Friday, July 31, 2009

Va'Eschanan 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

The Midrash in this week’s parsha points up the difference between prayer and repentance through an allegory. Prayer can be compared to a mikveh whereas repentance can be compared to the sea. A mikveh is open sometimes, closed sometimes. The sea, however, is always open. The gates of prayer are sometimes open, sometimes closed. The gates of repentance, though, are always open.

The Midrash seems to be teaching us that there are times when prayer is more easily accepted and other times when it is not. David HaMelech said clearly, “וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי־לְךָ ה' עֵת רָצוֹן אֱ־לֹהִים בְּרָב־חַסְדֶּךָ עֲנֵנִי בֱּאֶמֶת יִשְׁעֶךָ/As for me, may my prayer to You, God, be at a time of desire; Lord, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.” (Tehillim 69:14) Repentance, on the other hand, is always accepted.

Is this really the case? Are there times that God is more desirous of our prayers and other times when He is less desirous of them as this pasuk implies and as the Midrash seems to be saying? This is only so, if we take the Midrash at face value as pitting prayer against repentance. The Sfas Emes explains though that the gates of prayer and the gates of repentance are not comparable. The gates of prayer are in our hearts. Prayer, Chazal teach us, is a “service of the heart”. Repentance, though, is a rectification of our relationship with God.

When Chazal call prayer a “service of the heart”, they are teaching us something fundamental about prayer. In essence Chazal answer the following implied question. How is it possible to ask God for something? How does prayer help? If we deserve that for which we are praying, then God should grant it without prayer and if we do not deserve it then what difference our prayers?

Chazal therefore teach us that prayer is not simply asking God for something. Prayer means working on one’s self. It is a “service of the heart”. What must we do? How do we work on ourselves. The Sfas Emes explains based on the Midrash’s metaphor comparing prayer to a mikveh and repentance to the sea. A mikveh, as opposed to the sea, is an enclosed concentration of water. The word mikveh means this.* Water is a metaphor for Godly enlightenment. The Sfas Emes explains that we are each like a mikveh. Just as the mikveh contains water, so too, do we contain Godly enlightenment.

Successful prayer starts with accessing the Godly enlightenment within us. The way to do this is by discarding all our desires in favor of what we will receive from the enlightenment that is in us. This discarding is what Chazal refer to as a service of the heart which itself is prayer. Sometimes we are able to do this and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, sin acts as a barrier preventing us from accessing the Godly enlightenment within us. In the words of the Midrash, the mikveh is sometimes open, sometimes closed.

Prayer, according to the Sfas Emes’s understanding, is very introspective. Repentance, on the other hand, is a rectification of the sinner’s relationship with God. Repentance, literally return, is the tool that the sinner needs in order to repair the connection with God that was severed to some extent by sin. The gates of repentance are always open because our sins don’t affect God. He always wants our return. As long as we truly return to Him, as long as we dedicate ourselves totally to Him, He is always ready to accept us even though we’ve sinned.

This is the meaning of the pasuk in our parsha, “כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱ־לֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה׳ אֱ־לֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/For who is the great nation who has God so close to them, as God, our Lord is whenever we call to Him.” (Devarim 4:7) Although conventionally, this pasuk is referring to prayer, the Sfas Emes understands it as referring to the dedication that is needed for the process of returning to God to be successful. He translates, “בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/whenever we call to Him”, as, “when all our calls are to Him.” The pasuk, then, is teaching us that God is close to us “when all our calls are to Him” – when we are totally dedicated to Him.

May we merit that the gates of prayer – in our own hearts – as well as the gates of repentance – dedicating ourselves totally to God – always be open to us.

* See Breishis 1:9

Va'Eschanan 5631 First Ma'amar

The first Midrash[1] on this week’s parsha says that if a person pays attention to his prayer he can rest assured that it is heard as it says in Tehillim, (10:17) “... תָּכִין לִבָּם תַּקְשִׁיב אָזְנֶךָ/… You prepare their heart; let Your ear be attentive.” If a person’s heart is prepared when he prays, God listens to the prayer.

This Midrash is difficult to understand. It implies that if a person does not pay attention to the words of his prayer, he has prayed albeit not properly. But the very definition of prayer is a request, a petition of God. If a person mouths the words while his thoughts are elsewhere, is this prayer?

