Thursday, April 24, 2008

Pesach 5640 Second Ma'amar

Note: Yashar Ko'ach to Anonymous for bringing this ma'amar to my attention.

The author of the Haggadah tells us, “... מִצְוָה עָלֵינּו לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הַרֵי זֶה מְשׁוּבָּח./… It is incumbent upon us to tell the story of the Exodus. Whoever tells the story of the Exodus at length is praiseworthy.” It’s only natural that a freed slave will tell over the story of his freedom and praise the one who set him free. The Gemara mentions this in the following dialog, “Rav Nachman asked his servant Daru, ‘What should a freed slave say to his master who freed him and gave him silver and gold?’ Daru answered, ‘The freed slave should thank and praise the master!” In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that the reason we do not say a brachah before this mitzvah is because we would do it even if it were not a mitzvah.

Besides this obvious point of praising the One who set us free, what significance is there in telling the story at length to the point where the author of the Haggadah relates the story of the five sages in Bnei Brak who spent the entire night telling the story of the Exodus? The Sfas Emes explains that telling the story, to some extent, activates the power of redemption for the nation as a whole and for the individuals who are telling the story in particular. Telling the story affects us.

When the author says that it is praiseworthy to tell the story at length, he does not mean that telling the story at length is a praiseworthy activity. Rather, he means that the activity of telling the story at length affects us, making us praiseworthy. Just as the Exodus itself was a preparation for receiving the Torah and the yoke of heaven a few months later, so too, telling the story of the Exodus affects so that we too, merit receiving the Torah and the yoke of heaven.

Conventionally, when the author of the Haggadah advises us to tell the story of the Exodus at length, he is referring to the requirement of telling the story on the first night of Pesach. However, in addition to this mitzvah, it is also a mitzvah to remember the Exodus every single day, “... לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ/… so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” The Sfas Emes teaches that the author’s advice to tell the story at length applies not only to the night of the Seder. It applies, as well, to the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus every single day.

In fact, it is not farfetched to say that the night the sages in Bnei Brak spent telling the story of the Exodus was not the first night of Pesach but rather some other night. Assuming that it was the first night of Pesach is difficult. Firstly, what is this story of the sages coming to teach us? Is it not obvious that these great sages would fulfill the mitzvah as best they could, spending the entire first night of Pesach fulfilling the mitzvah of telling the Exodus story and singing God’s praises? Would it not be superfluous to advise us to fulfill the mitzvah of lulav, for example, the way Rebbi Akiva did? The way the sages fulfilled this mitzvah, then, is certainly no proof that there is significance to telling the Exodus story at length over and above simply fulfilling the mitzvah to the best of our ability.

Secondly, if the sages’ discussion in Bnei Brak took place on the first night of Pesach, it may very well be teaching us something else entirely. It is likely that the sages would have started discussing the Exodus before fulfilling the mitzvos of eating matza and maror, as we do. Chazal teach us that a person who is busy with one mitzvah is absolved from performing a different mitzvah that may present itself at the same time. This principle would apply particularly when the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus conflicts with the mitzvos of eating matza and maror. The reason is that after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, since we do not bring a Pesach sacrifice, there are opinions that eating matzos and maror are rabbinical mitzvos, not biblical ones. The mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus, on the other hand, is biblical even when there is no Pesach sacrifice.

It is very possible, therefore, that the sages forgot to eat matza and maror on the night of the Seder because they were intensely involved in fulfilling the biblical commandment of remembering the Exodus. In this case, there is certainly no proof that speaking of the Exodus at length is praiseworthy. We would learn instead, that the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus takes precedence over the mitzvos of eating matza and maror.

However, on nights other than the first night of Pesach we are required only to remember the Exodus, not necessarily to tell the story. As well, on other nights there are no additional mitzvos. If we say that the sages in Bnei Brak spent a different night expounding at length about the Exodus, this would constitute clear proof that there is special significance to spending lots of time telling the story of the Exodus. Remembering the Exodus through telling its story and cultivating a strong sense of gratitude to God for freeing us and bringing us close to Him, actually brings us close to Him and prepares us for receiving the Torah. May we merit it during these days prior to receiving the Torah.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pesach 5631 Shabbos Chol HaMo'ed

On Shabbos Chol HaMo’ed (or on the 5th day of Pesach when there is no Shabbos during Chol HaMo’ed) we read from parshas Ki Sisa, “אֱ־לֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה־לָךְ: אֶת־חַג הַמַּצּוֹת תִּשְׁמֹר .../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, “שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה/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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

[1] See VaYeishev 5631 First Ma’amar for a more detailed discussion of Toseffes Shabbos.

