Thursday, December 31, 2009

VeYechi 5631 First Ma'amar - Practical Application

Thank you all for your comments.  I appreciate them.  I've decided to move forward with my idea of bringing the teachings of the Sfas Emes to practical application.  As LBC pointed out in a comment, this was the point of Polish Chassidus in the first place, to apply esoteric concepts to our daily lives.

For those of you who like the blog as is, I point out again that the archive contains nearly 300 ma'amarim, enough to fill a medium size book of 600+ pages.  So, there is certainly a lot of material.

Before each post I will put a link to the ma'amar that the post discusses.

I want to stress that the new format will be successful with your input.  The purpose is to really try to live the teachings.  The Sfas Emes did not write his Toros for there "nice vort" qualities although they certainly do have that.  He wrote them, and primarily spoke them on Shabbos and Yomim Tovim to convey teachings that he wanted his Chassidim to follow.

The postings will therefore include suggestions for action and techniques for inculcating the teachings into our lives.  Here, you and I will have an opportunity to share our results with others. My suggestions are simply that.  They're not halacha l'moshe misinai and if something else works better, then please let us all know!

Click here for the Ma'amar:VaYechi 5631 First Ma'amar (opens in new window)

A common theme throughout the Sfas Emes’s writings is that the world as we see it hides God.  To experience God, it is crucial to strengthen our faith in the truth of this idea.  God is here with us.  The world conceals Him.  The world itself as we live our daily lives is a test of faith.

The Sfas Emes explains the meaning of “ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים/Ya’akov lived in Egypt” (In every other instance in the Torah the word ויחי is used to signify the length of someone’s life, not where he dwelled.) as Ya’akov Avinu was on such a high spiritual level that he knew this, not believed it strongly, but knew it, the way that we know that the sun is shining.  He lived in the sense of being connected with God, the ultimate “living”.

Being in decadent Egypt did not phase him because he “saw” God clearly even there.  For his children, though, Egypt presented a powerful test of faith.  Although Ya’akov Avinu was prevented from teaching his children to reach his level, he did teach them about strengthening their belief that God is with them always.

Although we cannot reach Ya’akov’s level of knowing that God is here with us the way that we know the sun is shining, we can still experience God by strengthening our belief that he is here with us. 

What has this to do with our daily lives?  Just this.  The Sfas Emes teaches that exile means God’s concealment.  For example, in Maseches Yoma 38b we find that Chazal understood that when God said, "אשכח בניך גם אני .../... I will forget your children as well" (Hoshe'a 4:6), it refers to the Jewish people being exiled.  By extension, the Sfas Emes teaches elsewhere, any challenging situation we find ourselves in, also means God has concealed Himself from us.  Redemption and by extension the resolution of problems that we face means a Godly revelation.

The situations that we face, whether they be issues with raising children, financial, health or any other issue that causes unpleasantness in our lives, do not have a life of their own.  They are no more and no less than a screen that hides God.  Because if God is revealed, there is no unpleasantness.  It is a contradiction in terms. 

So, by revealing God, we can find the solution to the problems we face.   How can we reveal God?  The Sfas Emes teaches that we can reveal God by strengthening our belief that there is absolutely no power in the world besides Him.  This is easier said that done, of course.  Our surroundings blind us at every step.  We must believe something that we cannot see and that our surroundings belie.

But since the results of strong faith in God are solutions to our problems and bliss in this life, I am strongly motivated to find a way.  How?

This is where the Sfas Emes ends and I tell you what I think.  The Sfas Emes, does not tell us here how to strengthen our faith.  No techniques are given.

I submit that we can strengthen our faith that there is no power in the world beside God and in fact the world is only a screen that blocks us from experiencing Him by viewing the world for what it is.  The world is a test of faith.  Everything that happens to us, from stubbing a toe to going bankrupt, is a test of faith.

It is not terribly difficult to internalize the belief that that the world is a test of faith when you are not being tested directly.  However, what do you do when you’ve been looking for a parking spot for 15 minutes, and are late for an important business meeting.  You finally find a spot, set yourself up to parallel park and just then someone enters the spot nose first!

If your like me, your first reaction is to jump out of the car and wring the guy’s neck!  But, really, this situation was set up by God.  The other guy has his own issues.  He exercised his free choice and decided that the spot was for him, or maybe he did not notice you were about to back in to it, or maybe his wife is about to give birth in the back seat.  But you had no choice here.  So, God brought this situation about specially for you and if you really believe it, then you would not be angry at the other driver.  So, you see, it’s a set up to test your faith. 

