Monday, April 30, 2007

Emor 5632 First Ma'amar

Parshas Emor begins with the laws of purity of priests. Something which is pure is not mixed with anything else. When we say that gold is pure, for example, we mean that it contains nothing but gold. When we say that a person has pure intentions, we mean that his actions have no ulterior motives. The priests’ service in the mishkan exemplifies serving God with purity. How can we serve God with purity? What technique can we apply in order to serve God with no ulterior motives?

The first Midrash on this week’s parsha addressing this question brings the pasuk in Tehillim, “אמרות ה' אמרות טהורות .../God’s sayings are pure sayings…” “אִמרה/Saying” alludes to the ten מאמרות/sayings with which God created the world. The Sfas Emes explains that the saying itself gives existence to the Creation. The creating power of God, through the saying, is hidden within the creation. It follows that the saying is the source of purity within everything. To stress the point, the beginning of this week’s parsha, dealing with the laws of purity of priests, repeats the word “say.” “אמור אל הכֹהנים בני אהרֹן ואמרת אליהם .../Say to the priests the children of Aharon and say to them…” The redundancy is glaring.

The repetition is significant and gives us a clue as to how we can attain purity in our own actions. A similar repetition in parshas Ki Savo sheds light on our parsha. In parshas Ki Savo we find, “את ה' האמרת היום/Today you have made God unique.” In the next pasuk we find, “וה' האמירך היום/And God has made you unique today.” Chazal explain that the nation of Israel made God unique by declaring, “שמע ישראל ה' א-לֹהינו ה' אחד/Listen Israel, God is our Lord, God is One.” God made Israel unique by declaring, “מי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ/Who is like your nation Israel, one nation on earth.” When we consider a relationship to be unique, we mean that there is a special connection that we have that excludes all others. The relationship is pure in the sense that it applies to one and to no other. Considering God unique to us is the essence of pure service. We reject all others. We reject our own desires and we subjugate ourselves to the will of God. The word used for “unique” in these p’sukim has the same root as “אִמרה/saying.”

In parshas Ki Savo we learn how to attain a level of pure intentions in serving God. There is a two step process in attaining purity. First God brings us close to Him. He makes us unique among the nations. Then, we accept this closeness and make Him unique. Instead of following our own desires, we will follow only His. This is the essence of purity. To the extent we subordinate our own desires to God’s we become pure.

The Torah contains other examples of this two step process in reaching a level of pure intentions in our actions. Each example serves to clarify the process so that we are better able to apply it to our daily lives.

The first example is the relationship between the Exodus and the mitzvah of counting the Omer. First God brought us close to Him by bringing us out of Egypt. Our subservience to Him was a natural reaction to the miracles and revelation which we witnessed. In addition to freeing us from our bondage to the Egyptians, He freed us from our bondage to our own desires and subjugated us to Him. Then, during the period of Sfiras HaOmer we accepted His closeness, quelled our own desires in favor of His and our worship became pure. How does Sfiras HaOmer indicate accepting God’s closeness and purity of worship?

The Kabbalists teach us that we have seven primary (emotional) midos/characteristics. Each week of the seven weeks of Sfiras HaOmer relates to one of these midos/characteristics. During the fifty day period after God took us out of Egypt we worked on perfecting our midos/characteristics in preparation for the giving of the Torah. Every year since, the period of Sfiras HaOmer is especially conducive for this task. In fact, purification is one of the reasons for the mitzvah of Sfiras HaOmer. The prayer following Sfiras HaOmer begins, “Master of the Universe, You commanded us … to count Sfiras HaOmer in order to purify us …”

A second example of the two step process in attaining pure intention is found in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week. On Shabbos, God is more manifest in the creation. It is easier to focus only on God. God brings us close to Him on Shabbos so that after experiencing Shabbos, we can draw that special revelation into the week.

