Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Re'ei 5631 Fifth Ma'amar

When the Beis HaMikdash stood, a person was able to come close to God by physically travelling to the Beis HaMikdash where he was more easily able to experience the revelation of the Shechinah. There are in fact many mitzvos that require us to travel to the Beis HaMikdash several times a year. One of them is the mitzvah of Ma’aseir Sheni/Second Tithe that appears in this week’s parsha.

The mitzvah of Ma’aseir Sheni stipulates that we tithe our harvested grain, wine and olive oil and bring the tithe to Jerusalem to be eaten there. A person who is blessed with such abundance that he cannot easily transport it all to Jerusalem may redeem the tithes with money and bring the money to Jerusalem. Once in Jerusalem, he must buy food with this money and eat it there.

The relevant pesukim are, “... כִּי־יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם ... וְנָתַתָּה בַּכָּסֶף וְצַרְתּ הַכֶּסֶף בְּיָדְךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם ... וְנָתַתָּה הַכֶּסֶף בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תְּאַוֶּה נַפְשְךָ ... וְאָכַלְתָּ שָּם .../… If the place is far from you … you shall change it into money, bind up the money in your hand and go to the place … You shall exchange the money for whatever your soul desires … and you shall eat it there.” (Devarim 14:24-26)

What can we do nowadays, when unfortunately the Beis HaMikdash is not yet rebuilt, in order to come close to God? The Sfas Emes learns the answer to this question from a homiletical interpretation of these pesukim. It is important to realize, firstly, that there is no place over which God does not have dominion. In Tehillim, David HaMelech taught us, “... מַלְכוּתוֹ בַּכֹּל מָשָׁלָה/… His kingdom reigns over all.” (Tehillim 103:19) We therefore have the ability to connect with God – to experience His presence – anywhere, even in places that are far from the Beis HaMikdash.

The physical world around us, though, prevents us from easily experiencing God’s presence anywhere. Outside of the Beis HaMikdash, where there was a high state of revelation, God’s presence is concealed. The advice the Torah gives to allow us to experience God’s presence outside the Beis HaMikdash is to cultivate an intense desire to do so.

The first pasuk quoted above alludes to this. Chazal often use the word ַמָּקוֹם/place to refer to God.[1] The word כֶּסֶף/money has the same root as כִּיסוּף/yearning. The word “צַרְתָּ/you shall bind” also means, “you shall form or engrave” a picture.

Accordingly, the pesukim can be interpreted, “... כִּי־יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם ... וְנָתַתָּה בַּכָּסֶף וְצַרְתָּ הַכֶּסֶף בְּיָדְךָ /… If God is far from you … pine for Him, engrave the yearning in your strength and actions.” Then the next pasuk states, “וְנָתַתָּה הַכֶּסֶף בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תְּאַוֶּה נַפְשְךָ .../You shall place the yearning in everything you desire.” We should imbue all our actions with a yearning for a connection with God. All our actions should embody our love for God and our desire to experience His presence.

If we do this, we will merit, “... וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם .../… You will go to the place.” Even though we are presently unable to experience the Shechinah’s revelation in the Beis HaMikdash, Chazal teach us that if we intend to do some positive action and are prevented due to circumstances beyond our control, we are considered to have done it.[2] We can therefore believe with absolute faith that we have connected, through sheer willpower manifested in our everyday activities, to the root of our souls, the Shechinah itself, even if we have not actually experienced this in the Beis HaMikdash.

May we merit experiencing the revelation of God’s presence in the Beis HaMikdash!

[1] See for example Breishis R. 68:9

[2] Kidushin 40a; Yerushalmi Gittin 7:5 (43b)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Eikev 5631 Third Ma'amar

The difference between the Amidah (Shemonah Esrei) prayer that we say on Shabbos and the one we say during the week is the number of brachos comprising the prayer. The first three brachos and the last three are always the same. The number of middle brachos, however, differ. During the week we say thirteen middle brachos. On Shabbos we say only one. Each one of the Shabbos Amidos has a unique middle brachah. There are many commentaries explaining the significance of these brachos.

