Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shavuos 5631 Second Night (leil Shabbos that year)

Note: The Sfas Emes notes that this ma'amar is a continuation of the ma'amar he said on the first night of Shavuos. This ma'amar can be understood independently. To see the ma'amar that he said the first night click here.

The first time the ten commandments are mentioned in the Torah at the giving of the Torah, we find, “זָכוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת .../Remember the Shabbos day …” (Shmos 20:7) Forty years later, when Moshe repeats the story of the acceptance of the Torah he says, “שָׁמוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת .../Keep the Shabbos day …” (Devarim 5:12) Why the change from זָכוֹר/Remember to שָׁמוֹר/Keep? Moshe Rabbeinu certainly did not change what God said. Chazal tell us that God said, and we heard, both זָכוֹר/Remember and שָׁמוֹר/Keep simultaneously. Why, though, did God say both “Remember” and “Keep”, and what is the significance of saying them simultaneously?

The mitzvah of keeping Shabbos actually comprises both a positive and negative commandment. זָכוֹר/Remember, refers to observing the positive commandment of Shabbos. שָׁמוֹר/Keep, refers to the prohibitions of Shabbos. This explains the two wordings, however, it does not explain the significance of God having said them simultaneously.

In order to understand this, we need to reach a deeper understanding of זָכוֹר/Remember and שָׁמוֹר/Keep. In order to refrain from transgressing the admonition against violating the Shabbos, we need to be concerned about it. Negative commandments are generally associated with fear or awe whereas positive commands are associated with love. The feeling of fear or awe which prevents us from transgressing prohibitions corresponds to the concern which keeps us in a state of preparedness for performing mitzvos with love. שָׁמוֹר/Keep, therefore is more than a reference to the prohibition against violating the Shabbos. It implies a state of preparedness.

זָכוֹר/Remember on its highest level is not really remembering at all. Rather it is a connection to something at such a deep level that it becomes a part of us to the extent that there is no possibility of forgetting. It is a connection to our innermost essence. This is a very high level that not everyone merits reaching. In fact, it is a level of Godly revelation.[1] Chazal are teaching us that a person who is careful about שָׁמוֹר/Keep – a person who keeps prepares, can be granted a level of זָכוֹר/Remember on its highest level.

God said them simultaneously because as soon as we reached a level of completeness implied by שָׁמוֹר/Keep, God granted us the revelation implied by זָכוֹר/Remember.

In addition to God saying both words at the same time, Chazal tell us that we heard them as well, something that is impossible in nature. How, then, could this be and what is the significance of it? The answer to this question involves a deeper understanding of what Torah is. As we’ve said elsewhere, Torah is much more than scrolls with words written on them. In fact, Torah is primarily a spiritual force which was enclothed in physical trappings in order to bring it into the physical world. This is what Chazal mean when they say that the Torah is both hidden and revealed.[2] Chazal, in fact, teach us that the Torah’s descriptions of spiritual events or entities in physical terms are not accurate. The Torah is simply using terms to which we, as physical beings living in a physical world can relate more easily.[3]

It follows that on a physical level, we can see only the physical trappings of the Torah, its plain meaning. However, when we recognize that the Torah that we see is only the wrapping, allegories for the spiritual Torah, and subordinate ourselves to that spiritual Torah, not just to the outer wrapping, we can merit hearing the inner secrets of the Torah, things that cannot be heard physically. The nation reached this level at the giving of the Torah. At that time the Torah tells us that we saw sound. This is an allusion to experiencing that part of the Torah which cannot be experienced on a physical level. We were on a level at which the spiritual Torah was being revealed to us.

This also explains the deeper meaning behind, “זָכוֹר וְשָׁמוֹר בְּדִיבּוּר אֶחָד נֶאֱמְרוּ/Remember and Keep were said at the same time (lit. with one speech).” As a watchman – שׁוֹמֵר – guards from the outside, שָׁמוֹר implies keeping the plain meaning of the Torah. זָכוֹר implies understanding and connecting with the hidden mysteries of the Torah. The Hebrew for speech – דִיבּוּר – implies revelation as the Sfas Emes explains elsewhere regarding the עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִיבְּרוֹת/ten commandments.[4] Because of God’s revelation we were able to hear both the physical plain meaning of the Torah and spiritual deeper meaning at one and the same time.

[1] There are divisions and levels to our souls. At the highest spiritual level our souls connect with all the souls of the nation of Israel to form one powerful spiritual force. All the souls of the nation of Israel at their highest level, form the Shechina. This what the Kabbalists mean when they say that each of our souls is a part of God above. See Nefesh HaChaim 2:17 and 2:18 for a detailed discussion of these concepts and their sources in Chazal and the Arizal’s writings.