To be sure, at the very least one must be attentive to his words. The Midrash, however, is referring to a higher level of prayer. The clue to understanding this Midrash is in the pasuk the Midrash brings. The pasuk says that God prepares their hearts and He listens to their prayers. Shouldn’t the pasuk say that the ones who pray prepare their own hearts? Why does it say that God prepares their hearts? The Sfas Emes explains that at the highest level, true preparation is also from God. The Midrash is teaching us that a person who prays in a totally unselfconscious way, pouring out his heart before God, has reached a level of prayer at which God Himself prepares and directs that person’s heart towards Him. This type of prayer is certainly heard.

But why would we want God to direct our hearts? Can we not direct our own hearts? The answer to this question is related to the reason a person approaches God with a request. At its highest level, prayer is not about asking for our own benefit. At its highest level, prayer is about asking for the sake of Heaven. The pasuk in Mishlei (16:1) says, “לְאָדָם מַעַרְכֵי־לֵב וּמֵה' מַעֲנֵה לָשׁוֹן/The preparation of thoughts in the heart are man’s but the response of the tongue is from God.” A person who reaches the highest level of prayer, whose prayers are for the sake of Heaven is so completely unselfconscious and involved in the connection to God that the prayer affords, that he even forgets the need that brought him to prayer in the first place. At this level God puts the appropriate words into his mouth to ask for what he really needs. Shlomo HaMelech is teaching us that if we prepare properly for prayer then God supplies us with the proper words. At this level of prayer for the sake of Heaven we want God to direct our hearts, to supply us with the proper words and the best way to approach Him.

What can we do to reach this level of prayer? The Sfas Emes learns the ways of preparing for prayer from the first Midrash on the parsha.[2] This Midrash mentions ten different expressions that represent prayer. Significantly, the primary Hebrew word for prayer – tefilla, is not among them. Why not? The Sfas Emes explains that the Midrash is teaching us ten different ways of preparing for prayer. In order to reach a level of prayer at which God directs us we need to use the tools mentioned in the Midrash.

Chazal teach us that even the righteous who are able to approach God in prayer on the merit of their good deeds prefer to come before God as unworthy and rely completely on His mercy and compassion.[3] The Kotzker Rav asks from a pasuk in Iyov, (41:3) “מִי הִקְדִּימַנִי וַאֲשַׁלֵּם .../I will pay to the one who comes before me …” God is telling Iyov that He will answer the prayers of the one who comes before Him and makes a request. The implication is that no one really deserves to be answered, not even the righteous. The Sfas Emes elucidates that if a person were truly deserving, he would not have to ask. He would receive what he should according to the letter of the law. Yet, Chazal tell us that the righteous are deserving in the merit of their good deeds. How does this Chazal reconcile with the pasuk in Iyov?

The Sfas Emes explains, according to what we’ve said, that while the pasuk in Iyov is referring to petitioning God with requests, Chazal are referring to approaching God in prayer. No one, not even the righteous, merit positive answers from God. And this is implied by the pasuk in Iyov. However, the righteous are certainly able to approach God and come close to Him in the merit of their good deeds. Still, they prefer to come before God as unworthy. They would rather approach God with entreaties. The last of the expressions of prayer mentioned in the Midrash, in fact, is tachanunim/entreaties which comes from the root chanun/compassionate. It implies that God in His mercy allows us to approach Him with our requests even when we are unworthy of His compassion.

This is why the first Midrash above brings the pasuk, “... תָּכִין לִבָּם .../… You prepare their heart …” as an expression of the highest level of prayer. As we noted earlier, significantly, the pasuk says that God prepares their hearts rather than their preparing their own hearts. At the highest level, we want to approach God from a position of unworthiness and rely upon Him to prepare our hearts, to guide us in prayer.

According to this approach to prayer we can understand the inner meaning of the first pasuk in our parsha, “וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל־ה' ... לֵאמֹר/I entreated God … saying.” (Devarim 3:23) VaEschanan/I entreated is in the reflexive form. The last word in the pasuk, leimor/saying is apparently extra. Moshe Rabbeinu is saying, “I prepared myself reaching the level of one who entreats before God so that I could be guided by Him in prayer.” Moshe Rabbeinu is teaching us that prayer is a reflexive activity. It is working on ourselves, preparing ourselves to approach our Creator. The primary goal of prayer is approaching and coming close to God.

