Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rosh HaShanah 5632 Fourth Ma'amar

The Torah[1] relates that Ya’akov Avinu dreamt of a ladder reaching from the place he was sleeping to the heavens. He envisioned angels ascending the ladder and descending. What were these angels? The Midrash[2] on the pasuk that commands us to keep Rosh HaShanah explains that they were the guardian angels of the nations of the world. Ascending the ladder represented coming close to God; descending represented distancing from God. The angels coming close to God symbolized their constituent nations coming close to God. Their descending the ladder symbolized their constituent nations distancing from God.

God asked Ya’akov to ascend the ladder as well. Ya’akov, seeing the angels ascending and descending became afraid. He reasoned that just as the nations’ guardian angels descended, so too, he would be required to descend. Even though God told him that he would not descend, Ya’akov did not ascend the ladder. God said, “Because you did not believe Me, your descendents will be subject to the rule of the four kingdoms – Babylon, Media, Greece and Rome.”

How could it be that Ya’akov did not believe God? The Sfas Emes explains Ya’akov’s vision and the dialog between him and God. Each nation has a specific role and place in the world. Within the context of its mission, each nation can ascend – come close to God – by fulfilling its role.

The nation of Israel, too, has a role and place in this world. However, Ya’akov Avinu did not want us to ascend within that context. While a nation can come close to God, Ya’akov understood that the relationship between the nation and God is prescribed by the context of its role in the world. Ya’akov wanted our ascent towards God to depend upon our actions. If our coming close to God depends on our actions, we are not limited to the context of our role. The possibilities, then, are literally endless. Ya’akov decided that this was worth the danger of exile that could result from our actions.

Still, we are not at a disadvantage because of Ya’akov Avinu’s choice. Embedded in our spiritual roots is the ability to cry out to God and be heard even if we sometimes cannot reach this level through our actions. This is the meaning of the t’ki’os – the sounds of the shofar – on Rosh HaShanah. They represent our crying out to God without a reason, rather just to attach ourselves to our role, our portion in this world, to be able to cry out to God to save us and be heard – “הַקּוֹל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב/the voice is the voice of Ya’akov!” (Breishis 27:22)

[1] Breishis 28:10-12

[2] VaYikra R. 29:2

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nitzavim 5631 Second Ma'amar

At the end of this week’s parsha Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation, “הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ .../Today, I bring the heavens and earth as witnesses (that I have warned) you …” What is the significance of the heavens and earth that God chose to bring them to testify? Rashi explains that God is referring to the heavens and earth in order to admonish us and encourage us to fulfill His will. The heavens and the earth always fulfill God’s will. The sun always rises in the morning. Wheat seeds always produce wheat, never barley. They fulfill the will of God even though they receive no reward for doing so and are not punished if they transgress. We, who receive reward upon fulfilling the will of God and are punished when we transgress, should certainly be moved to fulfill God’s will.

How, the Sfas Emes asks, can the nation be compared to the heavens and the earth, though? The heavens and the earth always fulfill the will of God because they have no free will. They have no choice, make no decision. We have free will.

The Sfas Emes explains that Moshe Rabbeinu is teaching us a fundamental lesson in serving God. We learn from the heavens and the earth that fulfilling God’s will is built into the Creation. It is a part nature. We too, if not for the overpowering influence of our evil inclination, would be drawn to fulfill God’s will just like every other creation. To the extent that we do not allow our evil inclination to overpower us, we are automatically inner-directed towards good.

With this concept we can understand a pasuk in Tehillim (62:13), “וּלְךָ־ה' חָסֶד כִּי־אַתָּה תְשַׁלֵּם לְאִישׁ כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ/And you God have kindness for you repay a man according to his action.” The Gemara notes the difficulty in the pasuk. Repaying a man according to his action does not seem to be an aspect of kindness. Does a person not deserve to be repaid according to his action?

However, the question is based on the premise that our decisions are not influenced in any way neither for good nor for bad. If there is nothing influencing us, then repaying a person according to his deeds is indeed justice, not kindness. However, if the desire to do good is built into nature, and our job is to refrain from being drawn after the evil inclination, the question becomes moot. God repays man according to his action even though the yearning to accomplish His will comes from Him. This truly is kindness.

