Wednesday, November 25, 2009

VaYeitzei 5634 First Ma'amar

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶך חָרָנָה/Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva; he went towards Charan.” (Breishis 28:10)  Rashi, quoting a Midrash asks the obvious question.  The beginning of this pasuk seems extraneous.[1]  We know where Ya’akov Avinu lived.  Unless there is an indication otherwise, we can assume that his point of departure was Be’er Sheva, his hometown.  Why does the Torah tell us this?

The Sfas Emes explains that, “וַיֵּצֵא/He left”, implies an orderly, prearranged journey.  The pasuk makes a point of telling us that he left to teach us that although Ya’akov Avinu fled, he prepared for his journey.  Usually when someone flees, he is happy to escape with his life.  There is usually not much time to prepare.  There is little forethought and one’s actions are anything but orderly.  We know that Ya’akov Avinu fled.  Rivka told him, “בְּרַח־לְךָ/flee for yourself,” and the prophet said, “וַיִּבְרַח יַעֲקֹב/Yaakov fled.”  Yet, even though he was forced to run, he prepared.

He was leaving the holy environment of his father’s home.  In Charan, he would be surrounded by idolatry and decadence.  Ya’akov knew that he would need to prepare in order to survive the difficult spiritual assault on his very being.  For this reason the first Midrash on the parsha applies the following pasuk to Ya’akov, “אָז תֵּלֵךְ לָבֶטַח דַּרְכֶּךָ .../Then you shall go securely on your way …” (Mishlei 3:23)  And a few pesukim later in Mishlei we find, “... אִם־תָּרוּץ לֹא תִכָּשֵׁל/… if you run, you will not stumble.”  The Midrash is teaching us that Ya’akov’s preparation would protect him.

What did Ya’akov Avinu do to prepare for his journey?  The kabbalists say that he connected to a higher spiritual level.  Be’er Sheva represents the high spiritual level he was on.  Ya’akov Avinu left this high level to connect to an even higher level.[2]

Furthermore, according to the principle of מַעֲשֶׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים/The deeds of the forefathers is a sign for the descendents, everything that Ya’akov did when he fled to Charan, was also to prepare us, his descendents, for our own exile.

The definition of exile is concealment of God just as the definition of redemption is God’s revelation.  Ya’akov Avinu knew that our exile would lead us to places where God is most hidden.  Ya’akov Avinu wanted to prepare us for this terrible exile.  This is why he put himself in all the places in which it would be very difficult to experience God, indeed, to even believe that His Presence is there.

The Torah therefore tells us, “וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם/He chanced upon the place.”  Ya’akov Avinu was brought to a place that was so “far” from God, so to speak, that even he, who was unimaginably sensitive to God’s presence, was able to declare, “אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה׳ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעתִּי/Indeed, God is in this place and I did not know!’  God brought Ya’akov to the lowest spiritual place, where it is difficult to believe that God’s Presence resides, and showed him that, “... מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ/… the entire world is filled with His glory.”

With this concept we can understand the significance of the fact that it was specifically Ya’akov Avinu who instituted the evening prayers.  Evening represents exile and God’s concealment just as morning represents redemption and God’s revelation.  By instituting the evening prayers, Ya’akov Avinu taught us that we are able to approach God and experience Him even in exile, even where He is concealed. 

Many times we find ourselves in situations that belie God’s Presence.  We can learn from Ya’akov Avinu that appearances are deceiving.  The truth is that God’s Presence is ubiquitous and we have the ability to experience Him regardless of external appearances.  It is a matter of cultivating a belief in the truth even if our surroundings are sending us a different message.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis R. 68:6, Rashi ad loc.
[2] Magid Meisharim VaYeitzei Mahadura Kama – Be’er Sheva represents Knesses Yisrael and the seven lower Sefiros.  VaYeilech and Charanah represent connecting with the three higher Sefiros.  See source for more detail.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Toldos 5632 First Ma'amar

This week’s parsha relates the story of the three wells that Yitzchak’s servants dug. (Breishis 26:19-22)    Yitzchak called the first two wells Eisek and Sitnah respectively.  He called the third well Rechovos.  These names relate to the argument that Yitzchak’s shepherds had with Avimelech’s shepherds regarding ownership of the wells.  However, the Sfas Emes elaborates on the deeper significance behind these names.

