represents the Torah. The Midrash understands this pasuk homiletically as, “The Torah heals the tongue.” Language which is used to explain Torah is healed of its gross physicality becoming sublime and holy. This is why Chazal teach us that the Torah may be written in any language. By using language to understand Torah, the light of Torah informs the language and makes it holy. Any language, in essence, can be a tool for revealing the light of the Torah in the world.
The Chiddushei HaRim takes this idea a step further. He asks, “Why did Moshe Rabbeinu explain the Torah in seventy languages? Why was this necessary?” He explains that each of the world’s seventy nations has its own particular resistance to holiness. When Moshe Rabbeinu explained the Torah in a specific language, he enabled that language to be used to connect to the Torah. He activated the language, in a sense, for Torah. Thus, even in exile we are able to connect to the Torah notwithstanding the host nation’s resistance to holiness.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
The beginning of parshas Matos details the laws of vows. The first Midrash on the parsha teaches us that not just anybody is permitted to take a vow. The prerequisite traits that are needed before a person may take a vow are derived from a pasuk in Devarim, “אֶת-ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ תִּירַא אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק וּבִשְׁמוֹ תִּשָׁבֵעַ/You shall fear God your Lord, serve Him and cling to Him.” The Midrash says that to take a vow one must be God-fearing like Avraham Avinu, Iyov and Yosef whom the Torah refers to as God-fearing. One must serve God through Torah and mitzvos to the exclusion of all else. Finally, one must cling to God.
Regarding the last required trait of clinging to God the Midrash asks, “How is it possible to cling to God?” The Torah calls God a consuming fire. Is it possible for a physical being to connect to a consuming fire? The Sfas Emes explains that the Midrash’s question is based on the premise that connecting to God involves distancing oneself from the physical, since God is far removed from the physical. The Midrash notes the difficulty with this direct approach to clinging to God. The Midrash answers that the only way a physical being can connect to God, is indirectly, through activity in this world. We connect to God in this world when our actions are done for His sake.
This explains how we can experience God in this world but why must a person’s every action be for the sake of Heaven in order to take vows? To answer this question we need to understand what a vow is. A vow is a verbal expression of a person’s desire to do a given action. The Torah gives such a declaration the status of a legal commitment. Chazal tell us that vows should be used as a tool to encourage us in the performance of mitzvos.
Avraham Avinu, Iyov and Yosef, the people the Torah explicitly refers to as God-fearing, were on a level at which awe of God permeated and motivated their every action. All their actions were done for His sake. As such, they essentially transformed every action into a mitzvah. Every one of their actions increased God’s glory in this world. Every mundane action was thus transformed into a mitzvah.
The Midrash is teaching us that when all a person’s activities are for the sake of Heaven, when a person’s desires and God’s will are totally aligned, he has transformed his actions into mitzvos. It is appropriate for this person to declare his desire, which mirrors God’s will, in the form of a vow. However, many people’s desires are not aligned with God’s will. Their actions are motivated by other factors such as personal desires. These actions are not mitzvos. It is thus not appropriate to declare such desires as vows. These people need first to work on performing their routine daily activities because they need to (e.g. we need to eat to live) rather than because they desire to. This is the first step in aligning our actions with God’s will.
Near the end of parshas Mas’ei the Torah teaches us the laws regarding a murderer. A person who intentionally commits murder is put to death. A person who kills unintentionally is exiled to one of the cities of refuge in
The prophet Yeshaya prophesied that there will come a time when God will take revenge against
The Chiddushei HaRim says that a murderer forfeits his right to space in this world. Regarding a murderer the pasuk at the end of this week’s parsha states, “... וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא-יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּך-בָּהּ כִּי-אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ/…and the earth will not be wiped clean of the blood that was shed on it except with the blood of the one who shed it.” The Torah is teaching us that the murderer has no place on this earth. He must be executed.
God, in His kindness, granted the unintentional murderer space in cities of refuge. The name of one of those cities Betzer, hints at this concept. The root of the word Betzer means to fortify. Betzer represents the strength that God gives the unintentional murderer. He is permitted to live.
