Monday, December 29, 2008

Chanukah 5631 Eigth Night (Zos Chanuka)

The eighth day of Chanukah is called Zos Chanukah/This is Chanukah, after the Torah reading for this day which contains the words “zos chanukas hamizbei’ach …/this is the dedication of the altar ...” (Bamidbar 7:84) Aside from the nice play on words what is the significance of the name?

The Sfas Emes explains that Zos Chanukah indicates something very fundamental about Chanukah. The Chanukah story begins with the persecution of the Jews by the Assyrian Greeks. The situation was bleak indeed. The gentile rulers were powerful. How could we overcome them? From the depths of this darkness came the salvation.

The word zos/this, is laden with symbolism. In the Zohar[1] we find the word zos alluding to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Heaven. The Midrash[2] says that the word zos/this in the pasuk, “... בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ/… in this I trust,” (Tehillim 27:1) is an allusion to God – in God I trust.

The early kabbalists[3] teach that zos alludes specifically to that point of spirituality through which God gives existence to the physical. David HaMelech as well, asked God to preserve this recognition of His presence within us, “... שָׁמְרָה־זֹּאת לְעוֹלָם לְיֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבוֹת לְבַב עַמֶּךָ .../… Preserve this forever – the product of the thoughts of Your people’s hearts …” (Divrei HaYamim 1 29:18)

, then, is a reference to the Godliness hidden within us and all of Creation. Knowing that everything, including God’s obscurity is powered by this point of God given spirituality, essentially, knowing that God is “in” everything and that everything is therefore “good” is a tremendous tool for strengthening one’s faith particularly in times of exile. This, in fact, is the fundamental meaning of the pasuk in Eicha (3:21), “זֹאת אָשִׁיב אֶל־לִבִּי עַל־כֵּן אוֹחִיל/This I will bear in mind; therefore I have hope.” The prophet is teaching us that when we bear in mind zos – that the exile as well is from God and that He is present even in the darkness of it – we have good reason for hope.

This concept is the lesson of Chanukah. The salvation came when the nation realized that God was with them in the darkness as well. We find this idea as well in the following pesukim from Tehillim (112:7-8), “מִשְּׁמוּעָה רָעָה לֹא יִירָא נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה': סָמוּךְ לִבּוֹ לֹא יִירָא עַד אֲשֶׁר־יִרְאֶה בְצָרָיו/He will have no fear of evil tidings; his heart is firm, confident in God. His heart is steadfast, he shall not fear, he will even [expect to] see [vengeance upon] his tormentors.” When a person trusts in God, he knows that salvation is at hand. The Chiddushei HaRim points out that, significantly, the last letters of the words, “נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה׳ סָמוּךְ/his heart is firm, confident in God, steadfast” spells out חֲנוּכָּה/Chanukah.

The chapter in Tehillim that we say on Chanukah bears out this idea. “הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה/You have transformed my lament into dancing for me; You undid my sackcloth and girded me with happiness.” (Tehillim 30:12) The word for transformed – הָפַכְתָּ – also means to overturn or to turn inside out. The difference between lament and dancing is whether God is hidden or revealed. Dancing is lament turned inside out, as it were. The important point is that God is present in both. The Midrash[4] on the curses in parshas BeChukosai makes this point when it says that the difference between the blessings and the curses is that the blessings are in the order of the Hebrew alphabet whereas the curses are backwards.

The second half of the pasuk continues this idea. It is important to understand that the sackcloth, a clear reference to exile and God’s concealment is only a cover. When the sackcloth is undone, when the concealment is removed, God is revealed in the form of salvation and closeness to Him. Then we are girded with happiness. This is the meaning of Chanukah, the days of miracles, when the nation of Israel was at a very low point and God helped us. It is encouraging to know that according to the extent of concealment so is the extent of the good since everything is from God and everything is for good. And according to our recognition of this fact and our trust in God so the underlying good will be revealed and we will merit salvation.