In the middle bracha of the Amidah for Shabbos Mincha we declare that God gave us rest and proceed to describe it, “... מְנוּחַת אַהֲבָה וּנְדָבָה מְנוּחַת אֱמֶת וֶאֱמוּנָה מְנוּחַת שָׁלוֹם וְשַׁלְוָה ... מְנוּחָה שְׁלֵמָה שָׁאַתָּה רוֹצֶה בָּהּ .../… a rest of love and magnanimity, a rest of truth and faith, a rest of peace and serenity … a perfect rest that You want …” Since the wording of our brachos was established by Chazal, it must be more than just nice poetry. There is undoubtedly deep significance in the descriptions of rest we find in this brachah and in the particular order in which they appear.

In order to understand what the significance is, we first need to establish what Chazal mean by מְנוּחָה/rest. The Sfas Emes explains elsewhere that on the very first Shabbos, which was the culmination of the Creation, it became apparent that every part of the Creation was fulfilling God’s will in its unique role within the Creation. The Creation as a whole was a complete system working in harmony to fulfill God’s will. This state that the universe achieved on the first Shabbos is what Chazal mean by the term מְנוּחָה/rest. A system can be said to be at rest when all its parts are working smoothly and efficiently. There is no resistance in the system. A system is not at rest when its components are doing things that are at odds with the purpose of the system.

When the entire universe is working together, God’s glory is revealed. For this reason there is a natural spiritual elevation that occurs on Shabbos. Because there is a stronger Godly revelation on Shabbos, we are naturally freed from subjugation to our evil inclination that distracts us during the week. For this reason as well, Shabbos is a remembrance of the Exodus. At the Exodus, as on Shabbos, God’s glory was revealed and our evil inclination was greatly weakened. This is also the reason that Chazal refer to Shabbos as being a part of the World to Come. In the World to Come, there will be such a powerful Godly revelation that the evil inclination will be altogether ineffective.

This type of rest is what Chazal refer to in this bracha of the Amida for Shabbos Mincha as מְנוּחַת אַהֲבָה/A rest of love.” This occurs when we serve God with no personal ulterior motives, out of pure love. By serving God with no ulterior motives we mimic the Creation. Our personal agenda and God’s agenda are in total alignment.

However, what of a person who does not feel this rest. Many people are unfortunately so involved in matters of this world that they are completely insensitive to any feeling of spirituality. Although the opportunity exists on Shabbos to feel the freedom from the evil inclination, many people simply do not. The concept that Shabbos is an experience which is to a small extent a part of the World to Come has no meaning for these people. What advice can we give such a person who wants to experience this spiritual rest on Shabbos?

Here Chazal teach us that this type of person should honor the Shabbos anyway, ceasing from his personal affairs for the sake of fulfilling God’s will as the prophet Yeshayah teaches us, “... וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ .../... and you honor it by not engaging in your own affairs …” This is called “מְנוּחַת נְדָבָה/a magnanimous rest.” He doesn’t feel it but he does it anyway, magnanimously.

Honoring Shabbos without feeling the spiritual rest, the מְנוּחַת אַהֲבָה/rest of love, requires faith that it nevertheless exists. When he honors Shabbos in this way, he strengthens this faith and merits מְנוּחַת אֱמֶת וֶאֱמוּנָה/a rest of truth and faith, the ability to believe that even though he doesn’t feel it, in reality he also has Shabbos rest.

Because of his faith, the spiritual Shabbos rest will be revealed to him. He thus merits the rest that Chazal called מְנוּחַת שָׁלוֹם/a rest of peace - peace comes at the successful culmination of a struggle – and “מְנוּחָה שְׁלֵמָה שָׁאַתָּה רוֹצֶה בָּהּ/a complete rest that You want.”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Va'Eschanan 5631 Third Ma'amar

Chazal[1] teach us that if one prays immediately after saying Kri’as Shma, his prayer is accepted. Why is this? Why is it important to pray immediately following Kri’as Shma? The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches, entails a deeper understanding of both Kri’as Shma and prayer.

