Thursday, March 29, 2007

Shabbos HaGadol (Tzav) 5631 First Ma'amar

Why do we call the Shabbos before Pesach, Shabbos HaGadol – The Great Shabbos? Various reasons are brought. The Chidushei HaRim gives two answers. The first one follows.

The Chidushei HaRim associates this question with a similar question we find in a Gemara regarding the name of the assembly of Torah greats that functioned during the Babylonian exile and at the beginning of the second Beis HaMikdash.

R’ Yehoshua ben Levi asks, “Why are they called Anshei K’nesses HaGedola – Men of the Great Assembly? Because they returned the crown to its former glory. Moshe said, ‘God, the great, the strong, the awesome.’ Yirmiyahu said, ‘Gentiles are cackling in His sanctuary. Where is the awe? He did not say, ‘the awesome.’ Daniel said, Gentiles are enslaving His children. Where is His strength? He did not say, ‘the strong.’ They came and said, ‘Just the opposite. His strength is because He overcomes His anger and displays patience to the wicked. His awesomeness is because if it weren’t for the fear of God, one nation (Israel) would not be able to exist amidst all the others.”

It’s true that the Anshei K’nesses HaGedola returned, “the strong” and, “the awesome” but why is this a reason to call their assembly, “great?” Yirmiyahu and Daniel never removed the appellation, “great” and it therefore never had to be returned. The Chidushei HaRim explains that the Anshei K’nesses HaGedola did more than give a novel definition to God’s awesomeness and strength during the exile. They realized that God’s patience towards our enemies and the trying circumstances in which we survived the exile were the very key to making the subsequent redemption complete. After the redemption from our enemies in Persia and the miracle of Purim, it became clear that everything that we endured, that His “awesomeness” and “strength,” were indications of God’s great love for us. This realization was understandably missing during the tribulations of the exile. For this reason they were called the “great” assembly. They really returned the understanding of God’s greatness.

The Chidushei HaRim applies this same concept to the Creation. The Creation is an expression of God’s glory. However, this only became apparent when the Creation was completed, on Shabbos. Then it became clear that the entire Creation is really one tool, each part of which works towards the common goal of revealing God’s glory. When we say that it became clear, the meaning is that it became clear to man. God created the world for man to recognize Him through it. Before the nation of Israel accepted the Torah, only individuals recognized God in the Creation. The first time that an entire nation did a collective act recognizing God as the Creator was on the Shabbos before the Exodus when we performed the mitzvah of taking the lamb in preparation for the Korban Pesach. In terms of recognizing God in the Creation, this Shabbos was the culmination of Shabbos Breishis. On this Shabbos, it finally became clear to an entire people that everything that happened until this point in history including the Creation itself was the hand of the Creator. God’s greatness was finally revealed in the Creation. We commemorate it by calling this Shabbos, Shabbos HaGadol.

The Sfas Emes adds to this: The Rambam says that Avraham Avinu yearned for an entire nation to affirm God’s rule. God then promised him, “I will make you into a great nation.” How, though, is Israel considered a great nation? The pasuk tells us explicitly that the nation of Israel is the smallest of the nations. The Zohar answers that the nation is considered great because of the mitzvos, “ומי גוי גדול אשר לו חוקים ומשפטים .../And who is a great nation who has statutes and laws …” This Shabbos which commemorates the first time the nation performed a mitzvah is appropriately called Shabbos HaGadol – the Great Shabbos.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tzav 5631 First Ma'amar

“אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח לא תכבה/A perpetual fire shall burn on the altar, it may not be extinguished.” Chazal address the difficult language of this pasuk. If the intent is to teach us that a fire shall burn continuously, then the wording should be “אש תוקד תמיד/A fire shall burn continuously” The wording “אש תמיד תוקד/A perpetual fire shall burn,” seems to be teaching us something about the fire itself.

The Zohar explains that the perpetual fire in this pasuk alludes to the Torah since the Torah is compared to fire and we are required to learn it perpetually. The pasuk is telling us that sins cannot extinguish the fire of Torah – the spiritual gains that a person attained from learning Torah. This implies that sins can extinguish the spiritual gains attained from doing mitzvos. Here’s why. Mitzvos connect us to God. When a person sins he severs that connection. (Note: The Zohar expounds on the concept of connection through mitzvos and severance because of sins. A person’s soul comprises three primary components which vary in their level of spirituality. The Nefesh HaChaim uses the metaphor of a string which stretches from the physical body, the lowest spiritual level, to the soul’s source, the highest level of spirituality. When a person performs a mitzvah, he strengthens the connection between the components and between the soul and it’s source which ultimately is God Himself. When a person sins, the connection is weakened and in some cases actually broken. - MDT) In the words of the Zohar, the sin extinguishes the mitzvah. However, when one learns Torah, he accepts the Torah; it enters him and becomes a part of him. Even if such a person sins, his Torah cannot be extinguished since it is a part of him.