The Torah is a haven for sinners as well. The idea is the same. A person who has sinned and realizes that he has forfeited his right to space in this world can be saved by finding refuge in learning Torah. The Torah itself functions as a city of refuge.
The key is that the sinner must understand that he has forfeited his space in the world. Only then does the city of refuge protect him. However, a person who thinks that he deserves space in this world even if he sins will not be saved by the city of refuge or by the Torah.
The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Batzrah, whose root also means to fortify, implies one who believes that he lives on the merit of his own strength. This was the mistake of
The Chiddushei HaRim is teaching us that we live at God’s pleasure. By sinning we forfeit the privilege. However, God gave us the ability to correct our mistakes and return to Him. The first fundamental step is this realization. God gives us strength and security in this world specifically when we realize that on our own we have no strength and security.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
A gift represents love and kindness. Indeed, the Zohar explains that the priesthood is a channel for drawing God’s lovingkindness into the world. God granted the priesthood as a gift. This represents God’s love. The priests, too, whose work in the Beis HaMikdash brings us closer to God and is done on our behalf, represent love and kindness.
Where do we find the concept of earning a gift? Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes in his seminal work Tanya that there is a level of love for God which cannot be reached directly. Rather by working on developing awe of God, achieving the highest level we possibly can, each of us according to our individual potential, we are granted a commensurate level of love for God. This level of love is a gift that is granted involving no prior direct effort or preparation. The terms awe and love as used by the author of the Tanya and by the Sfas Emes imply serving God and coming close to Him respectively. We cannot work to experience God directly. However, we can work on serving Him. As a reward, He allows us to experience closeness to Him. Rav Shneur Zalman is teaching us that God’s love – the experience of closeness – is a gift that can be earned. In this sense, Pinchas, too, was granted the priesthood, an aspect of love and kindness, as a gift for acting zealously on behalf of the nation.
It is clear why Pinchas merited the priesthood, but why did his progeny merit it through his act? The Sfas Emes explains Pinchas merited for his progeny as well because he acted on behalf of and from within the nation. His act atoned for the nation and saved their progeny. As a reward he merited the priesthood for his progeny.
The Sfas Emes expounds on this concept. The key to Pinchas’s act of vengeance was not the act itself. Rather, the key was that Pinchas acted solely on behalf and for the benefit of the nation. He had no personal motives. He was not hero-motivated. For this reason the pasuk describes his act as, “... בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם .../… by acting zealously among them …” “Among them” seems an unnecessary addition to this description. The Sfas Emes explains that this teaches us two things. Firstly, Pinchas acted on behalf of the nation. Secondly, the act of zealousness needed to be done by an ordinary member of the nation, someone with no rank, someone who rose up from amongst the nation. Pinchas acted on behalf of and as a representative of the nation. This is why Pinchas was not granted priesthood earlier. Only one of the rank and file of the nation with no special status could have acted as he acted. This is also why Moshe Rabeinu could not have done what Pinchas did. To atone for the nation’s sin, a member of the nation had to act.
For this reason as well, Pinchas is related back to his grandfather Aharon in the beginning of the parsha. Usually the first time a person is mentioned in the Torah, he is related back one generation. Pinchas is related back two generations and this is not even the first mention of him. Pinchas was already mentioned in parshas Balak. Why then, does the Torah relate him back two generations to Aharon HaCohen? Chazal tell us that Aharon loved peace. Everything he did was in the name of the entire nation of Israel. The Torah relates Pinchas back to Aharon to teach us that Pinchas acted in the name of the entire nation as well.
The concept of earning a gift was introduced by Avraham Avinu. The Midrash tells us that Shem the son of Noach received the priesthood. The Midrash makes it clear that he was not chosen to receive the priesthood as a reward. When Shem died, Avraham Avinu received the priesthood. The Midrash states clearly that he was chosen because of his righteousness. In another Midrash we find that Shem called Yerushalayim, Shalem/Complete whereas Avraham Avinu called it Yir'a/Awe. What is the significance of these different names and what is their connection with Shem and Avraham Avinu?