[1] Zohar 1:93b-94a

[2] VaYikra R. 21:4

[3] Sha’arei Ora 1:14a-b

[4] VaYikra R. 35:1

Thursday, December 18, 2008

VaYeishev 5631 Third Ma'amar

The mission of the children of Israel was to recognize and clarify that there is a spiritual component to everything physical. Every physical thing has spiritual roots. The physical world exists only because its spiritual roots provide it with existence sustenance much as a tree could not exist without its roots which provide it with life-giving sustenance. Even though the physical world contains many, many disparate and sundry things, the entire physical world has a common spiritual denominator. This means, of course, that the world is not abandoned. Rather, God runs things here.

The Sfas Emes sees an allusion to this concept in Yosef’s first dream, “וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים בְּתוֹך הַשָּׂדֶה .../And behold, we are binding sheaves in the middle of the field …” A field connotes an abandoned place. We find, for example, that the Torah calls Esav a, “אִישׁ שָׂדֶה/man of the field”. Chazal tell us that Esav lived with abandonment, killing and stealing other men’s wives. This world seems to be “abandoned”. Like the field, it appears as if the world has an autonomous existence and there is no one running the show.

A defining factor of nature and the material world is plurality. A defining factor of the spiritual is unity. Since the spiritual underlies the physical, the plurality of the physical is an illusion. In reality, there is unity in the physical as well. Binding the sheaves symbolizes this unity. This unity is the antithesis of abandonment. The unity underlying the physical world points to Divine Providence.

Recognizing that events are not happenstance, that the world is not “abandoned” but rather that there is Divine Providence, we can understand the Midrash on the next part of the dream, “... וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי .../… and behold my sheaf arose …”

The word for sheaf – אֲלֻמָּתִי – has the same root as the word for mute – אִלֵם. The Midrash says that this is an allusion to Yosef’s mother Rachel who refused to speak up when Ya’akov sent gifts for her and Lavan, her father, gave them to her sister Leah. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, “My entire life I was raised among the sages and I haven’t found a better thing for the body than silence.” Why was Rachel silent? Why did she not stand up for herself? Rachel was silent, the Sfas Emes explains, because she was aware of the limits of her intelligence and abilities in the face of Divine Providence. She was quiet because she knew that there was nothing she could possibly do to change the Providence that decreed that Leah be married to Ya’akov. One can only imagine how difficult a test this must have been for her, but she succeeded in subordinating her own desire to Divine Providence.

If events constantly occur that are opposed to our desires. If our desires are constantly being thwarted, then it’s time to entertain the possibility that God is sending us a message. Since our intelligence and desires are of no value against Providence, and if they are aligned with Divine Providence, we cannot help but succeed, it is in our best interest to align our will with God’s.

Friday, December 12, 2008

VaYishlach 5631 Third Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha the Torah relates the dramatic meeting between Esav and Ya’akov after thirty-four years. Ya’akov implores Esav to accept his gift saying, “... כִּי־חַנַּנִי אֱ־לֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹל .../… for God has favored me and I have everything …” Ya’akov Avinu is telling Esav not to be concerned. Ya’akov will not lose anything by giving the gift to Esav. The Or HaChayim explains that even after Ya’akov gives Esav the gift he will be left with everything he originally had. The simple understanding is that since Esav declined Ya’akov’s gift saying that he has a lot and does not need it, Ya’akov responded that he has everything, meaning more than Esav.

This needs to be explained, though. Even if Ya’akov wanted to mollify Esav, how can he say that he has everything? Obviously, when a person gives up something, he has less than before. There are also plenty of things that Ya’akov does not have.

The Sfas Emes therefore explains that Ya’akov Avinu’s response was not a reference to the quantity of his assets. The difference between Esav’s “a lot” and Ya’akov’s “everything” is a fundamental difference between the physical and the spiritual. The physical world is exemplified by quantity and disparateness. The spiritual is exemplified by unity. The more spiritual the less disparate and the more unified. The ultimate unity, of course, is God. Unity means inclusiveness. Because God is the ultimate unity, everything is included in Him.