[2] Zohar 3:72b

[3] Tanchuma Yisro 13

[4] Sfas Emes Bo 5631 First Ma’amar

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bemidbar 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

This Shabbos we learn the sixth chapter of Avos. The sixth chapter, sometimes called kinyan Torah/acquiring Torah, is learnt on the Shabbos preceding Shavuos in preparation for receiving the Torah. It begins, “רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה .../Rebbi Meir says, whosoever occupies himself with Torah for its own sake merits many things …” (Avos 6:1) What does it mean to occupy oneself with Torah לִשְׁמָהּ/for its own sake?

Simply put, we occupy ourselves with Torah for its own sake when we study it in order to know what to do. The word Torah itself comes from the root, לְהוֹרוֹת/to instruct. The Torah is primarily an instruction manual so that we may know how to lead our lives. This seems straightforward. Why, then, does Rebbi Meir imply that it is a high level. The answer is that it is not always easy to follow the dictates of the Torah. At times they are at odds with the conclusions of our intellect. At other times, we may not understand the reasoning behind the Torah’s laws. Regardless, we are enjoined to accept whatever the Torah demands of us even if we do not concur and even if we do not understand the reasoning. This is definitely not straightforward. In fact, the Midrash in this week’s parsha addresses this issue.

The Midrash[1] is bothered by apparently extra words in the first pasuk of the parsha, “וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי .../God spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert …” (Bemidbar 1:1) Why does the Torah tell us the venue? We already know where Moshe Rabbeinu was.

The Midrash answers that the Torah is hinting that one can only acquire Torah wisdom if he makes himself hefker/ownerless like the desert. What does being ownerless like the desert mean? How does this apply to us? The Sfas Emes explains. When we understand that we have no ownership over our very bodies, that we have absolutely zero power and ability to act without a continuous influx of “existence power” from God we have reached a level on which we can be compared to the desert. The desert, a totally desolate place, is a metaphor for absolutely no positive value. As such, the desert offers no resistance to accepting anything outside of itself.

Another Midrash[2] on the parsha compares God to a king who searches for a city in which to build his palace. He enters two cities and the people are so in awe that they run from him. In the third city that the king enters the people praise the king completely and unselfconsciously.

The third city is like the desert. Just as the desert, so too, the people have no puffed up feeling of importance. They are able therefore to approach the king in an unselfconscious manner and praise him. The people of the first two cities are unable to do so. Paradoxically it is there fear which hints to there feeling of self importance. Because of their feeling of self importance, that they have something to lose, they fear. The people of the third city have no self delusions about their own importance. They understand that they are nothing compared to God. There is nothing within them that would resist God and they are therefore able to accept Him and praise Him unselfconsciously.

This concept is alluded to by the Hebrew word for desert – מִדְבָּר. This word has within it the word דַבָר, Aramaic for leader. מִדְבָּר implies subjugation to the leader. This means recognizing that we have absolutely no power and ability to act without the continuous Godly life-force influx.

When we are like the desert in this respect, the Torah is given to us as a present as Chazal[3] explain the pasuk, “... וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה/… and from the desert it was a gift.” (Bemidbar 21:18) The Torah is a gift to those who make themselves like the desert, completely accepting of its dictates.

The Sfas Emes explains that the first two cities are an allegory for the nations of the world. The nations believe that their power is independent of God. In this respect, Chazal[4] teach us that the nations refer to the Creator as the God of gods – אֱ-לָהָא דֵאלָהַיָא. The nations believe in the one God. However they believe that He is the greatest of a pantheon of gods. They believe that they have powerful gods who imbue them with power. The third city is an allegory for the nation of Israel. We, like the desert and the people of the third city, recognize that we have no power on our own. It is this recognition that enables us to accept the Torah’s dictates even if we do not understand the reasoning and even if our own intellect tells us otherwise.

This concept is further developed in a saying of Chazal that we say each morning, “לְעוֹלָם יְהֵא אָדָם יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם בַּסֵתֶר וּבַגָלוּי .../A person should always fear heaven privately and outwardly …”[5] The Sfas Emes explains the meaning of “privately and outwardly.” Fearing God outwardly means that when we recognize and understand that everything that happens is within the Divine Providence, we are moved to awe. Privately means that we internalize the awe applying it to everything we do with the understanding that there is absolutely nothing that we do that is not powered by God. We are like an axe in the hand of the woodsman.

This idea can help us understand an enigma regarding Rebbi Meir’s choice of words. Had Rebbi Meir said “study Torah” instead of “occupy oneself with Torah,” his message would have been clear. We need to study the Torah to know what to do and accept what we learn. However, the wording Rebbi Meir uses needs explanation. What does “occupy” imply beyond “studying”?