The Sfas Emes explains that we can raise our performance of mitzvos to a level on which sins cannot extinguish them either. The Zohar teaches that not only Torah but also a Talmid Chacham’s mitzvos cannot be extinguished. How is the Talmid Chacham’s mitzvos on the level of his Torah learning?

Rashi explains that “אש תמיד/A perpetual fire” alludes to the menorah whose light is described as “נר תמיד/a perpetual lamp.” The Torah is teaching us that the lamps of the menorah must be lit from the altar’s fire. The lamps of the menorah suggest mitzvos as in the pasuk in Mishlei, “... נר מצוה ותורה אור/… mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light…” The Sfas Emes explains that this pasuk teaches us the relationship between the Torah and mitzvos. The Torah is light. Light needs a vessel to contain it, otherwise it dissipates. Mitzvos are the vessels that hold the light of the Torah in the physical world. Just like the fire of the altar lights the lamps of the menorah, the Torah lights up the mitzvah, as it were.

When a Talmid Chacham performs a mitzvah, he understands that the light in his mitzvah is the light of the Torah. When he does the mitzvah, he accepts this light into him. The effect of the mitzvah is more than connecting him to God. It becomes part of him just like the Torah that he learns. This is exemplified not in the way the Talmid Chacham performs the mitzvah. The act of the mitzvah is the same regardless of who does it. It is exemplified rather by how he makes the brachah preceding the mitzvah. The brachah is where we relate the mitzvah to its source, the Torah. When the Talmid Chacham says, “וצונו/and He commanded us,” he is acknowledging that the Torah is the source of the mitzvah. He is acknowledging that the light of the Torah fills the mitzvah. He is accepting that spiritual light into him and is becoming one with it. A mitzvah performed with these thoughts in mind cannot be extinguished by sin.

The Sfas Emes teaches us that we can all raise our mitzvah performance to the level of the Talmid Chacham’s. How? How do we overcome the temptation to perform mitzvos in a ritualistic manner? Many times a person does a mitzvah for ulterior motives. Sometimes a person may perform a mitzvah without really wanting to. These mitzvos connect us to God to be sure, however, sins will sever that connection. How, then, can we overcome these thoughts so that our mitzvos afford us eternal spiritual achievements that sins cannot extinguish?

The answer comes from a Zohar at the beginning of this week’s parsha. The Zohar explains the pasuk from the beginning of the parsha, “... הִוא העֹלה על מוקדה על המזבח .../… it is the burnt offering on the flame of the altar …” The literal translation of “עֹלה/burnt offering” is, “rise up.” The Zohar explains that this refers to evil thoughts that arise in one’s mind confusing him and steering him off the true path. The way to rid oneself of these thoughts is made clear by the words which follow, “על מוקדה/… on the flame.” They must be burnt out.

How do we burn away those thoughts which prevent us from performing mitzvos with the proper intent and focus? The Sfas Emes explains that when we contemplate the kindness that God does for each and every Jew every moment, a burning desire to serve Him arises in our hearts. This burning desire pushes the confusion out of our minds. This is what the Zohar means when it says that we must burn out the evil thoughts.

This idea is hinted at a few p’sukim later, “ובִער עליה הכֹהן ... בבֹקר בבֹקר/the priest shall kindle on (the altar) … every morning.” The Zohar explains that priests, whose work in the Beis HaMikdash brings us closer to God, represent kindness. We also find that the morning is associated with kindness (e.g. “להגיד בבֹקר חסדך/to tell your kindnesses in the morning.”) So, the priest, representing God’s kindness, burns away evil on the altar each morning, a time especially associated with kindness. By emulating the priests, concentrating on God’s kindness, we burn away the evil.

Our job, then, entails cultivating a healthy recognition of God’s kindness. Being constantly aware of God’s kindnesses in our lives creates in us a burning desire to serve Him. The awareness itself will affect the way in which we perform mitzvos and lead our lives.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

VaYikra 5631 Second Ma'amar

“ויקרא אל משה .../He called to Moshe …” A Midrash in this week’s parsha says that an animal is better than a Talmid Chacham/Torah scholar, who does not have da’as/knowledge, for even Moshe Rabeinu did not enter the tent of testimony until he was called. What is the meaning of this Midrash?

Entering the tent of testimony is a metaphor for accomplishing God’s will. Being called to enter it symbolizes being helped. The Midrash is telling us that even Moshe Rabeinu was unable to fulfill God’s will without God’s help. He could not enter on his own. He needed to be called. In order to hear the call, in order to be helped, he had to first realize that he needed help. Without this knowledge, he would not have heard and he would not have accomplished his mission.