Ya’akov Avinu said, “I have everything,” because he was aware of the Godliness that is inherent in everything physical. The quantity of his assets was immaterial to the truth of his declaration. Whether he had a lot or a little, he had everything because God’s life force within his assets includes everything.

This concept explains how it is that Hagar, Avraham’s concubine, did not see the well in the desert until God opened her eyes. The Midrash says that we are all considered blind until God enlightens us. Hagar was desperately in need of water. She was in the middle of a desert and had no idea how or where to find it. Hagar’s salvation came when God gave her the understanding that He is in everything. As a result of this realization she was connected to everything including the means to get the water she needed.

Many times we find ourselves in less that optimal situations. We need a solution but do not know how or where to attain it. Chazal are teaching us how we can recognize the solution and attain it. Realizing that God’s force is in everything, we connect with everything. As a result we become aware of the solution which also contains God’s life force. May we merit it!

Friday, December 05, 2008

VaYeitzei 5632 Third Ma'amar

The physical world is a mechanism for concealing God. God is not at all apparent in the natural world. Were He, we would be completely overwhelmed. We would have little choice but to fulfill His will. There would be no “space” within which we could work to come close to Him. As it is, the world that God created hides Him thus providing us the opportunity to reveal Him. We reveal Him by believing that He is the force that gives life to every thing.

The Sfas Emes understands this from a homiletical interpretation of the pesukim in this week’s parsha that describe Ya’akov Avinu at the well when he first comes to Charan. וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה בְאֵר בַּשָׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁם שְׁלֹשָׁה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן רֹבְצִים עָלֶיהָ כִּי מִן־הַבְּאֵר הַהִוא יַשְׁקוּ הָעֲדָרִים וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה עַל־פִּי הַבְּאֵר׃ וְנֶאֶסְפוּ־שָׁמָּה כָל־הָעֲדָרִים וְגָלְלוּ אֶת־הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר .../He looked and beheld a well in the field and there were three flocks of sheep lying about it, because from the well they watered the flocks but there was a great stone upon the well. When all the flocks gathered there, they rolled the stone off the mouth of the well …”

The field represents this world with its apparent independent existence. It seems to be ownerless, abandoned. The well represents the spiritual underlying life-giving force that is within the natural world. A thinking person has the ability to use intelligence to discern the underlying force. If a person thinks about it, he will come to the conclusion that the world cannot have an independent existence. There must be some force that created it and keeps it in existence. Existence requires energy. Nothing can exist without a motive force within it. This intelligence is represented by the three flocks of sheep which symbolize chochma/wisdom, bina/understanding and da’as/knowledge – the sum total of man’s intelligence.

However, if a person does not use his intelligence, does not constantly think about this, then God is concealed. This concealment is represented by the great stone which is upon the well hiding the water within. What can we do to prevent this concealment? We can gather all our desires and abilities and devote them to God. Prior to commencing any activity, we can intend that this activity be a fulfillment of God’s will. This is represented by all the flocks gathering together resulting in the stone being rolled off the well thus revealing the water underneath.

Another possible understanding of, “וְנֶאֶסְפוּ־שָׁמָּה/and they gathered together there” is to identify with the nation of Israel. In the future, the entire Creation will be unified in a recognition of God. The result of such a universal recognition will be a revelation the likes of which we cannot even imagine.

Nowadays, this power to reveal is inherent in the nation of Israel. We, as a nation, were given the power, by recognizing that God is within the Creation, to reveal Him. Because of this, an individual Jew can also remove God’s concealment by identifying with the nation. By recognizing our role as a part of the nation, we understand that our actions are not for ourselves alone. Rather they affect the entire nation.