Finally, the redundancy at the beginning of our parsha, as well, alludes to this process. “אמור/Say” connoting connection and purity, suggests that God brings us close to Him. We are a unique nation unto God. “ואמרת אליהם/And you will say to them” suggests that we accept His closeness in everything that we do and in our desires. He is unique to us. To the extent that we accept God in our actions, our motives become pure.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Acharei 5632 First Ma'amar

“דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם אני ה' א-לֹהיכם/Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘I am God, your Lord.” This pasuk is an introduction to God’s admonition against the practices of the lands of Egypt and Canaan and illicit relations. Why? Rashi brings the Midrash on this pasuk that “אני ה' א-לֹהיכם/I am God, your Lord,” is a reference to the first pasuk of the ten commandments, “אנֹכי ה' א-לֹהיך .../I am God your Lord.” God is instructing Moshe to tell us that just as we accepted the yoke of heaven at Mount Sinai, we should now accept His decrees. Similarly, the Gemara states that the first parsha of Kri’as Shma precedes the second parsha because it contains within it the commandment to accept the yoke of heaven whereas the second parsha contains the yoke of mitzvos. The yoke of heaven must always precede the yoke of mitzvos.

The Sfas Emes explains that this is more than a platitude. This is, in fact, practical advice that can be applied to each individual mitzvah. The intent upon doing a mitzvah needs to be to accept the yoke of heaven. This is actually the purpose of the mitzvah. Regardless of the good reasons there may be to do a mitzvah, it is crucial that we do them because we want to achieve God’s will. The reasons may explain why God commanded us to do them. However, we do not do the mitzvos for the reasons. We always strive to do the mitzvos in order to do the will of God. This is why, when Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu were killed for bringing a “strange fire” on the altar, the Torah tells us that they were punished for bringing a strange fire that He had not commanded them to bring, implying that the critical lapse was their not being commanded. The reason – the strange fire – was secondary. We see that the main thing is achieving God’s will. The reasons are always secondary. When we contemplate subordinating ourselves to God before doing a mitzvah, the ramifications of doing that mitzvah are great.

Our actions have ramifications in the physical and spiritual realms. When we do a mitzvah, we positively affect the world. When we sin, the opposite is the case. This is because when we perform a mitzvah we are bringing the object of the mitzvah and ourselves closer to the source of life. The Sfas Emes points out that this applies not only to the obvious mitzvos with which we are familiar; the mitzvos that are mentioned explicitly in the Torah. The Sfas Emes says that every action is a potential mitzvah. If we intend to accomplish God’s will with our action then we’ve done a mitzvah. Since the mitzvos are the mechanism through which we draw life into this world and everything is a potential mitzvah, it follows that through mitzvos we draw life to everything. Chazal allude to this concept when they say that the wicked, even as they live, are considered dead. This is because they are without mitzvos. This concept is hinted to in another pasuk in our parsha as well, “ושמרתם את חקֹתי ואת משפטי אשר יעשה אֹתם האדם וחי בהם/You shall keep my decrees and my laws which a man shall do and live by them.” We live by them because through the mitzvos we draw life to us and to the physical world.

Significantly, the pasuk is in the future tense, “which a man shall do,” not, “which a man does.” The Torah is teaching us to be constantly prepared to do God’s will. To be “on call,” as it were, waiting, hoping for an opportunity to do God’s will is what this pasuk calls, “keeping my decrees and laws.” With this approach, when the opportunity arises, he will perform the mitzvah properly and it will have the greatest positive effect on himself and his surroundings. Following the beginning of the pasuk leads us to, “וחי בהם/and live by them.” Looking for the opportunities to do God’s will is the path to life and happiness.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Kedoshim 5631 First Ma'amar

This week we read two parshas. The Sfas Emes discusses the beginning of the second parsha. “דבר אל כל בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם קדֹשים תהיו כי קדוש אני ה' א-לֹהיכם/Speak to the entire community of the children of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy for I, God, your Lord, am holy.” Chazal say that this pasuk is teaching us to emulate God. Just as He is holy so too, must we be holy. But how can we possibly be holy like God?

The pasuk itself gives us a clue. The pasuk could have said, “כי קדוש אני/for I am holy” and stop. Why does it add “ה' א-לֹהיכם/God, your Lord?” The Midrash on the first few words of the ten commandments, “אנֹכי ה' א-לֹהיך/I am God, your Lord” explains that even though He is the Lord of all the nations, God dedicated Himself specifically to the nation of Israel. Of course God gives life and existence to the entire Creation. Still, He is more manifest in us. Chazal tell us that our souls, the life force of every Jew, are actually a part of God. It follows that since God is holy, we, too, can be holy. By separating us from the nations and bringing us close to Him, God gave us the ability to emulate Him and become holy. Chazal tell us that this pasuk is more than a mitzvah. It is a promise.

