Friday, April 30, 2010

Emor 5633 First Ma'amar

The first half of this week’s parsha addresses the laws of purity of the priests.  The parsha begins, “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶה אֱמֹר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם .../God said to Moshe, ‘Say to the sons of Aharon the priest and say to them …”  Chazal and the commentaries address the redundancy in this pasuk.

In order to understand the redundancy we need to explain the significance of the word אַמִירָה/saying.  God created the world with עַשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת/ten sayings.  These are not simply God’s commands.  The sayings themselves were imbued with spiritual power so that the actual saying is in the creation.  Purity then, underlies the entire Creation.

We find this idea in the following pasuk, “אִמְרוֹת ה' אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת כֶּסֶף צָרוּף בַּעֲלִיל לָאָרֶץ מְזֻקָּק שִׁבְעָתָיִם; אַתָּה־ה׳ תִּשְׁמְרֵם .../The sayings of God are pure sayings, like purified silver, revealed to the world, refined sevenfold.  God, you will guard them.”  אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת/Pure sayings, refer to the words of the Torah.  It is with the words of the Torah that God created the world.  The sayings of the Torah underlie and are the source of purity in the Creation.

Indeed, our purpose is to reveal that purity through studying Torah and performing mitzvos.  Accordingly, אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת/pure sayings, means that the sayings of the Torah purify those who occupy themselves with Torah.  At the end of this pasuk is a request that God guard the words of the Torah.  The Sfas Emes explains that this is a request that God guard the purity of the Torah in our hearts.  We are asking that it should not become defiled, rather the words of the Torah should purify us.

However, in order to internalize the Torah, we need to first reach a certain level of purity.  Purity, as we’ve seen means the spiritual that underlies the physical.  So, in order to reach purity, we need to reveal the spiritual.  In fact, the pasuk cited above says, “בַּעֲלִיל לָאָרֶץ/revealed to the world.  The Torah needs to be like purified silver, revealed to the world.

How can we do this?  We learn from a Midrash in this week’s parsha.  The Midrash relates that at the time of David HaMelech, children who had not yet sinned were able to explain the Torah in 49 ways of impurity and 49 ways of purity.  What does this mean?  As we’ve said, purity refers to the Torah or the spiritual that underlies the Creation.  Impurity, then, refers to the physical.

The first step in revealing the spiritual is believing that what we see is only a “shell” whose innards are pure.  We thus become more in tune with the spiritual and are able to experience it.

The Midrash is teaching us that in order to truly connect to the spiritual in this world, we need to be able to recognize that there is a spiritual component to everything.  The metaphor is that the children were able to separate the 49 ways of impurity recognizing them for the barriers they are that prevented them from seeing the underlying spirituality in the Torah and the world.

It is only by first recognizing the dual nature of reality – physical with spiritual underpinnings – do we reach a level on which the Torah that we take in purifies us and protects us from impurity.  When we reach this level, we start experiencing the underlying spirituality in everything.  We thus influence everything with which we come in contact as well.

David HaMelech’s prayer was that God should help all those who overcome there inclination towards the physical and yearn to discover the underlying spirituality in the Creation, to influence their surroundings and draw them near to the truth as well.

We see that there is a two step process for reaching a level on which the Torah purifies us, protects us from impurity and through which we can elevate our surroundings.  It is this two step process which is alluded to in the redundancy in the beginning of our parsha.

But before we can explain it we need to know that the word אַמִירָה/saying also connotes connecting.  We find, “וַה' הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם .../God has distinguished you today …”  Chazal interpret the pasuk as meaning that God separated us – His nation – and made us unique as the pasuk states, “וּמִי כְּעַמְךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל גוֹי אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ/And who is like your nation Israel, a unique nation on Earth.”  He made us His nation by “connecting” us, so to speak, to the source, by bringing us closer to Him.  הֶאֱמִירְךָ/distinguished you, and אַמִירָה/saying, have the same root.

The first אַמִירָה/saying in the pasuk is admonishing us to be careful of impurity.  We do this by yearning to connect with the underlying spirituality in the world, the source of life.  The Midrash alludes to this as well.  The Midrash asks, “Why is God truth?”  The answer, “Because He is the God of life.”  The Midrash is teaching us that He is truth because He is the source of existence.  The source of existence is also the source of purity by definition, as we’ve seen before.  The Chiddushei HaRim sheds more light on this concept.  He explains that the reason for the impurity of death – טוּמְאַת מֵת, is that the inner spiritual purity is gone.  

