Thursday, June 24, 2010
In this week’s haftara the prophet exhorts us to remember the story of Bil’am and Balak, “עַמִּי זְכָר־נָא מַה־יָעַץ בָּלָק מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב וּמֶה־עָנָה אֹתוֹ בִּלְעָם בֶּן־בְּעוֹר ... לְמַעַן דַּעַת צִדְקוֹת ה׳׃/My people, please remember what Balak, king of Moav schemed and what Bil’am son of Be’or answered him … in order to recognize the righteous acts of God.” (Micha 6:5) Also, Chazal relate the importance of remembering the story of Balak. There were even those who wanted this story to be a part of Kri’as Shma. It isn’t, the Gemara tells us only because it would have inordinately lengthened Kri’as Shma. What is so important, so significant, about the story of Balak that the prophet asks us specifically to remember it and that it almost became a part of the Krias Shma?
The story of Balak is unique in that an implacable enemy was not only ineffective; he actually blessed us against his own will instead of cursing us. When the nation follows the path of truth and is aligned with God’s will even their most implacable and hostile enemies submit to God’s will.
We find this same idea on a personal level as well. Chazal tell us that two angels, a good one and a bad one, escort each of us home from the synagogue Friday night. If they find a home prepared for Shabbos, the good angel says, “May it be your will that this will happen next Shabbos as well.” The bad angel answers Amen against his will.
We actually pray for this in the prayer that we say immediately following the Amida, “וְכָל הַחוֹשְׁבִים עָלַי רָעָה מְהֵרָה הָפֵר עַצָתָם וְקַלְקֵל מַחְשַׁבְתָּם/And all who wish me ill, quickly overturn their scheme and corrupt their thoughts.”
Many times we are faced with hostile and vicious enemies. There seems to be no way to overcome them. From the story of Balak we learn that although we may not be able to overcome the enemy in a direct manner, there are other options. Although it seems improbable, it is an important part of serving God to cultivate a strong belief that all our enemies, even those who are the complete antithesis of holiness must subside and submit to the will of God. There is no such thing as a creation acting autonomously, even our cruelest enemies.
Our worst enemies will submit to God’s will though, only if we compromise not an iota, if we stay on the path of truth, the path of God. Then we will merit not only the destruction of our enemies but their blessing, just as the nation of
Israel merited it on the plains of Moav.
Friday, June 18, 2010
The first part of our parsha describes the mitzvah of the red heifer. The ashes of a red heifer are mixed with water and sprinkled on one who is spiritually impure through contact with a corpse. Because this mitzvah seems to have no apparent logic, Rashi quotes a Midrash that states that this is one of the mitzvos about which the nations of the world and the satan chide the nation of
Israel. Our answer to them is that this mitzvah is a divine decree which we must adhere to even though it has no apparent reason. For this reason the pasuk introduces the mitzvah with, “זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה .../This is the decree of the Torah …” (Bamidbar 19:2)
The Sfas Emes asks that this answer does not seem to be an answer at all. The nations of the world tell us that our religion contains elements of illogic and we answer that our religion contains elements of illogic!
In order to understand this we must know that every decree in the Torah is based on a good, valid reason. There is no such thing as a decree for its own sake. What then is the meaning of the Midrash? The Midrash is teaching us that decrees represent a category of mitzvos whose underlying reasons cannot be attained directly. The only way to attain an understanding of the decrees in the Torah is by embracing them even without understanding.
This is so because the reasons for these mitzvos are spiritual in nature. They can only be approached by distancing ourselves from the physical. A mitzvah, like the entire Creation, has a physical component – the act of the mitzvah – and a spiritual component. The performance of a mitzvah creates spiritual effects. The mitzvah’s reason is part of its spiritual component.
By living spiritual lives, we prepare ourselves to understand even the decrees of the Torah. This concept is born out by Chazal who teach us that during the time of David HaMelech, the children who had not yet tasted sin, were able to understand the reasons behind even the most esoteric laws of purity and impurity.
In the poem that the Arizal composed for recital before Kiddush on Shabbos morning we find, “יְגַלֵּה לָן טַעֲמֵי דְבִתְרֵיסַר נַהֲמֵי/reveal to us the reasons behind the twelve loaves (of showbread). There are reasons even though they are not apparent to us. We ask God to reveal them to us.
In fact, the Sfas Emes teaches that our purpose is to reveal the reasons. By revealing the spiritual, we reveal the reasons as well.
As the Sfas Emes states in many ma’amarim, the spiritual component of the Creation is more revealed on Shabbos than during the week. As such, on Shabbos we are closer to understanding the reasons underlying the existence of the entire Creation. We find a hint to this idea in the musaf of Shabbos, “טוֹעֲמֶיהָ חַיִּים זָכוּ/Those who savor it will merit life.” The Hebrew for “savor” is the same as for “reason”. So, this can be understood as, “Those who receive the reasons (having prepared themselves) merit life. In fact, our work during the days of the week should be geared towards preparing ourselves so that we can reach higher levels of spirituality on Shabbos.