The Chidushei HaRim teaches that digging a well in search of water is a metaphor for the search to uncover the Godliness hidden in the physical world. 

The first two wells Eisek and Sitnah represent this search during the days of the week.  Eisek means to work at and Sitnah comes from the word hate as in hating the evil inclination.  During the week, through sincere effort and by totally disdaining the evil inclination, we are able to find the spiritual Godly light that is hidden in the Creation.    
Rechovos represents Shabbos.  The word Rechovos has the same root as the Hebrew word for expansion.  This is in fact the source of the name, “... כִּ־עַתָּה הִרְחִיב ה׳ לָנוּ .../For now, God has expanded for us …” (Breishis 26:22)  On Shabbos there is an expansion of the hidden spark of holiness that is within every part of the physical world.  It is this spiritual spark of holiness that is the source of physical existence, of life itself in the material world, and on Shabbos it is more revealed.

Our forefathers’ entire service to God was an exercise in uncovering the Godliness in the Creation.  Their singular purpose was for our benefit.  They did not need to do this for themselves.  To them, the holiness inherent in the world was already evident.  They worked to reveal God’s glory in the physical world so that we would be able to emulate them and also uncover the holiness that is hidden within the world.

Another well, mentioned in last week’s parsha, was called, “בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי/Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.” (Breishis 16:14)  What is the significance of this name?  Why is it important to note that God sees me?  The Sfas Emes teaches the significance of God’s observation.  In the description of the Creation at the beginning of parshas Breishis, as each stage of Creation comes to a close we find the declaration, “וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב/God saw that it was good.” (Breishis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25)  The Sfas Emes explains that God’s observation and His Providence are one and the same.  God bestows good upon His Creation by observing it.  The good that God bestows is the Divine which manifests as the physical existence and life that is this world.  It is God’s observation/Providence which gives life to the Creation.

The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me refers to this idea.  God seeing me is the same as saying that God’s Providence is with me.  It is the good that is within me that God “sees” thus giving me life, just as He saw the good in every aspect of the Creation thus causing its existence.  We are enjoined to emulate God, connect with the hidden spirituality and see the good that is inherent in everyone and everything.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chayei Sarah 5631 First Ma'amar (second half) and Second Ma'amar