We first pine to attach to God through the Torah and mitzvos, which are the source of existence as the pasuk states, “... אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אוֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם/.. that a person will do and live through them,” and, “... כִּי הוּא חַיֶּיךָ .../… for it is your life ...”  After we’ve done this, “וְאָמַרְתָּ לָהֶם/you will say to them,”  which, according to our concept means that God will connect to us, as it were.  He will shower upon us a spirit from on high in order to enable us to experience Him through the Torah which we’ve brought into our hearts.

As a result, no impurity can possibly enter us because of the Torah, the pure sayings that He placed within us.

Practical Application

It is interesting that in the first ma’amar of 5632, the Sfas Emes explains the two step process as starting from God whereas in this ma’amar he explains it as starting from us.  If anyone has any ideas about this, I’d be glad to here them.

The practical application of this ma’amar is a theme that runs through the Sfas Emes.  Our purpose is to reveal the spiritual that is hidden within the physical world.  In other words, we are here to make the world a holier place.  We do it by intending to achieve God’s will through our actions.  This ma’amar adds that by doing this, God reciprocates and the Torah that we internalize protects us against impurity.  

Impurity was defined in the ma’amar as meaning the physical outer shell that hides the inner spirituality.  Broadly applied, this can refer to performing mitzvos for ulterior motives, purity being pureness of motive.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Acharei 5632 Second Ma'amar

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם .../You shall observe My statutes and My laws for when a man performs them, he will live through them …” (VaYikra 18:5)  Rashi, quoting a Midrash explains that, “he will live through them” is referring to the everlasting reward that comes from mitzvos in the next world.  Chazal also teach us, “הֶוֵי מְחַשֵׁב הֶפְסֵד מִצְוָה כְּנֶגֶד שְׂכָרָהּ/Consider the loss through a mitzvah against its reward.” (Avos 1:3)  It pays to do mitzvos because the time, energy and money a mitzvah may cost us is no match for the everlasting reward we will receive for that mitzvah.

Chazal seem to be teaching us to perform mitzvos with an eye on the reward they engender.  However, we find another Chazal that enjoins us to serve God without considering the reward, “אַל תִּהְיוּ כַּעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְשִים אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנַת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס .../Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive a prize …” (Avos 2:1)  How does this Chazal reconcile with the previous ones?

In order to reconcile these two very different statements, we need to gain an understanding of the ultimate reward for performing mitzvos.  We see from the pasuk above and the Chazal that Rashi quotes that the true reward for mitzvos is attained in the next world.[1] 

What is the reward?  The Sfas Emes explains that the reward obviously is not connected in any way to anything we’ve experienced during our lives.  The next world is not physical.  Moreover, the next world is not even a place.  It is rather a state.  It is the state in which we have merited proper subordination to God.  It is a state of closeness to God that we cannot fathom or comprehend while in physical bodies.

In fact, the word for world – עוֹלָם – has the same root as the word for concealed – הָעֳלַם.  The next world is concealed from us because it is outside our life experience.  In this world, the physical hides God’s glory.  The truth is concealed by the illusion that there is no reality other than this physical world.

The ultimate reward for mitzvos is closeness to and experiencing God.  This can happen best in the next world where the physical barriers of this world do not exist.  Performing mitzvos in order to come close to God is the reason we have the mitzvos.  It follows that the purpose of the mitzvos and their reward is one and the same.  Accordingly, Chazal ask us to consider our loss from performing a mitzvah against the reward.  The reward is closeness to God, which is the purpose of the mitzvah.

The other ma’amar Chazal that admonishes us not to perform mitzvos in order to receive a prize does not mention reward – שָׂכָר.  It mentions prize – פְּרָס.  Here, Chazal are not referring to the ultimate reward and purpose of the mitzvos.  Rather, they are referring to performing mitzvos for personal gain. 

The word פְּרָס/prize connotes a piece/פְּרוּסָה which alludes to separation.  When we perform mitzvos for personal benefit and gain, we are separating ourselves from the source of life, from God.  This is the opposite of performing mitzvos in order to “live through them.” 