[1] Devarim R. 2:1

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sifri VaEschanan 26

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Devarim 5364 Second Ma'amar

Chazal[1] teach that the Beis HaMikdash is considered to have been destroyed in every generation in which it is not rebuilt. This is difficult to understand. There have been many generations during which lived great tzaddikim. Are Chazal telling us that the Beis HaMikdash would have been destroyed in these generations as well? Furthermore, are we to understand then, that the generation in which the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt (we pray this is ours!) will have more merit than all the generations since the destruction, enough to warrant the rebuilding? This is certainly a difficult position to maintain. What, then, are Chazal really teaching us?

The Sfas Emes explains that we cannot take this Chazal at face value. Rather, Chazal are teaching us that the merits of each generation are aggregated. Each generation helps in the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash. In spiritual terms, the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash began after its destruction and continues to this day. For this reason the following pasuk is in present tense, “בּוֹנֵה יְרוּשָׁלַם ה' .../God builds Yerushalayim …” (Tehillim 147:2)

There may have been particularly backward generations with poor merit that have not helped in the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash. These are the generations to which Chazal are referring. Since these generations have not helped in the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, it follows that they are considered to have destroyed it. However, we can safely say that most generations have had sufficient merit to help.

This notion applies not only on a generational level. It applies to each of us individually as well. We each have the ability to help build the Beis HaMikdash through our actions. To the extent that we accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven, we are helping to build the Beis HaMikdash. Chazal,[2] alluding to this idea, teach us that everybody helps with the building of the Beis HaMikdash. May we merit helping to build the Beis HaMikdash and may we merit seeing it manifest physically this year!

[1] Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1

[2] Shmos R. 52:4, Bemidbar R. 14:3

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Matos 5633 First Ma'amar

וְנִשְׁבַּעְתָּ חַי־ה' בֶּאֱמֶת בְּמִשְׁפָּט וּבִצְדָקָה .../You will swear, “As God lives!” in truth, justice and righteousness …” (Yirmiyahu 4:2) Taking a vow is a powerful spiritual statement. When we take a vow we create a Torah prohibition that did not exist previously. A vow invoking the name of God is even more powerful spiritually. How can we physical beings create such a powerful spiritual effect through words? Saying God’s name thus making the vow even more powerful seems somewhat ritualistic and artificial.

Because of the spiritual power involved in taking an oath or vow, Chazal understand that only a person on a high spiritual level may take them. The Midrash derives the prerequisite traits that are needed before a person may take a vow from a pasuk in Devarim (10:20), “אֶת־ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ תִּירָא אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק וּבִשְׁמוֹ תִּשָּׁבֵעַ/You shall fear God your Lord, serve Him and cling to Him, and swear by His name.” The Midrash says that to take a vow one must be God-fearing like Avraham Avinu, Iyov and Yosef whom the Torah refers to as God-fearing. One must serve God through Torah and mitzvos to the exclusion of all else. Finally, one must cling to God.

But how does this work? Even if we are on a high spiritual level, how does invoking God’s name create a spiritual effect? The Sfas Emes explains that when we rectify ourselves, the Godliness that is within us manifests and our actions and words become spiritually stronger and more effective. When such a person takes an oath and invokes God’s name, it is the Godliness within him that he is bringing out.

How do we rectify ourselves so that the Godliness within us manifests? Chazal learn from the pasuk in Devarim that we rectify ourselves by fearing God, serving Him and clinging to Him. How do these rectify us? The answer can be found in a deeper understanding of the pasuk in Yirmiyahu.

The traits in the pasuk in Yirmiyahu, “אֱמֶת, מִשְׁפָּט, צְדָקָה/truth, justice, righteousness”, relate directly to and illuminate the three prerequisites from the pasuk in Devarim.

... בֶּאֱמֶת .../In truth : ... אֶת־ה' אֲ-לֹהֶיךָ תִּירָא .../… fear God, your Lord … – The reality is that we and everything else exist because God’s life force is within. A person who has internalized this, understands clearly how tenuous our hold on life really is. We are completely and utterly dependent for our very existence. This is the basic truth of our lives. Realizing the truth of our lives leads naturally to awe of God. We have the ability to rectify our bodies by recognizing that God’s life force fills us.

Chazal allude to this relationship between the source of our lives and awe of heaven. On the second day of the Creation God declared, “... יְהִי רָקִיעַ .../… Let there be a firmament …” The heavens, though, were already created on the first day so what is this firmament? The Midrash says that the nature of the heavens was not stable until the second day when God declared, “Let there be a firmament.” Then the heavens stabilized from fear of God’s declaration. The Sfas Emes explains that the heavens understood how tenuous existence was, how utterly dependent they were are God’s declaration. This lead naturally to fear of God.