If this is true for Moshe Rabeinu, it is certainly true for us. We need God’s help to achieve His will. Why is this? Contemplating accomplishing the will of God – the Infinite Being – can be overwhelming. How can we finite beings possibly approach the task on our own? Fortunately, God wants us to achieve his will. It’s the reason we were sent into this world. God helps us to achieve his will by “calling us” through the mitzvos. The Chidushei HaRim explains that a mitzvah is not simply an action. Rather, it has a spiritual power. This power helps us to perform the act of the mitzvah properly. We see a hint to this in the brachah we say before performing a mitzvah, “... אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו .../… that He has sanctified us with his mitzvos and commanded us …” The mitzvos themselves sanctify us thereby helping us to perform them.

In order to receive God’s help, we need to be ready to receive it. When we perform obvious mitzvos, it is easier to accept God’s help because it is obvious to us that we are doing the mitzvah to accomplish His will. He commanded us to do it. However, The Sfas Emes says that we are God’s agents in everything we do. We were sent into this world to accomplish His will in everything we do. How do we prepare ourselves to hear God’s call, to accept His help regarding all our actions that are not mitzvos? The Sfas Emes explains that every one of our activities is a potential mitzvah. By intending to accomplish God’s will with each of our actions, we transform them into mitzvos as well.. Even our mundane daily activities which we usually do not associate with mitzvos can be thus transformed. By focusing on accomplishing God’s will through our actions, the actions themselves acquire a spiritual power that helps us to achieve this goal. Our intent prepares us to accept God’s help in everything we do. It also transforms everything we do into mitzvos. These, in turn, are the vehicle that God uses to help us accomplish His will.

The Sfas Emes notes that the realization that we can only achieve God’s will with His help is called chochma/wisdom. He refers to the application of this wisdom to our everyday lives as da’as/knowledge. The reason is that da’as/knowledge in Hebrew connotes connection. (We find, for example, “And Adam knew his wife Chava …” He connected with her). We connect to the wisdom that our physical actions have spiritual components which we need to draw out by intending to do so.

The Midrash, then, can be translated as, “An animal is better than a Torah scholar who does not realize that he needs God’s help in order to accomplish His will. He can only receive God’s help by being ready to accept it. Even Moshe Rabeinu could not enter the tent of testimony, could not achieve God’s will without being called. Significantly the Zohar says that Moshe Rabeinu is the repository of da’as/knowledge for the nation of Israel. According to what we’ve said, this also means that he was constantly ready to receive God’s help – to be “called.”

God is constantly calling each of us. We open ourselves to hear His call by being ready for it. We ready ourselves by intending to accomplish His will through our actions. Practically, this means taking a few moments before each activity during the day (e.g. going to work, eating a meal, shopping) and contemplating doing it in order to accomplish God’s will.

Monday, March 19, 2007

VaYikra 5631 First Ma'amar

“ויקרא אל משה .../God called Moshe …” This first pasuk of parshas VaYikra relates the first time that God spoke to Moshe from the Mishkan. It teaches us, according to Chazal, that each time God spoke to Moshe, he first called him. What is the significance of this?

The first Midrash on this week’s parsha brings a pasuk from Tehillim, “ברכו ה' מלאכיו גבֹרי כֹח עֹשי דברו לשמֹע בקול דברו/Bless God, His angels, strong warriors doing His bidding to hear His word.” The word “מלאך/angel” also means messenger. In fact, the word mal’ach refers to a human messenger in various places in Tanach. The Midrash explains that “מלאכיו/His angels” in this pasuk does not refer to angels but rather to human messengers. How are we God’s messengers? The Sfas Emes explains that every Jew is sent into this world to do the will of God. Essentially, we are God’s agents in this world. Angels are messengers because they, too, are sent to this world to do the will of God. The difference between angels and us is that we are able to choose whereas an angel has no choice but to do God’s will.

An angel is always a messenger. We, on the other hand, are agents of God only when we make sure that our actions fulfill His will. Then we become, “עֹשי דברו לשמֹע בקול דברו/doing His bidding to hear His word.” This is a strange construct. Shouldn’t the pasuk state that we will listen to His word to do His bidding? The Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk is teaching us a deep concept. We don’t always know what God’s will is. In any given situation, what is it that God wants me to do? It is not always clear. David HaMelech advises us how we can know God’s will. We do God’s bidding by first resolving to satisfy His will with our action. Before acting we can think that we want our action to achieve God’s will. If we do this, we will merit understanding God’s will in those very activities.

This concept explains “גב¬ֹרי כֹח/strong warriors” as well. In addition to strength, the word koach means potential. God’s will is the potential of every action. We learn from this pasuk that a person who is determined to fulfill God’s will with his every action, who wants to be God’s emissary in this world, accomplishing that for which he was sent here, is someone who transforms the potential of God’s will into reality.

Moshe Rabeinu was the archetypal emissary. Like an angel, he was so tuned in, as it were, that he was always ready to hear God and do His will. One who is looking to carry out God’s will with his every action, always hears God. The Torah emphasizes this the very first time God spoke to Moshe Rabeinu after the construction of the Mishkan with the words, “ויקרא אל משה .../God called Moshe.” This, then, is the significance of the first pasuk of this week’s parsha.

