Friday, August 28, 2009

Teitzei 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

These days, there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty regarding almost everything in life. Presented with various choices, we list pros and cons, analyze the situation and do all the things we are taught in our culture for resolving dilemmas. The Sfas Emes, though, says that confusion stems from distraction.

Before doing all the things we are taught, the Sfas Emes teaches that we must make sure that our point of departure is total dedication to fulfilling God’s will. When we are totally devoted to achieving God’s will, when we are ready to deliver our soul, so to speak, in the quest to fulfill God’s will, there is no room for confusion. We have a singular focus and anything outside that focus will not receive our attention. The Ba’al Shem Tov as well, gave this advice to attain clarity. Therefore, confusion in any particular situation is a sign to take a step back and refocus on fulfilling the will of God.

The Sfas Emes learns this from pesukim and Chazal in this week’s parsha. We find, “כִּי־תֵצֵא מַחֲנֶה עַל־אֹיבֶיךָ וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכָּל דָּבָר ָרע ... כִּי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ מִתְהַלֵּךְ בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶךָ .../When you go out to camp against your enemies you shall guard against any evil matter… For God, your Lord goes among your camp …” The Hebrew וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ/you shall guard is literally translated as, “you shall be guarded.” “You shall guard,” is the correct translation of, וְשָׁמַרְתָּ. Why does the Torah use the reflexive form of the verb? The Sfas Emes explains that the Torah is teaching us how we can protect ourselves from confusion that comes from being distracted by nonsense – כָּל דָּבָר ָרע/any evil matter.

Chazal understood מַחֲנֶה/camp as referring to each individual person. God going in your camp refers to the Divine presence resting in each person. The Chiddushei HaRim therefore understands מַחֲנֶה/camp to refer to all of a person’s limbs just like a camp is a gathering of people.

The first part of the pasuk is thus understood homiletically as referring to an individual who is ready to dedicate himself totally to achieving God’s will. One who has marshaled his entire being to fulfill God’s will in not easily distracted.

By dedicating ourselves to fulfilling God’s will with every fiber of our being, we cause the Divine presence to reside within us. This is why the last pasuk in this paragraph uses the causative reflexive form, מִתְהַלֵּךְ/(lit.) He is made to go, instead of מְהַלֵךְ/He goes. Chazal are teaching us that we cause the Divine to reside within us or we push the Divine away.

The last part of this pasuk states, “... וְלֹא־יִרְאֶה בְךָ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר וְשָׁב מֵאַחֲרֶיךָ/… and He shall not see in you anything indecent and turn away from you.” Chazal learn from here that one may not say kri’as sh’ma while his heart is exposed to indecency. The Sfas Emes understands this Chazal homiletically that a person’s heart may not see indecency. It goes without saying that we may not think indecent thoughts. Chazal are teaching us that we should not allow our hearts, our desires to consider anything that is not for God.

This is the meaning of the pasuk, “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ/You shall be holy.” The Hebrew for holy – קָדוֹשׁ – connotes dedicated, a nuance that is lost in English translation.[1] The Torah is instructing us to dedicate ourselves to God and fulfilling His will. We thus gain clarity in our lives. May we merit it!

[1] For example, the Hebrew word for marriage – קִידוּשִׁין – has the same root as the word for holy because a married woman is separated from all men and dedicated to one. A nazarite is called holy because he must keep away from wine and things that would defile his pure spiritual state. He has separated himself from the mundane and dedicated himself to the holy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Shoftim 5631 Fifth Ma'amar

There are periods during the year that are considered propitious – עֵת רָצוֹן. The kabbalists say that the month of Elul is such a period. The Zohar says that the third Shabbos meal is also such a time. Conventionally this means that God is more open to hearing our pleas during these times. Since God is beyond time and is not affected by it, what does this mean? To God, there is no difference between one period and the next. He is always full of the will and desire that we come close to Him. He constantly desires to shower us with blessing.

The Sfas Emes explains that a propitious time relates to the way the period affects us. In a עֵת רָצוֹן/propitious time it is easier for us to come close to God. Here is why. We are more than the physical bodies that we see. There is a spark of holiness – of spirituality – that God has buried within our physical selves. As we live our lives in the physical world, we usually do not sense this. However during the propitious time it is easier to sense it.