[2] 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.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pesach 5631 Second Ma'amar

In the Hagadah 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, “מַגִּיד דְּבָרָיו לְיַעֲקֹב חֻקָּיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו לְיִשְׂרָאֵל/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. (See Parshas Parah, #2 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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pesach 5631 First Ma'amar

בְּכָל דוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָיב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם ... לֹא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינּו בִּלְּבָד גָאַל הקב"ה אֶלָא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָאַל עִמָהֶם שֶׁנֶאֶמַר, 'וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָׁם'/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, “בְּכָל דוֹר וָדוֹר/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 “מִצְרַיִם/Egypt” has the same root as the word for distress – מֵצַר, 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, “בְּכָל דוֹר וָדוֹר/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, “... וְאֲפִילוּ כוּלָנוּ חַכָמִים ... מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם .../… 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 us 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.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Acharei Mos 5632 First Ma'amar

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאַָֽמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם/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 decadent practices of the lands of Egypt and Canaan and illicit relations. Most of the mitzvos are not preceded by any introduction. Why does this particular mitzvah require that Moshe Rabbeinu introduce God, as it were? Rashi cites the Midrash on this pasuk that “אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם/I am God, your Lord,” is a reference to the first pasuk of the ten commandments, “אָֽנֹכִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ .../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 the 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 for doing a specific 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 perform the mitzvos for these reasons. We always strive to perform the mitzvos in order to achieve 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, we’ve performed 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 we can draw life to everything by transforming every action into a mitzvah. 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, “וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַֽעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָֽאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם/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,” 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, we will perform the mitzvah properly and it will have the greatest positive effect on ourselves and our surroundings. Following the beginning of the pasuk leads us to, “וָחַי בָּהֶם/and live by them.” Looking for the opportunities to do God’s will is the path to life and happiness.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Metzora 5632

The first half of this week’s parsha describes the procedure that a metzora must undergo in order to return to a state of purity. Chazal teach us that tzora’as is a consequence of slandering. The Midrash says that the word metzora alludes to this because the word can be split into two words, motzi ra/spew out bad (speech).

The Sfas Emes understands the word ra/bad here, as an allusion to the evil inclination. God created us with a good and an evil inclination. Chazal teach us that we are expected to serve God with both the good and the evil inclinations. God gave us the evil inclination, as well, to utilize in our service to Him. The metzora erred in that he motzi ra/expelled the bad (inclination.) The evil inclination becomes a hindrance to our service, a source of impurity, only when we reject it as a tool with which to serve God. Otherwise, it helps us to come close to God by providing challenges and opportunities that enable us to grow.

This concept may be alluded to in the procedure for purifying the metzora. The procedure calls for two pure birds. The Sfas Emes says that these birds may represent the two inclinations within us, the good and the bad. The Torah refers to both as pure just as it refers to our soul – which contains the evil inclination – as pure. The key is not to reject any part of the root of our soul. We need all of it to achieve the mission for which God sent us into this world.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Parshas HaChodesh / Tazria 5646 First Ma'amar

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

The word, צַרְתָּנִי/you have bound me, can also be translated, “you have formed me.” Chazal therefore relate this pasuk to the creation of man, “וַיִּיצֶר ... אֶת־הָֽאָדָם .../He … formed the man …” וַיִּיצֶר/He formed, is written with two yods, an uncommon spelling, to teach us that man comprises two components, physical and spiritual. The Zohar teaches us that man is a microcosm of the entire physical and spiritual worlds. While he has a physical body, through his soul, he is connected to the upper spiritual realms. The Zohar teaches that a person’s soul includes the forms of these realms.

There is an aspect of the nation of Israel which is spiritual, corresponding to God’s thought, as it were, and there is an aspect that is physical, corresponding to the physical Creation. Chazal hint at this when they teach us that God created the world for Israel who are called ראשית/first. God’s thought comes before the physical Creation.

We find this split between thought and action in the relationship between the days of the week and Shabbos. The pasuk in Tehillim states, “מַה־גָּֽדְלוּ מַֽעֲשֶׂיךָ ה' .../How great are Your works, God …” suggesting the days of the week during which God created the world. The pasuk continues, “... מְאֹד עָֽמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶֽיךָ/… Your thoughts are very deep,” referring to Shabbos. Because Shabbos is the day on which God ceased to create, it is associated with God’s thought rather than with doing. It was given to the nation of Israel which existed in God’s thought before the physical Creation. Shabbos, then, is the sign that the children of Israel have a special spiritual status, “בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא .../It is a sign between me and the children of Israel …” All the creations of the world have a place in the physical Creation. However, only the nation of Israel attaches to Shabbos, representing God’s thought.