God is constantly calling us. The difference between us and Moshe Rabeinu is that he always heard it because he was tuned into it. But God sent all of us to this world to be His agents. He gave each of us the tools we need to do it. Moshe Rabeinu was the quintessential agent of God but the Midrash is speaking to each and every Jew. May we each merit transforming God’s will into reality in all of our daily activities.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Introducing Kulabay

I have decided to add a feature called Kulabay to the end of each post. Kulabay enables Web 2.0 technology for any digital document. Currect features include comments which closely resembles a forum, file uploads, related links, rating and page views.

Kulabay solves a format problem for me. On the one hand, in order to understand the Sfas Emes, I need to fill in the gaps. On the other hand, I do want to remain true to the intent of the Sfas Emes. This leaves me somewhat restricted. Many times, for example, I'd like to provide practical applications of the Sfas Emes's ideas. The Kulabay feature solves this problem because I can be as free as I want with the understanding that it is me talking, not necessarily the Sfas Emes.

I want this blog to be a tool that can be used to explore applying the teachings of the Sfas Emes (and possibly Chassidus in general) to every day life. Primarily because of the comments/forum feature, Kulabay enables the development of a community.

Needless to say, comments and feedback are welcome.

For more info re: Kulabay see:

Friday, March 16, 2007

VaYakhel/Pekudei & Parshas HaChodesh 5631 First Ma'amar

The details of building the Mishkan and its vessels are related twice in the Torah, first as instructions and a second time in parshiyos VaYakhel and Pekudei when the Mishkan was actually built. In both cases the command to keep Shabbos is also mentioned. The first time, the command to keep Shabbos is mentioned at the conclusion of the instructions. The second time, at the beginning of parshas VaYakhel, it is mentioned before the building of the Mishkan. Why?

There is a relationship between the Mishkan and Shabbos. The thirty nine primary categories of “work” which are prohibited on Shabbos are derived from the activities of the Mishkan. The purpose of the activities of the Mishkan was to bring the presence of God into our lives. (“ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם/Make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell amongst them.”)

We can take a lesson from the Mishkan in our daily activities. We have the ability to bring an awareness of God’s presence into our lives through our actions. When we contemplate before every activity that our goal is to accomplish the will of God, we sensitize ourselves and become aware of His will in our actions. On Shabbos, we will feel God’s presence according to how well we worked at it during the week. Our work during the week, then, is actually a preparation for Shabbos. This is the reason that the instructions for building the Mishkan precedes the command to keep Shabbos.

Why then, does the command to keep Shabbos precede the recounting of the building of the Mishkan in our parsha? The Chidushei HaRim explains. He notes that the sin of the golden calf occurred between the instructions to build the Mishkan and its vessels and the actual building. The instructions were given before the sin but the Mishkan was built following the sin.

Before the sin of the golden calf, the nation of Israel accepted to serve only God. This was our raison d’être. Before the sin we said, “נעשה ונשמע/We will do and we will listen.” The Chidushei HaRim explains that “נעשה/We will do” corresponds to the activities involved in building the Mishkan. It connotes a level of the angels whose sole reason for existence is to do the will of God. We were ready to do whatever God required of us without question. “נשמע/we will listen” connotes learning. It corresponds to keeping Shabbos because Shabbos brings knowledge of God as the pasuk says regarding keeping Shabbos, “לדעת כי אני ה' מקדשכם/… in order to know that I am God who sanctifies you.” Performing the activities of the Mishkan during the week led inexorably to an unsurpassed Godly experience on Shabbos. The reason is that all the activities of the Mishkan had the common goal of revealing God’s presence with the completion of the work. Shabbos has the same exact goal. In this sense, the work of the Mishkan was a preparation for Shabbos.

However, after the sin God said to us, according to the Midrash, “You corrupted ‘נעשה/We will do.’ Be careful with regard to ‘נשמע/we will listen.” As a result of the sin we were no longer on a level of “נעשה/We will do.” as our sole reason to live. Our activities no longer had a common goal. We needed to experience the inherent holiness of Shabbos to bring us back to a level on which we could focus our intent to build the Mishkan properly. So, after the sin, the command to keep Shabbos preceded the building of the Mishkan.

For this reason the Torah makes a point of telling us that Moshe Rabeinu gathered the entire nation together before commanding them to keep Shabbos, “ויקהל משה את כל עדת בני ישראל .../Moshe gathered the entire community of the children of Israel …” .” Regarding no other mitzvah does the Torah tell us that we were gathered together. Why here, before the mitzvah of Shabbos and building the Mishkan does the Torah mention that we were gathered together? The reason is that “ויקהל/He assembled” connotes a unification. The noun associated with this verb is “קהילה/community” which signifies a group of people having common interests. The purpose of Shabbos is so that we may recognize that there is a Oneness that underlies and permeates everything. On Shabbos it is easier to experience this. The realization that the power behind everything, even our own actions, is God, leads us to dedicate all our desires and actions to their Source. In fact, God sent us into this world to do this. By using every action to serve God we reveal the holiness inherent in all our actions.

