Thursday, January 28, 2010

BeShalach 5631 First Ma'amar - Practical Application

This essay is based on B’Shalach 5631 First Ma’amar.  Clicking on the previous words will bring you to the ma’amar on the blog.
 This Shabbos is called Shabbos Shira because we read the Shiras HaYam/Song of the Sea.  The Sfas Emes explains that song is much more than a tune or a poem.  Song is nothing less than the physical expression of a spiritual essence.  And since everything has a spiritual essence, song is not limited to humans.  The entire Creation sings as we find in Perek Shirah. 
Since song is the physical expression of a creation’s spiritual essence, song occurs only when the creation’s spiritual essence is revealed.  Revealing the spiritual, then, is synonymous with song.  And just as the roots of a tree lead directly to the tree, so too, does the spiritual aspect of a physical creation lead to that creation.  There is a direct line between them.  In fact, the Hebrew word for song – שִׁירָה, is related to the Hebrew for line – שׁוּרָה.
The Sfas Emes explains that the revelation of a creation’s spiritual essence is totally dependent upon man’s actions, words and thoughts.  We have the ability to reveal the spiritual within the physical.  We have the ability to cause the Creation to sing.  Chazal teach us that when the nation sang at the sea, they caused the entire Creation to sing as well.
How can we reveal a creation’s spiritual essence?  The Sfas Emes teaches that when we act with the understanding that every thing and every action has a spiritual component, the spiritual is revealed.  God gave us the ability, by thinking the appropriate thoughts as we act, to reveal the spiritual in everything we do, even if we are doing mundane activities.  What this means practically is that we can experience the spiritual in everything that we do by directing our thoughts towards it.    
Believing that there is a spiritual component that parallels everything in the physical world, while necessary is not enough, though.  We need to be able to tap into that belief during the course of our daily activities.  This is easier said than done.  We usually just run through our day without thinking.  Obviously we think in order to solve problems and know what we want to do, but rare is the person who actually thinks about the whys and wherefores of his or her actions.
Thinking before acting, effectively preparing for it, is a straightforward, easy to implement approach to bringing out and experiencing the spiritual in all our activities.  So, before any activity first think that this activity receives life and existence from God.  It therefore contains a spiritual component, holiness.  The ultimate purpose of Creation is God’s revelation.  By thinking/preparing before acting, we reveal God, as it were, in a small but important way in all our daily activities.  Acting in this way can cause amazing changes in our daily lives, how we relate to our activities, others and ourselves.  Hatzlacha!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bo 5631 Second Ma'amar - Practical Application

This essay is based on Bo 5631 Second Ma’amar.  Clicking on the previous words will bring you to the ma’amar on the blog.
Even after seven plagues had decimated Egypt, Pharaoh’s resolve had not weakened.  On the one hand, the plagues were a clear indication that God was in control, a tremendous revelation.  On the other hand, why had the redemption not yet come?
The Midrash explains that the nation did not deserve to be redeemed because we had not yet forsaken idolatry.  In fact, we deserved to be destroyed.  Since we could not be redeemed on our own merit, God orchestrated a series of events which would be Pharaoh’s undoing.  Unless Pharaoh deserved to be destroyed more than we did the redemption would not have come. 
God therefore told Moshe at the beginning of the parsha, “... בֹּא אֶל־פַּרְעֹה כִּי־אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ .../Come to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart …”  In effect, God is telling Moshe not to be concerned that the redemption has not yet arrived.  “I am the one who has hardened Pharaoh’s heart for the good of the nation, in order to bring about the redemption.”
This is a powerful lesson for us.  Many is the time that we find ourselves in difficult situations.  We wonder why God is doing this to us?  Why are things not working out the way we expected them to?  Why is God not helping us?  The story of the plagues and Pharaoh’s hardened heart teaches us that God is always helping us.  He always has our best interests in mind.  Even if we do not understand it, we can understand that everything that happens to us is ultimately for our own benefit.
This is a difficult lesson to put into practice.  When we’re in the throes of a crisis, the last thing we want to hear is that this is good for us!  Usually, we’re trying to find the way out of the mess.  We are not interested in hearing someone’s “mussar”.  
And, of course, it’s important to be sensitive to a person’s pain even if it is ultimately for his benefit.  Many years ago a friend of mine was in a terrible car accident in which his mother died (lo aleinu).  He was driving and was also hurt and hospitalized.  One of the visitors told him that he needs to do teshuva. That’s a pretty extreme case of insensitivity. 
Because it is difficult to put into practice during a crisis, it is crucial to be prepared emotionally and spiritually before any crisis arises.  The way to prepare is to strengthen our faith that everything that happens to us is from God and that He always has our best interests in mind even if we don’t understand it.
How can we strengthen our faith?  Here is a technique that has worked for me.  During the course of your day, take note of everything that happens.  As events occur, say, “This is from Hashem.”  I know people who are constantly thanking God.  All day long, “Thank you Hashem!”  If, for example, you are driving and are stopped by a police officer, before even talking to him, say, “I know that this is a test of faith.  It is from you.  The cop is only your tool.”
Then, fortified with this idea that has become second nature, when a serious crisis arises, you are prepared for it.  You have the tools to cope with it.  And sometimes if we merit it, we even get to see the personal “redemption”.  Then all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and we understand why things had to happen the way they did and how we benefited because of it.  Sometimes we don’t merit this and we take it on faith anyway.
May God help us to realize that everything that happens to us is from Him and for our benefit, that God wants only the best for each of us.  He wants us to succeed and experience Him.  May we merit it!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sfas Emes's Yortzeit