It is this power that enabled Ya’akov Avinu to remove the stone from the well even as the individual shepherds could not. Ya’akov, representing the entire nation of Israel had within him the power to remove God’s concealment as we have today. May we merit it!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Toldos 5631 Third Ma'amar

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ הָאֱ-לֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֹשׁ/And God will give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine.” (Breishis 27:28) Thus begins Yitzchak Avinu’s blessing to Ya’akov. Is it not somewhat strange that the blessing begins with the word “and” as if this were a continuation? Rashi, addressing this question, cites the Midrash which says that the “and” implies a continuity of the blessing itself; in the words of the Midrash, “He will give and give again.” When we try to understand this answer, though, we find that it, too, needs an explanation? The Midrash implies that without the “and” at the beginning of the blessing, Yitzchak is giving a blessing meant to be fulfilled only once. This certainly cannot be. What then, is the Midrash really teaching us?

Yitzchak’s blessing actually raises another fundamental question. The blessing implies that to receive our needs from God is a good thing. We learn from the blessing that it is better to have the things we need than not to have them. Setting aside self indulgence for a moment, why should this be? Why is it not better to live a miserable existence and gain everlasting reward for suffering? The Sfas Emes answers that God wants us to serve Him. He therefore gives us the means to serve Him. He gives us the material means to serve Him as well as help with our spiritual service to Him. Suffering, in and of itself, is not an ideal. Rather, God wants us to use what He gives us to serve Him.

This then, is the meaning of the Midrash. When we use the things that God gives us in order to serve Him, we are essentially turning the material abundance into spiritual abundance. When we add abundance to the spiritual realms we cause a new cycle, a renewal, of material abundance in the physical world. Thus, “He will give and give again.”

The following Midrash states this idea clearly.[1] In the Torah we find that sometimes God addresses Moshe Rabbeinu, “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה/God said to Moshe.” We also find that Moshe addresses God, “וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לה'/Moshe said to God.” The Midrash understands that speaking to someone is a form of influence. Certainly the very revelation of God to someone is a form of giving abundance to that person. After all, the greatest good, the greatest pleasure we can possibly experience is being close to God. The Midrash teaches us, that this idea applies in the opposite direction as well. When the Torah tells us that Moshe spoke to God, it is teaching us that Moshe can “influence” God, as it were. Of course, God is infinite and therefore never changes. He certainly is not influenced by anything. However, “God” here, is an inference to the spiritual realms which are at the root of the physical world. God structured the Creation so that material abundance begins with blessing in the spiritual realms – “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה/God said to Moshe” – but then the strength of the spiritual realms is dependent upon our actions here in the physical world – “וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לַה'/Moshe said to God.”

The Midrash presents this idea in the form of an analogy to a cave situated right near the sea. The water of the sea enters the cave and then flows back into the sea. The cave initially receives the water from the sea, but the cave also returns the water to the sea. The initial blessing and influence is spiritual and comes from God, as we find in Yitzchak’s blessing, “... מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם .../… from the dew of the heavens …” Only afterward does it descend to this material world in the form of material abundance.

Moshe Rabbeinu represents the entire nation of Israel. What is true for him is true for us as well. We have the ability, and the duty, to return to od, that which he gives us, by using the things He gives us to do His will, to perform mitzvos and acts of kindness. By doing this we point up the difference between the nation of Israel and the nations of the world. The nations of the world see the material abundance and do not relate it back God. They imbue power to the physical itself, the very basis of idol worship. We, on the other hand, revert everything physical back to its spiritual roots.

Strengthening the spiritual brings more blessing and renewal down to the physical world. This is the meaning of the pasuk in Koheles and Chazal’s explanation, “... אֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ/… There is nothing new under the sun.” (Koheles 1:9) Chazal understand this to be a metaphor for the physical world.[2] Under the sun, in the physical world, there is nothing new. However, above the sun, in the spiritual, there is novelty, renewal. Only through the spiritual, therefore, is it possible to bring renewal and novelty into the physical world.

May we merit Yitzchak’s blessing, “He will give and give again,” by using the material things God gives us to fulfill His will. Amen!

[1] Shmos R. 45:3

[2] Shabbos 30b

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chayei Sarah 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים .../And Avraham was old, advanced in age (lit. - he came with his days) …” The Zohar explains that when a person passes on, he comes to the next world enclothed in his days. The Chiddushei HaRim explains that a person’s mitzvos create enlightenment. The enlightenment of no two days are the same. Being enclothed by his days means that the unique enlightenment from each day surrounded him.