The concept that we can find the spiritual inherent in our activities is alluded to in the beginning of parshas HaChodesh that we read this Shabbos, “הח­ֹדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים .../This month will be for you the beginning of the months …” The word in Hebrew for month (חֹודש) suggests renewal and novelty because it has the same root as the word for new (חדש.)

Where do we find novelty and renewal in the material world? The answer is that we don’t. All renewal comes from the spiritual. Shlomo HaMelech taught us this in Koheles, “... אין כל חדש תחת השמש/… There is nothing new under the sun.” “Under the sun” is a metaphor for the material world. The implication is that in the material world there is no renewal. All renewal comes from “above the sun”, in the spiritual.

The Sfas Emes understands this concept from a pasuk in Yechezkeil which we read in this week’s Haftorah. Yechezkeil in describing the third Beis HaMikdash says, “... שער החצר הפנימית הפונה קדים יהיה סגור ששת ימי המעשה וביום השבת יפתח וביום החדש יפתח/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 are a metaphor for spiritual gates opening and closing. On Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh there is a spiritual revelation that we don’t find naturally during the week. The Sfas Emes explains that Rosh Chodesh represents faith that in nature there is a continuous renewal coming from the spiritual source of the physical.

The way to become aware of the novelty and renewal, to bring into the material world, is by realizing that our actions have primarily spiritual meaning. When we understand that we can use our actions to serve God, to do His will, we have found the spiritual within our actions. By using our actions to accomplish God’s will, we will constantly see new meanings and receive new understanding in the very same activities. This ability to bring renewal into the world from the spiritual was given to us in parshas HaChodesh.

In fact, the Midrash tells us that God gave the secret of the lunar calendar to the nation of Israel whereas the solar calendar was given to the nations of the world. The Midrash explains that the sun is fire so the nations of the world will be judged by fire. The moon is light so the nation of Israel will inherit the light. The Midrash concludes that this is the reason God told us, “החֹדש הזה לכם/This month is for you.” It is ours because we have similar qualities. The moon sheds light during the night. Our mission, as well, is to bring the light of the Torah, the light of spirituality into the spiritual darkness of the material world. As we’ve said, we do this by intending to accomplish the will of God through our actions.

Monday, March 12, 2007

VaYakhel/Pekudei 5637 First Ma'amar

“ויקהל משה את כל עדת בני ישראל ויאמר אליהם אלה הדברים אשר צִוה ה' לעשֹת אֹתם/Moshe assembled the entire community of the children of Israel and said to them, ‘These are the things that God commanded to do them.” This first pasuk of our parsha is referring to the building of the Mishkan. However, immediately following this pasuk, before beginning to recount the building of the Mishkan, there are two p’sukim commanding us to keep Shabbos. Why is this? The answer to this question lies in the common theme that we find in the Mishkan and Shabbos. The goal of both the Mishkan and Shabbos is to bring an awareness of God into our lives.

When the nation of Israel stood at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, Chazal tell us that we stood united. We were united and one with God. The sin of the golden calf separated us from God and divided the nation. This is the influence of the plurality of paganism which is diametrically opposed to the oneness of monotheism.

In order to rectify the sin of the golden calf and the results of the sin, the Midrash tells us that God gave us the Mishkan. How did the Mishkan rectify the sin? Building the Mishkan entailed many different activities. In fact, building the Mishkan entailed every major category of human activity. These are the thirty nine categories of work which are prohibited on Shabbos and are derived the Mishkan. Every activity in the Mishkan was dedicated towards the same goal – the manifestation of the Divine Presence. Building the Mishkan, then, united us and our actions in the service of God. Once the Mishkan was built the barrier between us and God caused by the sin of the golden calf was removed.

But before the Mishkan was built we were divided. In effect, we needed the unifying influence of the Mishkan in order to build it. How were we able to overcome this problem? The answer is through the mitzvah of Shabbos. God unified the nation by giving us the mitzvah of Shabbos first. Shabbos, the day on which creation was completed and God, the ultimate Unity was revealed was the day on which we could unite in serving God, the source of unity. This is also the reason the parsha starts with the word “ויקהל/He assembled.” No other mitzvah in the Torah begins with this word. Why does the mitzvah of building the Mishkan begin this way? The reason is that “ויקהל/He assembled” connotes a unified group. The noun associated with this verb is “קהילה/community” which signifies a group of people having common interests. Once we were united in serving God and with God through the mitzvah of Shabbos we were ready to build the Mishkan to complete the rectification for the sin of the golden calf.

Shabbos unites the Creation under God, the source of unity. The Mishkan unites individual actions towards the goal of serving God. From the Mishkan we learn that all of our seemingly mundane activities during the course of the week can be consecrated in the service of God.