Today, the fifth of Sh'vat is the Sfas Emes's yortzeit. It is customary on the yortzeit of a tzaddik to give tzedakah and light a candle l'ilui nishmaso and to pray to HaShem for the things we need in the zechus of the tzadik. May HaShem view our prayers favorably in the merit of the tzadik Rav Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Gur zt"l.

Years ago I heard an incredible story about the Sfas Emes. Rav Elya Lapian had gone to visit the Sfas Emes in Poland. The Sfas Emes was much older than Rav Lapian yet when Rav Lapian entered the room the Sfas Emes stood out of respect. Rav Lapian was taken aback. After all, the Sfas Emes was known as one of the gedolei hador. Why was he standing for Rav Lapian, a young Rosh Yeshiva. The Sfas Emes said that he standing out of respect for someone who experienced giluy Eliyahu.

Rav Lapian was always overcome with the thought. How did the Sfas Emes know? Rav Lapian had never told anyone.

If anyone knows more details about this story, please share them. Thanks.


I just read the story in the beginning of Lev Eliyahu so here is the accurate story.  The story was told by Rav David Mishkovsky who was the menahel of Yeshivas Knessess Chizkiya in Kfar Chassidim where Reb Elya Lopian was the mashgiach ruchani.

When Reb Elya lived in Kelm his wife got very ill.  The doctors said that there was nothing they could do.  She was in a very bad state and the family was gathered around her bed crying while Reb Elya was an adjacent room beside himself with worry.  Just then, a yid comes into the room and asks what all the crying is about.  Reb Elya explained that his wife was deathly ill in the next room and the doctors say there is no cure for her illness.  The yid asked Reb Elya what disease she had.  When Reb Elya told him, he instructed Reb Elya that there is a certain plant that he can find in a certain field.  He should get the plant, boil it and give his wife to drink the soup from the plant.  He did this and she got better.

Reb Elya had a strong feeling that this yid was Eliyahu Hanavi but he never told anyone the story.

Years later he visited the Sfas Emes in Gur.  They discussed various issues and at the end of their conversation Reb Elya asked the Sfas Emes for a bracha.  The Sfas Emes answered that a yungerman who had gilui Eliyahu does not need his bracha!  Reb Elya answered that if the Rebbe knows that he had gilui Eliyahu then he davka wants the Rebbe's bracha!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Va'Eira 5631 First Ma'amar - Practical Application

This essay is based on Va’Eira 5631 First Ma’amar.  Clicking on the previous words will bring you to the ma’amar on the blog.

The Sfas Emes teaches us that in addition to influencing the world around us, our actions have spiritual ramifications as well.  By influencing the spiritual we indirectly influence the physical, too.  For example, the Nefesh HaChayim writes that a Jew who sins is much worse than what the evil Titus did in the Beis HaMikdash.  What Titus did had no spiritual ramifications.  It was a localized act.  A Jew who sins influences himself and the world in ways that he cannot begin to understand.

The Sfas Emes therefore concludes that it is unwise to rely on our own thought processes no matter how strongly we believe that we’ve arrived at the truth.  Instead, we need to submit to the source of wisdom, God’s will and word.

The Midrash in this week’s parsha discusses the mistakes of Shlomo HaMelech and Moshe Rabbeinu because they relied on their own intellect.  Shlomo HaMelech took more wives than the Torah allows a king.  Moshe Rabbeinu complains to God for the deterioration of the nation’s situation after he spoke with Pharaoh.

The Sfas Emes explains that at the time, neither Shlomo HaMelech nor Moshe Rabbeinu thought they were doing something wrong.  Shlomo said that his connection with God will protect him from being influenced by his wives.  Moshe Rabbeinu had an expectation that the nation would be saved without being further afflicted.

Both Shlomo HaMelech and Moshe Rabbeinu learned that decisions they made based on their own wisdom, decisions which appeared strongly to them to be correct when they were made, turned out to be wrong.  When they gained more wisdom, they realized that their original actions were based on flawed thinking.  The lesson for us is that we can never be sure of our own wisdom since our current outlook may prove incorrect when we gain more wisdom.

