Friday, August 27, 2010

Tavo 5632 First Ma'amar

The first Tanchuma in this week's parsha explains the pasuk, “הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־הַחֻקִּים .../This day God, your Lord commands you to do these laws …” (Devarim 26:16)  This pasuk is written in the present tense in order to teach us to view the laws of the Torah as if they were given to us now in the present.  God wants us to relate to the Torah with the excitement of novelty.

The Sfas Emes learns from this Midrash that there is no novelty in the physical world.  All newness comes from outside the physical world as we pray each day that God, "מחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית/in His goodness, renews the workings of the Creation continuously each day."  Being aware of renewal in the world is a way of becoming aware of God.  We can become aware of novelty by always harking back to the beginning of things.  It is at the beginning that novelty is most acutely perceived.

The Torah contains many examples encouraging us to remember beginnings.  The mitzvah of Bikurim, mentioned at the beginning of this week's parsha is one example.  We are enjoined to bring the first fruit of our fields to the Beis HaMikdash.

Another example is prayer.  In fact, the Midrash quoted above teaches us that there is a close connection between Bikurim and prayer.  The Midrash relates that Moshe Rabbeinu foresaw a time when there would be no Beis HaMikdash and we would not be able to observe the mitzvah of Bikurim.  To compensate, he instituted daily prayers.  What is the connection between Bikurim and the daily prayers?  How do daily prayers compensate for the mitzvah of Bikurim?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the fundamental aspect of the mitzvah of Bikurim is that we dedicate our first produce to God.  As well, when we pray in the morning, we dedicate our first activity of the day to God.

The mitzvah of remembering the Exodus is another example of remembering beginnings.  We are required to remember the Exodus each and every day.  In fact, when we declaim upon bringing our first fruit to the Beis HaMikdash, that God brought us to the land of Israel, we preface with a summary of the story of our sojourn in Egypt and salvation.  Remembering the beginning of our nationhood strengthens our connection with God who gives us existence on a continuous basis.
Chazal[1] teach us that as a way of preventing sin, we should remember our humble physical beginnings.

Another reason that we remember the Exodus daily is in order to remind us of our own personal salvations.  The Sfas Emes teaches that not only did we, as a nation, experience a national Yetzi'as Mitzrayim/Exodus from Egypt, each of us individually can and may have experienced a personal salvation.  The word for Egyptמצרים – in Hebrew has the same root as the word for narrow straits – מצרים.  When we are experiencing a crisis we may feel like we are inside a strait.  We may feel that our options are limited.  But then, God opens up new opportunities for us.  Suddenly, we have more options.  We are able to overcome the crisis.  We have experienced a personal Exodus.  Remembering personal Exoduses connects us to God.

The basis for these examples is the concept that all novelty, all renewal comes from outside the physical world.  Elsewhere the Sfas Emes learns this concept from a pasuk in Koheles, "אין כל חדש תחת השמש/There is nothing new under the sun."  The implication is that above the sun, outside the physical world, there is renewal.  All renewal comes from God and everything is being renewed constantly.  We acknowledge this, internalize it and can experience God, by remembering beginnings.

[1] Avos 3:1

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tetzei 5632 First Ma'amar

How is it possible to live in and interact with the physical world and yet not be drawn after the physical?  How can we live holy lives even as we are immersed in the material world?  We learn the answer from the first mitzvah in this week's parsha, the mitzvah of the captive woman.  

The Torah permits a Jewish soldier, under certain circumstances, to take a non-Jewish woman in the heat of his passion.  This is a strange law, to be sure.  Rashi[1], citing Chazal,[2] explains that the Torah is addressing a person’s evil inclination.  If God had not permitted the captured woman, the soldier would take her in sin.  God permitted her to him because it is not within the soldier’s ability to overcome the temptation.

The Sfas Emes asks, “Would it not be better for God to help the soldier overcome the temptation or to lessen the power of the evil inclination to manageable levels?”  Why actually permit what would under any other circumstance be considered a low act? 

To answer this question we must understand the nature of permitted acts and prohibited acts.  Actions, in and of themselves, are not good or bad.  They are value neutral.  There are many situations in which an action can be either a mitzvah or a terrible transgression depending on the context in which the action is performed.  The Hebrew for permitted and prohibited is heter and issur respectively.  These words also mean released and bound.  Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that a prohibition is called issur because the act binds one to the evil which is within it.[3]  A permitted act does not.  So, a permitted action does not draw a person to any evil whereas when the very same action is prohibited it does.   