 Practical Application

From this ma’amar we see how important it is to have the proper intent when performing mitzvos.  The Sfas Emes is teaching what seems to be a big chiddush.  Performing mitzvos in order to get to the next world, according to the Sfas Emes, is not shelo lishma.  Just the opposite!  It is the very reason we were given the mitzvos because getting to the next world is synonymous with coming close to God.[2]

[1] We find this idea explicitly, “שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא/There is no reward for mitzvos in this world.”  (Kiddushin 39b)
[2] For a different view on this, see the Ramban on the pasuk, “וחי בהם/and you shall through them.”  The Ramban considers doing mitzvos to get to the next world as doing them from a place of awe of God.  The higher level is performing mitzvos from a place of love of God, simply because He commanded us to do them.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tazria 5631 Second Ma'amar + Practical Application

The first paragraph of parshas Tazria teaches us that a woman who has just given birth is in a spiritually impure state.  Considering the blessing of bringing new life into the world, particularly a Jewish soul, why should this be?

According to the Chiddushei HaRim,[1] the second Midrash on this week’s parsha addresses this question.[2]  The Midrash explains a pasuk in Iyov (36:3), “אֶשָּׂא דֵעִי לְמֵרָחוֹק וּלְפֹעֲלִי אֶתֵּן־צֶדֶק/I will raise my knowledge from afar and to my Maker I will ascribe righteousness.”  The Midrash attributes this pasuk to Avraham Avinu after the test of Akeidas Yitzchak because on his way to sacrifice his son the pasuk tells us, “... וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחוֹק/He saw the place from afar.” (Breishis 22:4) 

This hints at an additional aspect of the incredible test that was before him.  The place he needed to reach was far away.  Nevertheless, he strengthened himself to do the will of God.  The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the physical distance is a metaphor for the spiritual distance that separated Avraham Avinu from God.  Avraham Avinu overcame the separation by realizing that God was with him even if He appeared to be far away.  The distance was an illusion.  After Avraham passed God’s test and came close to Him, he praised God for he understood that the entire test, including the perception of distance was for his own benefit.  It provided him the opportunity to discover God’s holiness even from a perception of distance from Him.

As a result, Avraham Avinu was able to bequeath to his descendents the idea that no matter how distant we may feel from God, at times, the reality is that God is with us always.  There is a spark within each of us that represents closeness to God.  When God told Avraham Avinu, “אָנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ/I will protect you,” (Breishis 15:1)  He was referring to protecting this spark of closeness to God.  The ending of the first brachah of the Amidah, “מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם/Protector of Avraham,” is our testimony to this spark of God’s love within us that God protects.

The Chiddushei HaRim[3] cites the prophet Yishayahu (57:19) who said, “... שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב .../… Peace, peace to the far and near …,” to teach us that God’s distance is part of the natural world.  And this answers the Midrash’s question.  The spiritual impurity that is drawn onto a woman when she brings new life into the world symbolizes the distance from God that is built into the natural world.  It is a good thing because it affords us space within which we can work to come close to Him.

We see this idea in the pasuk from Tehillim (139:5), “אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי .../You have bound me back and front.”  The word, “צַרְתָּנִי/You have bound me,” can also be translated as, “You have formed me.”  Back” represents distance from God whereas “front” represents nearness.  The pasuk is teaching us that God formed us with the ability to come close to Him through the aspect of distance which is built into the Creation.  The reason is, as we’ve said, that the distance is illusory.  We were created with the spark of closeness within us.  May we merit emulating Avraham Avinu, thanking God for the distance and tests that afford us the opportunity to come close to Him.

Practical Application

Many times when our lives are not proceeding according to our plans and expectations, we have a feeling that God is far from us.  We feel that if He were close, we would be experiencing success.  The truth is that God is always near us.  Distance is an illusion that is built into our lives to afford us the opportunity to work to “come close”.  And this is really the key because coming close to God or revealing Him in this world is the reason we live.

Realizing this during difficult times can be life changing.  Whereas a difficult situation can be depressing, understanding the opportunity that comes with it, can have a profound affect on our mindset.  The way we reveal Him, the Sfas Emes explains elsewhere is by dedicating our actions to Him.  By realizing that He is the motive force behind everything we do and by intending to accomplish His will through our actions, we actually do that.  Realizing that He is involved in our lives during the difficult times is a tool we can use to reveal Him and make things better.

[1] Chidushei HaRim Tazria
[2] VaYikra R. 14:2
[3] Chidushei HaRim ibid.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Shemini 5631 First Ma'amar

The reason we were created and our primary mission is to reveal the Godliness that is inherent within the Creation.  God wants us to come close to Him and experience Him.  But how can we experience the infinite?

We learn how to experience the infinite from the mitzvah of counting the Omer.  Counting is a form of clarification.  By counting we sort out a jumble into its separate components.  What is it that we are clarifying with the counting of the Omer?  The Kabbalists teach us that we are clarifying God’s attributes – midos.  Each of the seven weeks represents a different attribute through which God can be revealed in this world.