The Sfas Emes says further that “בָּא בַּיָּמִים/he came with his days” means that all the enlightening experiences Avraham Avinu had on each day remained with him forever. Usually, an enlightening experience is exhilarating while we experience it. Then, when we get used to it, the exhilaration dies down. What was exhilarating becomes a little stale with time.

We may think that there is nothing wrong with this. After all, it’s only natural to forget. The Sfas Emes, though, teaches that we are required to remember the exhilaration we experience when God sends us an inspiration . According to the Sfas Emes, the Torah admonishes us not to forget this exhilaration in this pasuk, “רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְךָ מְאֹד פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ .../Only, take care and guard yourselves well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw …

What can we do to maintain the freshness of an inspiring experience long after the event? The Sfas Emes teaches us that Avraham Avinu reached an advanced age with all his enlightening experiences as if they all happened now. Nothing was lost in the passage of time. Nothing became stale and old in Avraham Avinu’s view of the world.

The Chiddushei HaRim uses this concept to give a novel interpretation to a Mishna in Avos, “הַלּוֹמֵד יֶלֶד לְמַה הוּא דּוֹמֶה לִדְיוֹ כְּתוּבָה עַל נְיָר חָדָשׁ וְהַלּוֹמֵד זָקֵן לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה לִדְיוֹ כְּתוּבָה עַל נְיָר מָחוּק/To what can a child who learns be compared? To ink written on new paper. To what can an old person who learns be compared? To ink written on used paper that has been erased.” The Chiddushei HaRim learns that the Tanna is not necessarily speaking of a young person vs. and old person. Rather the Mishna is referring to one who has a child’s outlook vs. an old person’s outlook. To a child, everything is new and exciting whereas an old person rarely gets excited. He’s seen it all before.

Avraham Avinu, even though he was at an advanced age, had a child’s view. He was exhilarated by all the enlightening experiences that he ever experienced as if they were new to him and had just occurred.

How did he cultivate this incredible world view and how can we? The answer to this question is based on an understanding of what an inspirational experience really is. From where do our flashes of inspiration come? One moment I am in quandary. The next moment the answer is clear in my mind. A new, original thought exists that did not exist before. Where did it come from?

The Sfas Emes teaches that from within the physical world, no novelty is possible. All novelty comes from outside the physical world. Koheles says this clearly, “... וְאֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ/… and there is nothing new under the sun,” implying that only “under the sun” – within the physical world – nothing is new. All originality comes from “above the sun” – outside of the natural world. The reason for this is that the physical universe has no autonomous existence. God brought it into existence and it remains in existence only so long as He wills it. Therefore, each moment of existence is actually a new creation. In the blessings before Kri’as Shema each morning, we say that God, “... מְחַדֵשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשׂה בְרֵאשִׁית/… in His goodness, renews the workings of the Creation constantly each day.” “Constantly” means every moment.

Our senses, though, tell us that the world around us exists autonomously, independent of any outside force. How then can we cultivate a sense of excitement by the newness that is reality? The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches, is to internalize the belief that there is a hidden spiritual power behind everything in the physical world that constantly renews it. It was this belief that enabled Avraham Avinu to be exhilarated by the inspirational moments that he had years before. Nothing ever became stale because getting old is a physical quality not a spiritual one.

We too, can cultivate a sense of awe and wonder, a child’s excitement at the world around us, by attributing all actions and all things to their spiritual underpinnings. A true and complete internalization of this concept leads inexorably to constant praise of God stemming from the feeling deep inside that at this very moment we, along with everything else, are newly created.

Friday, November 14, 2008

VaYeira 5633 First Ma'amar

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

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

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

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

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

The Sfas Emes teaches that, like Avraham Avinu before us, our mission in this world is to testify that God gives life to all. This is the reason we were created. In this, we are stronger than angels. According to halachah, testimony of family member is invalid because the close relationship is likely to skew the testimony. A close family member cannot be expected to be impartial. Angels, because they see the truth, know that fulfilling God’s will is always to their benefit. When an angel fulfills God’s will, his own will is completely aligned with God’s. For an angel to testify that it behooves us to fulfill God’s will because He is the source of all life is like a father’s testimony on behalf of his son. Neither testimony can be considered impartial.

