Sunday, September 27, 2009

Yom Kippur 5645 First Ma'amar

Yom Kippur, in addition to being a day of atonement, is also a day of purification.  Just as mitzvos have positive effects on us, sins have negative effects on us and on our surroundings.  They sully our souls and distance us from the Creator.  We can fulfill the mitzvah of repentance by declaring our transgression, regretting it and committing not to repeat the wrong.  God will forgive us, our sin and we will not be punished  However, does this automatically wipe the slate clean and purify us? 
Chazal teach us that when the sinners of Israel repent, the power of the Torah purifies them.  Chazal understand this from a pasuk in Yechezkeil, “וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם מכל טמאותיכם .../I will throw upon you purifying waters and you will be purified from your impure state …”  Water is a metaphor for Torah.  Sin causes an impure state but when we repent, Torah causes purification.  Significantly, Moshe Rabbeinu brought down the second luchos on Yom Kippur.
The Sfas Emes teaches the difference between the first luchos and the second.  Preparations for the first time stressed holiness and separation from the mundane.  “... וקדשתם היום ומחר .../… prepare them today and tomorrow …”  The word that we translate as prepare comes from the root kodesh/holy.  The pasuk can thus be translated, “make them holy today and tomorrow.”
The stress of the second luchos was purification.  God was prepared to purify the nation after the idolatry of the golden calf.  While we can certainly repent, showing remorse for our actions, Chazal teach us that only God can wipe the slate clean and purify us.  Chazal learn this from a pasuk in Iyov, “מי־יתן טהור מטמא לא אחד/Who can produce purity from impurity.  No one!”  Chazal, though, read this pasuk as, “Who can produce purity from impurity.  Is it not the One?”  Reaching this state of purification is the ultimate goal of the ba’al teshuva/penitent and God grants it through Torah.
We see from the two sets of luchos that the Torah provides a specific approach of serving God for the righteous and a different approach for the ba’al teshuva.  It is important to recognize this because not everything that is appropriate for one group is appropriate for the other.  It is important to understand that as ba’alei teshuva, our goal is purification, may we merit it!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Shabbos Teshuvah 5638 Second Ma'amar

The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is especially suited for repentance.[1]  What is repentance?  The mitzvah of repentance entails a verbal recognition that a wrong was done, remorse and a commitment not to repeat the wrong.[2] 
Albeit these are the steps that must be taken in order to fulfill the mitzvah of repentance, the prophet does not mention these.  Rather, he speaks of returning to God.  The special haftarah that we read this Shabbos – the Shabbos before Yom Kippur – begins, “שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ .../Return, Israel, until God, your Lord …” (Hoshe’a 14:2
It almost seems as if the prophet continues from where the mitzvah ends.  We may fulfill the mitzvah of repentance by following the steps brought down in the halachah.  However, in order to return to God, something more is needed.  The Sfas Emes explains, in fact, that the prophet is not only addressing penitents.  He is addressing the righteous as well.  The only difference between the two is that the penitent must first fulfill the mitzvah of repentance whereas the righteous can start from the second step of returning to God.
The two step process of repentance and return explains the pasuk in Eichah (5:21), “הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה' אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה .../Return us to You and we will return …”  When we rectify the sin through remorse and by committing not to repeat the sin, God returns us to Him.  Afterwards, we return.  Although rectification of the sin is critical, it is not the main thing.  The main thing is the subsequent return to God that the rectification enables.
The Sfas Emes refers to these two steps as two types of repentance, the second building on the first.  The first is repentance from fear.  When we first realize that we’ve done a wrong, it is natural to fear and be concerned for the damage we’ve caused.  This concern stirs us to remorse and a commitment to not repeat the wrong.  We are also moved to ask God to have mercy on us and rectify the damage caused by the sin.
The second step, once we merit coming close to God, is the repentance of love.  When we contemplate God’s tremendous kindness that He has not rejected us as sinners but rather has brought us close to Him, we are shamed and inspired to come close to God out of love.
Elsewhere[3] the Sfas Emes explains that the during the weekdays of the ten days of penitence, concern for the damage caused by our sins compels us to repent and return to God.  To the extent that we work and pray for this during the weekdays, we merit returning to God on Shabbos out of a feeling of love that God Himself imbues in us.  May we merit it and a G’mar Chasima Tova.