This concept answers a question that the Rambam asks. One of the Torah’s cardinal mitzvos is the requirement to love God – Ahavas HaShem. Since this is a mitzvah of the heart – it requires no action – how does one fulfill this mitzvah if he does not feel love towards God? The Rambam teaches that we can reach Ahavas HaShem/Love for God through contemplating the wonders of the Creation.

The true answer, the Sfas Emes teaches, is that Ahavas HaShem/Love for God, is naturally built into our hearts. If we do not feel it, it is because the evil inclination is drawing us after illicit passions which hide the natural passion for God that is within us. By being careful not to be drawn after illicit desires, our entire being, heart and soul, naturally gravitates towards God. May we merit it!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Elul 5634 First Ma'amar

The Zohar teaches that Shabbos afternoon is a particularly propitious time – an eis ratzon. The Sfas Emes teaches us that the entire month of Elul, too, are days of ratzon. What is an eis ratzon? What happens during an eis ratzon? How can we take advantage of an eis ratzon?

A superficial explanation of eis ratzon is that there are periods of time during which God sends more abundance and other periods when He sends less. However, this is difficult because it implies that God is affected by time, an impossibility. God created time. He is outside of time, is infinite and does not change. If it is God’s will that we receive abundance, then this is His will always. How then, can there be times when there is more abundance and other times when there is less abundance?

The answer to this question is premised on the fact that all abundance comes from outside the physical world. The spiritual – and ultimately God Himself – is the source of all the plenty that manifests in the physical world. Only the physical is bound by time. Abundance manifests in the physical world through a connection between the physical that is bound by time and the spiritual that is not. During an eis ratzon this connection is more easily made. The Sfas Emes defines eis ratzon as a time period that can receive ratzon and plenty from a point that is outside of time.

One of these time periods is Shabbos. On Shabbos the physical is more closely connected with the spiritual. This automatically defines Shabbos as an eis ratzon. It is a time during which spiritual abundance more easily manifests in the physical world. In fact, the Zohar teaches that Shabbos receives abundance from God for the entire week. The Sfas Emes explains that Elul has the same relationship with the coming year as Shabbos has with the coming week. Just as Shabbos receives abundance for the coming week, so too, Elul receives abundance for the coming year.

An eis ratzon is an opportunity. It is a time when the abundance that perforce originates in the spiritual realms more easily manifests. It is therefore a time when we can more easily connect to and experience the spiritual. How we are affected by the eis ratzon is completely up to us. David HaMelech alludes to this idea in Tehillim (69:13-14), “יָשִׂיחוּ בִי יֹשְבֵי שָׁעַר וּנְגִינֹת שׁוֹתֵי שֵׁכָר׃ וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי־לְךָ ה' עֵת רָצוֹן .../Those who sit by the gate talk about me and make up drinking songs. As for me, may my prayer to You, God, be at a favorable time …” David HaMelech is pointing up the difference between the Jews and pagans. During an eis ratzon, the pagans spend their time drinking and singing and don’t mention You. We, however, do not forget You.

The Sfas Emes explains that during an eis ratzon the pagans tend to accept the good they receive for their own benefit. They think of themselves, drinking and singing. The children of Israel, on the other hand, want the spiritual elevation afforded by eis ratzon more than we want the good things that we receive because it.

As we’ve said, the abundance of the coming week and of the coming year flows from the abundance that manifests through Shabbos and Elul. The Zohar therefore refers to Shabbos (afternoon) as רַעֲוָא דְרַעֲוִין/desire of desires (ratzon of retzonos). It is the source of the ratzon manifestations of the coming week.

The Sfas Emes though teaches that this is not automatic and it is not the same for everyone. The ratzon that manifests during the coming week and year depends upon how we experience the eis ratzon of Shabbos and of Elul. If we yearn for that connection with God’s ratzon on Shabbos and during the month of Elul to come close to Him, we affect the ratzon that manifests during the week and during the coming year as well. May we merit it!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tavo 5631 Third Ma'amar

At the end of this week’s parsha, Moshe Rabbeinu reminds us that we saw all of God’s wonders and miracles yet, “וְלֹא־נָתַן ה' לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ ... /And God did not give you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear …” (Devarim 29:3) Experiencing miracles is an obvious Godly revelation. To what then, is Moshe Rabbeinu referring when he says that we were not given a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear?