How do we cultivate this belief so that it becomes second nature.  Here’s my proposal.  Let’s do an exercise.  During the next three days from the time you read this, commit that no matter what happens to you, good or bad, you will immediately, say out loud, “I choose to recognize that God set this situation up to test my faith in Him.  There is no power in the world that can benefit me or harm me outside of God.”[1]  I say, “good or bad” because it is easy to have a success and give yourself all the credit.
Let’s do this for the next three days and then report back here to share our experiences.  Hatzlacha to us all!

Remember that this is simply my suggestion.  If you try it and find that something else works better, or that the suggestion can be refined, please let us all know.  Thanks!

[1] This is based partially on the Nefesh HaChayim in Sha’ar 3 Perek 12.  It’s very encouraging.  Read it if you can.  In short, he writes that it’s a segulah to remove yourself from challenging situations to say and establish clearly in your heart that there is no power in the world besides God and therefore nothing besides God can have any effect on you.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Question to Readers of the Sfas Emes Blog

For some time, I have been thinking of changing the format of this blog.  I want to take the Sfas Emes's teaching's to a more practical level.  The current format of translating and elucidating the ma'amarim is restrictive in that I need to stick to whatever is in the ma'amar. 

I envision taking existing ma'amarim on the blog, noting the practical lesson in the ma'amar and giving down to earth suggestions as to how to apply the lesson to our daily lives giving examples either from my own experiences or from that of others. 

The format would be much more interactive.  You, the reader, would have an opportunity to share your experiences relating to the lesson of the ma'amar as well as comment and offer additional suggestions about how the lesson of the ma'amar could be applied practically.  I envision ensuing lateral and lively discussion at a practical level.  For example, if the Sfas Emes is discussing how to overcome the negative impact of tragedy on our lives, there is room for input from professionals, counselors and the like who deal with these issues.

For those of you who would miss the weekly new ma'amarim, I point out that this blog currently contains close to 300 ma'amarim.  There are ma'amarim on every parsha in the Torah as well as on all the holidays on which the Sfas Emes wrote.  That's enough material to fill more than 600 pages of a medium sized book.  Each week I'd list the links to the ma'amarim for that week's parsha at the beginning of the practical application post.

My motivation is to see us apply the Sfas Emes's teachings to our everyday lives.  I think it would make a sea change in our lives and have a ripple effect on the rest of our environment.  Taking it seriously could mamash change the world.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this, whether yea or nay, and I am open to additional suggestions as to how this could be done.

I await your input!  Thanks.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

VaYigash 5631 Fifth Ma'amar

Ya’akov Avinu’s purpose was to spread holiness in the world.  He was a conduit for holiness.  However, he lived such a spiritual existence, was so removed from the physical world that he was unable, on his own, to do so.  Yosef, on the other hand, was more connected to the physical world.  Elsewhere[1] the Sfas Emes cites the Zohar[2] that refers to Yosef as the שומר הברית/keeper of the covenant.  Conventionally, this refers to his overcoming the temptations presented to him by the wife of his master Potiphar. 

The covenant that he kept was the covenant of the circumcision.  The Sfas Emes teaches though that Yosef, as the keeper of the covenant, represents the holiness that is within the physical world.  How so?  In this world holiness is hidden by gross physicality.  The removal of the foreskin symbolizes unveiling the holiness that lies within the physical world.[3]
It was through Yosef and his ability to live in the physical world and yet unveil the holiness therein that Ya’akov was able to act as a conduit for holiness in the natural world.[4]

Descending to Egypt represented a difficult challenge for Ya’akov Avinu.  He would only be able to fulfill his purpose there by descending in levels of holiness.  However, because of Yosef this would not be necessary.

Yosef understood this.  So he sent wagons to his father Ya’akov to ameliorate his concerns.  The Hebrew word for wagon – עַגָלָה – has the same root as the word for circle – עִיגוּל.  The wagons were an allusion that everything physical circles back to its spiritual roots.  Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev writes a similar idea in Kedushas Levi. 

Yosef’s brothers as well represented different ways of spreading Ya’akov’s spirituality in the physical world.  The pasuk tells us, “וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם .../The children of Israel carried their father Ya’akov …”  The Sfas Emes explains that they acted as a chariot to Ya’akov.  A chariot carries its rider from place to place.  Through the chariot, the rider’s influence spreads.  In this sense the tribes were a chariot to Ya’akov.  Through them, his influence would spread throughout the world.

Still, even Ya’akov Avinu’s connection to the tribes, was made possible by Yosef.  Yosef was the flame of Ya’akov’s fire, so to speak. 

It is for this reason that the Torah tells us that Ya’akov Avinu did not believe the brothers when they returned from Egypt with the good news that Yosef was alive.  Belief implies connection and attraction.  When we believe something we are attracted to that belief and feel a connection with it.  When the Torah tells us that Ya’akov Avinu did not believe the brothers, it is hinting to us this very idea.  Ya’akov was able to relate to the tribes only through Yosef. 