What does being holy mean? “קדוש/Holy” connotes separated. (For example, the Hebrew word for marriage – קידושין – has the same root as the word for holy because a married woman is separated from all men except one. A nazarite is called holy because he must keep away from wine and things that would defile his pure spiritual state.) In this sense God is holy since He is separate from everything. Paradoxically, though, He fills the entire creation. This idea is found in the Midrash on this week’s parsha explaining the pasuk in Tehillim, “ואתה מרום לעולם ה'/You are always on high, God.” The Midrash explains that God’s hand is always on top. The word “לעולם/always” also means “hidden” and “world.” This Midrash is teaching us that God’s hand is hidden in this world. He is separate and yet hidden within the universe giving life to it. It follows that every action has a spiritual Godly force that gives it existence. Because of our closeness to God, we, too, can become holy by connecting to the spiritual within our physical actions.

Since all Jewish souls are connected to God, they are perforce connected to each other as well. In fact, Chazal tell us that all the souls of the nation of Israel together comprise one mega-soul called, “כנסת ישראל/the congregation of Israel.” (We usually think of the soul as being in the body. However, according to Chazal only a small part of the soul is in the body. Most of a person’s soul extends from the body up through many spiritual realms to its source. It is at the source that we are all connected in “כנסת ישראל/the congregation of Israel.”) This mega-soul is a highly powerful spiritual force.

For this reason the Torah makes a point of telling us that the mitzvah of “קדושים תהיו/you shall be holy” was said to the entire community. Chazal tell us that Moshe Rabeinu taught all the mitzvos to the entire nation. Why does the Torah single out this one? According to what we have said, though, it is clear. By instructing Moshe Rabeinu to gather the entire nation together to hear this particular mitzvah, God is teaching us how to perform it.

When we cultivate a sense of identity with the nation of Israel; when we recognize that we are a part of the mega-soul of “כנסת ישראל/the congregation of Israel,” a part of God Himself, we are able to live in the physical world and yet connect to the spiritual. We can connect to the spiritual power of our actions, revealing the hidden Godliness, the holiness in them, thus becoming holy ourselves.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tazria/Metzora 5631 Second Ma'amar

The first paragraph of parshas Tazria teaches us that a woman who has just given birth is in a spiritually impure state. Considering the blessing of bringing new life into the world, particularly a Jewish soul, why should this be?

According the Chidushei HaRim, the second Midrash on this week’s parsha addresses this question. The Midrash explains a pasuk in Iyov, “אשא דֵעי למרחוק ולפֹעלי אתן צדק/I will raise my knowledge from afar and to my Maker I will ascribe righteousness.” The Midrash attributes this pasuk to Avraham Avinu after the test of Akeidas Yitzchak because on his way to sacrifice his son the pasuk tells us, “... וירא את המקום מרחוק/He saw the place from afar.” This hints at an additional aspect of the incredible test that was before him. The place he needed to reach was far away. Nevertheless, he strengthened himself to do the will of God. The Chidushei HaRim explains that the physical distance is a metaphor for the spiritual distance that separated Avraham Avinu from God. Avraham Avinu overcame the separation by realizing that God was with him even if He appeared to be far away. The distance was an illusion. After Avraham passed God’s test and came close to Him, he praised God for he understood that the entire test, including the perception of distance was for his own benefit. It provided him the opportunity to discover God’s holiness even from a perception of distance from Him.

As a result, Avraham Avinu was able to bequeath to his descendents the idea that no matter how distant we may feel from God, at times, God’s love for us is constant. This love always exists at least as a spark within each of us that represents closeness to God. When God told Avraham Avinu, “אנֹכי מגן לך/I will protect you,” He was referring to protecting this spark of closeness to God. The ending of the first brachah of the Amidah, “מגן אברהם/Protector of Avraham,” is our testimony to this spark of God’s love within us that God protects.

The prophet Yishayahu said, “שלום שלום לרחוק ולקרוב/Peace, peace to the far and near,” to teach us that God’s distance is part of the natural world. And this answers the Midrash’s question. The spiritual impurity that is drawn onto a woman when she brings new life into the world symbolizes the distance from God that is built into the natural world. It is a good thing because it affords us space within which we can work to come close to Him.