The Midrash[1] on this pasuk, addressing this question, quotes God at the time of the giving of the Torah, “מִי־יִתֵּן וְהָיָה לְבָבָם זֶה לָהֶם .../Would that their hearts be like this …” (Devarim 5:26) The Midrash says that, upon hearing this, the nation should have asked God to help them so that their hearts would be open to Him always. Since they did not, Moshe Rabbeinu said that God did not give us a heart to know, etc.

This Midrash does not seem to answer the question. At the time of the giving of the Torah, we were on the same level of prophecy as Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe himself testified, “פָּנִים בְּפָנִים דִּבֶּר ה׳ עִמָּכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ/God spoke to you face to face on the mountain from within the fire.” (Devarim 5:4) Furthermore, Chazal[2] teach us that at the giving of the Torah, all the blind and deaf were healed. The physical presented no barrier between us and God. We apparently were given a heart to know, etc. What then, does Moshe Rabbeinu mean when he says that we were not and how does the Midrash answer this question?

The Sfas Emes explains. Certainly at the time of the giving of the Torah the nation was on a very high level of prophecy. At this level, we were able to see the Godliness hidden in everything. When God said to Moshe, “Would that their hearts be like this,” He was referring to what would happen after the giving of the Torah. God said, “Would that the nation see Me in everything afterwards, like they see Me in everything now. Would that they continue to realize that the physical is simply the external shell to an underlying spiritual reality. Would that they continue to see Me behind their evil inclination.”

Significantly, the letter “ב” appears twice in the word “לְבָבָם/their heart, instead of once – “לִבָּם/their heart.” Chazal[3] teach us elsewhere that the heart is the abode of our inclinations. The pasuk, by using the letter “ב” twice, alludes to both the inclination that encourages us to good and the evil inclination. At the giving of the Torah, even the evil inclination, which acts as a shield to hide Godliness from us, presented no barrier. We saw the Godliness in the evil inclination as well.

We were at this level at the giving of the Torah because of a one time Godly revelation. How could this skill of seeing God in everything become second nature? The answer is that without God’s help, it could not. We need the ability to distinguish between the external physical and internal spiritual. We can “attach” to the spiritual when we have the ability to experience it, to feel it.

When we can “feel” the spiritual in things and within ourselves, we know without a doubt that it exists. This certain knowledge based on our feeling is what Moshe Rabbeinu was referring to when he said, “וְלֹא־נָתַן ה' לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת .../God did not give you a heart to know …” And the reason God did not give it to us, as the Midrash above states, is because instead of responding to God’s statement, “Would that their hearts be like this …” with a decisive plea for it, we were quiet.

Thus, the Midrash answers the question. At the time of the giving of the Torah we were given a revelation that allowed us to see past the physical. For this to continue even afterwards we would need da’as/knowledge. God did not give us this level because when He mentioned it, we did not ask for it.

With this concept of da’as/knowledge we can understand the continuation of the previous Midrash which explains this pasuk, וְלֹא־נָתַן ה' לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת .../God did not give you a heart to know …” The Midrash says that with this statement Moshe Rabbeinu hinted to the nation that they did not ask God to allow him to enter the land with them. What is the connection between this pasuk and Moshe Rabbeinu entering the land of Israel?

We find a significant connection between Moshe Rabbeinu and da’as/knowledge. The Arizal teaches that Moshe Rabbeinu represented the level of da’as/knowledge for the nation of Israel.[4] Moshe Rabbeinu experienced God as closely as any living human being possibly could. Moshe Rabbeinu knew that living a non-miraculous “natural” type of life in the land of Israel, it would be difficult to connect to and experience God. The Sfas Emes explains that Moshe Rabbeinu wanted the nation to bring this aspect of da’as/knowledge with them into the land of Israel to enable them to understand, see and hear the word of God in every action, small or great. Since he himself represented this level, if God had acquiesced, he would have been allowed to enter as well.

The Midrash makes this connection and declares that Moshe Rabbeinu was actually hinting at this when he told us, “וְלֹא נָתַן ה' לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת .../God did not give you a heart to know …”

[1] Devarim R. 7:10

[2] Psikta Rabasi 7, also see Mechilta BaChodesh 9

[3] Brachos Mishna 9:5

[4] Eitz Chaim 32:1; Sha’ar HaPesukim Shmos from “ve’ata neva’eir inyan ge’ulasam

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teitzei 5631 Third Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha we find the mitzvah of shilu’ach hakein.[1] The Torah, in an apparent show of mercy, directs us to first send the mother bird away before taking its chicks or eggs from the nest. In fact, the first Midrash on our parsha states emphatically that from this mitzvah we see that God is full of mercy towards birds.[2]

A Mishna[3] in Maseches Brachos though, teaches that we silence one who says, as part of his prayers, that God is merciful and His mercy reaches the bird’s nest since He commanded us to send away the mother before taking the chicks. Why is this?

