Thursday, June 25, 2009

Chukas 5632 Second Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha the nation sings tribute to the well which miraculously followed them during the forty year sojourn in the desert. “בְּאֵר חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם בִּמְחֹקֵק בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה/The well carved by princes, dug out by the generous of the people, by their lawgiver, with their staff. From the desert, it was a gift.”

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that digging a well in search of water is a metaphor for the search to uncover the Godliness hidden in the physical world. The Chiddushei HaRim says that the well represents Torah Shebe’al Peh (lit. the Oral Law). This is because the essence of Torah Shebe’al Peh is our ability to create and produce חִידוּשׁ/novelty through our Torah learning. According to the Sfas Emes the essence of Torah shebe’al Peh includes not only the novelty we produce through our Torah learning, but any novelty that we produce that involves a revelation of the hidden spiritual light that permeates the Creation. Torah shebe’al Peh, then, represents our effective action in this world. Bringing the Torah’s light into the physical world and uncovering the Godliness in the Creation is one and the same thing. It is the reason we exist.

Following the metaphor through the pasuk, we can learn how to reveal the hidden light of the Torah.

“חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים/carved by princes” – The princes in the metaphor are those who have succeeded in ruling over their natural inclinations.

“כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם/dug out by the generous of the people” – The generous of the nation are those who direct their generosity and desires towards the service of God alone. Because they align their own will with God’s so that all their activities are an expression of God’s will, they reveal God’s will – the hidden light – in everything they do and with everything that they come into contact.

“בִּמְחֹקֵק/by the lawgiver” – The lawgiver represents the boundaries that are built into the Creation. God is infinite and His bounty is infinite. We finite beings and by extension the entire Creation cannot receive God’s infinite revelation. So God restricts His revelation, as it were. He reveals Himself to us in measured doses so that we can experience Him. Everything in the Creation is governed by boundaries. We too, by working within the boundaries that God built in to the world, moderating our actions and practicing balance, can draw out the light of the Torah in the measured doses that we can receive.

“בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם/with their staff” – Even though Torah shebe’al Peh represents our ability to create and produce novelty, the ultimate effectiveness of our actions is completely dependent on God. The staff alludes to our reliance on God for all things.

“וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה/and from the desert it was a gift – When we realize that we do not merit anything because of our own efforts, rather it is God who helps us in everything we do, we experience His revelation as a gift.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Korach 5631 Third Ma'amar

The mishna in Avos that we read this week teaches us that, “הַקִּנְאָה וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם/Jealousy, lust and pursuing self honor takes a man out of this world.” (Avos 4:21) In this ma’amar the Sfas Emes teaches us why jealousy takes a person out of this world. We do not have to look far to find an example of jealousy taking a person out of this world. This week’s parsha gives us the classic example of Korach whose jealousy of Aharon’s priesthood resulted in his death and a catastrophe for his family and the nation.

What is it about jealousy that causes such disastrous results? Korach’s case was an acute situation wherein Moshe Rabbeinu’s divine authority was being challenged. Drastic action was called for. The Tanna, though, does not confine his statement to specific situations. Why does the Tanna teach us that all jealousy takes a person out of the world?

To answer this question the Sfas Emes teaches us something fundamental about jealousy. Jealousy is possible when we do not identify with the other person. And the opposite as well; it is impossible to be jealous of an other with whom we identify. Korach’s jealousy, for all his words denying this, stemmed from a lack of identification with the nation. Korach was extremely egocentric.

The Sfas Emes teaches us that identifying with the nation of Israel means connecting with the source of life and existence. This is because the roots of all the souls merge as one powerful spiritual entity. The Sfas Emes explains elsewhere[1] that this spiritual entity, called כְּנֶסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל/the congregation of Israel, is part of the spiritual hierarchy through which God created and continues to create the world. And when we connect with the inner source of all life, we automatically connect with the nation of Israel.

This explains an interesting dialog between a non-Jew who wanted to convert and Hillel. The would be convert asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel told him, “What you do not like, do not do to your friend. The rest is explanation. Go learn it.” How is this statement a condensation of the entire Torah? Hillel of course understood that the Torah is the source of life. Chazal teach us that God created the world with the Torah. And God gave us the Torah as a mechanism for coming close to and experiencing Him. Therefore, Hillel told the would be convert that the main teaching of the Torah is to identify, to empathize with all life. This is the main way to connect with the source of life, which is the Torah. Everything else in the Torah are ways to connect with and experience the source of all life.