We, though, live in the physical world where God is not apparent. Our senses tell us that we and the things around us have an autonomous existence. We have a will of our own. To us, fulfilling God’s will does not always appear to benefit us. Many times we need to suppress our own desires to do so. When we accept God’s rule thus sacrificing our own desires, we are offering a complete and valid testimony. We cannot be accused of partiality. The concept that we testify about God is found in a Midrash as well. The Midrash states that the children of Israel, God and Shabbos testify about each other. We testify that God is One.[1]

Chazal allude to the concept of our testimony regarding Shabbos. They said, “כָּל הַמְּעַנֵג אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת נוֹתְנִין לוֹ נַחֲלָה בְּלִי מָצִרים/Whosoever gives enjoyment to the Shabbos is given an unbounded inheritance.” (Shabbos 118a) The Chiddushei HaRim points out that Chazal do not say, “Whosoever enjoys himself on Shabbos …”, rather, “Whosoever gives enjoyment to the Shabbos …” a strange concept. How can we give enjoyment to the Shabbos? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that whoever is happy when Shabbos comes because on that day God rested from His work and that happiness causes him to forget his troubles has given enjoyment to the Shabbos. In this way, the children of Israel testify that Shabbos is a day of rest.

May we merit that, like Avraham Avinu, our lives be a living testimony to God in this world thus justifying our existence. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Tosfos Chagigah 3b starting, “U’Mi

Friday, November 07, 2008

Lech Lecha 5632 Second Ma'amar

The Midrash in this week’s parsha compares Avraham Avinu to a traveler who comes upon a burning mansion. Seeing no one, he assumes that the mansion has no owner. Just then, the owner comes out, looks at him and says, “I am the mansion’s owner!” The burning mansion represents the world and the owner represents God. Why does Avraham think that the world has no master? What is this Midrash teaching us?

We can get an idea from the Zohar in this week’s parsha. According to the Zohar, God gave Avraham Avinu the ability to “see” the spiritual guardians of each of the nations of the world. But Avraham was unable to “see” the spiritual guardian of Israel. Seeing the various spiritual forces governing the various nations of the world, it seemed that there was no unifying force, no “owner”. It seemed very chaotic. Then he became aware that the creation of the world started from Israel and derives its power to exist from Israel. He then understood that God was the power behind the Creation and Israel and from there to the rest of the world. He understood that Israel was the force unifying all the disparate elements of the Creation.

Because Israel is the power source of the Creation, the entire Creation is connected and gravitates back to the source. The Chidushei HaRim sees a hint to this concept in the above Midrash. The word for burning in the Midrash – דוֹלֶקֶת – also means pursue as in – דָלַקְתָּ אַחֲרַי – you pursued me. The Midrash is hinting at this idea that the Zohar states clearly.

Although Avraham Avinu understood that everything is connected spiritually, this was not at all obvious when looking at the physical world around him. Avraham wanted to understand how the physical Creation in which nothing seems connected is really all connected and is ultimately unified. How does God relate to the physical world?

In order to understand, it was imperative that he disregard any preconceptions he may have had. All his current knowledge and understanding would have to be risked in order to become open to new understanding. This disregard of the old and familiar is symbolized by God’s command that he leave all with which he is familiar behind in order to travel to a new land. Only by doing this would he merit receiving new understanding.