In order to understand what occupying oneself with Torah means we need to gain a deeper understanding of what Torah is. Technically, the power that God imbues in the world in order to keep it in existence is given through the Torah. The Torah is more than scrolls with words written on them. Chazal[6] teach us that God created the world with the Torah. Accordingly, the Torah, is actually a very powerful spiritual entity. When God said, “Let there be light,” (Breishis 1:3) these very words became a spiritual power than gave and continue to give light its existence. It follows that when we say that God powers the entire world to continue to exist, He does so through a medium called the Torah. The power of the Torah thus permeates the entire Creation. This, of course, applies to our actions as well. Our every action is powered by the power of the Torah within it.

Therefore occupying oneself with Torah means more than studying the Torah in order to know how to act. It refers to our actions as well, since their motive power comes from the Torah. How can our actions be considered occupying oneself with Torah for its own sake, though?

The answer lies in the concept we discussed earlier. By recognizing that we have no independent power, that it is God, through the medium of the Torah who gives us the ability to act, we come to understand that our actions are a manifestation of divine will. If there were not, we would not have been able to do them. When we subordinate ourselves to that, consciously accept the divine will, and intend to act only so that God’s will manifests through us, we are occupying ourselves with Torah for its own sake. May we merit it!

[1] Bemidbar R. 1:7

[2] Bemidbar R. 1:2

[3] Nedarim 55a

[4] Menachos 110a

[5] Tanna devai Eliyahu, Seder Eliyahu Rabba 21:17 with slightly different wording than found in siddurim.

[6] Zohar 1:5a Introduction

Friday, May 15, 2009

Behar 5632 Third Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha, God’s calls us His servants, “כִּי־לִי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים עֲבָדַי הֵם .../For the children of Israel are servants to me, they are my servants …”  Yet, Moshe Rabbeinu at the end of his life told the nation, “בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם .../You are children to God your Lord …”  In what respect are we servants and in what respect are we children?  How can our relationship with God reflect that of servants and children at the same time?

The Zohar in this week’s parsha addresses these questions and explains that a servant is required to do his master’s bidding whether or not he understands the reasoning behind it.  A son, on the other hand, is permitted and in fact encouraged to search and understand the mysteries and secrets of his father.

The Zohar is teaching us that we are required to serve God both as servants and as sons.  As servants, we are required to learn the plain meaning of the Torah in order to know how to fulfill the mitzvos.  Understanding the reasoning behind the mitzvos is irrelevant.  We are enjoined to fulfill the mitzvos simply because they are God’s decrees.  As God’s beloved children, though, we are encouraged to delve into the mysteries of the Torah, to try our best to understand the Torah at deeper levels.

The Sfas Emes delves deeper into the nature of our relationship with God as reflected by the servant approach and the child approach.  The Sfas Emes notes that it is a difficult task for a servant to fulfill his master’s bidding without knowing the reasoning underlying the request.  A son, on the other hand, more easily understands his father.  A son, unlike a servant, is naturally drawn after his father.  It does not take a lot for the son to understand his father’s reasons or to agree with them.  They are almost his own.

The Sfas Emes teaches us that this dichotomy between the “servant” approach to learning Torah and performing the mitzvos and the “son” approach, is apparent in the difference between Shabbos and the days of the week.

During the week it is difficult to be sensitive to the Godliness that permeates everything in the Creation.  Godliness is more concealed during the week and more revealed on Shabbos.  Also, we are busy during the week with our own issues.  Nevertheless, we must work at overcoming our own desires and God’s concealment, cultivate a strong belief that God permeates the Creation and strive to fulfill His will.  This is not an easy task.  The Sfas Emes relates it to the “servant” approach of serving God.  Just as the servant needs to fulfill his master’s wishes even though he may not understand them, so too, must we fulfill God’s wishes even though He is not revealed to us.  Both require work.  Significantly, the Hebrew for servant – עֶבֶד – has the same root as the word for work – עֲבוֹדָה.

On Shabbos it is far easier to experience the spiritual.  Chazal quote God as saying, “I have a good gift in my treasure house and it is called Shabbos.”  A treasure house is generally a hidden place.  One does not open his treasure house to the world.  God’s treasure house is a metaphor for the hidden spiritual light that is inherent in the Creation.  When God says that His treasure house contains Shabbos, He is alluding to the spiritual light that is more easily revealed on Shabbos.

The Sfas Emes relates Shabbos to the “son” approach of serving God because a son is close to his father and more easily understands him.  Like the relationship between a son and his father, on Shabbos it easier for us approach God and experience Him, to understand His mysteries and secrets than during the week.

May we merit fulfilling the dictate of the Zohar, serving God both as servants, because He decreed it, and as children, delving into His mysteries and secrets.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Emor 5632 Second Ma'amar

In the previous ma’amar, the Sfas Emes explains how to reach pure intention in the service of God. He teaches that there is a two step process. First, God brings us close to Him. “Us,” the Sfas Emes, makes clear, refers to the nation of Israel as a whole. It is important for us, then, to identify with and view ourselves as part of the nation in order to be included in this. Once God brings us near, we accept His rule over us and subordinate all our desires and actions to Him. This acceptance results in purity of intention.