To the extent that we sense this spirituality and desire to come close to God, we are able to experience God’s outpouring of mercy and lovingkindness towards us as we find in Mishlei, “כַּמַּיִם הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם לָאָדָם/As water reflects a face back to a face, so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another.”

Friday, August 14, 2009

Re'ei 5631 Sixth Ma'amar

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה/See, I have placed before you this day, blessing and curse.” (Devarim 11:26) Subsequent pesukim explain that the blessing is contingent upon our accepting God’s mitzvos whereas the curse is contingent upon rejecting them. The Seforno[1] makes this very clear. He says that those who keep the mitzvos will be blessed. Those who transgress will be cursed.

These are very powerful statements that leave no room for a middle ground. Either we accept the yoke of heaven in everything we do, deliver ourselves to the one God and be blessed or we do not and be cursed.

The Sfas Emes understands this concept also from the word לִפְנֵיכֶם/before you. The Sfas Emes understands the word, לִפְנֵיכֶם/before you, according to the holy Rav of Parshischa’s[2] understanding of the same word at the beginning of parshas Mishpatim. The first pasuk of Mishpatim is, “וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם/And these are the laws that you will place before them.” (Shmos 21:1) The question the Rav of Parshischa addresses is the use of the word, לִפְנֵיהֶם/before them instead of simply saying these are the laws that you will teach them. The commentaries address this question as well. The Parshischer, though, offers a novel interpretation. He explains.

The Rav of Parshischa notes the difference between humans and angels. Our existence is not dependent upon Torah and the mitzvos. There are plenty of people who neither study Torah nor perform mitzvos yet they exist. Angels’ existence, though, is directly tied to the fulfillment of God’s commandments. Angels are created when we perform mitzvos.

Although our existence is not contingent upon studying Torah and performing mitzvos, Torah scholars understand that life without Torah and mitzvos is hardly worthwhile. Torah scholars therefore have an aspect of the angel in their own lives. When God tells Moshe to place the laws before the nation, He is teaching us that just as performance of mitzvos precedes the existence of angels – they only come into existence after mitzvos are performed – so too, do the Torah’s laws precede our existence. Although we live even if we do not perform mitzvos, living a life that is worthwhile, that is meaningful is predicated upon the performance of Torah and mitzvos.

The Sfas Emes understands, לִפְנֵיכֶם/before you in the first pasuk of our parsha in the same vein. Meaning in our lives stems from the choice between accepting the yoke of heaven or rejecting it. In the words of the Parshischer, the choice comes before our (meaningful) existence because a meaningful life is predicated upon it. If we choose to accept the yoke of heaven, we give meaning to our lives and are blessed. If we do not, we do not give meaning to our lives. The result is curse.

The Sfas Emes also understands the first pasuk of our parsha, according to its plain meaning, that God wants us to discern before we decide to act, whether the action we are about to do is a choice for blessing or not.

What happens though when we honestly do not know? Far from being an uncommon situation, for thinking people who truly want to do the right thing, this may be the most common of situations. What to do? The Sfas Emes teaches that awareness of the choice and making sure that our motives are pure is a key to gaining clarity. We need to take pause before any action and just contemplate it for a few moments.

He learns this from the Ba'al Shem Tov as quoted in Kesser Shem Tov[3]. The Ba'al Shem Tov explained the pasuk, "וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶׁה מִכֶּם תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו ... /… Any matter that is difficult for you, bring it to me and I will hear it." (Devarim 1:17) Conventionally, Moshe Rabbeinu is telling judges that they can come to him for the resolution of issues that are too difficult for them.

The Ba'al Shem Tov, though, had a tradition that the Ramban explained this pasuk to his son homiletically as referring to someone in a quandary, someone who is faced with a choice and honestly does not know which path to take. God says, "תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי/Bring it to me." Remove any self bias. Make sure your motives are pure. If you do this then, וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו/I will hear it, implying understanding. God will give you understanding and you will know how to act. May we merit it!

[1] Devarim 11:29

[2] Kol Simcha Mishpatim, starting Ve’Eileh HaMishpatim

[3] Kesser Shem Tov 6, Kehot Publication Society edition 5764