The Chiddushei HaRim notes that we see this concept as well in a pasuk that the commentaries cite to support the Tanna of this Mishna, " ... רְקַב עֲצָמוֹת קִנְאָה/… envy brings rotting of the bones.” (Mishlei 14:30) Yosef whom the Zohar calls the keeper of the covenant, an allusion to his connection with God even as he lived in the physical and decadent Egypt, instructed his brothers before he died, “... וְהַעֲלִתֶם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה/… and you will take my bones from here.” Jealousy separates one from God. The bones of the jealous therefore rot. Yosef who was connected to God was not concerned with rotting bones. He was able to instruct his brothers to bring his bones out of Egypt at the time of the redemption.

Amazing things happen when we recognize the inner life force that permeates the world. Firstly, since this life force is spiritual it is outside of time. The would be convert understood that he could connect to the spiritual through the Torah. He therefore asked Hillel to teach it to him while standing on one foot. The time it would take to learn the entire Torah was not a concern because he was more interested in the result of learning Torah, that is a connection to the spiritual which is beyond time.

Another amazing thing that happens is that a person’s actions become completely focused. Even though we do many different and varied things, when we understand and internalize that there is a spiritual underlying source of life we find that our intent behind all our varied activities becomes one, the revelation of the underlying spirituality. Happily, we do not have to figure out how to do this on our own. The would be convert understood that the way to connect is through the Torah. Since it is through the Torah that God created the world, the Torah is the great unifying force in the Creation. Hillel explained that the first step was love of Israel since we are also at the root of the Creation.

Jealousy, on the other hand causes separation. It takes a person out of the world. The Hebrew for world – עוֹלָם – connotes concealment – הֶעֶלָם. The physical world conceals God. But, paradoxically, the physical world is also the tool that God gave us to reveal Him within it. The egocentricity, the lack of identification with the other that is required in order to be jealous separates us from God. Revelation and jealousy are opposites. Jealousy therefore “takes us out of the world.” May we merit identifying with every individual and fulfilling Hillel’s dictum, “What you do not like, do not do to your friend.”

[1] Sfas Emes Kedoshim 5631 First Ma’amar

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shelach 5631 Third Ma'amar

We are taught that each of us is a soul and a body. Each of our souls stems from a very high spiritual place, the body being merely the soul’s garment, as it were, while we live a physical existence. Each morning we say, “אֱ־לֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא .../My God, the soul you have given me is pure …”

Yet, the first of the three things that Akavia ben Mahallalel advises us to observe in order to encourage us not to sin is that we come from a putrid drop.[1] How can this possibly prevent us from sinning knowing what we know about the body and its relationship to the soul?

The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is that this very knowledge of the relationship between the soul and the body is what keeps us from sinning. Akavia ben Mahallalel is teaching us that the body has no life without the soul. The prophet said, “... נֹתֵן נְשָׁמָה לָעָם עָלֶיהָ .../… He gives a soul to the people who walk upon [the Earth.]” (Yeshayah 42:5) and, “... וְיֹצֵר רוּחַ־אָדָם בְּקִרְבּוֹ/… and who fashions the spirit of man within him.” (Zechariah 12:1) Realizing that our very existence comes from God through our souls is a strong deterrent to sin, indeed.

We find this idea in the Midrash[2] on the pasuk from the end of this week’s parsha, “לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתָי .../In order that you remember to perform all My commandments …” (Bemidbar 15:40) The Midrash teaches us the importance of fulfilling all the mitzvos. Performance of the mitzvos gives us life because through it we are connected to God, the source of life. The Midrash compares this to a drowning man who is thrown a life buoy and told that as long as he holds the life buoy he will live. God, as well, tells us, “As long as you are connected to the mitzvos, ‘וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בּה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם/you are connected to God, your Lord, all of you who are alive today.”

The Chiddushei HaRim was wont to say that the Torah gives life only to those who recognize that life comes through the Torah, “עֵץ־חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ .../It is a tree of life to those who hold on to it.” (Mishlei 3:18) To the extent that we internalize the knowledge that on our own we have no life, we can connect to the good life that comes through the Torah.