We see this idea in the pasuk from Tehillim, “אחור וקדם צרתני/You have bound me back and front.” The word, “צרתני/You have bound me,” can also be translated as, “You have formed me.” Back” represents distance from God whereas “front” represents nearness. The pasuk is teaching us that God formed us with the ability to come close to Him through the aspect of distance which is built into the Creation. The reason is, as we’ve said, that the distance is illusory. We were created with the spark of closeness within us.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Kulabay Comment Rules

The purpose of Kulabay and comments on this blog is to question, expand and clarify the ideas presented in the posts. Any and all comments which are directly related to the ideas presented in a post will probably be accepted. Any that are not, will be deleted.

Notwithstanding the above, I, as the blog owner, of course reserve the right to delete any comment regardless of it's content.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tazria/Metzora 5631 First Ma'amar

“וביום השמיני ימול בשר ערלתו/On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin will be circumcised.” This week’s parsha begins with a description of the mitzvos incumbent on a woman who has just given birth, how long she remains in an impure spiritual state and the sacrifices she must bring. Why is the mitzvah of circumcision inserted here? It seems to be out of context especially in light of the fact that this mitzvah is already described in detail when God commands Avraham Avinu to perform it.

The Torah is teaching us that we are born to perform a mission. We can learn the nature of this mission from the mitzvah of circumcision. First we will discuss the mission itself. Then we will see how it relates to circumcision.

The first Midrash of this week’s parshah explains the pasuk in Tehillim, “אחור וקדם צרתני .../From behind and from in front you have bound me…” Chazal explain that this pasuk alludes to this world and the next. “אחור וקדם/behind and in front” can also be translated as “last and first.” “אחור/Last” refers to this world which was created last and “קדם/first” refers to the next world which was created first. If a person merits it he inherits two worlds, this one and the next one. The meritorious person is bound, so to speak, to this world and the next one.

Inheriting the next world is certainly a tremendous thing. It is the reason we exist. However, why is it a praise and reward to inherit this world? This world is merely transitory, the place where we prepare for the next world. The word the Midrash uses for inherit is nochel rather than the more common term yoresh. The word nochel has the same root as the Hebrew word for a stream - נחל. A stream connects two places. It transfers water and other items from one place to another. This Midrash is teaching us that we need to connect the next world and this world. How do we do this?

Chazal tell us that every Jew has a portion in the next world. They did not say that we will have a portion in the next world. They said that we have a portion now in the next world. The Sfas Emes explains that even in this world every one of our physical actions has an inner spiritual light hidden within it. This spiritual light is actually our portion of the next world in this world. When we perform a mitzvah, a kindness for someone, learn Torah, say a brachah with conscious intent or do any one of the myriad actions in the course of our daily lives with the intent to bring ourselves closer to God, we are drawing out the inner spiritual light that is hidden in the action. We are drawing down the stream, so to speak, from the next world into this world. In this way, we connect the next world to this one.

The purpose of the creation is for us to correct the physical world by revealing that inner hidden spiritual light. The Zohar explains that this same pasuk in Tehillim alludes to the creation of man. The word, “צרתני/you have bound me” can also be translated as, “you have formed me.” The Zohar explains that man was the last creation but he was the first in God’s thought, as it were, the ultimate raison d’être of the entire creation. Man was created last because he completes the entire creation. And because man’s purpose is to reveal the spiritual in the physical world, God hid Himself when He created man.

Circumcision represents the removal of the physical barriers and the revelation of Godliness. We make this happen through our actions. The Maharal explains that the number seven represents the physical. Creation took seven days. The number eight represents the supernatural. When we, through our actions, connect to the next world which is beyond nature and reveal it in this world, the physical barriers dissolve allowing the spiritual to shine through. For this reason, circumcision must be done on the eighth day.

We find this concept in a pasuk from Yechezkal referring to the third temple, “... שער החצר הפנימית הפֹנה קדים יהיה סגור ששת ימי המעשה וביום השבת יפתח וביום החֹדש 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 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. In fact, a state of spiritual revelation is a definition of Shabbos. If we allow our Shabbos experience to affect the weekdays that follow, we draw the Shabbos into the week. In a sense, it is possible to experience an aspect of Shabbos during the week as well. This is the same as saying that through our actions we can draw the next world into this one.