A simple understanding of the sequence of Kri’as Shma followed by prayer is this. Kri’as Shma is a declaration that God is one and that He gives existence and life to all. Prayer is calling out to God. Our prayers are meaningful to the extent that we believe our declaration. Significantly, the pasuk upon which this Chazal is based ends with the words from this week’s parsha, “... בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/… whenever we call to Him.” (Devarim 4:7) Prayer is meaningful to the extent that we are calling to God.

The Sfas Emes, however, elucidates a deeper aspect to the connection between Kri’as Shma and prayer. The Sfas Emes teaches us that prayer follows the declaration of Kri’as Shma because to the extent that God is revealed, our prayers are accepted. To understand this, our concept of prayer needs to change.

Generally, we think of prayer as requests that we make of God. We ask God for things that we believe are good for us. The ultimate good, of course, is God Himself. When God gives us something that is good, in essence He is revealing Himself to us. Everything that we receive is essentially a revelation. Taking this idea to extreme, if He revealed Himself to us completely, we would have no need for further prayer. Regardless of our specific request, then, what we are really asking for when we pray, is God’s revelation.

God gave us the ability to effect His revelation by calling out to Him, declaring that we believe He is here but hidden and asking Him to reveal Himself. The ultimate goal of prayer is God’s revelation. Thus, God’s revelation and the acceptance of our prayers is one and the same thing. And, as the Sfas Emes teaches us, to the extent that God is revealed, our prayers are accepted.

In addition to saying Kri’as Shma, Chazal required us to precede prayer with a mention of the redemption from Egypt. Recalling the redemption is another way of reminding ourselves that God is hidden within everything, even the darkest exile. The definition of redemption, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is revelation. If redemption is revelation, then exile is concealment. God is in the exile with us. He gives existence to the exile as well.

There can be no better segue to prayer which, as we’ve said, is essentially a request that God reveal Himself to us, than to remind ourselves that God is here and hidden and can therefore reveal Himself to us.

This week’s parsha contains the ten commandments. This is the second time the ten commandments appear in the Torah. They first appear in parshas Yisro.[2] There are several differences between the two versions of the ten commandments. We find one difference in the mitzvah of Shabbos. In parshas Yisro the Torah tells us that the reason for the mitzvah of Shabbos is because God rested on the seventh day of the Creation.[3] By keeping Shabbos we are testifying that God created the world and that he is the cause of its continued existence.

In this week’s parsha the mitzvah of Shabbos contains no mention whatsoever of the Creation. Instead, the Torah tells us that by keeping Shabbos we remember the Exodus.[4] We were slaves in Egypt and God delivered us from bondage. What is the connection between Shabbos and the Exodus?

According to the concept that exile is God’s concealment and redemption is His revelation, the answer is clear. Both the Exodus and Shabbos are testimony that everything is from God. By mentioning the Exodus before prayer, we declare our belief that God was with us in the exile and that He revealed Himself thus effecting the redemption. By keeping Shabbos, too, as the Torah notes in the first version of the ten commandments, we are testifying that God created the world and that He gives continued existence to the Creation. For this reason, we say in kidush on Friday night that Shabbos is a remembrance for the Exodus.

May we merit approaching prayer as it was meant to be approached, as a plea for God’s revelation. Amen.

[1] Devarim R. 2:10

[2] Shmos 20:1-13

[3] Shmos 20:10

[4] Devarim 5:14

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Likutim on Tisha B'Av

Chazal[1] teach us that the Beis Hamikdash is considered as if it was destroyed in any generation in which it is not built. This implies that building is no more difficult than destroying. Why is this? It seems to fly in the face of experience and observation.

The Sfas Emes gives three answers to this question.