[1] Rosh HaShanah 18a
[2] Yad Teshuva 1:1
[3] Sfas Emes Shabbos Teshuva 5637 Third Ma’amar

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rosh HaShanah 5632 Third Ma'amar

The Midrash[1] on the pasuk in parshas Emor which mentions Rosh HaShanah cites the following pasuk from Tehillim (119:89), “לְעוֹלָם ה' דְּבָרְךָ נִצָּב בַּשָּׁמָיִם/Forever, God, Your word stands firm in the heavens.”  What is the connection between this pasuk and Rosh HaShana?

The Ba’al Shem Tov[2] explains that this pasuk harks back to God’s command to create the heavens and is to be understood literally.  God’s command, “Let there be a firmament …,” (Breishis 1:6) the very words of the declaration, stand firm in the heavens and give them existence.  The same applies to all the commands of the Creation.

Why is this so and what is its significance?  The Sfas Emes explains that God's creation commands (i.e. "Let there be light", etc.) are at the root of every part of the Creation. The spiritual sustenance that enables every part of the Creation to continue to exist flows out of God’s very declarations that brought them into existence in the first place. The spiritual energy at the source and its physical counterparts are therefore intimately connected. The Creation was structured so that the spiritual energy actually becomes the physical creations.

The Midrash quotes this pasuk relating to Rosh HaShanah because Rosh HaShanah represents the spiritual energy before it changes into disparate material creations.  The teki’ah sound of the shofar alludes to this concept.  The teki’ah is a simple sound.  It represents sound before it is broken into parts by speech and reminds us of the source of life and existence before it becomes physical and broken into disparate physical forms[3].

On Rosh HaShanah we want to connect – to experience – through the sound of the shofar, to God’s spiritual life force. May we merit it!

[1] VaYikra R. 29:1
[2] Cited in Tanya, Sha’ar HaYichud VeHe’Emunah 1
[3] For a fascinating discussion of this concept, see Ya’aros Devash 1:6.  Rav Yonasan Aibshutz explains the juxtaposition of the different names of God in the pasuk, “עָלָה אֱ-לֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָה ה' בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר.”  The Tetragrammaton has no consonants.  As such it is comparable to the teki’ah which is a simple sound unbroken into components by the different parts of the mouth.  The name אֱ-לֹהִים, on the other hand, has consonants.  It is comparable to the teru’ah which is sound broken using parts of the mouth.  It represents God’s influence in the physical world.  Rav Aibshutz also explains that the world was created with the simple sound of the teki’ah because the definition of dibbur is the creation of an “angel”.  For this reason there is no dibbur or amira associated with the first command – Breishis.  This is why we associate the teki’ah with the Creation on Rosh Hashanah – HaYom haras olam.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Elul 5640 Second Ma'amar

God set aside Yom Kippur for repentance.  Why, then, do Chazal[1] teach us that Elul is also dedicated for repentance?  Is not Yom Kippur enough?

The answer to this question is based on a law absolving servants from certain mitzvos.  The Zohar[2] teaches us that a gentile servant is not required to say kri’as sh’ma.  This is because he is already beholden to his master.  As long as he is beholden to his master, he cannot accept the yoke of another.

This concept applies to us as well.  We are required to declare God’s Kingship over us on Rosh Hashana.[3]   But until we repent we are beholden to the evil inclination.  As long as we are under the sway of the evil inclination we cannot accept God’s yoke.  Just like the gentile servant, we must be first be free in order to subordinate ourselves to God.

This is the reason that the mazal for the month of Elul is besula/virgin.[4]  Just as the virgin is unattached, so too, must we free ourselves from all attachments in order to attach to God.

This concept also explains the juxtaposition of destroying Amalek at the very end of last week’s parsha, and the mitzvah of bikurim/bringing the first fruits at the beginning of this week’s parsha.

The mitzvah of bikurim is a physical expression of accepting the yoke of Heaven.  We give the first of our produce to God and we make a specific declaration that we are doing this in order to show our subordination to Him.  Amalek represents subordination to the evil inclination.  The paragraph instructing us to destroy Amalek comes directly prior to the mitzvah of bikurim to teach us that in order to become beholden to God, we must first wipe out the Amalek that is within us.

This is the work that Chazal cut out for us during the month of Elul to enable us to accept God's Kingship on Rosh HaShana.  May we merit it!

[1] Zohar Chadash Yisro 51a; Sefer Kitzur HaKavanos – Chodesh Elul (Ramchal)
[2] Zohar 3:108a
[3] Rosh HaShana 16a
[4] Sefer Yetzira 5:2