This ma’amar further expounds on this concept. To continue to exist, the physical world needs to constantly receive spiritual sustenance. The mechanism for infusing this life force includes the ten sayings with which God created the world. Through the ten sayings the world receives the spiritual sustenance it needs to continue to exist. A pasuk in Tehillim (19:3) suggests this, “יוֹם לְיוֹם יַבִּיעַ אֹמֶר .../Day to day utters speech …” The plain meaning of this pasuk is that the daily workings of the universe cause us to utter praises to God each day for each day the Creation is renewed. The Sfas Emes explains that the word אוֹמֶר/speech in this pasuk is an allusion to these sayings through which spiritual power comes into the world.

The chapter in Tehillim continues by comparing the rising of the sun with a groom who emerges from his chamber in the morning. The Midrash[1] explains the comparison. Just as a groom enters in purity and emerges impure so too the sun goes from purity to impurity. The physical in relation to the spiritual realms is called impure because it cannot exist without the spiritual much like a body is dead without the soul. Each day God renews the workings of the Creation and draws new life from the source of life to all the creations. In this context purity represents life that comes from the source of life whereas impurity is the physical Creation without the spiritual.

We see that אֲמִירָה/saying connotes a connection with the source of life. In this context the Midrash on the parsha tells us that Israel needs two אֲמִירוֹת/sayings. The Sfas Emes expounds. We need to desire to become pure by accepting God over us. We can succeed only by first identifying with and feeling a part of the nation of Israel.

Significantly, another Midrash in this week’s parsha states that slander (may God save us from it!) prevents purity.[2] According to the Sfas Emes, this is because a person who slanders another Jew is not feeling a part of the nation of Israel. He is therefore missing the first “saying.” He is missing the first essential step in the process of becoming pure in his service to God.

The Sfas Emes clearly is teaching that the way to succeed in avodas HaShem is by developing a strong sense of identity with Knesses Yisrael. May we merit it!

[1] Midrash Tehillim 19

[2] VaYikra R. 26:2

Friday, May 01, 2009

Kedoshim 5632 First Ma'amar

This second parsha of this week’s double parsha begins with and exhortation to be holy, “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ/Be holy.” (VaYikra 19:2) We live in a very physical world and we ourselves are very physical beings limited and governed to a large extent by the needs of our bodies. We are so removed from holiness which implies a separation from the physical. How, then, can we become holy?

The answer, the Sfas Emes says, is based on the realization that everything physical is only a façade for the spiritual. Even the mitzvos which we conventionally think of as holy, are fundamentally only physical activities. What makes them holy? They are holy only because God, through the Torah, commanded us to perform them. They are mentioned in the Torah and all holiness in this world derives from the Torah.

Holiness is not that apparent in this world. But God wants us to be aware that holiness is hidden within the physical world. The mitzvos are God’s hints to us that there is holiness here in this world. The prophet Yirmiyahu makes this point when he says, “הַצִיבִי לָךְ צִיֻנִים/Place signposts for yourself.” (Yirmiyahu 31:20) Chazal explain that the signposts to which Yirmiyahu is referring are the mitzvos.[1] They are signposts in that they point us in the direction of holiness. They hint to us that there is something more to the physical world than meets the eye.

We find this differentiation between the mitzvos as signposts and the Torah as the source of holiness in a Midrash explaining “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ/Be holy.” The Midrash[2] cites a pasuk in Tehillim (20:3), “יִשְׁלַח־עֶזְרְךָ מִקֹּדֶשׁ וּמִצִּיּוֹן יִסְעָדֶךָּ/He will send your help from the holy (sanctuary) and support you from Zion.”

The Midrash understands the word “from” in this pasuk as meaning “because of” or “as a result of.” צִיוֹן/Zion, can be read, “צִיוּן/signpost.” The pasuk can thus be translated as, “He will send your help because of the holiness within your actions and will support you because of your signposts.” As we’ve said, all holiness derives from the Torah. This includes the holiness within our actions. The signposts are the mitzvos. The Midrash is therefore teaching us that the way to get help from God is by recognizing that there is holiness within the mitzvos that we fulfill. Getting help from God, of course, is another way of saying God’s revelation, or revealing holiness in the physical world.

In fact, the Zohar calls the mitzvos advice.[3] The mitzvos are God’s advice to us as to how to draw the holiness of the Torah into this world. By performing the mitzvos with the understanding that they “contain” the holiness of the Torah and with the desire to reveal that holiness, we attach to the holiness and become holy ourselves.

[1] Sifri Eikev 43

[2] VaYikra R. 24:4

[3] Zohar 2:82b