We find another instance of this concept in a Midrash on the pasuk in Tehillim, “רַבּוֹת עָשִׂיתָ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהַי נִפְלְאֹתֶיךָ וּמַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ אֵלֵינוּ .../You have done much, God, my Lord; Your wonders and thoughts are for us …” The first part of the pasuk, describing God’s doing, relates to the physical world. The second part makes it clear that God’s wonders and thoughts – the spiritual – is for us, His nation, as the pasuk states, “... נֶגֶד כָּֽל־עַמְּךָ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה נִפְלָאֹת .../… In front of all your people I will perform wonders …”

The nation of Israel merited this special relationship with God at the time of the Exodus when God changed nature on our behalf. Although the Exodus itself was initiated by God, He told us, at that time that we would need to work to merit this special relationship. This is alluded to in the first words describing the first mitzvah that God gave us as a nation, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים .../This month is for you the beginning of the months …” The word חוֹדֶשׁ/month connotes חָדָשׁ/new. With this first mitzvah, God hinted that He gave us the ability to draw novelty into the world.

Novelty is beyond nature because the natural world is a closed system. Nothing new can happen in it. Novelty can only come from without, from the spiritual. God is telling us that in order for us to be connected to the spiritual, we must draw it down. How do we draw novelty into the world? How can we not be bound by the physical world? The answer, the Sfas Emes explains, is by realizing that the physical world is dynamic, not set. By internalizing the concept that the physical world is changeable, the gates of miracles, wonders and novelty open.

This is why on Shabbos when, to an extent, we disregard the physical world by not performing creative work, the spiritual gates open. We find this in a pasuk from this week’s haftara. Yechezkel describing the gates of the Beis HaMikdash tells us that the gate of the inner courtyard will be closed during the six days of the week and open on Shabbos. These physical gates suggest spiritual gates

A person who takes these words to heart, though, realizes that the physical world is a barrier which separates him from God’s light. The Sfas Emes says that this is not a reason to become melancholy. It is all for good. God sent us into this world, exile and darkness specifically to find His enlightenment which is hidden within it. David HaMelech said, “וָֽאֹמַר אַךְ־חֹשֶׁךְ יְשׁוּפֵנִי וְלַיְלָה אוֹר בַּֽעֲדֵֽנִי/I said, Surely darkness will shadow me, then the night would become as light for me.” Chazal translate the pasuk as, “I said, Surely darkness will shadow me in the next world. In the end even this world which is likened to night has become light for me.” David HaMelech was concerned that he would not merit God’s light in the next world. In the end, he merited it even in this world. We need to remember that the physical component of man and the physical Creation is also from God. Fortunately, God enlightens us in this world as well through the Torah and the mitzvos.

Both the darkness and the light are true and needed. Realizing that we are in darkness, that this world is a barrier that hides God’s light is the first step towards revealing that light. We find a hint to this idea in a story involving the Tanna Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch. When all his students went to Yavneh after the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch went to a different city expecting his students to follow him. They didn’t. Alone in a city known for its decadence, he forgot his Torah learning. When he had the opportunity to read from a sefer Torah, instead of reading, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you,” He transposed letters and read, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf.” Although at first glance this appears to be an innocuous mistake, the Sfas Emes explains that it actually bears out our concept. In Egypt we first needed to experience the darkness before we could merit the renewal of God’s light. The prophet Yeshaya, as well, prophesied this idea, “הַחֵרְשִׁים שְׁמָעוּ/Listen deaf ones.” They needed to experience the deafness before they could merit listening.

In exile the nation of Israel pines to hear the word of God but its hidden from us. We need to not give up hope but rather to understand that it is hidden within the very darkness that we experience. In fact, since revealing God’s light is the primary reason that we exist in this world, we are guaranteed success through hard work. Yeshayah said this clearly, “מִי ... חֵרֵשׁ כְּמַלְאָכִי אֶשְׁלָח/Who … is deaf like My messenger who I send.” The messenger – us – needs to experience the deafness in order to merit being the messenger whom God sends. May we merit it!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Tazria 5631 First Ma'mar

וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתֽוֹ/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, “אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי .../From behind and from in front you have bound me…” Chazal explain that this pasuk alludes to this world and the next. אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם/behind and in front” can also be translated as “last and first.” אָחוֹר/Last” refers to this world which was created last and “קֶדֶם/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 - נַחַל. 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, “צַרְתָּנִי/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, “... שַׁעַר הֶֽחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית הַפֹּנֶה קָדִים יִהְיֶה סָגוּר שֵׁשֵׁת יְמֵי הַֽמַּעֲשֶׂה וּבְיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת יִפָּתֵחַ וּבְיוֹם הַחֹדֶשׁ יִפָּתֵֽחַ/… 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.