  1. Since there is a divine aspect to the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, the act of building presents no hindrance. Therefore, in order for the Beis HaMikdash to be rebuilt we just need to reach a state at which the Beis HaMikdash would not be destroyed if it existed. That it is not being rebuilt yet, is a clear indication that it would be destroyed if it existed now.
  2. God wants the Beis HaMikdash to exist. It is the mechanism through which He reveals Himself in the physical world. The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed only because if it would have continued to exist, we would have suffered even more. Chazal tell us that God destroyed wood and stones instead of destroying us. This then is the only barrier preventing the Beis HaMikdash from being rebuilt. The moment it can exist at no danger to us, it will be rebuilt immediately. Since it is not being rebuilt, it must be that it would pose a danger to us if it existed, and would in fact be destroyed.
  3. It really is more difficult to rebuild than to destroy and it is possible to conceive of a generation during which the Beis HaMikdash would not have been destroyed but nevertheless cannot be rebuilt. However, the punishment of the Beis HaMikdash not being rebuilt is as severe as the destruction itself. The reason is that the experience of and the sadness caused by the destruction should provide us with sufficient extra strength and motivation to overcome any obstacle preventing rebuilding. The suffering that we experienced due to the destruction and its terrible consequences throughout our history should give us much more motivation to rebuild than the prophet’s exhortations to the nation to prevent the destruction in the first place. That it doesn’t is certainly a punishment as severe as the destruction itself.

This, it seems, is the reason that Chazal teach us that the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash was worse for the nation than the destruction of the first. At the time of the second destruction, we had already experienced the first destruction and its consequences. This, of itself, should have been enough to sufficiently motivate us to prevent the second destruction. That it did not is the reason Chazal say that the second destruction was worse for us. Failing to prevent the second destruction after having already experienced the first one is a much greater cause for consternation than the first destruction.

God will help us, in His compassion, for the honor of His name, and we will merit seeing the consolation of Tzion and Yerushalayim quickly in our times Amen, May it be His will!

[1] The Shela HaKadosh writes in Vavei Amudim 27 that he found this ma’amar Chazal in a Midrash. I have not found the Chazal.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Devarim 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

In this week’s Haftarah we find, “יָדַע שׁוֹר קֹנֵהוּ וַחֲמוֹר אֵבוּס בְּעָלָיו יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַע עַמִּי לֹא הִתְבּוֹנָן/An ox acknowledges its master, and a donkey, it’s master’s trough but Israel does not know (Me), My nation does not consider (Me).”

This pasuk can certainly not be understood literally. How can the prophet say that the nation of Israel acknowledges God less than an ox, God forbid, when we bless and pray to Him? The Sfas Emes explains that the prophet is berating us for not fulfilling our mission to clarify and make known God’s rule in everything that He created.  

When the Beis HaMikdash was standing one of the ways we clarified God’s rule was through the sacrifices. The effect of the sacrifices was to bring the entire Creation to a higher level of spirituality, a level on which the spiritual life-force within everything was drawn towards God. This effect was so powerful that even the nations of the world were subservient to God’s rule because of it. When the prophet speaks of the “קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה/city of faith”, he is not only referring to Jerusalem. He is referring to the entire world as well, because all were on a higher spiritual level and were drawn after their spiritual roots. The entire world was a “city of faith”.

The pasuk above then means that even though God’s life force is in the ox, it is our duty to clarify this, to make it known. In this we failed.

Along these lines we find in the book Or HaMe’ir a novel understanding of the mishna in Avos, “כָּל שֶׁרוּח הַבְּרִיוֹת נוֹחָה הֵימֶנוּ רוּחַ הַמָקוֹם נוֹחָה הֵימֶנוּ .../One who is pleasing to his fellow man, is pleasing to God …” Literally this translates as, “One with whom the spirit of his fellow man is comfortable, the spirit of God is comfortable.”

The Or HaMe’ir explains that when the mishna refers to the spirit of man, it is referring to the spiritual force within us that is from God. When a person acts according to what will benefit the spirit, then the spirit of God rests in his actions. As a result, the objects of his actions are spiritually elevated. In the words of the mishna, “the spirit of his fellow man is comfortable from him.”

The way to create a recognition in our surroundings that God is with us, that there is a powerful spiritual aspect hidden within the physical world, is by believing it is there and acting accordingly.