We find this same concept in the juxtaposition of two pesukim at the end of this week’s parsha. ... וְלֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם/… and do not explore after your heart and eyes which have led you astray.” This is followed directly by, “לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתָי וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים לֵא־לֹהֵיכֶם/So that you remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your Lord.” To the extent that we refrain from being drawn after the cravings in our hearts and what our eyes see because we know that everything is from God, we can pursue truth. Remembering leads inexorably to performing.

Akavia ben Mahallel, then, is teaching us something profound about the nature of our physical existence that will in fact deter us from sinning. May we merit internalizing this understanding!

[1] Avos 3:1

[2] Bemidbar R. 17:6

Thursday, June 04, 2009

BeHa'aloscha 5631 Third Ma'amar

Note: Because the second day of Shavuos fell on Shabbos this year, for the next month there will be a one week discrepancy between the Torah reading in Israel and that outside of Israel. We will be following the Torah readings in Israel.

This week we read the second chapter of Pirkei Avos in which we find, “... עֲשֵׂה רְצוֹנוֹ כִּרְצוֹנְךָ .../… Do His will like you [do] your own will …” (Avos 2:4) Simply understood, the Tanna is teaching us to fulfill God’s will with the same desire that we fulfill our own will. When I act to fulfill the mitzvos, I should do them with great desire, the same way I act to fulfill my own desires.

Obviously, one should fulfill God’s will with at least the same desire as he fulfills his own. There does not seem to be much novelty in this. However, we can understand the Tanna to be teaching us something else a bit less intuitive. The Tanna may not be referring to fulfilling mitzvos at all. Rather, he may be referring only to a person’s actions to fulfill his own desires. He then is advising us to identify so strongly with God’s will that the underlying intent of every one of our actions, even the most mundane, is to fulfill God’s will. The last half of the sentence quoted above is, “... כְּדֵי שֶׁיֵעָשֶׂה רְצוֹנְךָ כִּרְצוֹנוֹ .../… so that your will becomes like His will …” meaning, so that your only desire in all your activities is to fulfill God’s will. The saying is then translated as, “Make His desires your own, so that your desires become His.”

In the same vein it is possible to explain the next sentence in the Mishna, “בַּטֵל רְצוֹנְךָ מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנוֹ .../Subordinate your will in favor of His will …” Conventionally, this means that if there is a conflict between our desire and God’s, we are to follow God’s. If I am tempted to transgress a prohibition, the Tanna is telling me to follow what God wants instead.

However, the Sfas Emes understands this as referring to our intent for any given activity. The Tanna is asking that we intend to fulfill God’s will in all our actions instead of our own. A classic example is eating. Many eat for the pleasure of it. The Tanna, according to the Sfas Emes, is teaching us that we should eat rather because it is what God wants of us. Another classic example is performing mitzvos for the reward or for some other ulterior motive. The Tanna advises us to perform the mitzvos instead only to fulfill God’s will. Although it is true that we should be happy that we merit fulfilling God’s will,[1] and this happiness could be construed as an ulterior motive. Still, our primary intent should be only to fulfill God’s will.This line of thinking helps us to understand how it is possible to fulfill God’s will. As finite beings this appears to be an overwhelming task. The Tanna though, is teaching us that what is required of us is primarily the intent. To the extent that we align our desires with God’s, that we want to fulfill His will, it is considered as though we have. For this reason, Chazal[2] teach us that if a person wants to accomplish some good thing and is prevented from doing so for reasons that are beyond his control, he is considered to have accomplished it anyway.

This is also the meaning of a Chazal in the beginning of this week’s parsha on the pasuk, “וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן אַהֲרֹן ... כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֶת־מֹשֶׁה/And Aharon did so … as God commanded Moshe.” (Bemidbar 8:3) This pasuk comes after the command that Aharon light the menorah. What is the purpose of telling us that he did as commanded? Would we have thought otherwise? Rashi[3] cites Chazal’s answer that the Torah is telling us that Aharon did exactly as commanded. He did not change the command in any way. This answer seems to beg the question. Again, would we have assumed that Aharon would have changed something in the command?

However according to what we’ve said, we can understand this. It is not possible for us as finite beings to completely fulfill the will of the infinite God. However, it is possible for us to want to fulfill His will. The Torah is teaching us that since Aharon’s only desire was to fulfill God’s will as commanded to Moshe, the Torah considers him to have done so.

The Sfas Emes teaches us to cultivate a strong desire to fulfill God’s will through all our actions. May we merit it!

[1] Shabbos 30b, Yad Lulav 8:15

[2] Tosefta Pe’ah 1:4

[3] Ad loc