Friday, March 27, 2009

VaYikra 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה .../God called Moshe …” (VaYikra 1:1) This first pasuk of parshas VaYikra relates the first time that God spoke to Moshe from the Mishkan. It teaches us, according to Chazal, that each time God spoke to Moshe, he first called him. What is the significance of this?

The first Midrash on this week’s parsha cites a pasuk in Tehillim (103:20), “בָּֽרְכוּ ה' מַלְאָכָיו גִּבּ­ֹרֵי כֹחַ עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרֽוֹ׃/Bless God, His angels, strong warriors doing His bidding to hear His word.”[1] The word “מַלְאָךְ/angel” also means messenger. In fact, the word mal’ach refers to a human messenger in various places in Tanach. The Midrash explains that “מַלְאָכָיו/His angels” in this pasuk does not refer to angels but rather to human messengers. How are we God’s messengers? The Sfas Emes explains that every Jew is sent into this world to do the will of God. Essentially, we are God’s agents in this world. Angels are messengers because they, too, are sent to this world to do the will of God. The difference between angels and us is that we are able to choose whereas an angel has no choice but to do God’s will.

When we choose to fulfill God’s will with our actions we become, “עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרֽו׃ֹ/doers of His bidding to hear His word.” This is a strange construct. Shouldn’t the pasuk state that we will listen to His word in order to do His bidding? How can we do His bidding before understanding what is required? The Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk is teaching us a deep concept. We don’t always know what God’s will is. In any given situation, what is it that God wants us to do? It is not always clear. The pasuk is teaching us the way to know God’s will. First we need to do His bidding. We do this by first resolving to satisfy His will with our action. Before acting we can think that we want our action to achieve God’s will. If we do this, we will merit understanding God’s will in those very activities.

This concept explains “גִּבּ­ֹרֵי כֹחַ/strong warriors” as well. In addition to strength, the word ko’ach means potential. God’s will is the potential of every action. We learn from this pasuk that a person who is determined to fulfill God’s will with his every action, who wants to be God’s emissary in this world, accomplishing that for which he was sent here, is someone who transforms the potential of God’s will into reality.

Moshe Rabbeinu was the archetypal emissary. Like an angel, he was so tuned in, as it were, that he was always ready to hear God and do His will.[2] One who is looking to carry out God’s will with his every action, always hears God. The Torah emphasizes this the very first time God spoke to Moshe Rabbeinu after the construction of the Mishkan with the words, “וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה .../God called Moshe.” This, then, is the significance of the first pasuk of this week’s parsha.

God is constantly calling us. The difference between us and Moshe Rabbeinu is that he always heard it because he was prepared to hear it, prepared to always achieve God’s will through his actions. Like Moshe, God sent all of us to this world to be His agents. He gave each of us the tools we need to do it. Moshe Rabbeinu was the quintessential agent of God but the Midrash is speaking to each and every Jew. May we each merit transforming God’s will into reality in all of our daily activities.

[1] VaYikra R. 1:1

[2] Sifri Beha’aloscha 68 and Tanchuma Tzav 13

Friday, March 20, 2009

Parshas HaChodesh (VaYakhel Pekudei) 5631 First Ma'amar

The details of building the Mishkan and its vessels are related twice in the Torah, first as instructions[1] and a second time in parshiyos VaYakhel and Pekudei when the Mishkan was actually built. In both cases the command to keep Shabbos is also mentioned. The first time, the command to keep Shabbos is mentioned at the conclusion of the instructions.[2] The second time, at the beginning of parshas VaYakhel,[3] it is mentioned before the building of the Mishkan. Why?

There is a relationship between the Mishkan and Shabbos. The thirty nine primary categories of “work” which are prohibited on Shabbos are derived from the activities of the Mishkan.[4] The purpose of the activities of the Mishkan was to bring the presence of God into our lives. (“וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם/Make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell amongst them.” (Shmos 25:8))

We can take a lesson from the Mishkan in our daily activities. We have the ability to bring an awareness of God’s presence into our lives through our actions. When we contemplate before every activity that our goal is to accomplish the will of God, we sensitize ourselves and become aware of His will in our actions. On Shabbos, we will feel God’s presence according to how well we worked at it during the week. Our work during the week, then, is actually a preparation for Shabbos. This is the reason that the instructions for building the Mishkan precede the command to keep Shabbos.