When he saw the wagons and realized that Yosef had sent them as a hint that Ya’akov would be able to remain on his high spiritual level and still influence the world through Yosef, he realized as well, that he would be able to influence the world through the tribes, by way of Yosef.  The tribes were thus able to “carry him”.  Through Yosef they, too, were able to be Ya’akov’s chariot, spreading his influence.

[1] Mikeitz 5631 Second Ma’amar and VaYigash 5631 Second Ma’amar
[2] Zohar 1:59a
[3]  See VaYeira 5632 First Ma’amar for a detailed discussion of this concept.
[4] See also VaYeishev 5631 First Ma’amar and VaYeishiv 5632 First Ma’amar for more detail on the spiritual relationship between Ya’akov and Yosef.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mikeitz 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

Note:  There are six ma'amarim on Chanukah in the archives.  Use the search feature on the right to find them.

At the end of this week’s parsha Binyamin is framed.  Yosef has his goblet placed in Binyamin’s sack and then sends a party to apprehend the culprit.  When the goblet is found and the brothers are brought before Yosef, Yehuda says, “... מַה־נֹּאמַר לַאדֹנִי ... וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּק הָאֱ־לֹהִים מָצָא אֶת־עֲוֹן עֲבָדֶיךָ .../… What can we say to my master … and how can we be justified?  God has found the iniquity of your servants …” (Breishis 44:16)  Yehudah knew that Binyamin was innocent yet he does not argue for his innocence.  Instead he says that God has found their iniquity?  Strange indeed.  What iniquity?

The Midrash addresses this question and, in a play on the word מָצָא/He found, says that God squeezed – מִצָה – the barrel until nothing was left inside beside the dregs.  Although Yosef’s brothers were innocent of stealing the goblet, God found some offense on which to pin this calamity.  This is why Yehudah does not argue their case.  He knows that everything that happens is from God and this would not be happening if they had no sins even if he cannot find them.

The Sfas Emes teaches that everything is revealed before God.  Ordinary people can introspect and fail to find any wrong doing in themselves.  Yet, God knows that they are full of sins!  We have a well developed ability to rationalize our behavior. 

Yosef’s brothers though, were really not full of sin.  God had to "squeeze the barrel" to find an offense.  Still, Yehudah, in an incredible show of humility, says, “How can we be justified?”  We must be guilty of something otherwise this would not be happening.

If this is Yehudah’s reaction, how much more so must we be humbled before God for our own less than ideal actions.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

VaYeishev 5632 First Ma'amar

The first pasuk of the parsha seems to be extraneous.  We know where Ya’akov lived.  Last week’s parsha recounts his return to his father’s house in Hebron.  This week’s parsha recounts Yosef’s descent to Egypt.  Why did the parsha not start from the second pasuk, אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף .../These are the generations of Ya’akov, Yosef …”, the beginning of the story?

A clear understanding of a Midrash that Rashi cites will give us the answer to this question.  The well known Midrash at the beginning of this week’s parsha begins, “בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהַצַדִיקִים יוֹשְׁבִים בְּשַׁלְוָה וּמְבַקְשִׁים לֵישֵׁב בְּשַׁלְוָה בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶה .../When the righteous are dwelling serenely, they ask to dwell in serenity in this world as well …”  There seems to be redundancy in the wording of the Midrash.  Would it not have been simpler to say, “The righteous ask to dwell in serenity in this world”?  Why does the Midrash first say that the righteous are dwelling serenely and then afterward say that they ask to dwell in serenity in this world?

In order to understand this Midrash we need to understand what dwelling serenely means?  The Sfas Emes explains that the righteous consider it their purpose, their reason for being, to draw holiness into this world.  They want to be the conduit through which holiness descends from the spiritual into the physical.  In order to do this, they must first work on themselves to minimize their own connection to the physical world.  The righteous person who is not drawn by the desires of the natural world, is an appropriate conduit to relay holiness into the world, otherwise, his own pull to the physical world acts as a block. 

Dwelling serenely, then, means reaching a state of minimal connection with the physical world.  It is very serene indeed.  On this level, the physical presents no barrier between the righteous person and God.  On this level, he can be a perfect conduit.  This is the goal of the righteous and this is what the Midrash means by, “they ask to dwell in serenity in the world as well.”