The Midrash tells us that the reason we cannot perform circumcision before the eighth day is to assure that every baby lives through at least one Shabbos before he is circumcised. The Midrash’s message is that experiencing Shabbos, the state of spiritual revelation, enables us to remove the barriers which hide our inner Godliness.

Getting back to the beginning of our parsha, a child is born into this world with a mission. The details of each person’s mission may differ, but the general concept is the same. We are here to reveal the spiritual that hides within the physical. We do this by connecting to the spiritual through our actions. This is hinted at the beginning of this week’s parsha with the birth of a child and the mitzvah of circumcision which must be performed on the eighth day.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Shemini 5631 First Ma'amar

Note: This is the first half of the Ma'amar.

The purpose of the Mishkan was so that God’s presence would be felt amongst the nation. Following the seven days of Milu’im/initiation of the Mishkan God’s presence was still not felt. Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation of Israel, “זה הדבר אשר צוה ה' תעשו וירא אליכם כבוד ה'/This is the thing that God commanded you to do, then God’s glory will appear to you.” According to Chazal, Moshe Rabbeinu is telling the nation to rid themselves of their inclination towards idol worship and to worship only God. Just like God is One, so too, our service should be dedicated only to Him.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Chazal are also teaching us that everything that we do can be dedicated to serving God. “אשר צוה ה' תעשו/Do that which God commanded you” means that everything you do should be included in that which God commanded you. Then “וירא אליכם כבוד ה'/The glory of God will appear to you.” The reason is because the glory of God is hidden within everything in the world as Yishaya HaNavi tells us, “מלֹא כל הארץ כבודו/The whole world is filled with His glory.” Our mission is to try to find the will of God in everything we do. This is what Moshe Rabbeinu was hinting to.

Moshe Rabbeinu refers to achieving God’s will through a person’s actions as, “זה הדבר/This is the thing.” The Torah tells us that there is a fundamental difference between Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy and the prophecy of all other prophets. Chazal teach us that the Moshe Rabbeinu alluded to this difference since he was the only prophet to preface his prophecies with, “זה הדבר/This is the thing.” This wording implies more clarity and exactness. Therefore, Moshe Rabbeinu uses these same words to indicate an individual’s high level of clarity regarding his own actions.

The highest level of clarity one can have is when he knows that he has accomplished God’s will. He has drawn out the spiritual essence of his action; a high level indeed. The purpose of the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash is to make this easier by bringing the perception of God’s presence into our life experience. May we merit it speedily!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Last Days of Pesach 5631 Second Ma'amar

On the seventh day of Pesach the nation of Israel crossed the Red Sea and sang Shiras HaYam/The Song of the Sea. The Shirah starts with, “אשירה לה' כי גאֹה גאה/I will sing to God for He is most exalted.” The double wording “גאֹה גאה/He is most exalted” implies that He is the epitome of exaltedness, of greatness. To say that the difference between God’s exaltedness and that of others is simply a matter of degree is difficult. Instead, the Sfas Emes explains that the double wording teaches us something about the relationship of the greatness of others to God. It implies that the greatness of all others are only for His glory whereas God’s glory is inherent. It has no ulterior reason. How so?

We find in Mishlei, “לפני שבר גאון/Pride precedes destruction.” The greatness of the wicked glorifies God in their destruction. The greater they are, the greater God’s honor when they are destroyed. The greatness of the righteous glorifies God as well when the righteous even in greatness subordinates himself to God and recognizes His benevolence. The greater the righteous the more he glorifies God when he acknowledges God’s kindnesses. We see that the greatness of others is for the glory of God.

According to this we can understand why we find in the Shirah, “אמר אויב ארדוף אשיג .../The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will reach …” Why is this part of the Shirah? Do we care to know the intentions of the enemy? Is not the purpose of the Shirah to sing praises to God for having saved us? The Sfas Emes explains that this is exactly the reason that the enemy’s intentions are mentioned. The more impertinent the enemy the greater God’s glory when he is destroyed. The enemy’s intentions are followed directly with God’s action to destroy him, “נשפת ברוחך כסמו ים .../You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them …” The enemy’s impudence helped cause his own destruction.