Shalem, Shem’s name for Yerushalayim means complete. It is also related to the Hebrew word for peace – shalom. The Sfas Emes explains that receiving an undeserved gift is an aspect of peace. God, for example, gives life to everything as an act of unearned kindness. The Zohar calls this aspect of God, peace. We find this concept relating to the Creation. Chazal teach us that Shabbos is an unearned gift that God bestowed on the Creation. Shabbos as the culmination of the Creation was the point at which the Creation was complete. A system which is complete is at peace with itself. Each part of the system is doing it unique job but striving towards the common goal of the entire system. Each part of the Creation, by doing its unique job, is bringing the entire Creation closer to God. This is why on Shabbos we say that God spreads His canopy of peace upon us. Peace and Shabbos are very closely connected. We see clearly, that God bestowed the unearned gift of Shabbos upon the creation and the Zohar calls Shabbos, peace. Shem called Yerushalayim Shalem because he himself was granted the priesthood unearned through God’s kindness.
Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, developed, cultivated and perfected his strength to achieve anything God asked of him. He passed the ultimate test when he went to sacrifice his son Yitzchak. As a result he was granted the highest level of love of God, the characteristic by which he is known as the pasuk states “Avraham ohavi/Avraham, the one who loves me.” First God granted closeness to Himself through pure lovingkindness. This is why Shem called the city Shalem. Avraham Avinu taught us that we can achieve closeness to God through service to God; we are able to merit the gift. This is the reason Avraham Avinu called the city Yir'a. God connected the two and called the city Yerushalayim. Yerushalayim represents each person’s ability to reach a high level of love and completeness, a closeness to God, by serving Him to deserve the gift.
We find this concept in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week. The Tikunei HaZohar states that during the six days of the week we serve God with awe. On Shabbos we serve God with love. The Sfas Emes teaches us that one follows the other. If we serve God with awe during the week, we are granted the gift of love on Shabbos.
The concept of completeness coinciding with closeness to God is brought out by a Germara in Maseches Kidushin. The Gemara states that a priest who is physically disfigured may not serve as a priest. The Gemara learns this from the pasuk describing Pinchas’s reward, the covenant of peace. As we’ve said, shalom/peace has the same root as shalem/complete. Therefore, a priest who is disfigured is physically incomplete and may not serve. A pasuk in Yeshaya, though, implies that God dwells specifically with “broken vessels”, “אֶשְׁכּוֹן וְאֶת-דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל-רוּח/I will dwell with the despondent and lowly of spirit.” How does this pasuk reconcile with the law prohibiting a physically disfigured priest from serving in the Temple? The Zohar answers that physical disfigurement disqualifies a priest because it infers a spiritual blemish representing a distancing from God. A righteous person, however, whose heart is broken in his service to God is not a disfigurement. The Zohar says that he is God’s pride. We cultivate a sense of awe, then, by contemplating God’s completeness and our own lowliness. This is what the Zohar refers to as “broken vessels.”
When we do this to the best of our ability, God grants us a degree of closeness to Him which is impossible to reach directly and can only be described as a gift. This is referred to by the Zohar as God’s pride. It is what we’ve described earlier as the highest level of love for God.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
The interesting thing about Bil’am is that he subordinates himself to God. For example, in response to Balak’s appeal that he curse the nation of Israel, he claims that even if Balak would give him his entire estate filled with silver and gold he cannot transgress the word of God. Yet, from this very response Chazal learn that Bil’am was greedy. Why do Chazal consider him to be so wicked? The Sfas Emes explains that Bil’am viewed himself as a very important person who does God’s will notwithstanding his own importance.
Bil’am used service to God for his own ends, to increase his own egotism. This idea is alluded to in the pasuk describing Bil’am, “nofeil uglui einayim/fallen and revealed to him.” True, he falls before God. But he does so only to achieve a higher level to feed his bloated ego. Bil’am teaches his students to use service to God to achieve personal goals.
The righteous, on the other hand, live simply. They ask nothing for themselves. Their sole desire is to be close to God, the source of life. They want to be God’s tool in this world, like an axe in the hands of a wood chopper.