The parsha starts from, “וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב/Ya’akov dwelled” to teach us that Ya’akov was totally connected to his spiritual roots.      וַיֵּשֶׁב/He dwelled, has the same root as repentance – תְּשׁוּבָה – and Shabbos – שַׁבָּת.  The literal translation of תְּשׁוּבָה is return.  When we repent we return to God, the highest spiritual level.  The Sfas Emes explains elsewhere that Shabbos as well, means a state of Divine revelation.  וַיֵּשֶׁב therefore implies that Ya’akov Avinu connected to his spiritual roots.  In fact, Ya’akov Avinu was so successful at separating himself from the physical that he was completely beyond the natural world.  Because of this, on his own, he was unable to act as a conduit to bring holiness into nature.  He needed Yosef.

For this reason when the Torah begins to describe the generations of Ya’akov, it starts from Yosef, “אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף .../These are the generations of Ya’akov, Yosef …”  The word תֹּלְדוֹת/generations, can be understood more loosely to mean any influence a person has on the world, not just offspring.  The Sfas Emes understands it here to mean the holiness that Ya’akov wanted to bring into the natural world. 

The Torah begins describing Ya’akov’s influence on the world by mentioning Yosef to teach us that the holiness of Ya’akov influenced the world through Yosef.  Rashi notes this relationship between Ya’akov and Yosef.  He writes that Yosef was the flame of Ya’akov’s fire.  Fire without flame has little effect.  However fire with a roaring flame can affect areas far from the original source of the fire.  Ya’akov’s “fire” was able to spread far and wide only because of Yosef’s “flame”.

This is the reason, too, that, “... אֹתוֹ אָהַב ... מִכָּל־אֶחָיו ... [Ya’akov] loved [Yosef] more than all his brothers …”  Only through Yosef did Ya’akov have a connection with the brothers and the world.  Although the pasuk tells us that Yosef brought evil tales about his brothers to his father, he brought their good deeds to him as well.  He was the conduit, the go between that enabled Ya’akov’s holiness to descend into and influence the material world.  By the same token, he brings the positive actions of the nation of Israel to Ya’akov who represents the highest level in a spiritual hierarchy[*] that affects the world.

[*] See Kedoshim 5631 First Ma’amar for more on this concept

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

VaYishlach 5632

The first place Ya’akov Avinu came to upon his return to the land of Israel was Shechem, “וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם ... וַיִּחַן אֶת־פְּנֵי הָעִיר/Ya’akov arrived safely in the city of Shechem … he camped opposite the city.”  According to an enigmatic Midrash, Ya’akov arrived on Erev Shabbos and established eiruvei techumin.  He kept Shabbos before it was given.  What compelled the Midrash to give this interpretation to Ya’akov Avinu’s arrival in the land of Israel

Although the Divine Presence is concealed in the physical world, indeed the very purpose of the physical world is to conceal God’s Presence, still in certain places the Divine Presence is more revealed than in others.  God, to be sure, does not change.  From His perspective, as it were, there is no difference between one place and the next.  From our perspective, though,  it is easier for us to experience God in some places than in others. 

The place in the world where it is easiest to experience God, the place were the Divine Presence is most revealed, is in the land of Israel.  Outside the land of Israel, the Divine Presence is more hidden and it is more difficult to experience It.

This concept is paralleled by the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week.  On Shabbos, God’s Presence is more easily experienced since it is more revealed.  The entire world is more spiritually elevated on Shabbos.  During the days of the week, on the other hand, it is difficult to experience God’s Presence.  It is a struggle that requires a strong faith that regardless of appearances, God is here with us. 

Working on strengthening our belief that God is with us during the week as well, helps us to experience God during the week.  This is why the weekdays are called, “days of work.”  Experiencing Divine revelation during the week requires work.  Through the struggle, we can experience an aspect of Shabbos during the weekdays.  In fact, Shabbos can be defined as a state of God’s revelation.

Ya’akov Avinu’s sojourn outside of the land of Israel was a descent from a place in which God’s Presence is most revealed to a place where it is most hidden.  It parallels the decent from Shabbos to the days of the week.  Ya’akov Avinu’s return to the land of Israel after spending twenty-two years abroad represents an elevation from the spiritual level of the days of the week, from struggle to experience God, to that of Shabbos during which God is more revealed.

Significantly, the Midrash says that Ya’akov Avinu arrived on Erev Shabbos.  The word erev/evening, also means “mixed together”.  Erev Shabbos alludes to the idea that we can mix aspects of Shabbos into the weekdays.  Ya’akov Avinu’s return to the land of Israel on Erev Shabbos represents his struggle to elevate his weekdays to a level of Shabbos in order to experience revelation during the week as well. 

We learn from Ya’akov Avinu that regardless of outward appearances, we, too, through hard work, can experience an aspect of Shabbos – Divine revelation – during the weekdays.  May we merit it!