Last Days of Pesach 5631 First Ma'amar

“דבר אל בני ישראל וישובו .../Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to return …” The children of Israel had left Egypt three days earlier. God commands Moshe Rabeinu to instruct the nation to turn around and head back towards the Egyptians. Pharaoh will think that the nation has lost its way in the desert and will be goaded into pursuing them. When he confronts the nation of Israel, God will destroy him and the Egyptians. The question that jumps out at us as we read these p’sukim is, “Why?” What was to be gained by returning? If God wanted to destroy the Egyptian army, He certainly had ample opportunity beforehand.

God took us out of Egypt, not because we deserved it but rather to fulfill His promise to our forefathers. But God wanted us to be redeemed on our own merits. So, he gave us the opportunity. He instructed us to double back towards the Egyptians. Such a counter-intuitive act required a very high level of faith in God. Chazal teach us that due to this faith, God split the sea for us. Furthermore, Chazal tell us that at the time of the splitting of the sea, we were being judged to see if we were worthy of such a miracle. In other words, God wanted us to deserve being saved.

This explains why we were fearful when the Egyptians came and why Moshe Rabeinu cried out to God. When you think about it, it seems strange. God instructed us to return so that He could wipe out the Egyptians before us. We knew this. And yet, when we saw the Egyptians coming, the Torah relates that we were very afraid. Not only were we very afraid, but Moshe Rabeinu cried out to God. Why? Moshe Rabeinu certainly knew that God was going to save us. We knew it as well. The answer is that the children of Israel of course believed that God was going to save them. Our concern was that we would not be saved on our own merit.

With this idea we can understand the difference between a miracle we do not deserve but which God performs anyway in His infinite kindness and a miracle that we deserve. Both Egypt and the sea represented barriers, challenges that stood between the nation and freedom, physical freedom and spiritual freedom. It is important to see these barriers for what they really are, namely challenges put in our path. They have no independent existence apart from this. They are placed between us and our goals so that we may overcome them and earn closeness to God. Overcoming the challenge and looking back, we see it for what it really is. However, if God takes us past the challenge in His kindness, the challenge still appears real and tangible to us. When God took us out of Egypt in his infinite benevolence, even though we did not deserve it, the barrier remained. In our minds, Egypt was still there.

When God saved us at the sea because we warranted it, however, the barrier itself was removed. This is why, according to Chazal, the sea did not split until the water reached their noses. God only split the sea because of the faith we had in Him. We find this same idea in Hallel, “היתה יהודה לקדשו ישראל ממשלותיו: הים ראה וינֹס .../Yehuda became His sanctuary, Yisrael His dominions. The sea saw and fled …” The sea is no more than a challenge, an obstacle in our path. When we walked into the sea we showed that we were unwilling to allow the sea to stand between us and God. We came close to God. The sea saw this and fled. This is the meaning of another Midrash which says that when Moshe Rabeinu stretched his hand over the sea it refused to split. It only split when it saw God.

When God helps us and through his lovingkindness moves us past barriers that stand between us and our goals, those barriers are still real to us. They may pop up again in different circumstances. However, when we work on ourselves to serve God and come close to Him notwithstanding the impediments that stand in our way, those impediments, having served their purpose, fall.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Shabbos Chol HaMo'ed Pesach 5631 First Ma'amar

On Shabbos Chol HaMo’ed we read from parshas Ki Sisa, “אלֹהי מסכה לא תעשה לך: את חג המצות תשמֹר .../Do not make for yourself any molten gods. You shall observe the festival of matzos …” From the juxtaposition of these two laws, Chazal teach us that one who belittles the holidays is as if he worships idols. On the second day of Pesach we read in parshas Emor, several paragraphs commanding us regarding all the holidays. These are preceded by the command to keep Shabbos. Here Chazal teach us that one who keeps the holidays is considered to have kept the Shabbos and conversely, one who profanes the holidays is considered to have profaned the Shabbos. What is the meaning and significance of these teachings?

The following fundamental premises will help us to understand. The first premise is that the entire physical Creation is rooted in the spiritual. Everything we see around us is simply the physical manifestation of an entity whose root is spiritual, outside of the natural world.

The second premise is that on Shabbos the entire physical Creation is more sensitive to its spiritual roots. The words of the Sfas Emes are, “Shabbos means an uplifting of every thing to its root which is above nature and which is the source of life of every thing.” On Shabbos, this sensitivity to the spiritual is automatic. This is why the sanctity of Shabbos (as opposed to the sanctity of the holidays as we shall soon see,) is not dependent upon us.

