Friday, February 27, 2009

Terumah 5632 First Ma'amar

What can we do to experience God’s presence? The first Midrash on this week’s parsha compares the giving of the Torah to a sale. Usually, once the sale is executed the seller is no longer attached to the item that was sold. However, the Torah is different. The Midrash says that when God “sold” us the Torah, he “sold” Himself with it. It follows that through the Torah, we can experience God in our lives. How?

The Midrash alludes to the answer when it says that, unlike other “sales” the Torah includes everything. The significance of this is that that unlike a regular sale in which the item being sold is acquired once in one transaction, it is not possible to acquire the Torah all at once. We must constantly approach the Torah to try to grasp its wisdom. Each time we approach the Torah God allows us to understand what was previously beyond us until eventually God Himself is revealed. The Midrash understands this from the pasuk, “כִּי לֶקַח טוֹב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם תּוֹרָתִי אַל־תַּעֲזֹבוּ/For I have given you a good teaching, do not leave My Torah.” Do not leave the Torah, rather constantly delve into it for more and deeper understanding. Because the Torah is infinitely deep, no matter how experienced we are in Torah we can always approach it with a beginner’s mind as if we are seeing it for the first time. The Midrash is teaching us that according to our desire to acquire the Torah, we will experience God’s revelation.

The Sfas Emes explains that this concept is true not only for studying Torah but also for fulfilling God’s will through our actions. He understands this from the beginning of the parsha. This week’s parsha begins with an appeal to the nation for materials with which to build the Mishkan, “דַּבֵר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה .../Speak to the children of Israel that they take an offering for me …” The wording of this pasuk is awkward. Shouldn’t it state that they give an offering to God? Why does the pasuk state that they take an offering for God?

The Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk is a metaphor. We spend our lives working hard to take things for ourselves. We are in constant need of things, food and shelter to name a few. Our relationship with God is similar to the relationship of a poor person and one who sustains him. Chazal teach us that although the wealthy individual supports the poor person, in reality the giver receives more than he gives. The recipient is giving the wealthy person the opportunity to fulfill an important mitzvah.

When we take things that we need, we should understand and intend that we take them in order to fulfill God’s will. Accordingly, the pasuk states, “... וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה .../…take an offering for me ...” Everything we take should be for God. When we do this, we feel God’s presence in our lives because, as the Midrash makes clear, this pasuk is also an allegory for taking God Himself. In fact, Sfas Emes says that the very things we take intending to fulfill God’s will helps us to fulfill His will.

The Zohar as well makes this concept clear. The Zohar says that God’s presence resides in the person who has a strong desire to come close to God. The Sfas Emes understands this also from the halachah of acquiring a woman in marriage. Chazal teach us that one of the ways a woman can be acquired in marriage is through a monetary transaction. In fact, this is how we marry nowadays. By custom, the groom gives the bride a ring and she becomes his wife. He can just as well give her money. The Sfas Emes understands that metaphorically this halachah teaches us how we can experience God’s presence. The Hebrew for money – כסף – is the same root as that for yearning. The woman represents God’s presence. Hence, we can “acquire” God’s presence by yearning for it.

Another avenue to succeed in fulfilling God’s will and experiencing His presence is by identifying closely with the nation of Israel. He learns this from the continuation of the pasuk above, “... וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ .../... and you shall take an offering for me from every person …” The Sfas Emes understands that “every person” is a reference to the entire nation as we find another pasuk, “... כָּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל .../… every man of Israel …” This pasuk can also be translated as, “every man is Israel” meaning that each person who is part of the nation is like a microcosm of the nation. It defines him. When a person acts as part of the nation, his actions have powerful spiritual ramifications.

In the same vein, the Chiddushei HaRim explains a Mishna in Avos. The mishnah states, “אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי מִי לִי וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי מָה אֲנִי/If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am only for myself, what am I? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that each and every Jew came into this world in order to rectify something that only he can rectify. Each one of us has a unique mission that no one else can accomplish. This, the Chiddushei HaRim teaches, is the meaning of the first half of the sentence, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” If I do not fulfill my unique task, who will fulfill it for me. No one else can.