Why then, does the command to keep Shabbos precede the recounting of the building of the Mishkan in our parsha? The Chiddushei HaRim[5] explains. He notes that the sin of the golden calf occurred between the instructions to build the Mishkan and its vessels and the actual building. The instructions were given before the sin but the Mishkan was built following the sin.

Before the sin of the golden calf, the nation of Israel accepted to serve only God. This was our raison d’être. Before the sin we said, “נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע/We will do and we will listen.” (Shmos 24:7) The Chiddushei HaRim explains that “נַעֲשֶׂה/We will do” corresponds to the activities involved in building the Mishkan. It connotes a level of the angels whose sole reason for existence is to do the will of God. We were ready to do whatever God required of us without question. נִשְׁמָע/we will listen” connotes learning. It corresponds to keeping Shabbos because Shabbos brings knowledge of God as the pasuk says regarding keeping Shabbos, “לָדַעַת כִּי אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם/… in order to know that I am God who sanctifies you.” (Shmos 31:13) Performing the activities of the Mishkan during the week led inexorably to an unsurpassed Godly experience on Shabbos. The reason is that all the activities of the Mishkan had the common goal of revealing God’s presence with the completion of the work. Shabbos has the same exact goal. In this sense, the work of the Mishkan was a preparation for Shabbos.

However, after the sin God said to us, according to the Midrash,[6] “You corrupted ‘נַעֲשֶׂה/We will do.’ Be careful with regard to ‘נִשְׁמָע/we will listen.” As a result of the sin we were no longer on a level of “נַעֲשֶׂה/We will do.” as our sole reason to live. Our activities no longer had a common goal. We needed to experience the inherent holiness of Shabbos to bring us back to a level on which we could focus our intent to build the Mishkan properly. So, after the sin, the command to keep Shabbos preceded the building of the Mishkan.

For this reason the Torah makes a point of telling us that Moshe Rabbeinu gathered the entire nation together before commanding them to keep Shabbos, “וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל .../Moshe gathered the entire community of the children of Israel …” (Shmos 35:1) Regarding no other mitzvah does the Torah tell us that we were gathered together. Why here, before the mitzvah of Shabbos and building the Mishkan does the Torah mention that we were gathered together? The reason is that “וַיַּקְהֵל/He assembled” connotes a unification. The noun associated with this verb is “קְהִילָה/community” which signifies a group of people having common interests. The purpose of Shabbos is to help us recognize that there is a Oneness that underlies and permeates everything. On Shabbos it is easier to experience this. The realization that the power behind everything, even our own actions, is God, leads us to dedicate all our desires and actions to their Source. In fact, God sent us into this world to do this. By using every action to serve God we reveal the holiness inherent in all our actions.

The concept that we can find the spiritual inherent in our activities is alluded to in the beginning of parshas HaChodesh that we read this Shabbos, “הַח­ֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים .../This month will be for you the beginning of the months …” The word in Hebrew for month (חֹודֶשׁ) suggests renewal and novelty because it has the same root as the word for new (חָדָשׁ.)

Where do we find novelty and renewal in the material world? The answer is that we don’t. All renewal comes from the spiritual. Shlomo HaMelech taught us this in Koheles (1:9), “... אֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ/… There is nothing new under the sun.” “Under the sun” is a metaphor for the material world. The implication is that in the material world there is no renewal. All renewal comes from “above the sun”, in the spiritual.

The Sfas Emes understands this concept from a pasuk in Yechezkeil which we read in this week’s Haftorah. Yechezkeil in describing the third Beis HaMikdash says, “... שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית הַפֹּנֶה קָדִים יִהְיֶה סָגוּר שֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה וְּביוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת יִפָּתֵחַ וּבְיוֹם הַחֹדֶשׁ יִפָּתֵחַ/The inner courtyard gate that faces east will be closed during the six workdays but on Shabbos it will be opened and on Rosh Chodesh it will be opened.” (Yechezkeil 46:1) The gates of the temple opening and closing are a metaphor for spiritual gates opening and closing. On Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh there is a spiritual revelation that we don’t find naturally during the week. The Sfas Emes explains that Rosh Chodesh represents faith that in nature there is a continuous renewal coming from the spiritual source of the physical.