Since whether an act is permitted or prohibited gives moral value to the act, a soldier can take a captured woman and not be drawn to evil.  In fact, his feeling for and relationship towards the act is such that he can consider that if the Torah had prohibited this action, he would not have done it.  If taking her were really prohibited, of course, he would be drawn to the evil and would not be able to overcome his evil inclination.  

This concept is the answer to our questions.  How can we live spiritual lives in the physical world?  The only reason all the mundane activities that take up most of our time are permitted is because it is God's will that we live in the physical world and interact with it.  Since these actions are God's will, we can perform them and interact with the physical world without being drawn after it.  We can consider that the only reason we do what we do all day is because God wants us to, otherwise we would not do it.  We would live ascetic lives.  Realizing and internalizing the concept that our daily activities are God's will, frees us to live spiritual lives even in the material world.  

[1] Rashi on Devarim 21:11
[2] Kidushin 21b
[3] Tania 8

Friday, August 13, 2010

Shoftim 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha, the priest gives the various conditions exempting people from the requirement of going to war.  A person who has just built a house, planted a vineyard or betrothed a woman is not required to join the army.  Furthermore, anyone who is afraid is exempt as well. 

This last exemption needs an explanation.  The priest introduced the exemptions with a declaration that God has promised to fight the nation’s battles and to save us from our enemies[1].  The commentaries[2] understand this to mean that each individual will be protected.  What, then is this fear that exempts a person from the army?

There is a debate between Rebbi Akiva and Rebbi Yosi HaGelili as to whether this is to be understood literally or not[3].  According to Rebbi Akiva, a person who is fearful of war should return home because he does not have the proper amount of faith in order for God’s promise to save him.[4]  Rebbi Yosi HaGelili holds that since sin causes all hardship, the only reason a person would fear is because he has sinned.  Sin distances a person from God, so to speak, and from God’s protection.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that if a person is not afraid, even if he has sinned, it is an indication that his sin has been forgiven.  His repentance has brought him closer to God once more and there is no longer cause for fear.

The Sfas Emes notes that fear of sin is a good thing.  But, of course, fear of sinning is not the same as the fear that results from having committed a sin.  Fear of sinning comes as a result of complete repentance.  After complete repentance, the penitent is no longer connected to the transgression and cannot even imagine how he transgressed in the first place.  He is no longer the same person who committed the sin.  This person has become close to God.  His transgression no longer causes him to fear and he no longer worries of being outside of God’s protection.

Regarding fear of sinning and repentance, the Torah relates that Sarah Imeinu laughed skeptically when she heard the prophecy that she would have a child in her old age.  She had sinned but when confronted with this she denied it because, the Torah tells us, she was afraid, “וַתְּכַחֵשׁ שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר לֹא צָחַקְתִּי כִּי יָרֵאָה .../Sarah denied it saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ because she was afraid.” 

This is difficult to understand.  She knew that she was talking before God.  It was obviously futile to deny what she had done.  How could fear cause her to deny?  The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches is that she denied it because she had already repented.  She was in a different state, a state of fear of sinning.  In this state it was impossible for her to even fathom the sin.  Because of complete repentance she had become a different person.

Chazal teach us that even a person who has spoken between putting on the Tefillin shel Yad and the Tefillin shel Rosh is exempt from going to war.  This is a relatively minor infraction yet he is exempt if it causes him fear.  Why should such a minor transgression exempt a person from joining the war?  According the Chiddushei HaRim the answer is clear.  His concern is an indication that he has not repented, his sin has not been forgiven and he is not close to God.  This person will not be protected by God’s promise to fight for him against the enemy.

Sin distances us from God’s protection and repentance brings us near.  May we merit repentance and God’s protection from our enemies always.  Amen.

[1] Devarim 20:4
[2] Viz. Ramban on Devarim 20:8, Or HaChayim on 20:4, lehelachem etc.
[3] Sotah 44a
[4] Viz.  Ramban on Devarim 20:8

Friday, August 06, 2010

Re'ei 563 Seventh Ma'amar

The Chiddushei HaRim said that the third meal of Shabbos is similar to Shemini Atzeres.  Chazal[1] teach us that whereas the seven days of Succos is for the nations of the world as well as for us, Shemini Atzeres is God’s declaration that we are His special people and He wants to keep us an extra day because separation is difficult.  The third meal of Shabbos is also an aspect of difficult separation.  Therefore, the Chiddushei HaRim teaches that it is important to yearn not to forget that special feeling of Shabbos light that we experience during the third meal at the culmination of the Shabbos even during the days of the week.