We find this relationship of general unity (i.e. Shabbos) and unity in the details (i.e. Mishkan) in this week’s Parshiyos. Parshas VaYakhel starts with Shabbos, the revelation of the Divine Presence, and proceeds to describe the building of the Mishkan. This is a top down approach. Parshas Pekudei lists every detail of the Mishkan. The end result is unity through revelation of the Divine Presence. This is a bottom up approach. As we’ve seen, the first approach leads directly to the second. First God reveals Himself through Shabbos showering blessing upon us from above and influencing our actions (i.e. top down). Then we build the Mishkan and God is revealed through our actions in this world (i.e. bottom up).

When contemplating the intricate detail in which the Torah describes the Mishkan and its vessels the following question comes to mind. Chazal tell us that blessing is found only in things which are not counted. Here we find a detailed list of every part of the Mishkan! How, then, is blessing found in the Mishkan? To answer this question the Midrash brings a pasuk in Mishlei which states, “איש אמונות רב ברכות ואץ להעשיר לא ינקה/A man of faith will abound in blessings but one who impatiently pursues wealth will not be exonerated.” The Midrash tells us that “איש אמונות/A man of faith” refers to Moshe Rabeinu. The Midrash explains that because Moshe Rabeinu was a man of faith he abounded in blessings when he built the Mishkan. As a man of faith, Moshe Rabeinu dedicated his every disparate action towards one common goal thus turning the many into one. This is why there was blessing in the Mishkan even though the details were listed.

This same idea applies to our daily activities. The Mishkan itself and the work we did in it can be viewed as a microcosm of our daily lives. The Mishkan experience enabled us to apply this focus on serving God to our daily activities. If I go about my daily activities with faith in God, I dedicate all my actions to the common goal of serving God. As a result, God showers blessing upon me and all my daily activities.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Tisa & Parshas Parah 5631 First Ma'amar

1. What is the nature of spiritual impurity (טומאה) and spiritual purity (טהרה)? The Chidushei HaRim explains that spiritual impurity means that one’s internal spiritual vitality has left him. The spiritually impure person can get it back by subordinating himself to God’s will. By disregarding his own life desires in favor of God’s he can renew his spiritual vitality. We learn this from the law of the Parah Adumah (red heifer). The ashes of the Parah Adumah are mixed with water and sprinkled on the impure person thus purifying him. According to the Chidushei HaRim these ashes suggest a nullification of one’s self. The lesson of the Parah Adumah is that by nullifying our own desires in favor of God’s, we come close to Him thereby renewing our own life force. This is why Parshas HaChodesh follows Parshas Parah. Parshas HaChodesh represents renewal (חודש/Month has the same root as חדש/new.)

The Sfas Emes understands this from the first Midrash in Chukas. The Midrash begins, “זאת חקת .../This is the law …” and then brings a pasuk from Iyov, “מי יתן טהור מטמא לא אחד/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. If we understand that even the impurity has a point of spiritual vitality at its core, that God gives existence to the impure as well, it becomes clear that the only difference between purity and impurity is how revealed that spiritual point of vitality is to us. This spiritual point is simply God’s life force.

Since this life force is ubiquitous and is the same for all, the Chidushei HaRim refers to it as, זאת/This (singular). The parsha of Parah Adumah appropriately begins with this word instead of אלה/These. The Parah Adumah contrasts with the golden calf where the idol worshipers said, “אלה אלהיך ישראל/Israel, these are your gods.” The ashes of the Parah Adumah teach us to subordinate ourselves to the One God, in contradistinction to idols that symbolize disparate forces in the world. In fact, Chazal teach us that the Parah Adumah is a rectification for the sin of the golden calf.

2. The Midrash says that we must keep the mitzvah of Parah Adumah simply because God decreed it. This implies that it has no reason. However another Midrash in the parsha tells us that God said He would reveal the reasons for this mitzvah to Moshe Rabeinu! Yet another Midrash tells us that Shlomo HaMelech understood the reason behind every mitzvah except for the mitzvah of Parah Adumah. Regarding Parah Adumah Shlomo HaMelech tells us in Koheles, “... אמרתי אחכמה והיא רחוקה ממני/… I said I will become wise but it eludes me.”

It is clear from these Midrashim that the mitzvah of Parah Adumah has reasons. The Sfas Emes explains that the reasons are above the natural world. A direct approach to finding the reasons therefore, will not work. The correct approach is to accept the mitzvah simply because God decreed it even though we do not understand. Then, paradoxically, God grants us an aspect of understanding as well. This is why God revealed the reasons to Moshe Rabeinu. Moshe Rabeinu represents the knowledge repository and highest level of the nation of Israel. On that level, God grants understanding. Shlomo HaMelech, on the other hand, wanted to understand the reasons for this mitzvah in order to become wise, “אמרתי אחכמה/I said I will become wise.” Because of his approach, understanding was kept from him, “והיא רחוקה ממני/but it eludes me.”