In fact, this is the only way to merit the next world. Chazal tell us that this world is a corridor leading to the next world which is compared to a hall. The corridor is the only path to the hall. The only way to get to the next world is through this one. Here’s why. The next world is so completely holy and spiritual that it is beyond our comprehension. It is impossible for someone who is completely disconnected from anything spiritual to merit the next world. What must we do, then, to merit it? The Sfas Emes explains that by revealing holiness in this world we connect to holiness, to God’s life force. This connection enables us to experience the next world.
The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that this is the meaning of the second half of the mishnah quoted above. The second part of the mishnah states that the disciples of Avraham Avinu benefit (lit. ochlin/eat) in this world and nochlin/inherit in the next world. The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that Chazal are not simply listing the rewards awaiting the disciples of Avraham Avinu. Rather they are teaching us about the relationship between this world and the next. Chazal alluded to this relationship by using the word nochlin for inherit. Nochlin/Inherit has the same root as the word nachal/stream. The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that benefiting from this world is not part of the reward. Rather, it is part of the work. Whenever we benefit from this world we must channel the stream of God’s life force into the activity. Chazal are telling us that we must inject some of the next world’s holiness into our activities in this world.
By revealing the hidden holiness inherent in this world, we will merit experiencing the hidden holiness of the next world. The mishnah brings proof from a pasuk in Mishlei, “Lehanchil ohavai yeish, ve’otzroseihem amalei/I have something to bequeath those who love me and I will fill their storehouses.” The next world is referred to as ayin/nothing because it is not tangible and it is beyond our comprehension. When we reveal hidden holiness in this world, we develop a connection to it. This connection allows us to see and experience the ayin/nothing of the next world as yeish/something.
This, then, is the teaching of Avraham Avinu. Once we view ourselves as agents of God and consider that God is the absolute and singular force giving life and existence to everything, then generosity, humility, and living simply, follow.
Bil’am teaches his students exactly the opposite. He teaches that we can and should gain personally even from subservience to God. Chazal in fact teach us that that any kindness the nations of the world did, they did for their own benefit. This is why the mishnah states that the students of Bil’am inherit gehinom. Gehinom represents God’s concealment, the opposite of the next world. By introducing evil into the good that they do, Bil’am’s disciples conceal even the Godliness that would otherwise have been revealed by their positive actions. They, thus, inherit the ultimate concealment of God.
Sunday, July 02, 2006
The Sfas Emes (1847-1905) was the 2nd Rebbe of the Gerer Chassidim and the grandson of the Chiddushei HaRim. He was orphaned at the age of one and raised by his grandfather.He was a child prodigy and studied without interruption for eighteen hours at a time. When he was nineteen, his grandfather, the Chiddushei HaRim passed away and pressure was exerted on Reb Yehudah Leib to assume the mantle of leadership of the Gerer Chassidim. He felt unworthy however, and instead went to Alexander to study under Rebbe Chanoch Henoch.After only four years, Rebbe Chanoch Henoch passed away, and then Reb Yehudah Leib was left with no choice but to comply with the wishes of the Chassidim to become the leader of the Ger. Under his guidance and leadership Ger became the largest Chassidic group in Poland. The Sfas Emes, named after his magnum opus, was a proponent of expanding the Chassidic community in Israel, and greatly supported activities to that end. His son, the Emrei Emes, escaped the Nazis, came to Israel and rebuilt Ger, restoring it to its former glory.
(Taken from the OU website Judaism 101)
Following is the first ma'amar on parshas Chukas from the year 5631:
(Note: The Sfas Emes was written in an extremely concise manner. A straight translation would be as cryptic as the original Hebrew. Instead of translating, I’ve expanded some of the ideas found in the Sfas Emes. I pray that I am being faithful to the intent of the Sfas Emes.)
“Zos chukas HaTorah …/This is the law of the Torah …” The Zohar at the beginning of this week’s parsha cites a similar pasuk, “VeZos HaTorah …/And this is the Torah …” What is the difference between these p’sukim? Why does the first add the word “chukas/law of”? “VeZos HaTorah …/And this is the Torah …” alludes to the essence of the Torah whereas “chukas HaTorah/the law of the Torah” is a reference to Torah shebe’al peh/the oral law.
Chazal tell us that God looked into the Torah and created the world. The essence of the Torah is inherent in the world. It is that force which radiates out of the Torah and into every part of the Creation. It is through the Torah that the Creation continues to exist.