The way to become aware of the novelty and renewal, to bring it into the material world, is by realizing that our actions have primarily spiritual meaning. When we understand that we can use our actions to serve God, to do His will, we have found the spiritual within our actions. By using our actions to accomplish God’s will, we will constantly see new meanings and receive new understanding in the very same activities. This ability to bring renewal into the world from the spiritual was given to us in parshas HaChodesh.

In fact, the Midrash[7] tells us that God gave the secret of the lunar calendar to the nation of Israel whereas the solar calendar was given to the nations of the world. The Midrash explains that the sun is fire so the nations of the world will be judged by fire. The moon is light so the nation of Israel will inherit the light. The Midrash concludes that this is the reason God told us, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you.” It is ours because we have similar qualities. The moon sheds light during the night. Our mission, as well, is to bring the light of the Torah, the light of spirituality into the spiritual darkness of the material world. As we’ve said, we do this by intending to accomplish the will of God through our actions.

[1] Shmos 25-31

[2] Shmos 31:12-17

[3] Shmos 35:1-3

[4] Mechilta VaYakhel 1; Shabbos 49b

[5] Chidushei HaRim VaYakhel

[6] Shmos R. 27:9

[7] Shmos R. 15:27

Friday, March 13, 2009

Parshas Parah (Ki Sisa) 5631 Third Ma'amar

The first time Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai to receive the sh’nei luchos habris – the two tablets of the covenant – containing the ten commandments, he stayed there for forty days. During these forty days, he received enlightenment from God. Chazal teach us that he studied Torah during this period. After the nation sinned and he broke the tablets he again ascended the mountain to receive the second luchos. This time as well, he stayed on the mountain for forty days. The Chiddushei HaRim asks why he had to stay for forty days the second time. He had already received the Torah. What was the point of the second forty days?

The Chiddushei HaRim answers that although Moshe Rabbeinu had already received the tablets once, the second time was very different. The first time he received the tablets as a tzadik who had not sinned. The second time, he received them as a ba’al teshuva – a penitent. Chazal teach us that a ba’al teshuva is on a higher level than one who has never sinned. Therefore, when Moshe Rabbeinu accepted the second luchos, the acceptance was different, the preparation for it was different and his experience was different.

Moshe Rabbeinu, though, did not sin. How then, could he have been on the level of a ba’al teshuva? The Sfas Emes gives two answers. The first answer is that although Moshe Rabbeinu did not sin, the sin of the golden calf was of national import. Most of the nation did not worship the golden calf yet the entire nation was punished. Therefore, the subsequent repentance was also on a national level and affected the entire nation including Moshe Rabbeinu.

The second answer is based on a deeper understanding of repentance. Conventionally, we think of repentance as remorse. The sinner is sorry that he sinned and undertakes not to sin again. In Hebrew, though, the word for repentance – teshuva – means return. Sin distances one from God. Repentance returns the sinner to God again. This is the true meaning of repentance.

The Sfas Emes understands according to this, that this aspect of teshuva is possible even without sin. When our souls are sent into this world, they are more “distant” from God than when they existed only in spiritual realms. The physical world acts as a screen which hides God. The reason the physical world hides God is because it seems to exist outside of Him. It seems to be autonomous. The way we “return” to God is by realizing that this is an illusion that God created. We think that we ourselves exist autonomously outside of God. We have desires and needs. These may at times conflict with God’s desires. The more powerfully we feel our own existence as being autonomous of God, the more we are distant from Him.

The way to “return” to God is by realizing that our autonomy is also a created illusion. When we internalize this concept, we subordinate ourselves to God’s will and come close to Him. The Sfas Emes learns this from the red heifer – parah adumah. The red heifer must be totally burnt. Only its ashes can be used to purify the spiritually impure. This, the Sfas Emes teaches, is a metaphor for our complete subordination to God in order to return to Him.