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tisa 5631 First Ma'amar

In the beginning of this week’s parsha, Bezalel is appointed to build the Mishkan and its vessels. This is followed by an admonition to keep the Shabbos, “אך את שבתתי תשמרו .../Only keep my Sabbaths …” The word אך/only, is used in the Torah to exclude. Rashi explains that it comes here to exclude Shabbos from the work of the Mishkan. Bezalel and his team were not permitted to build the Mishkan on Shabbos. The Ramban has difficulty with this. The Ramban explains that when the word אך/only precedes a mitzvah, it restricts the application of the mitzvah. (e.g. אך/Only restricts the mitzvah of Shabbos with regard to circumcision. We may perform circumcisions on Shabbos.) Applying this logic to the Mishkan, if the word אך/only were coming to restrict Shabbos with regard to work on the Mishkan, it should mean that work on the Mishkan is permitted on Shabbos. Why, then, does Rashi say that from אך/only we learn that work on the Mishkan is prohibited on Shabbos?

In order to answer the Ramban’s question, we need to understand the relationship between Shabbos and the work of the Mishkan.

On Shabbos we can more easily be aware of and experience God’s presence. God’s presence, of course, is everywhere always. However, during the week it is more difficult to experience. He is hidden, in a manner of speaking. There are people, though, who experience God’s presence during the week as well. Torah scholars, for example, through their Torah learning, are aware of and experience God’s presence even during the week. This is why the Zohar calls Torah scholars Shabbos. In fact, Shabbos can be defined as a state of being connected to the God, the source of life.

The Chidushei HaRim points out that like Shabbos, the purpose of the Mishkan is the revelation of God’s presence. Sefer Shmos ends with the building of the Mishkan and the revelation of God. The Ramban explains in his introduction to Sefer Shmos that the revelation of God at the end of Sefer Shmos was the culmination of the redemption from Egypt.

Chazal tell us that after the revelation at Mount Sinai and before the sin of the golden calf, we were on such a high spiritual level, God was so revealed to us, that we were free of the evil inclination and death. Chazal teach us that when we said, “נעשה ונשמע/we will do and we will listen” at Mount Sinai, we were each given two crowns, one for “נעשה/we will do” and one for “נשמע/we will listen.” These two crowns symbolized the high spiritual level we were on. Before the sin, we experienced closeness to God without the Mishkan.

After the sin of the golden calf, being on a lower spiritual level, the two crowns were taken away from us. God was hidden from us. We needed the Mishkan to be able to experience closeness to God. The Arizal taught that on Shabbos, though, Moshe Rabeinu returned the crowns to us. The Arizal is teaching us that on Shabbos, God reveals Himself. On Shabbos, God makes it easier for us to be aware of Him. On Shabbos we can feel close to God without the Mishkan. This is the meaning of the pasuk in this week’s parsha referring to keeping Shabbos, “... לדעת כי אני ה' מקדשכם/… to know that I am God who sanctifies you.”

This explains the relationship between the Mishkan and Shabbos. The purpose of both is to allow us to experience closeness with God.

We find another example of the word אך/only regarding purifying vessels that we receive from non-Jews, “אך את הזהב ואת הכסף .../only the gold and silver …” In this case, as well, אך/only qualifies that which follows it. When purifying the gold, it must not have any rust on it. אך/Only tells us that only unsoiled gold can be purified.

The Sfas Emes explains that in this sense אך/only qualifies the day of Shabbos, as well. On Shabbos, there is no barrier between us and God. Because there is no barrier, God’s presence is manifest even without the Mishkan. This is why Bezalel was not permitted to do the work of the Mishkan on Shabbos. The Torah is commanding us to experience God’s presence on Shabbos, through Shabbos alone, without the Mishkan.

For this reason, as well, Chazal learn that only the thirty nine types of work found in the Mishkan are prohibited on Shabbos. God is the life giving force behind every action that we do. It appears, though, as if we are autonomous, that we are running on our own power. The thirty nine different types of work that we do during the week, therefore, actually hide God. They act as a barrier. In reality, though, we only act because God gives us strength to do so. Our mission during the week is to realize that our actions and activities are being powered by God. This realization enables us to feel God’s presence during the week as well. Since Shabbos was given to us so that we can more easily experience closeness to God, the thirty nine types of work that hide His presence are prohibited.

Contemplating this during the week as we go about our daily activities is a kind of keeping the Shabbos even during the week. Chazal hint at this when they advise us that we can keep the mitzvah of remembering the Shabbos during the week as well. If we find something good during the week we should set it aside for Shabbos. We’ve explained that Shabbos can be defined as a state of connectedness to God. Accordingly, understanding that God is behind every activity and action that we do during the week is an aspect of keeping Shabbos.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Purim 5631 Second Ma'amar

We find in Megillas Esther, “... הפיל פור ... מיום ליום ומחֹדש לחדש .../… he cast a lot … for every day and for every month …” If he cast a lot for every day, every month is included. Why did he cast both for every day and also for every month? The Midrash explains that first he cast a lot for the days of the week. This did not work because the archangel of each day complained to God. When Haman saw that the lot for days was not working, he switched to months. This Midrash is difficult, though, because even the lot for months must fall on a specific day of the week. What did Haman gain by switching to months?