Even though the light of the Torah inheres in every part of the Creation it is not apparent. It is hidden. Our mission is to draw out the Torah’s light, to make it apparent. This task, the Sfas Emes explains, is represented by Torah shebe’al peh/oral law. The Torah shebe’al peh/oral law is much more than an explanation of the written Torah. It represents our work. It is the avenue through which we can add chidush/novelty whether in deeper understanding of the Torah or by acting according to God’s will.
As opposed to the Torah shebe’al peh/oral law, the essence of the Torah is beyond our comprehension. This is why, “VeZos HaTorah …/And this is the Torah …” is followed by, “… asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei Yisrael/… that Moshe placed before the children of Israel.” When the Torah was given, we were all connected to the essence of the Torah through Moshe Rabeinu. This is not a level we could attain on our own, through our own labors.
The Torah shebe’al peh/oral law, on the other hand, represents the Torah we attain and reveal through our labor in this world. This Torah becomes a part of us. In the words of the Chiddushei HaRim it becomes engraved in us. “Chukas/the law of” in fact, has the same root as the Hebrew word for engrave. Later in the parsha the Torah refers to Moshe Rabeinu as mechokeik/lawgiver. Here too, it suggests the Torah being engraved in us.
What must we do for the Torah to become engraved in us, to become a part of us? How do we draw out the light of the Torah inherent in everything? The Sfas Emes explains according to the following Chazal. Chazal tell us that we must make our Torah our primary occupation. Chazal say that earlier generations made their Torah their main occupation and their labor transient. They saw success in both. We’ve said that the light of the Torah is hidden in everything. Making the Torah our primary occupation means, in addition to studying it, looking for the light of the Torah in everything that we do. The spiritual aspect of our actions becomes our primary occupation. The physical action is only a means to reveal the light of the Torah. In this sense our labor, our physical activity, is transient whereas Torah becomes our main occupation. In order to succeed, though, it is crucial that we take a thoughtful approach to every activity. A person who does everything for the sake of God will realize God’s will in everything he does. When we do this, the Torah that we reveal becomes a part of us. It becomes engraved in us.
This is why Chazal call it “their Torah.” It became theirs when they made it their primary occupation. We find this idea clearly in Rashi’s explanation of the second pasuk in Tehillim, “… BeSoras HaShem cheftzo UVeSoraso yehgeh …/… He wants God’s Torah and he will study his Torah …” Why is the Torah first referred to as God’s and then referred to as belonging to the one who studies it? Rashi explains that by working at it he makes it his.
We find this concept in the pasuk in Koheles, “HeChacham einav berosho …/The wise person’s eyes are in his head.” The word for head has the same Hebrew root as the word for first. The wise person always connects to the root, the source, the beginning of every action and thing. The source is of course the life force of God. By attempting to do God’s will in all of our daily activities, we are connecting to the source of our actions.
We find this idea also in Yeshaya, “Se’u marom eineichem ur’u mi vara eileh/Lift up your eyes and see Who created these.” The life force of God is not apparent in the physical world. In fact a lot of what happens in the physical world is antithetical to Godliness, to holiness. Yeshaya points out that this is only a concealment of God. In reality God is in everything.
This is the meaning of the first Midrash in this week’s parsha explaining a pasuk in Iyov, “Mi yitein tahor mitamei, lo echad/Who produces purity from impurity? No one!” The Midrash translates this pasuk, “Who produces purity from impurity? Is it not the One?” Producing purity from impurity seems impossible. However, it is only impossible if we believe that impurity has an autonomous existence. Actually, impurity is simply God’s concealment. Producing purity from impurity is a matter of removing that which conceals God. Intent before we act is crucial. When we subordinate ourselves to the Source of life, God’s concealment is removed. The impurity is removed. This is the essence of teshuva/repentance – returning to the Source.
Whether we come close to God through our actions or not, is completely dependent on our intent. If our intent is to do His will, the Godliness inherent in the action becomes revealed, we come closer to God and we become purified. This is our main occupation in this world. It is our Torah shebe’al peh.
Any comments and/or suggestion would be appreciated.