... בְּמִשְׁפָּט .../… in justice … : ... ... אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד/… serve Him ... – In addition to recognizing the truth of our existence providing a rectification for our physical bodies, we need to take that a step further and use our intellectual capacity to discover how we can dedicate all our actions to God. We need to think before we act. Doing so provides us with a rectification for our souls, our minds and our intellect.

... וּבִצְדָקָה .../… and in righteousness … : ... וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק .../… and cling to Him – The word for righteousness –צְדָקָה – also means charity. It connotes righteous use of our assets rather than righteous activities. How can we cling to God, Chazal ask? God is a “devouring fire” (Devarim 4:24). Chazal teach that we cling to God by giving of our assets to support those who study His Torah and by marrying our daughters to talmidei chachamim.

Supporting Torah institutions is certainly a noble use of our money, but when we do so, are we then clinging to God? The Sfas Emes explains that to the extent that we release our assets for God’s mitzvos, preventing them from “clinging” to us, we merit “clinging” to – a connection with – God even as we live a physical existence. The more we distance ourselves from our physical assets, the more we are able to experience God.

When a person rectifies his body, his soul/mind and his assets by recognizing that God’s life force is within him and acts upon that recognition, then he can merit Godliness in his words. When this person takes an oath in the name of God, he is invoking the Godliness that is within him. It follows that this person can create prohibitions and commandments for himself which have the power of God’s prohibitions and commandments.

We find this idea in the following familiar pasuk, “... בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶךָ/… with all your heart and with all your soul/mind and with all your might/assets.” These three match rectification of the body, soul/mind and assets. When he rectifies these he merits, “וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה ... עַל־לְבָבֶךָ/These words … shall be upon your heart.” This alludes to the Godly spirit that resides in him so that his words are powerful. They make an imprint. May we merit recognizing the power of our words.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pinchas 5634 First Ma'amar

Rewarding Pinchas for his zealous actions, God instructs Moshe Rabbeinu, “לָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם/Therefore say to him, I am hereby giving him My covenant of peace.” (Bamidbar 25:12) What exactly is the “covenant of peace” that God granted Pinchas? We know that at this time, Pinchas was admitted into the priesthood. The covenant of peace seems to be an addition. What is it?

Peace – שָׁלוֹם – implies completeness – שְׁלֵימוּת. This is more than a semantic connection. Peace and completeness go hand in hand. One implies the other. For example, when a system is complete, every component doing its job, the system can be said to be at peace.

Peace means that there is no lack. Completeness in this world is not possible without God’s intervention as Koheles teaches us, “כִּי אֵין צַדִּיק בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה־טּוֹב וְלֹא יֶחֱטָא/For there is no man on earth so righteous that he does only good and never sins.” (Koheles 7:20) The hook that sin requires is incompleteness. Chazal tell us that the word Shlomo in Shir HaShirim refers not to the king Shlomo but rather to God. Shlomo means “His peace.” Chazal explain that peace belongs to God. According to the Sfas Emes, Chazal are teaching us exactly this. Peace/Completeness is only possible within the will of God.

And when God grants completeness, nothing, no sin, no kitrug/spiritual accusation, can take it away. This is what happened when God chose us as a nation. When God’s love for us is revealed, we are protected. We are complete. We are at peace.

Shlomo HaMelech alludes to this in Shir HaShirim (8:7), “מַיִם רַבִּים לֹא יוּכְלוּ לְכַבּוֹת אֶת־הָאַהֲבָה ... אִם־יִתֵּן אִישׁ אֶת־כָּל־הוֹן בֵּיתוֹ בָּאַהֲבָה בּוֹז יָבוּזוּ לוֹ/Many waters cannot extinguish the love … should a man give all the property of his house for love, they would utterly despise him.” Chazal explain that the waters and the man in this pasuk refer to the nations of the world. Nothing can extinguish God’s love for us. We are protected. A pasuk in Mishlei says the same thing regarding sin, “... וְעַל כָּל־פְּשָׁעִים תְּכַסֶה אַהֲבָה/… and love covers all offenses.” (Mishlei 10:12)

Chazal relate that Aharon HaCohen loved peace and pursued peace. Therefore, God granted Aharon the priesthood. This included the ability to awaken God’s love for the nation and with it His protection. Significantly, the priestly blessings end with the words, “... וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם/… and may He grant you peace.” (Bemidbar 6:26) Aharon, and by extension all the priests, is a vehicle through which we receive peace/completeness.