The result of repentance is a return to the previous state of closeness to God. As well, we can all "return" to the state of our soul before it was sent into this world by realizing this truth and subjugating our desires to God's. May we merit it!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Tetzaveh (Parshas Zachor) 5631 Second Ma'amar

Many people live in fear. There is probably no aspect of life that is not subject to people’s fears. Fear holds us back from improving ourselves. In order to improve and come close to God it is imperative that we move beyond our fears. How can we do this? Fear stems from egocentrism. Egocentrism is another way of saying God’s concealment. When we are thinking about ourselves, we are not open to experiencing God. The opposite of egocentrism is subjugating our own desires in favor of God’s will. When we do this, God is revealed to us, we feel His presence in our lives and our fears evaporate.

The Sfas Emes learns this from a Midrash that Rashi cites on the first pasuk of parshas Zachor. Rashi explains the juxtaposition of the preceding paragraph which admonishes us as merchants to keep correct weights and parshas Zachor which relates Amalek’s attack on the nation of Israel and subsequent defeat. Rashi explains that the former leads to the latter. When we use fraudulent weights we should be worried about provocation from the enemy. Why is this so? Why does dishonesty regarding weights lead to being attacked by Amalek?

The Sfas Emes understands weights metaphorically as referred to God’s presence in this world. Since God is infinite, how can we finite beings experience Him? The Sfas Emes explains that we can only experience Him because He reveals Himself in measured doses than we can handle. The weights of the first parsha refer to these measured doses of God’s revelation. Dishonesty with weights is an allegory for not recognizing God’s life-force which underpins everything in this world including our very actions. The result of not recognizing God, relying solely upon ourselves is fear.

When, on the other hand, we cultivate our faith that God is the continuing cause of everything we find that we have no reason to fear. This is the significance of Moshe Rabbeinu holding up his hands in prayer during the battle with Amalek. The pasuk states, “וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה .../Behold his hands were faithful …” It was this faith, nothing else, that enabled the nation to defeat Amalek.

This concept explains why parshas Shekalim precedes parshas Zachor. The shekel, as we’ve said, represents God’s revelation in measured doses. When we recognize fully that God gives of His life-force in measured doses to each component of the Creation including ourselves and our actions, then there is no concealment, no room for fear and we are ready to defeat Amalek.

The key is to subordinate our desires to His. Then what we thought impossible like eradicating Amalek becomes reality. In this week’s Haftarah we read that Shaul HaMelech showed mercy to Agag the king of Amalek and did not follow Shmuel HaNavi’s instructions to kill him. He certainly thought that there was no way to eradicate Amalek completely at that time. He could not envision it. But if he had strengthened his faith and believed wholeheartedly that God would certainly help him succeed regardless of what he thought, the belief itself would have caused a revelation of God and would have helped him succeed to wipe out Amalek completely.

Our faith affects our reality. This explains why God told Shmuel, “... וּדְּבָרַי לֹא הֵקִים .../… and he did not establish my words …” instead of the more understandable “... וּדְּבָרַי לֹא קִיֵם .../… and he did not fulfill my words …” Shaul had the power to establish God’s words, to turn them into reality. The pasuk in Tehillim (37:3) states, “בְּטַח בַּֽה' וַֽעֲשֵׂה־טוֹב שְׁכָן־אֶרֶץ וּרְעֵה אֱמוּנָה׃/Trust in God and do good so that you may dwell in the land and nourish yourself with belief.” Chazal tell us that according to the strength of our belief, God reveals Himself to us by helping us to be successful in serving Him. Our reality is affected according to the extent of our faith.

This is also the reason Shmuel says, “... הִנֵּה שְׁמֹעַ מִזֶבַח טוֹב לְהַקְשִיב מֵחֵלֶב אֵילִים/… Behold accepting (God’s will) is better than a sacrifice, listening is better than the fat of rams.” The prophet could not be clearer. All things being equal sacrifices are certainly a very high level of serving God. However, when God instructs us not to sacrifice as He instructed Shaul HaMelech, following God’s will when it conflicts with our understanding is not just a higher level. Doing otherwise becomes anathema to serving God.

May we merit internalizing the belief that God will help us succeed in our service to Him and that with strong faith in Him, there is nothing in this world that can prevent us from succeeding. Amen.