The Sfas Emes elsewhere explains how to prepare for Shabbos. He teaches that during the week we must strengthen our faith that there in fact is a spiritual component to the world around us, even though it is difficult to actually experience for a variety of reasons. On the simplest level, during the week we are distracted. Experiencing the spiritual requires a certain peace of mind that is difficult to attain during the week. Also, as we’ve seen, metaphysically, Shabbos is more conducive to experiencing the spiritual than the weekdays. However, if we cultivate our belief in the spiritual component during the week, then we will merit experiencing it on Shabbos.
The Sfas Emes teaches that the way to cultivate this belief is by contemplating it before any activity. Saying to ourselves that the activity of work contains an underlying spiritual component that is a representation of God’s will, changes our approach to work in a very significant way. We become conscious agents of God’s will. Doing this before every activity will completely change the way we experience Shabbos.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
In this week’s parsha Moshe Rabbeinu says to Korach, “ הַמְעַט מִכֶּם כִּי־הִבְדִּיל אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל ... וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם־כְּהֻנָּה׃ לָכֵן אַתָּה וְכָל־עֲדָתְךָ הַנֹּעָדִים עַל ה׳ .../Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel set you apart from the community o Israel … that you also seek the priesthood? Therefore, you and your entire company assemble against God!” (Bamidbar 16:9-11) The Sfas Emes points out that the word “therefore” does not seem to have any meaning. It does not seem to flow from the preceding statement. What is the meaning of this pasuk?
A true understanding of Korach’s sin will shed light on this pasuk. Korach thought that Aharon received the priesthood based on his own merits. Korach argued that, “... כָל־הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים .../… the entire congregation is holy …” (Bamidbar 16:3) and in fact there may be others who are more worthy than Aharon. In fact, in his arrogance, he thought that he himself was worthy of the priesthood.
Moshe Rabbeinu responded, “... אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַר ה׳ הוּא הַקָּדוֹש .../… the man whom god shall choose is the holy one …” (Bamdibar 16:7) The Sfas Emes explains that both Korach and Moshe Rabbeinu were correct. However, Moshe Rabbeinu is pointing out to Korach that the holiness of the nation is divinely decreed and not based on individual merit. Furthermore, the holiness of the nation came through Moshe Rabbeinu. God instructed Moshe at
Mount Sinai, “... וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם וּמָחָר .../… You shall make them holy today and tomorrow ...” (Shmos 19:10)
Korach forgot that his own holiness and the holiness of the entire nation came from God and that God gave special levels of holiness to the priests, the Levites and to the rest of the nation. If he had understood this, there would have been no place for his argument or his jealousy. Even Korach understood that a divine decree does not need to fit into Korach’s view of justice. He thought that God gave Aharon the priesthood based on Aharon’s merits. According to his understanding he had a good case. Korach was more deserving, in his own eyes, than Aharon. Korach’s jealousy was obviously totally misplaced.
With this understanding the meaning of the word “therefore” becomes clear. By asking for the priesthood, Korach showed that he thought Aharon received the priesthood based on his own merits rather than as a divine decree. It wasn’t fair. He, in his own eyes, was more deserving than Aharon. Therefore, he and his people assembled against God.
This is the meaning of the Chazal which explains the first few words of our parsha, “וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח .../Korach took.” (Bamidbar 16:1) The Torah does not tell us what it is that he took. Chazal explain that he took for himself. He took the holiness that God had bestowed on others, for himself.
This also explains the pasuk that the Midrash brings and says is referring to Korach, “אָח נִפְשָׁע מִקִּרְיַת־עֹז .../A rebellious brother (separates himself) from a strong city …” (Mishlei 18:19) The Midrash explains that the strong city is a metaphor for the strength of the Torah. This strength came to him from Moshe and Aharon. By separating himself from them, he unwittingly separated himself from the very source of his own strength.
The key point here is that the Jewish nation is holy because God decreed it, not because of anything we have done or have not done. Furthermore, there divinely decreed levels of holiness within the nation. A priest is holier than a Levite who, in turn is holier than the rest of the nation. Does this mean that there are limits as to how holy I can become? No matter what I do, I who am neither a priest nor a Levite, can never attain their holiness.
On the face of it, this seems like an unfair distinction. After all, a wicked priest and a righteous member of the nation who is not a priest is not only possible, but has happened. The answer is that God put each of us here to accomplish a personal mission within the context of the nation. As a non-priest, my mission is inherently different, not less important, just different, than the a priest’s. The goal of each of us is to discover his mission and achieve it to the best of his ability with God’s help. This is the lesson that we can take from Korach. Korach had a mission which his arrogance caused him to lose sight of. The results were catastrophic.