This is why Chazal teach us that God gave us the clouds of glory, which protected the nation in the desert, in the merit of Aharon. When Aharon passed on the pasuk relates, “וַיִּרְאוּ כָּל־הָעֵדָה כִּי גָוַע אַהֲרֹן .../The entire community saw that Aharon had died …” (Bemidbar 20:29) Through a play on the word for “see”, Chazal translate this pasuk homiletically as, “The entire community was frightened because Aharon had died.” They knew that they were protected in his merit.

Shabbos, as well, is a manifestation of God’s love for us as we say in the Kiddush, “.. וְרָצָה בָנוּ וְשַׁבָּת קָדְשׁוֹ בְּאַהֲבָה וּבְרָצוֹן הִנְחִילָנוּ ..../… and he wanted us and He bequeathed us with desire and love, His holy Shabbos …” The prophet Hoshea also said, “... אֹהֲבֵם נְדָבָה .../… I will love them for free …” (Hoshea 14:5) The manifestation of God’s love for us is an expression of completeness that we are able to reach on Shabbos. For this reason we say specifically on Shabbos, “... הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל עַמוֹ .../… He spreads a canopy of peace upon us and His entire nation …”

What is true for the nation as a whole is true for each one of us as individuals. When God’s desire for us is revealed, even on an individual level, all power is taken from the kitrugim. We become complete and vessels that are able to contain God’s blessing.

The covenant of peace that Pinchas merited was more than the priesthood. Because he demonstrated his love for God and the nation through his zealous act, he received the ability to bestow peace/completeness upon each of us.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Balak 5632 Third Ma'amar

The Midrash relates the argument Bil’am used to try to convince God to side with the nations of the world against the nation of Israel. Bil’am’s point was simple. Would it not be better to be worshiped by seventy nations than one nation? At first glance, Bil’am’s argument to God was a good one. Does it not indeed make more sense to include the nations of the world?

God answered, the Midrash[1] tells us, with a pasuk from Mishlei, “טוֹב פַּת חֲרֵבָה וְשַׁלְוָה־בָהּ מִבַּיִת מָלֵא זִבְחֵי־רִיב/Better dry bread and peace than a house full of contentious celebrations.” (Mishlei 17:1) The Midrash explains the metaphor. The dry bread represents the nation of Israel. The house full of contentious celebrations represents the nations of the world. God would rather be worshiped by the nation of Israel than the nations of the world if their purpose is to insert a wedge of discord between Him and Israel.

This answer seems to beg the question though for if each nation truly submits to God, why would God prefer Israel? The answer, the Chiddushei HaRim says, is that the nations of the world are disingenuous regarding their submission to God. While the nations of the world certainly accomplish great things, Chazal teach us that they are far from altruistic.[2] Rather, their own interests motivate them. They may perform acts of kindness, but it is only to lord it over others. Bil'am himself subordinated himself to God, "... אִם־יִתֶּן־לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲבֹר אֶת־פִּי ה׳ אֱ־לֹהָי .../.. Were Balak to give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of God, my Lord …” (Bemidbar 22:18) Yet Chazal learn from this very pasuk that Balak really wanted all that money.

Sincerity, then, differentiates us from the nations of the world. God prefers our worship to theirs since it is sincere. The nations of the world use their submission to God as a springboard for self aggrandizement. The nation of Israel also submits. However, for our righteous, the submission is an end in and of itself. Even when we ask God to help us reach higher levels, it is to come closer to Him, to be able to submit even more.

Conventionally, a lowly soul – נֶפֶשׁ שְׁפֵלָה – one of the good character traits that Avraham Avinu teaches his students, is one who spurns the base desires and temptations of the physical world. Bil’am, Chazal[3] tell us, had an expansive soul – נֶפֶשׁ רְחָבָה. He surrendered to his physical desires and used his stature to do so.

The Sfas Emes, however, gives us a deeper understanding of a lowly soul. Unlike Bil’am, it is one who does not use his work to come close to God in a self serving way. Of course, he will not use his service to God as a way of satisfying base desires. He also will not use his service to God as a means for reaching higher spiritual levels and gaining more spiritual power. Unquestionably, as a byproduct of his work, he will reach higher spiritual levels. But these achievements are not his goal. Instead, he uses those levels to further subordinate himself to the infinite God.

[1] Bemidbar R. 20:18

[2] Bava Basra 10b

[3] Avos 5:19