It is important to note though, parenthetically, that people will experience Shabbos differently depending upon how they prepare for Shabbos during the week. This is the point of a Midrash in Shir HaShirim which we read this Shabbos. The pasuk in Shir HaShirim states, “שחורה אני ונאוה/I am black and beautiful.” The Midrash says that “black” refers to the days of the week whereas “beautiful” refers to Shabbos. The Sfas Emes asks that apparently “black” is also a praise but what is the praise? The praise is, the Sfas Emes answers, that I can draw the holiness of Shabbos into the days of the week. Even as we are busy with our necessary weekday activities, we understand these activities, too, are rooted in holiness, in the spiritual. By recognizing this, we draw an aspect of Shabbos into our weekdays as well. To use the metaphor, even as I am black with mundane activities on a physical level, I am beautiful when I recognize the aspect of Shabbos holiness which inheres in those very activities.

The ability to experience a more spiritual Shabbos is alluded to by the halachah of Toseffes Shabbos, the requirement to accept Shabbos early before sunset on Friday and to keep it until after nightfall on Shabbos night. (Click here to see VaYeishev 5631 First Ma’amar for a more detailed discussion of Toseffes Shabbos.) We see that we can “add” to Shabbos.

The third premise is that God gave us the authority to establish when we celebrate the holidays. The mechanism we use to do this is establishing when the month begins. Beis Din alone decides when the month begins. Chazal teach us that the new month is established according to the decision of Beis Din, even when Beis Din made a mistake and even if they intentionally established the wrong day as the beginning of the new month.

(There is a famous story brought in Maseches Rosh HaShanah in which Rabban Gamliel, the president of the Sanhedrin, required R’ Yehoshua to profane the day on which Yom Kippur fell according to R’ Yehoshua’s reckoning. Rabban Gamliel needed to drive the point home. Beis Din sanctifies the days of the month. According to the Sanhedrin’s reckoning, R’ Yehoshua’s Yom Kippur was a regular weekday. R’ Yehoshua’s calculation may have been correct and the Sanhedrin may have erred. This is missing the point. The Sanhedrin has the authority to decide on which day Yom Kippur falls, even in error.)

Since the holidays fall on specific dates, Beis Din has the authority to sanctify specific days of the month. The calendar, having everything to do with time, represents the physical Creation which exists within time. Time itself is part of the Creation having been created as well. We learn from the holidays that we can sanctify the physical. Whereas on Shabbos the Creation is automatically more sensitive to its spiritual roots, the holidays teach us that we have the ability, as well, to make the physical more sensitive to its spiritual roots. We are able to reveal the spiritual inherent in the physical.

Now, with these premises, we can understand the two teachings of Chazal regarding keeping the holidays. Keeping the holidays is an acknowledgement that the physical world exists because it is connected to spiritual roots. One who does not keep the holidays, denies this connection. He believes that the physical has an autonomous existence. Believing that there is an autonomous power outside of God, outside of the spiritual, is the fundamental definition of idol worship. In the words of Chazal, “One who belittles the holidays is as if he worships idols.”

The Zohar is clearly referring to this concept when it says that one who does not keep the holidays is like one who does not believe in God because belief in God is dependent upon the holidays. This otherwise enigmatic Zohar is understood according to what we’ve said; keeping the holidays is a demonstration of our belief that the physical is part of and in fact, stems from, the spiritual, from God.

In the same vein, a person who profanes the holidays is considered to have profaned Shabbos as well. The only difference between Shabbos and the holidays is that on Shabbos the sensitivity to the spiritual is automatic whereas on the holidays we cause it. Denying the connection on the holidays, therefore, is the same as denying it on Shabbos, too.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Pesach First Night 5631 Second Ma'amar

In the Haggadah the wise son asks, “What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that God our Lord commanded you?” The Sfas Emes understands that the wise son is asking to understand the reasons for the laws, not the actual laws. It is to be assumed that he knows the laws. However, how can he ask for a reason for the statutes? Statutes do not have reason. Included in statutes, for example, are the red heifer, sha’atnez and eating non-kosher animals. These mitzvos have no apparent reason. How, then, can the wise son ask for the reason for these mitzvos?