The Sfas Emes explains that even though, in truth, the mitzvos are an expression of God’s mercy, we are nevertheless required to relate to them only as decrees and to fulfill them as a servant who fulfills his master’s instructions. We silence one who attributes the mitzvah to God’s mercy, even though he speaks the truth, because his words indicate that he performs the mitzvah in order to express God’s mercy rather than to fulfill God’s decree.

Why is it wrong, though, to perform the mitzvah in order to express God’s mercy? Why must we silence this person? The reason we silence him, the Gemara explains, is because he makes God’s mitzvos mercy when in fact they are decrees.[4] According to this explanation, God’s mitzvos are not an expression of His mercy. They are in fact decrees that we are required to fulfill without regard to, and perhaps without even knowing, their ultimate reasons.

This explanation clearly contradicts the Midrash. To reconcile the Midrash with this Gemara we need to gain a clear understanding of how mitzvos express God’s will. Unquestionably, the mitzvos are a manifestation of God’s will. However, since God is infinite, it follows that every characteristic we can attribute to God is infinite as well. God’s mercy, for example, is infinite. The mitzvos, of course, are finite. How, then, can the finite mitzvos manifest God’s infinite will?

The answer to this question can be understood from the words the Gemara above uses for mitzvos and decrees, midos and gezeiros respectively. The word mida also means a measure. In order to enable us to fulfill His will, God “shrunk” His will, as it were, into measured doses. These measured doses of God’s will are the Torah and the mitzvos.

Although the source of the mitzvah of shilu’ach hakein is God’s infinite mercy, the physical manifestation of this mitzvah in this world is only a representation of God’s mercy. It is a mida/measured dose. It is called a gezeira/decree because it is nigzar/cut from God’s infinite mercy but it is not His infinite mercy.

We silence the one who says that the mitzvah of shilu’ach hakein is a manifestation of God’s mercy because the physical can never completely express any attribute of God. To say or imply that it does is an unwarranted constriction of the infiniteness of God’s attributes and a dangerous misunderstanding of how they are expressed in the finite physical world.

[1] Devarim 22:6-7
[2] Devarim R. 6:1
[3] Brachos Mishna 5:3
[4] Brachos 33b

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Shoftim 5631 Second Ma'amar

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף .../You shall pursue justice, only justice …” (Devarim 16:20) What is the meaning of the redundancy in this pasuk? The Sfas Emes explains that there is no limit to the levels of justice and truth that can be obtained. The pasuk is requiring us to obtain truth and justice at as deep a level as we possibly can. Justice is associated with truth.[1] Yirmayahu said that God is truth.[2] Since God is infinite, it follows that there is no limit to the levels of truth that can be attained.

Conventionally we think of truth and justice as straightforward concepts. If one says on a bright morning that the sun is shining, he has spoken the truth. If a thief is made to return stolen goods, justice has been served. What is meant by deeper levels of truth? What if a person is fulfilling mitzvos but not really thinking about what he is doing? Are his actions truthful? What if a person prays but has no intention of using prayer as a means to come close to the Creator? Is his prayer truthful? When one visits another who is ill but has no intention of fulfilling the mitzvah of loving a fellow Jew, is there not an element of falsehood in his action?

When our intentions or actions are at odds with our reason for being, they contain an element of falsehood. Truth, the Sfas Emes explains, is reached when a person’s entire being is completely devoted to serving God. The word truth itself – אֱמֶת – alludes to this because it comprises the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, all the letters with which the Torah, representing serving God, is written.

The Holy Jew of Parshischa[3] explains the redundancy differently. He says that a person should pursue justice with justice rather than through falsehood. The Torah is teaching us that regarding the pursuit of justice, the end does not justify the means. The process is as important as the goal and therefore must also move forward with justice.

May we merit ridding ourselves of the lies we live and leading truth filled lives!

[1] See Ramban ad loc.; Bahir 75-77;

[2] Yirmiyahu 10:10

[3] Rav Simcha Bunim of Parshischa, teacher of Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and Rav Mordechei Yosef of Ishbitz