Although only I can fulfill my unique task, when I succeed I affect the entire nation and really, the entire Creation. Each unique mission is one part of a fabric which comprises all the unique missions together. This is the meaning of the second half of the sentence, “… If I am only for myself, what am I?” My deeds, my mission is meaningful and effective only because it is part of the nation.

May we merit experiencing God’s presence through our Torah, our actions and our identification with the nation of Israel!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mishpatim 5632 Second Ma'amar

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ וְיִנָּפֵש בֶּן־אֲמָתְךָ וְהַגֵּר/Do your work for six days and cease on the seventh day so that your ox and donkey may rest and the son of your maidservant and the resident stranger may be refreshed.”

Although obviously important that our animals rest and the servants be refreshed, the pasuk implies that this is the sole reason for keeping Shabbos. Yet, elsewhere the Torah teaches that we keep Shabbos as a testimony that God created the world and as a remembrance of the Exodus. How can these pesukim be reconciled?

There is a common theme that connects this pasuk with other descriptions of Shabbos in the Torah. The common theme is מְנוּחָה/rest. In the beginning of Breishis the Sfas Emes explains that the concept of מְנוּחָה/rest is not only cessation from physical activity. Rest really means a cessation from anything. We can rest from physical activity and we can relax our minds and take a mental rest. When we subordinate our own desires to God’s we are resting from those desires and really from our very selves. The concept of rest applied broadly simply means distancing from something.

When every part of the Creation fulfills God’s will, each aspect of it subjugating itself to God, it can be said to be at rest. This was the situation at the very first Shabbos. This is why Rashi in Breishis writes that מנוחה/rest was created with the culmination of the Creation on the first Shabbos – Shabbos Breishis. On the first Shabbos when the Creation was complete, the harmony of the Creation became apparent. Like an unfinished painting, before the first Shabbos, the harmony in the Creation was not clear to be seen. Once the Creation was complete and each creation could be seen performing its unique task thus fulfilling God’s will, God’s hand in the Creation was apparent. Each creation thus subordinated itself to God’s will. This, as we’ve explained is the very essence of מנוחה/rest.

According to this concept of rest, the Sfas Emes understands our pasuk metaphorically as referring to our life mission in this world. The six days during which we do our work represents our lifetime. During our time here we work at coming close to God by subordinating ourselves to Him. The donkey and ox in the pasuk represent our physical nature. Our material nature is egocentric, the very antithesis of subordination to God’s will. Our goal is to rectify our material nature. When we succeed, our material nature “rests”. As the pasuk states, “Do you work ... so that your ox and donkey may rest ...” May we merit it!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Yisro 5634 Second Ma'amar

Chazal[1] understand the following pasuk as referring to Moshe Rabbeinu receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, the subject of this week’s parsha, “עָלִיתָ לַמָּרוֹם שָׁבִיתָ שֶּׁבִי לָקַחְתָּ מַתָּנוֹת .../You ascended on high, you took a captive, you acquired gifts …” (Tehillim 68:19) Chazal explain that Moshe Rabbeinu “captured” the Torah from the angels. Capturing implies that he took it for free. The pasuk corrects this assumption by telling us that Moshe acquired the Torah. Acquiring something implies working to get it. Although he worked to get it, the pasuk calls the Torah a gift.

If Moshe Rabbeinu worked to get it, why is it considered a gift? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that it is not possible to receive the Torah through sheer hard work. The Torah is God’s message to us and is much large and deeper than our ability to receive it no matter how hard we try. There is only one way to receive the Torah; God must give it to us. God will only give the Torah, though, to one who exhibits a strong desire for it. The way to exhibit a strong desire is by working hard to receive it.

This is the meaning of the pasuk in Tehillim according to Chazal. “...לָקַחְתָּ מַתָּנוֹת .../… you acquired gifts …” Moshe Rabbeinu worked hard to receive the Torah. He spent forty days and nights on Mount Sinai without food or water. He was awake the entire time as well. He certainly exhibited a strong desire for it and this was necessary, albeit it was not enough. Ultimately, the Torah was given to him as a gift.