David HaMelech, though, taught us, “מגיד דבריו ליעקב חוקיו ומשפטיו לישראל/He told his words to Ya’akov, His statutes and laws to Israel.” We see that really, statutes have meaning as well. How can we come to know the reasons for the statutes? The Sfas Emes explains that the way to attain an understanding of the statutes is by doing them even without understanding but with the faith that they have meaning. By performing these mitzvos without feeling the reason, we will merit knowing the reason as well. (Click here and see the second vort in Parshas Parah for more detail on the reasons of חוקים/statutes.)

The mitzvah of eating matzah alludes to this. The matzah is made of nothing but flour and water. It contains no additional spices or flavors. It has no additional taste. In Hebrew the same word is used for taste and for reason – טעם. We eat the matzah without adding any other flavor to it to show that the mitzvah itself is enough for us.

Appropriately, the answer we give the wise son is, “one is not to eat any dessert after the Pesach-lamb.” He wants to know the טעם/reason for the mitzvos including the statutes. We tell him that the way to know the reasons is to do them without knowing the reason but with faith in God who commanded us. We give him a hint when we tell him not to add to the טעם/taste of the Korban Pesach.”

This halachah applies nowadays as well. We eat matzah at the end of the Seder to commemorate the Korban Pesach. We do not eat anything after the matzah so that only the taste of the matzah lingers. This year let us contemplate, as we eat the Afikoman, the words of the Sfas Emes. Let us associate the טעם/taste of the Afikoman with the טעם/reason for the חוקים/statutes.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pesach First Night 5631 First Ma'amar

“בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים ... לא את אבותינו בלבד גאל הקב"ה אלא אף אותנו גאל עמהם שנאמר, 'ואותנו הוציא משם'/In each and every generation a man must look upon himself as if he left Egypt… God did not only redeem our forefathers. He redeemed us with them as it says, ‘He took us from there.”

The Torah says simply that God took us out of Egypt. Why do Chazal instruct us to view ourselves individually as if we left Egypt? Also, why did Chazal choose to preface their instruction with, “בכל דור ודור/In each and every generation”? What does this add to our understanding of Chazal’s teaching?

The Sfas Emes explains that the Exodus contained the seeds of all future redemptions. In Hebrew the word “מצרים/Egypt” has the same root as the word for distress – מֵצר, and it connotes a constricted path. Each generation has its own particular issues, its own constricted path that prevents it from serving God to the hilt; that prevents it from experiencing God’s presence. Each generation has its own “Exodus” as well; its own redemption that is uniquely appropriate for the tribulations of the generation. Each generation’s unique redemption was included in the original Exodus. The original Exodus made possible all future redemptions just as a seed makes possible the subsequent tree that grows out of it. Chazal allude to the uniqueness of each generation by prefacing the instruction to remember the Exodus with, “בכל דור ודור/In each and every generation.”

The Maharal explains that as part of the nation of Israel we were included in the Exodus. In order to experience our own personal redemption, though, we must view ourselves individually as if we left Egypt. When a person sees himself as part of the nation – by seeing himself as if he left Egypt – and believes that the seeds of his generation’s redemption hark back to the Exodus, his personal redemption will be revealed to him. Then he will be able to break out of those bonds holding him personally back from serving God to the utmost. He will be able to break free of his own constraints and experience a personal “Exodus.”

This same concept appears regarding the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus. We find in the Hagaddah, “... ואפילו כולנו חכמים ... מצוה עלינו לספר ביציאת מצרים .../… and even if we are all scholars … we are required to tell the story of the Exodus...” Why is it incumbent even upon scholars, who certainly know the story of the Exodus well, to repeat it? God is more manifest to a Torah scholar than to others. God’s revelation is simply another way of saying redemption. Saying that God is revealed to a Torah scholar, is the same as saying that there is a redemption in his generation. This redemption is possible only because of the redemption from Egypt. It has its roots in the redemption from Egypt. In absolute terms, this is certainly true. However the scholar will only experience this redemption personally by believing that its source is the redemption from Egypt. He tells over the story of the Exodus to demonstrate his belief that the original Exodus contained the seeds of every future redemption. By relating the story of the Exodus he attests that it is relevant today and to his own personal situation.

According to the level of our faith that each of use were part of the original Exodus, our own redemption will be revealed to us and we will be able to overcome our own personal constraints and experience a personal redemption.