In the first half the ma’amar, the Sfas Emes teaches that the actions of  Sarah Imeinu, and all righteous people, cause the Creation to be more elevated toward its spiritual roots.  God’s glory, which is hidden but present in the physical Creation, thus becomes revealed through the actions of the righteous.  (Click here to read the first half of the ma’amar.)
With this concept we can understand the deep teaching of a seemingly mundane Midrash in this week’s parsha.  The Midrash[1] relates that during the course of a lecture, Rebbi Akiva noticed that some people were dozing.  In order to regain their attention he asked, “Why did Esther merit ruling over 127 provinces?”  He answered, “Esther as the granddaughter of Sarah who lived for 127 years, ruled over 127 provinces.”
What is the connection between the years of Sarah’s life and the number of provinces over which Esther ruled?  The Sfas Emes explains that since time was created and therefore exists only in the physical world, it represents nature.  Nature conceals God. 
Each year has its own unique form of concealment and needs its own unique rectification.  No two years are the same.  Therefore, what works to reveal God in one period, will not work in a different period.  Each period is different.  We have the ability to reveal God’s glory that is hidden within nature, within time.  In fact, this is the purpose of the Creation and of our very lives.  Indeed, Sarah Imeinu succeeded in revealing God during each of the years of her life.
Achashveirosh’s rule over 127 provinces was a tremendous concealment of God.  Esther was able to reveal God through her rule over these provinces in spite of Achashveirosh, in the merit of her grandmother Sarah who revealed God during the 127 years of her life.
The ones who were dozing during Rebbi Akiva’s lecture represent the concealment the evil inclination causes that lulls us to sleep.  Rebbi Akiva used the same merit of Sarah Imeinu to awaken the dozers from their state of concealment.  In the process he taught that the goal of life is to reveal God in the natural world.
We find this same concept in a Tanchuma on this week’s parsha which quotes this pasuk, “לֹא־תִירָא לְבֵיתָהּ מִשָּׁלֶג כִּי כָל־בֵּיתָהּ לָבֻשׁ שָׁנִים/She is not afraid of snow for her household, for her entire household is clothed in scarlet wool.”  The Midrash explains that this pasuk is a metaphor.  Snow represents gehinnomשָׁנִים/scarlet wool, which can also be read שְׁנַיִם/two, represents two mitzvos, Shabbos and circumcision.  The Midrash translates the pasuk as, “She need not fear gehinnom because in her house there are two fundamental mitzvos, Shabbos and circumcision.”
What compelled the Midrash to choose specifically the mitzvos of Shabbos and circumcision instead of any other pair of mitzvos.?  The Sfas Emes explains that this Midrash is addressing the issue of God’s concealment and revelation. 
Gehinnom is the ultimate concealment of  God.  The Sfas Emes notes that scarlet wool as well represents God’s concealment as we find, “.. חֲטָאֵיכֶם כַּשָׁנִים .../... your transgressions are like scarlet wool.” (Yeshaya 1:18)  Transgressions create a barrier between us and God and the prophet compares transgressions to scarlet wool.  The Midrash is giving us a solution, a tool for a situation in which God is concealed. 
The solution, the Midrash teaches is observing Shabbos and circumcision.  Why these two mitzvos specifically? The Sfas Emes explains that, whereas fulfilling any mitzvah elevates the physical and reveals God, the nature of both Shabbos and circumcision are especially associated with the revelation of God.  
Elsewhere[2], the Sfas Emes teaches that Shabbos can be defined as a state of God’s revelation.  We experience an aspect of Shabbos during the week, as well.  By recognizing the spiritual within our mundane activities during the week, we reveal the spiritual.  When we work to fulfill God’s will during the week, we also experience more spiritual elevation on Shabbos.
Circumcision, as well, represents revelation.  The removal of the foreskin represents the removal of the outer physical shell hiding God’s presence.[3]
A situation in which God is concealed lends itself to fear.  The Midrash is teaching us that we have in our power to change the situation and remove the barrier that conceals God by carefully observing Shabbos and circumcision.  Shabbos is a revelation of God and circumcision teaches us that we can effect God’s revelation in the physical world.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis R. 58:3
[2] Sfas Emes Tetzei 5631 First Ma’amar
[3] See Sfas Emes VaYeira 5632 First Ma’mar and 5633 First Ma’amar for more detail on this idea.