The Sfas Emes expands this concept of wanting to retain the Shabbos experience during the week and yearning during the week for the Shabbos experience.

Chazal[2] teach us that God gives us an extra soul when Shabbos commences and takes it from us when Shabbos ends.  This is inferred from the word וַיִּנָּפַשׁ/He rested,” in “... וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ/… and on the seventh day He stopped working and rested.” (Shmos 31:17)  The root of the word for rest is also soul.  The word וַיִּנָּפַשׁ alludes to “וֵוי אָבְדָה נֶפֶשׁ/Woe for the loss of the soul.”  This is difficult to understand because the soul is lost only at the end of Shabbos while God (and we) rested from the beginning of Shabbos.  How can this word include a hint to what occurs when Shabbos ends?

The Ba’al Shem Tov answers that Chazal are not commanding us to cry for the loss of the extra soul after Shabbos ends.  Rather, Chazal are teaching us how we should relate to Shabbos itself.  Knowing that we will lose the extra soul at the end of Shabbos, we should do everything we can during Shabbos to make the most of it – as long as we have the extra soul.  This is in line with the Chiddushei HaRim’s idea of yearning to not forget the Shabbos experience of the third meal.

The Sfas Emes gives a different answer to this question.  As the Sfas Emes writes in many places, on Shabbos there is a greater Godly revelation than during the week.  One of our primary tasks in this world is to see through the screen of the physical in which we live in order to cling to the source of our souls, the source of life, to God.  On Shabbos this is much easier to do than during the week because God reveals Himself to us more.  However, even though it is not easy to see past the physical during the week, trying to do so by pining for that higher spiritual state of Shabbos is actually an aspect of experiencing Shabbos.  This is because Shabbos can be define as a state of heightened spiritual awareness.  When Chazal teach us that “וַיִּנָּפַשׁ/and He rested” alludes to pining for the extra soul of Shabbos – Woe for the loss of the soul – they mean exactly this.  To the extent that during the week we yearn for that Godly experience, we experience an aspect of Shabbos during the week as well and this is what we are required to do.

Yearning for Shabbos during the week also affects how we experience Shabbos itself and since the holiest time of Shabbos is towards the end of the day, the effect of yearning during the week is felt most powerfully when we eat the third meal.

The Zohar[3] gives an interesting parallel to craving the experience of Shabbos during the week.  Chazal teach us that God wears tefillin, in a matter of speaking.  God’s wearing tefillin is a metaphor for His revelation.  The Zohar says that Shabbos and the holidays are the manifestation of God’s tefillin.  The Zohar continues and explains that God gave us the mitzvah of tefillin so that we may be protected during the week when we do not have the protection of God’s tefillin – revelation.  That protection is reserved, of course, for Shabbos and Yom Tov.  The tefillin are God’s “seal” as in, “שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל־לִבֶּךָ כַּחוֹתָם עַל־זְרוֹעֶךָ .../Place me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm …” (Shir HaShirim 8:6)  He gave us His seal to wear during the week.[4]

Not only is the tefillin a protection, as the Zohar says, according to the Sfas Emes it reminds us of the special revelation of God’s tefillin represented by Shabbos.  Here we see clearly that remembering Shabbos during the week is built into the mitzvah of tefillin.

[1] Rashi on Vayikra 23:36 (see Ramban ad loc), see also Succa 55b
[2] Beitza 16a – ma’amar of Reish Lakish
[3] Zohar Chadash Shir HaShirim 79b in Masok MeDvash edition
[4] The Zohar explains that this is also the reason why we are not permitted to wear tefillin on Shabbos and Yom Tov.  On Shabbos and Yom Tov we experience the real tefillin, the real seal of God.  Wearing the reminder would be the height of insolence.  Interestingly, the Zohar says that while Shabbos and Tom Tov are related to the tefillin shel rosh, Chol HaMoed is related to the tefillin shel yad.  The Zohar thus concludes that wearing tefillin during Chol HaMoed is prohibited for the same reason it is prohibited on Shabbos and Yom Tov.