This concept applies to all of us today as well. The Sfas Emes sees it in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week. When we keep Shabbos, we throw off and disregard our weekday existence and accept the yoke of heaven. This symbolizes a readiness to not be bound by preconceptions and a willingness to accept and receive from God. The result is a revelation of God to us as the pasuk states, וּרְאוּ ... כִּי שֵׁם ה' נִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ .../They will see … that you are called by the name of God …”

Friday, October 31, 2008

No'ach 5631 Third Ma'amar (first half)

Chazal teach us that the generation of the Flood transgressed three sins, idolatry, illicit relations and thievery. Surprisingly, of the three, the decree of the Flood was sealed because of thievery. Idolatry and illicit relations are two of the cardinal sins. We are required to forfeit our lives rather than transgress them. Why was the decree of the Flood sealed specifically for thievery? What is it about thievery that makes it even worse than idolatry and illicit relations?

The fundamental reason that a person can permit himself to steal is that he does not recognize the owner’s rights. Chazal apply this concept to our relationship with God. They teach us that a person who eats without making a brachah first is considered to have stolen from God. The reason is that he is not acknowledging God’s ownership of the bread he eats.

The Sfas Emes expands this concept and applies it to all of life. He says that being in this world while not recognizing that God is the force underlying everything constitutes theft. For this reason the Chiddushei HaRim says that the Torah requires confession when a thief returns a stolen object, “וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת־חַטָאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ .../They will confess their sin that they committed and return the principal amount of his guilt …” Confession is required when repenting from any sin. Why does the Torah mention it specifically by repentance from the sin of theft?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that confession here actually alludes to repentance for anything because every sin contains an aspect of theft. At the moment of the sinful act, there is always a denial of God. If the sinner recognized God before him, he would be unable to sin. As the Sfas Emes teaches, not acknowledging that God is the motive power underlying our actions constitutes theft.

The generation of the Flood did more than simply steal from their fellow man. They stole from God by not recognizing Him in the Creation. The Sfas Emes teaches us that to the extent that we recognize God in the world, God is revealed in the world. During the generation of the Flood, because they did not recognize God in the world, there was no divine revelation. Life is dependent upon divine revelation. When there is no divine revelation, we learn from the generation of the Flood that life ends. This is the meaning of the pasuk, “... קֵץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי כִּי־מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס .../… The end of all flesh has come before Me, because the earth was filled with thievery …” This is the exact opposite of the pasuk, “... מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ/… the world is filled with His glory.” When we recognize God, the world is filled with His glory. When we do not, it is the end of life. This is the reason the decree of the Flood was sealed specifically because of thievery; thievery representing not acknowledging God in the Creation.

The Zohar states this concept as well. The Zohar says that the ark is a metaphor for the Shechinah. ... וַיִּשְׂאוּ אֶת־הַתֵּבָה וַתָּרָם .../… They lifted the ark and it was raised …,” is an allusion to the Shechinah leaving the world. The Zohar says that once the Shechinah is no longer with us, there is no one to watch over the world and judgment rules. The Sfas Emes understands that the Shechinah leaving means the source of life has left.

This understanding sheds light on an enigmatic Midrash in this week’s parsha. The Midrash cites a pasuk in Yechezkeil, “הֶחָמָס קָם לְמַטֵּה־רֶשַׁע לֹא מֵהֶם ... וְלֹא־נֹהַּ בָּהֶם/Violence has arisen and become a rod against evil; it is not from them … there is no sobbing for them.” The prophet is referring to Nebuchadnezer. He is telling us that even though Nebuchadnezer destroyed evil, it was only God’s help that enabled him to succeed. The Midrash understands this pasuk homiletically as referring to the generation of the Flood. Thievery stood up before God like a rod and said that he is not of them and has no rest in them. This last is a play on words, changing נֹהַּ/sob to נֹחַ/rest.

What does, “he has no rest in them” mean? Elsewhere, the Sfas Emes explains that on the first Shabbos, the culmination of the Creation resulted in a revelation of God. Each part of the Creation was fulfilling its unique task such that the entire Creation acted as one harmonious system. A system in which all the parts operate smoothly can be considered to be at rest because there is no noise in the system. This is the reason that there is an elevation of the entire Creation towards God on Shabbos. He is more revealed. When “thievery” said that it has no rest in them, it means to say that the generation of the Flood was lacking a connection to God. God was hidden because the generation did not acknowledge Him.