The reason the attributes are called midos is highly significant. In order to enable us to come close to God, He created the mechanism of midosMida means a measure as well as attribute.  He gave us the ability to reveal Him in finite measured doses.  Underlying every component of the Creation is a spiritual light that is a measured dose of the infinite and relates to one of the seven midos.

What do we have to do to reveal God and experience Him?  Paradoxically, the Creation which hides God, is also the mechanism through which we can reveal Him, come close to Him and experience Him.  By intending to achieve God’s will in everything we do, we reveal His will and experience Him.  The Chiddushei HaRim understands this from a Midrash at the beginning of this week’s parsha regarding the Mishkan.

Following the seven days of Milu’im/initiation of the Mishkan, God’s presence was still not felt.  Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation of Israel, “... זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה ה' תַּעֲשׂוּ וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם כְּבוֹד ה'/This is the thing that God commanded you to do, then God’s glory will appear to you.” (VaYikra 9:6)  According to Chazal,[1] Moshe Rabbeinu is telling the nation to rid themselves of their inclination towards idol worship and to worship only God.  Just like God is one, so too, our service should be dedicated only to Him. 

How do Chazal see a reference to idolatry in this pasuk?  The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Chazal understand the pasuk restrictively.  Do only what God commands you.  Everything we do, even the most mundane activities can be transformed into commandments of God if we intend to do them for the purpose of accomplishing His will. 

Then “וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם כְּבוֹד ה'/The glory of God will appear to you.”  Why?  Because the glory of God is already here, hidden within everything in the world as the prophet Yishaya tells us (6:3), “... מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ/… The whole world is filled with His glory.”  Our mission is to try to find the will of God in everything we do.  Not realizing that God is in everything is an aspect of idolatry. 

Moshe Rabbeinu hints at this mission when he prefaces his command with the words, “זֶה הַדָּבָר/This is the thing.”  One who can say, “This is the thing” has clarity.  No other prophet used these words and Chazal teach us that they allude to the fundamental difference between Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy and the prophecy of all other prophets.[2]  The highest level of clarity is one who knows that he has achieved and revealed God’s will through his actions.

Our mission of revealing God in Creation is also hinted at in a Midrash on this week’s parsha explaining the following pasuk, “חָכְמוֹת בָּנְתָה בֵיתָה חָצְבָה עַמּוּדֶיהָ שִׁבְעָה׃ ... שָׁלְחָה נַעֲרֹתֶיהָ תִקְרָא .../She built her house with wisdom, she carved out its seven pillars… She sent out her maidens whom she calls …” (Mishlei 9:1-3).  The Midrash explains this pasuk in terms of the Creation.  “She” in the pasuk refers to God.  The seven pillars are the seven days of the Creation.  The maidens whom she calls is Adam and Chava or mankind.

The Sfas Emes explains the Midrash allegorically.  The seven primary character traits within each of us parallel the seven days of Creation.  They define our total beings and are the pillars through which we can draw out the holiness that is inherent in everything in this world including our very actions.  This holiness is the original spiritual light that was revealed during the seven days of the Creation and which God hid after the Creation was completed.  It is identical with God’s revelation and it is hidden within the Creation.

God gave us the ability and the obligation to reveal the hidden spiritual light that inheres in the Creation.  God’s will is identical with the hidden spiritual light.  God and His will is one and the same so if we say that God is hidden by the Creation, His will is also hidden by it.  If we look around us, we do not see God’s will.  To our senses, the world seems to be running on its own.  But in reality, God’s will underlies and inheres in the entire Creation.  By realizing that it is only God’s will that empowers our actions and intending to achieve His will through our actions, we in fact reveal it.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that this is the reason the pasuk in Mishlei refers to mankind as נַעֲרֹתֶיהָ/her young maidens.  The young are in a constant state of stimulation, movement and growth.  The implication is that mankind reveals God through action.

We find in the Zohar[3] as well that meriting the holy spirit entails hard work – implying action – whereas the evil inclination will enter a person who sits idle and does nothing.

Practical Application

The bottom line from this involved ma’amar is that our mission in life can only be achieved through action and that we need to have the correct intent.  Our intent must be for the sake of God.

[1] Sifra Shmini Mechilta deMilu’im 6
[2] Yevamos 49b, Sifri Matos 153
[3] Zohar 2:128a

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Pesach 5632 Seventh Day Second Ma'amar

On the seventh day of Pesach God split the sea to miraculously save the nation of Israel from the clutches of the Egyptian army.  We walked to the other side on the dry seabed and the entire Egyptian army drowned.

