Friday, July 23, 2010

VaEschanan 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

 The Midrash[1] in this week's parsha teaches us fundamental differences between prayer and repentance.  The Midrash compares prayer to a mikveh.  Just like a mikveh is sometimes opened and sometimes closed, so too, the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed.  Prayer is not always accepted.  This is why David HaMelech asks of God, "וַאֲנִי תְפִלָתִי־לְךָ ה׳ עֵת רָצוֹן ...//An as for me, may my prayer to You God be at a fitting time ..." (Tehillim 69:14)  Repentance is like the sea.  Just as the sea is always open, so too, the gates of repentance are always open.

Why do Chazal compare prayer to a mikveh and repentance to the sea?  There must be some relationship between prayer and mikveh on the one hand and between repentance and the sea on the other.  In order to understand this relationship the Sfas Emes first explains a basic difference between prayer and repentance.

Prayer is preceded by a realization that what we need comes from God.  Asking for our needs is simply a way of acknowledging that realization.  In order to receive from God, though, we need a connection with Him.  This connection takes the form of a spirituality that is within each of us.  Paradoxically, it is when we subordinate our desires to that connection to God that is within us, we are able to receive from Him.  Subordinating our desires is not an easy task and it is the reason that Chazal refer to prayer as "עֲבוֹדָה שֶׁבַּלֵב/labor of the heart."  Prayer is compared to a mikveh because true prayer starts with the realization that there is a spiritual component that is contained within our bodies just as the mikveh is a gathering of water - representing the spiritual - within a physical container.

Prayer then, first involves introspection.  It starts from the lowest part of our soul, the part that is connected to the physical.  It is from this spirituality that is within us that we can connect to God.  Our requests to God are the results of a proper stimulation of the spiritual within us.  Just as the mikveh is sometimes opened and sometimes closed so too, the gates of prayer.  If we have transgressed there is a barrier that prevents us from stimulating the God-force that is within us.[2]  The gates of prayer are then closed before us.

What can we do when this happens?  Before we can hope to be effective at prayer we need to remove the barrier but how?  The answer, the Sfas Emes explains, is through repentance.  Repentance does not start from the spiritual spark that is within us.  Repentance bypasses the lowest part of the soul, the part that is within, and addresses the very roots of the soul.  Repentance, as the Hebrew word תְּשׁוּבָה implies, means to return.  Both repentance and prayer address God.  Prayer starts from the lowest point that is within us and proceeds up through all the spiritual realms until it reaches the source.[3]  Repentance bypasses all this and returns us directly to the source.
This idea that there is a place that we can turn to that is beyond the barrier of our sin is exemplified in a pasuk in this week's 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)  The Sfas Emes explains that this pasuk is referring to returning to God.  We can always do this and it always works.  The only stipulation is that we subordinate ourselves totally to Him.  This is the meaning of, "בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/whenever we call to Him" - to Him excluding all else.

It follows that Chazal compare repentance to the sea which is always open and accessible.  Once we have "reconnected" with the source through repentance, our prayers can once more be effective.

[1] Devarim R. 2:12

[2] The Zohar (3:28b – Raya Mehimna) expounds on the concept of connection through mitzvos and severance because of sins.  A person’s soul comprises three primary components which differ in their level of spirituality.  The Nefesh HaChaim uses the metaphor of a string which stretches from the physical body, the lowest spiritual level, to the soul’s source, the highest level of spirituality.  When a person performs a mitzvah, he strengthens the connection between the components and between the soul and it’s source which ultimately is God Himself.  When a person sins, the connection is weakened and in some cases actually broken.

[3] See Nefesh HaChaim 2:17 in Hagaha all the sources in Chazal.  We usually think of the soul as being in the body.  However, according to Chazal only a small part of the soul is in the body.  Most of a person’s soul extends from the body up through many spiritual realms to its source.  It is at the source that we are all connected in “יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּנֶסֶת/the congregation of Israel.”

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