The Sfas Emes explains that there is a fundamental difference between days of the week and days of the month. The Gemara, noting this difference, says that Shabbos is established and set from the Creation – the days of the week never change – whereas the Jewish People establish the holidays – establishing when the month starts, was given to the nation of Israel.

On a deeper plane the Sfas Emes explains that God did not merely give us the power to establish new months. The new month is a metaphor for renewal in the natural world. With the ability to establish new months, God made us the vehicle through which new life is drawn into the world. Generally we don’t think of nature as needing renewal. Nature appears to be constant, following set and unchanging laws. Things seem the same today as they did yesterday and the day before. Actually, though, God is constantly renewing the Creation. The act of creation was not a one time event. Rather, it is constant and continuous. God’s will for the Creation to continue is fed to the physical world through a spiritual hierarchy of which the nation of Israel is an integral part. Therefore, the creative life force that is responsible for the continuing existence of everything we see, comes through us. The cycle of the lunar month symbolizes this constant renewal of Creation because it is so blatant. Every month the moon waxes, wanes, disappears and reappears. Significantly, the Hebrew word for month – חודש – has the same root as the Hebrew for new – חדש.

For Haman the wicked, our connection with the source of life was anathema. Haman was at the exact opposite end of the life – death spectrum. We are part of the life giving structure of the Creation. Chazal tell us that the wicked, on the other hand, are considered dead even as they live. Haman, the wicked, had cut himself off from the source of life.

Haman understood this clearly. When he proposed our destruction to Achashveirosh, he said, “ישנו עם אחד מפוזר ומפורד .../There is one nation, scattered and separated …” Even though we were scattered and separated, we were one nation. The surface view of the Creation shows innumerable different and disparate things. However, at the most fundamental level, there is one creative life force that is responsible for the entire Creation’s continued existence. Haman understood that the nation of Israel represents this Oneness that underlies everything. Even in exile, when there is much less awareness of God, we remain one nation. Our very existence testifies to the fundamental unity, the Godly life force that underpins every disparate part of Creation. In fact, our primary mission in the exile is to become aware ourselves and to make others aware of this. This is what so greatly angered Haman. We were an intrusion on his turf, so to speak. Haman is part of the physical world. But he is wicked and wants nothing to do with the source of life. We are a threat to him because we represent the source of life.

And this is the reason he switched his lots to months after days of the week failed. As we indicated earlier, the days of the week culminating in Shabbos are God given from the time of Creation. They are above nature. Haman has no part of it. Because Haman was part of the physical world, he could have more “success” with months which represent renewal in the physical world.

Haman wanted to destroy us because we represented connection to the source of life in the natural world and he wanted to remain disconnected from God, the source of life. It is particularly significant, because of this, that the miracle of Purim occurred specifically within the bounds of nature. The miracle had to occur within nature in order to show that nature does not “belong to” Haman and Amalek. Rather, God is the source of life and existence in the natural world. This explains why the Megilla associates the miracle with the month in which it happened, “והחודש אשר נהפך מיגון לשמחה/… and the month which turned from sorrow to joy …” The Megilla is alluding to this concept by emphasizing that the miracle did not exceed the bounds of nature.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Purim 5631 First Ma'amar

“על כן קראו לימים האלה פורים על שם הפור .../Therefore these days were called Purim/Lots because of the lot…” The name of a holiday usually indicates something very significant about and central to the essence of the day. It seems strange, therefore, that this holiday is called Purim/Lots commemorating the lots that Haman cast to determine the day on which to execute his dastardly plan. Why are Haman’s lots central to the essence of Purim?

Thinking about the name of the holiday, another question presents itself. Why is the name of the holiday plural? If it commemorates Haman’s lots, it should be the singular, “Pur/Lot” as the pasuk states, “... הפיל פור .../… He cast a lot …” Why is it, “Purim/Lots”? The Sfas Emes explains that Haman’s lots relate both to Haman and to us. The lot of the Persians was to destroy the Jews. However, since the Jews are eternal and cannot be destroyed, our lot was that the Persian decree should be overturned. Of course, to merit God’s salvation, we needed to pray and supplicate. Their lot, in effect, caused our lot. The paytan/liturgical poet hints at this in the piyut/liturgical poem Asher Heini that we say after we read the Megillah. “פור המן נהפך לפורינו/Haman’s lot became our lot.”

Drawing lots gives completely random results. There is nothing more natural than this. The fact that we were saved, that the result of Haman’s lot did not come to fruition, indicates that the events that transpired were in fact miracles God rendered to save us. Haman’s lot could only become our lot through Divine intervention. Therefore the name of the holiday Purim is directly related to the essence of the day.