By concentrating on our own mission, instead of someone else’s and asking God to help us discover and live it, we are already on our way to attaining that goal.
Friday, June 04, 2010
Parshas tzitzis, the last parsha of the Shema, appears at the end of Shelach. In parshas tzitzis we find, “וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְצִיצִת וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ .../They shall be fringes for you, you shall see it …” (Bamidbar 15:39) Chazal explain homiletically that a person who is stringent regarding the mitzvah of tzitzis will merit seeing the Divine Presence. Of course, the Divine Presence is non-corporeal. We cannot see It in the sense that we see physical objects. However, Chazal are referring to experiencing a revelation of the Divine Presence. The Sfas Emes explains that the Divine Presence resides everywhere and in everything as the prophet tells us, “... מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדו/… the entire world is filled with His glory.”ֹ (Yishaya 6:3) His glory, the Divine Presence, is concealed. By being quick to observe the mitzvah of tzitzis we can experience a revelation of the Divine Presence. But why is this so? What is special about the mitzvah of tzitzis?
The Sfas Emes explains that the mitzvah of tzitzis symbolizes subordination to God. Wrapping oneself in the tallis is an expression of subordination. When a person desires only to see God in everything, he merits sensing and experiencing God’s glory that is in everything. Accordingly, “וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ/You shall see it” refers to the desire to see God’s glory. The word אֹתוֹ/it, alludes to אוֹת/sign. The pasuk can thus be translated as, “You shall see His sign.” Chazal teach us this on the words, “ה' אֱ-לֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת/God, the Lord of Hosts”. The word צְבָאוֹת/Hosts, can be split into two words, צָבָא/Host, and אוֹת/sign. Chazal teach us that God’s glory resides within His hosts – within everything.
We find the same idea in the liturgic poem that the Ariza”l wrote for the Kiddush we say Shabbos morning, “נֶחֱזֵי בִיקָרֵיה וְיַחֲזֵי לָן סִתְרֵיה דְּאִתְאַמַּר בִּלְחִישָׁא/We will see His glory and He will show us His secret that is said silently.” What is this secret and what is the significance of it being said silently?
The Sfas Emes explains that His secret refers to God’s light that is concealed within everything.
“Silently” refers to subordination. Here’s why. In Hebrew the word for silent is חֶרֶשׁ. In this week’s Haftorah we find that Yehoshua sent spies to
חֶרֶשׁ/secretly (Yehoshua 2:1). Chazal explain that this is an allusion to the word חֶרֶס/earthenware. Chazal therefore understand that the spies were disguised as potters. Why were they disguised specifically as potters? Jericho
The Sfas Emes quotes the Chiddushei HaRim elsewhere that the significance of earthenware vessels is that , as opposed to vessels made of other materials, they have no intrinsic value. The value of earthenware vessels is only in terms of their function. The spies were disguised as potters to teach us an important lesson about spies and messengers in general. A true messenger has no motive other than fulfilling the desire of the ones who sent him. If a messenger has a personal agenda, he is no longer purely a messenger. He is on his own mission, too.
This is the meaning of the Ariza”l’s poem. “Silently” in the poem is an allusion to the earthenware vessels that have no value other than their function. If we have no personal agenda. If our only desire is to reveal the light of God in this world, He will show us His concealed glory.
The pasuk continues, “... וְלֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם׃ לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתַי וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים .../… and you shall not wander after your heart and after your eyes, which have led you astray. In order that you shall remember and shall perform all my commandments and you shall be holy …”
From the continuation of the pasuk we learn that not only is it fundamentally important to realize that the entire world is filled with His glory and to thus subordinate ourselves to Him. Our intent when we perform His mitzvos should be to realize that we exist solely to be His messengers in this world. We are here for one purpose – to fulfill the will of God.
The Torah admonishes us not to live a hedonistic life. In truth, any thinking person will come to the conclusion that living merely to satisfy his physical desires is not a good thing. But Chazal teach us that a person should not say that he does not want to eat non kosher meat because it disgusts him. Rather he should say that he wants to eat it, except that his Father in heaven decreed it prohibited. We see that leading an ascetic live removed from physical desires is not an end in and of itself. The goal is to achieve God’s will. We see this from the juxtaposition of these two pesukim.
The Sfas Emes explains the second pasuk elsewhere. He teaches that the word for “remember” in Hebrew means more than simply recalling. It is much deeper. It means to internalize something until it becomes a part of the person. At that point there is no possibility of forgetting. The Torah is telling us, “Do not follow your physical eyes and desires so that you may internalize the underlying Godliness of everything physical.
This is the meaning of the end of the pasuk as well, “... וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים לֵא-לֹהֵיכֶם/… and you shall be holy to your God.” It is not enough to be holy. You must be holy to God. Holy in Hebrew connotes separated and dedicated. The pasuk is teaching us that separating from the physical desires of this world is meaningful if the intent is to come close to God.