How do we know, though, what God’s will is?  First, in principle, actions that do not coincide with the Halacha are never God’s will.

But what about the less obvious.  What if you need to make a decision, as I do right now, about where to send your son for high school?  Your have a choice between several Yeshivos, all fine institutions.  What about a decision about what neighborhood to live in?  How do we align ourselves with God’s will when guidance cannot be found in the Shulchan Aruch?

The Sfas Emes makes an incredible statement.  He teaches that we align ourselves with God’s will by subordinating our own intellectual faculty to the will of God - even if we don’t know what the will of God is.  By making a conscious decision to subordinate our own will to His, we receive His help in making the decision that is in alignment with His will.

When we do this, our actions have positive ramifications far beyond our limited view of them.  I think it was Rav Elchanan Wasserman who told encouraged people where he lived, that if the Jews of Eastern Europe refrained from speaking lashon hara, the Jews in Paris will refrain from chilul Shabbos.

Therefore, before taking any decision, it seems like a good idea to tell God that you want to achieve His will through your decision and ask Him to open your eyes and enlighten you as to the correct decision that is aligned with His will.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Shemos 5631 First Ma'amar - Practical Application

This post is based on Shemos 5631 First Ma'amar (opens in a new window.)

The Sfas Emes teaches us the significance of שְׁמוֹת/names at the beginning of this week’s parsha and why the pasuk states that the tribes descended to Egypt with Ya’akov, a seemingly extraneous clause.  A person’s name represents his reputation, his personal achievements.  “טוֹב שֵׁם מִשֶׁמֶן טוֹב/A good name is better than good (anointing) oil.”  For the children of Israel, it represented their relationship with the material world.  Under Ya’akov’s tutelage they reached a high level of faith that the world around them contained a spiritual component, holiness.

The Sfas Emes taught us in parshas VaYechi that Ya’akov was unaffected by his surroundings.  He was completely above them and was therefore able to “live” in the ultimate sense even in Egypt.  His children, though, were not on this level.  They needed to work on strengthening their faith that their physical surroundings had no autonomous existence but were simply a screen that hid God.

They therefore descended to Egypt maintaining a relationship with and being very much in the material world while, at the same time recognizing its underlying spiritual component represented by Ya’akov.  Thus, “These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Ya’akov.

Many times we find ourselves in situations that are less than ideal in terms of holiness.  We may be obligated to attend an affair at which people will not be dressed according to our standards of modesty or where there may be mixed dancing.  We may find ourselves on a business trip away from minyanim and  our daily shiur.  Or our work environment may be spiritually below our standards.  There are myriad common situations like these and we need to know how to prepare for them.

In fact the most common situation, one that the Sfas Emes mentions specifically in this ma’amar and one that most of us don’t even recognize, is the transition from Shabbos to the weekdays.  The holiness of Shabbos can be palpable.  It is relatively easy to experience holiness on Shabbos.  Transitioning to the days of the week with all its distractions is difficult for those of us who are serious about maintaining a level of holiness that can be  or is usually incongruent with our surroundings.  What to do?

The Sfas Emes in this ma’amar is teaching us exactly this.  The tribes went down to Egypt only with their names, their external relationship with their surroundings.  On a penimiyus level they remained attached to Ya’akov.  They strengthened their faith that their surroundings are a screen that hides God but that God is there always.  This was their preparation.

We, too, can learn from them.  By strengthening our own faith that God is with us always and that our surroundings are built to hide Him, we can be in places that would ordinarily be detrimental to our spiritual health and not be affected or at least minimize the effect by maintaining a spiritual attachment to the holiness represented by Ya’akov.

The key is to keep it in mind.  I know that I tend to get involved in whatever it is I happen to be doing and lose sight of this.  A good thing to do then, is to have set stops during your day, during which you learn something.  The stops do not have to be long.  Even five minutes is enough.  The main thing is the stopping itself to gain perspective.

If, as an example, you work from 9 to 12, take an hour lunch break and then work from 1 to 5, a five minute break at the end of each of your work hours (i.e. at 10, 11, 12, 2, 3, 4 and 5), 7 five minute breaks in all is extremely effective in keeping your surroundings in perspective.  To boot, you get 35 minutes of learning during the day.  The main thing though is stopping what you are doing to “get spiritual” for a few minutes to help you “remember God”,  so to speak, in order not to be affected by less than optimum surroundings.

This is just an example.  Adapt this idea to whatever your specific situation is and please provide feedback here.  I (and other readers) would love to hear how this works for you.

If this sounds daunting, realize that any time we try to grow in our avodas Hashem the yetzer hara is working overtime to prevent that growth.  Chazal already said that all beginnings are difficult.  In absolute terms it’s not as difficult as it may seem at first.  The main thing is to start.  Hatzlacha to us all!