Chazal[2] elsewhere allude to this concept. “Rebbi Yitzchak said, If one says to you, ‘I worked hard (learning Torah – Rashi) but did not find (the answer)’, do not believe him. (If he says,) ‘I did not work hard, yet I found (the answer),’ do not believe him. (If he says,) ‘I worked hard and found (the answer)’, believe him.” In Hebrew the word for “find” connotes an object found with no exertion of effort. For example, a person finds a $100 bill while walking down the street. In English as well, we call it “found money”. Accordingly, there is an apparent difficulty here. Finding the answer implies no exertion of effort. Yet, Rebbi Yitzchak exhorts us to believe him only if he says that he worked hard.

The answer to this quandary is the Chiddushei HaRim’s concept. Although generally a found object is not the result of hard work, “finding” Torah is different. Rebbi Yitzchak is teaching us the same thing as the Chiddushei HaRim. When it comes to learning Torah, the only way to receive it is through hard work. However, success cannot be the direct result of the hard work because the Torah is too vast and too deep for our minds to grasp. Rather, as a result of our hard work, God gives us the Torah as gift.

The Sfas Emes goes a step further and teaches that while we are required to give our all for the Torah, we do not need to pay to learn it. The main attribute that is needed is desire. In fact, the Torah “pays” us. Whomsoever has a true desire to receive Torah receives life from the Torah in this world and the next.

[1] Shmos R. 28:1
[2] Megillah 6b

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Beshalach 5631 Third Ma'amar

The nation of Israel was encamped on the shores of the Reed Sea. The Egyptian army was hard upon them. God says to Moshe, “מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ/Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the children of Israel and move forward.” (Shmos 14:15) This is a difficult pasuk to understand because there is no prior indication that Moshe Rabbeinu cried out to God. The Midrash[1] addresses this question and says that God is not telling Moshe to stop crying out to Him. Rather God is telling Moshe not to cry out to Him. Why? This seems like the best time to ask God for help.

To answer this question the Midrash, according to the Chiddushei HaRim, teaches us a fundamental principle of prayer. The Midrash says that God bequeathed prayer (lit. sound) to Ya'akov, “הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב ... .../… the voice is the voice of Ya’akov …” (Breishis 27:22) What does this mean? Is prayer reserved for the descendents of Ya’akov? Cannot anyone pray? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that our prayer awakens the connection between us and our spiritual source. While anyone can and should turn to God for his needs, God specifically bequeathed to the descendents of Ya’akov the power to use prayer as a means for coming near to Him. In fact, coming close to God is the ultimate purpose of prayer. Once the connection is established and strengthened, the prayer has accomplished its purpose. Crying out to God has been used for its true purpose - to reach the higher level of faith manifested by silence.

This is the reason God told Moshe not to cry out to Him. On Moshe Rabbeinu’s level God already heard his prayer even though he had yet to mouth it as the Midrash ends, “… Why will you cry to Me? I have already heard your cry.” This concept is also apparent from the Midrash later that brings the pasuk, “וְהָיָה טֶרֶם יִקְרָאוּ וַאֲנִי אֶעֱנֶה .../It will be that even before they call out, I will answer …” (Yeshaya 65:24) to explain our pasuk. In certain instances, God answers prayers that have yet to be spoken.

We find this concept in another pasuk in Yeshaya (45:11) as well, “... הָאֹתִיּוֹת שְׁאָלוּנִי עַל־בָּנַי וְעַל־פֹּעַל יָדַי תְּצַוֻּנִי/… Ask me about the wonders (of the heavens). Do you command me regarding my children and the work of my hands?” God is telling us, through the prophet, that regarding His children, He has already created their salvation.[2]

The Sfas Emes takes the concept a step further. He explains that reaching a level of preparedness to cry out to God is the main goal. Generally, this level is reached by actually praying, however, once it is reached the cries are no longer needed. Moshe Rabbeinu reached this aspect of crying out, hence God told Him that there was no need for the actual cries.

This concept is further embodied in a pasuk in Eicha (2:17), “צָעַק לִבָּם אֶל־ה' .../Their heart cried out to God …” and in a pasuk in Tehillim (34:18) cited by our Midrash, “צָעֲקוּ וַה' שָּמֵעַ .../They cried out and God hears …” The implication is that even if they cried out in the hearts – a cry that is not heard at all – still, God hears and there is no need to actually cry out.

[1] Shmos R. 21:1
[2] Rashi (Shmos 14:15) cites this pasuk as well to explain why God told Moshe not to cry out.