Friday, November 06, 2009

VaYeira 5634 First Ma'amar

The first Tanchuma[1] on the parsha discusses at length how many brachos are in our prayers for different significant days during the year.  Specifically, the Sfas Emes addresses the difference between our weekday and Shabbos prayers.  Why do we pray for material things during the week and on Shabbos we only pray for rest? 
To answer this question, we need to understand what prayer is, why we pray and what prayer accomplishes.  Prayer as we are wont to think of it, is difficult to understand for two reasons.  First, why inform God of our needs since He is omniscient and obviously knows our needs better than we do.  Secondly, asking for our needs implies that God changes His mind, so to speak.  Prayer implies that we can convince God of the legitimacy of our request.  Infinity belies change.  The infinite God does not change His mind.  For prayer to the infinite God to make sense, we need a different understanding of what it is, why we do it and what it accomplishes.
We can gain a deeper understanding of prayer by studying Avraham Avinu’s relationship with God before and after his circumcision. 
The Midrash[2] on the parsha cites a pasuk in Iyov.  Iyov said, , “וְאַחַר עוֹרִי נִקְּפוּ זֹאת וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/After my skin was stricken they pierced this, and from my flesh I perceive God.” (Iyov 19:26)  The Midrash attributes these words to Avraham Avinu as well.  Avraham Avinu continues, “If I had not circumcised myself how could God have been revealed to me?”  Why is God’s revelation to Avraham Avinu dependent upon his circumcision?  Furthermore, God spoke to Avraham several times before he was circumcised.  What, then, is the meaning of Avraham Avinu’s statement that he received revelation only after the circumcision? 
The Chiddushei HaRim points out that the word, “zos/this” in the pasuk is a reference to the innermost point of spirituality within every aspect of the physical Creation.  Indeed, the Zohar[3] states that the zos is a hint to the kingdom of heaven.  Certainly God gives life and existence to everything always, “... וְאַתָּה מְחַיֶּה אֶת כֻּלָּם ... /... and you give life to everything …” (Nechemia 9:6).  However, we do not always recognize this.  God is sometimes more revealed than at other times.  He always permeates the entire Creation, though, and if we could see through the screen that we call the physical Creation, He would be revealed to us. 
This, the Midrash[4] tells us, is exactly what happened to Avraham Avinu as a result of the circumcision.  The Midrash, referring to the circumcision, cites this pasuk, “סוֹד ה' לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ לְהוֹדִיעָם/God’s secret is for those who fear Him and His covenant is made known to them.” (Tehillim 25:14
Certainly God spoke with Avraham before, but after the circumcision Avraham Avinu was able to recognize the spiritual roots of every aspect of the Creation.  This is the reason that the first words of this week’s parsha are the more general, “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה' .../And God appeared to him …” (Breishis 18:1) rather than the more specific, “וַיֵּרָא ה' אֶל־אַבְרָם/And God appeared to Avram” (Breishis 17:1) as the pasuk states in the previous parsha.  After the circumcision, Avram experienced a general revelation.  He saw God everywhere and in everything. 
The first pasuk of the parsha continues, “... וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח־הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם/… and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.”  This, the Sfas Emes says, can be understood homiletically.  The tent represents closeness to God.  Certainly Avraham had a burning desire, like the heat of the day, to enter the tent, to be close to God.  Still, he felt unworthy of gazing upon God’s Presence that he was able to see in everything.  He did not enter the tent but stayed outside.
Avraham Avinu, because he was on such a high spiritual level and recognized God everywhere felt unworthy of coming closer to God, of gazing upon the Divine Presence.  Chazal[5] tell us that, instead, God came to Avraham to “visit the ill.”  However, those of us who are not on such a high level, who do not see God in everything must strive to strengthen ourselves and come closer to God.
Conventionally, we think of coming close to God in spiritual terms.  However, when we understand that everything we receive is from God, receiving material blessing from Him is also a revelation.  When we ask God for our physical needs, we are actually acknowledging this and requesting that God bring our physical bodies, that benefit from the material blessing, closer to Him, to holiness.  Although couched in the language of requests, the prayers are really affirmations that we use to affirm and strengthen our belief that everything that comes to us, comes from God.  This belief brings us closer to God through the physical.
However, someone like Avraham Avinu, who actually experiences God in every aspect of the physical world around him, and recognizes his own lowliness in relationship to God, is ashamed to ask God for his material needs and in fact has no need to ask.  He already knows that everything is from God.  Regarding his physical being and needs Avraham Avinu says, “אָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר/I am dust and ash.” (Breishis 18:27)  Instead he sits at the entrance to the tent and yearns to simply fulfill God’s will.
We actually mimic this approach on Shabbos, “אִם־תָּשִׁיב מִשַׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶךָ בּיֹום קָדְשִׁי ... אָז תִּתְעַנַּג עַל-ה' .../If you restrain your foot because it is the Shabbos and refrain from attending to your own needs on My holy day … then you will delight in God …” (Yeshaya 48:13-14)  We do not ask for our physical needs on Shabbos because more spiritual enlightenment is revealed and there is therefore no need to ask for these things.  Rather, Chazal established that we request מְנוּחָה/rest and purity in our service to God on Shabbos. 
And God remembers the righteous as well, “... אֵין מַחְסוֹר לִירֵאָיו/Those who fear Him do not lack.” (Tehillim 34:10)  Therefore, a person who is ill, will be healed through the Shabbos prayers even though there is no request for this.  This is why the Midrash says that when Avraham Avinu sat in pain from the circumcision, God came to visit him even though Avraham did not pray for this.  Life and healing are drawn from the innermost spark of Divine Presence that inheres in Avraham Avinu. 
The potential for life, healing and plenty is right here with us all the time.  For Avraham Avinu and for us on Shabbos this understanding is experienced and there is therefore no need to strengthen our faith by affirming that they are from God through prayer.  During the week when it is concealed from us, we ask for the revelation.  May we merit it.  Amen!

[1] Tanchuma VaYeira 1
[2] Breishis R. 48:2
[3] Zohar 1:93b-94a
[4] Tanchuma Lech Lecha 19
[5] Sotah 14a