This also explains another Midrash which says that No’ach was not worthy of being saved. He was only saved because Moshe Rabbeinu was to come from him. This seems to fly in the face of the pesukim which state clearly that he was righteous. However, according to the Sfas Emes, since No’ach was part of the generation that did not recognize God, there could be no rest for God in this generation, meaning that the generation was not connected to Him. True, No’ach was righteous in his own right, but the generation had a fatal flaw. It could not continue to exist. No’ach’s saving grace was his progeny.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Breishis 5631 Second Ma'amar

The Torah essentially is a book that describes the mitzvos. Why then, did the Torah not begin from the first mitzvah that was given to us – mitzvas hachodesh? What is the purpose of the entire Sefer Breishis? The first Rashi in Breishis quotes Chazal who address this question. The answer, Chazal teach us, is to give us a response to the nations of the world. As we find in Tehillim, “כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ לָתֵת לָהֶם נַחֲלַת גּוֹיִם/He declared the power of His works to His people, to give them the heritage of the nations.” If the nations accuse us of being usurpers, that we stole the land of Israel, we can answer that the world belongs to God. He took Israel away from its original inhabitants and gave it to us.

The Sfas Emes asks, however, that this answer explains only the first chapter of the Torah that describes the Creation. What is the purpose of the rest of the book of Breishis? Why is it necessary for the Torah to include the story of Noach and the Flood, all the trials and tribulations of the patriarchs, Yosef and his brothers and the exile in Egypt?

To answer this question we need to understand that the Torah is more than a scroll containing words. This Torah is also the spiritual entity through which God created the world. The entire world is therefore imbued with the power of the Torah. It is only because of this power in the Creation that the world continues to exist. Regarding this Chazal taught that God looked into the Torah and created the world.

This power is generally not apparent. Through our actions, though, we have the ability to reveal the power of the Torah which inheres in the Creation. This, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is an aspect of the oral Torah. It is that component of the Torah in which each of us has the ability to make a unique imprint. The written Torah is apparent for all to see. The oral Torah is not. It is up to us to reveal it through our actions. When we intend to fulfill God’s will with our actions, then our actions reveal the Torah’s hidden light within nature.

This is the reason for all the stories in Breishis. God wanted to show us that our actions, like the actions our forefathers, can become Torah. This is the meaning of the beginning of the pasuk quoted above, “כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ .../He declared the power of His works to His people …” His works are the מַעֲשֵׂה בְּרֵאשִׁית/workings of the Creation. The power of His works is the power of the Torah inherent in the world. God taught us that the Creation owes its continuing existence to the power of the Torah within it.

Our purpose is to effect a revelation of this power. In fact, the purpose of the Creation is to reveal God through it. By revealing the spirituality underlying the Creation we become partners with God in the workings of the Creation.

The Zohar actually says this explaining the pasuk in Yeshaya, “וָאָשִׂים דְּבָרַי בְּפִיךָ ... לִנְטֹעַ שָׁמַיִם וְלִיסֹד אָרֶץ וְלֵאמֹר לְצִיּוֹן עַמִּי־אָתָּה/And I have placed My words in your mouth … to implant the heavens and to establish the foundation of the earth and to say to Zion, ‘You are My people.” The word עַמִּי/My people can also be read as עִמִי/with Me. God is telling the prophet that just like He created the world through words, so too, we are partners with Him when we study Torah. However, the Sfas Emes broadens this to include recognizing the point of spirituality within each thing. The word צִיוֹן/Zion, can be read צִיוּן/indicator. The pasuk then is teaching us that one who attaches himself to this point recognizing God’s life-force in everything and every action, becomes a partner with God in the workings of the Creation.

One who lives in this way merits the end of the pasuk from Tehillim, “... לָתֵת לָהֶם נַחֲלַת גּוֹיִם/… to give them the heritage of the nations.” By connecting the natural world with the motive force behind it, nature cannot hide the power of the inherent holiness. As a result, that person is not bound by the physical world’s restrictions. That person merits an inheritance with no boundaries, the inheritance of all the nations.