The splitting of the sea is considered to be one of the greatest miracles recorded in the Torah.  Chazal[1], though, relate that rivers split for individuals such as Rebbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir.  Why then is the splitting of the sea for the nation as we fled the Egyptians commemorated each year as the greatest of miracles?  It seems to have been not altogether rare during the time of the Tannaim.

To answer this question we need to understand the make up of the nation that crossed the sea.  Chazal[2] tell us that the nation comprised four distinct groups.  Only one group considered crossing the sea an option.  One group maintained that they should return to Egypt.  Another group was of the opinion that they should stand their ground and do battle with the Egyptians.  Yet a fourth group said that they should cry out to God.

The greatness of the miracle was not that the sea split.  Surely it is not difficult for God to split the sea for those who deserve it.  The greatness of the miracle and the reason we commemorate it each year is because the sea split even for those who showed a lack of faith and complained to Moshe, “... הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין־קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִדְבָּר .../Is it for the lack graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert?” (Shmos 14:11)

Those who identified with and subordinated themselves to the nation were raised up from a level of impurity to a level of purity and saved even though they would not have been saved on their own merit.  Moshe Rabbeinu told them, “ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִשׁוּן/God will fight for you and you will be silent.” (Shmos 14:14)  Moshe Rabbeinu is giving the complainers good advice.  He told them that if they just stop complaining, if they are silent, they will be saved simply because they are part of the nation.

Practical Application

Many people, knowing their own faults and frailties, wonder in what merit will they be saved at the time of the ultimate redemption.  The Sfas Emes teaches that identifying with the nation of Israel, feeling a part of the nation, being a part of the nation, is an extremely powerful tool that we can use to merit participating in the redemption even if we do not necessarily deserve it on our own merit.

[1] Chulin 7a
[2] Mechilta Beshalach Masechta deVaYehi Parsha 2

Friday, April 02, 2010

Pesach 5631 Second Day

On Pesach we celebrate our freedom.  The nation of Israel was freed from the bondage of Egypt.  There is also a deeper type of freedom.  As humans living in the physical world, we are needy.  Our bodies need food and shelter.  Beyond our basic needs, we have physical desires.  Many times we find ourselves enslaved by these desires.  In addition to a commemoration of our freedom from the Egyptians, Pesach also represents freedom from our physical desires.

How so?  Before the Exodus, there was no concept of freedom within nature.  Freedom within nature means that even though we live in, benefit from and are involved with nature we can still live holy lives.  Before the Exodus freedom meant from nature.  The Sfas Emes teaches us elsewhere that our forefathers where on a level above nature.  They were free from the pulls of nature.  Living a life of holiness meant withdrawing from the physical world and rising above nature.

It was only at the Exodus that God made it clear that He is running the show, that He works within nature as well and that the natural world has a component of holiness within it.  Therefore, even as we live in the material world, we can connect to the spiritual component, the Godliness that inheres in this world.  We can live holy lives even as we benefit from and are involved in the physical world.

We find a hint to this deeper concept of freedom in Chazal who call Pesach, זְמַן חֵירוּתֵינוּ/the time of our freedom.  Time, a function of the material world, represents the physical.  Thus the time of our freedom can be interpreted as freedom within nature. 

This idea is symbolized by Matzah and Chametz.  Chazal teach us that except for the first night of Pesach, eating Matzah during the rest of the holiday is elective.  It is optional, not obligatory.  The implication is that during the rest of the year, eating Matzah is not even an option.  What does this mean?  There is no prohibition against eating Matzah during the year.

The answer is based on an understanding of the difference between Matzah and Chametz.  Matzah is made of flour and water and is baked before the dough can rise.  It symbolizes simplicity in the physical world.  Chametz, on the other hand, represents man’s involvement in the physical world.  It represents our processing of the physical world to satisfy our desires.

As long as we change and process the physical world in order to satisfy our desires, we are, in a sense, subordinate to the material.  This is the antithesis of Matzah which represents freedom from the physical even as we live within and benefit from it. 

Practical Application

Pesach is particularly suited for us to work on breaking out of the prison of our desires.  It is that prison that prevents us from truly accepting the yoke of Heaven properly.  The next time you eat Matzah, think about what it represents.  Living life simply allows us to focus our energies on serving God properly rather than on satisfying our desires.