Friday, February 25, 2011
What is the true meaning of teshuva/repentance? Conventionally, repentance means regretting the transgression and committing not to repeat it. However, there is a deeper meaning that can be learned from this week's parsha.
The parsha relates that the nation brought the raw materials to be used to build the Mishkan and its vessels. "ויבואו האנשים על הנשים .../The men came with the women …" (Shmos 35:22) to bring their gold jewelry for the Mishkan and its vessels. The word על which generally translates as "on" is used in this pasuk instead of the word עם, the word that is commonly used for "with". Why?
The Chiddushei HaRim explains that על/on connotes higher or greater than. By using the word על/on instead of the more common עם/with, the pasuk is hinting that the men were on a higher level than the women. Why were they on a higher level?
The Chiddushei HaRim explains. Chazal teach us that only the men sinned at the golden calf. The women did not. The men were ba'alei teshuva whereas the women, having never sinned, were totally righteous – tzadikim gemurim. Chazal also teach us that penitents are on a higher level than those who never sinned. The words of Chazal are, "Tzadikim gemurim cannot stand where ba'alei teshuva stand." The Zohar says that penitents have more strength to come close to God. The Chiddushei HaRim explains the Zohar as referring specifically to the object of the transgression. The men, who sinned with the gold of the golden calf, were more zealous than the women about donating gold towards the building of the Mishkan and its vessels.
Why is the ba'al teshuva's zeal strongest specifically in the area in which he sinned? The answer is dependent on a deeper understanding of teshuva. For a person to sin, he needs a strong desire to motivate him to transgress the word of God. Teshuva means using this very same desire to serve God. When we use the very same desire that we used for evil to serve God, we have "returned" the desire from evil to good. The English word for teshuva – repentance – misses the connotation of returning that the word teshuva implies.
We see this concept in a novel interpretation of the Sfas Emes on the adage of Chazal, "עשה רצונו כרצונך" (Avos 2:4). This is usually translated as, "Make His will yours." The Sfas Emes understands it as, "Do His will the way you do your own." Chazal are teaching us that we can learn how to do His will from the way in which we do our own. This is really what teshuva/returning is.
Chazal are applying this idea more broadly to cover all desires. Every craving we have that is not directly for God, affords us an opportunity to learn how to better serve God with that very craving. This is the only reason that we have these desires. And by using our desires to better serve God we "return" them to their proper place.
The men gave gold towards the Mishkan with more zeal than the women because they had already experienced giving gold with zeal albeit to idolatry. Tzadikim gemurim/The totally righteous are on a lower spiritual level than ba'alei teshuva/penitents because they have never activated these strong desires. They have never returned the desire to its proper place. The execution of these desires is not within their life experience. They therefore cannot use them – "return" them to their proper place – to serve God. To use the words of Chazal, they cannot stand in the place in which ba'alei teshuva stand.
Friday, February 18, 2011
In this week's parsha God commands us to keep the Shabbos, "אך את שבתותי תשמורו ... לדעת כי אני ה' מקדשכם/Only keep My Shabbosim … to know that I am God Who sanctifies you." (Shmos 31:13) and a few pesukim later, "ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת לעשות את השבת לדורותם ברית עולם/The children of Israel will keep the Shabbos to make the Shabbos throughout their generations an eternal covenant." (Shmos 31:16) The word שמור/keep connotes guarding. What does the Torah mean when it tells us to "keep/guard" the Shabbos? It cannot be understood literally because it is the Shabbos that "keeps/guards" us, not the other way around.
In order to understand how we "guard" Shabbos, the Sfas Emes teaches us a deeper understanding of what Shabbos is. The Sfas Emes explains elsewhere that Shabbos can be defined as a state of Godly revelation. This state occurs naturally on the day that we call Shabbos. However, it is not bound only to that day. In fact, Godliness permeates the Creation. So, we can say that an aspect of Shabbos permeates the Creation. We are not generally aware of this because it is hidden. On Shabbos it is more revealed.
This hidden Godliness is alluded to by the word את in the pasuk, "את שבתותי תשמורו/Keep My Shabbosim." This is because Chazal in many places understand the word את to include things that are subordinate to the main object of the pasuk. The main object of this pasuk is Shabbos. The word את includes that aspect of Shabbos that is hidden in the Creation.
It is this hidden holiness that the Torah enjoins us to guard. How? Our mission is to recognize and reveal the Godliness that is in everything. Not only is this Godliness inherent in everything, it is the motive force within our very actions. Our activities, although physical, have a spiritual component. In fact, the spiritual component of our actions is really the main thing. What is this spiritual component? Everything that we do either brings us closer to God or distances us from Him. Many times an action is neutral and it is our intent that makes all the difference. Do we eat solely for the physical pleasure or do we eat to live in order to perform God's mitzvos? The former hides the spiritual. The latter reveals it.
The Sfas Emes teaches that when the purpose of our actions is to satisfy the will of God, we are acting for the sake of Shabbos which is the same as saying for the sake of revealing the hidden Godliness within our actions. This is the meaning of the pasuk, "לעשות את השבת/to make the Shabbos." Everything we do should be for the purpose of reaching that state of revelation that is called Shabbos. In this way we "guard" Shabbos, keeping it vibrant within the Creation.
We learn this concept also from the word אך in the pasuk, "אך את שבתותי תשמורו/Only keep My Shabbosim." Chazal teach us that אך/Only connotes exclusion. For example we find, the word אַךְ/only regarding purifying vessels that we receive from non-Jews, “אַךְ אֶת־הַזָּהָב וְאֶת־הַכָּסֶף .../only the gold and silver …” (Bamidbar 31:22) From the word אַךְ/only we learn that the gold must be pure. It must not have any rust on it. אַךְ/Only tells us that only unsoiled gold can be purified.
So too, the "אך/only" in "אך את שבתותי תשמורו/Only keep My Shabbosim" teaches us that we should see through the physical that hides the spiritual that is inherent in our actions and in everything. When we do this, we will see holiness everywhere.
Chazal teach us that God considers Shabbos His gift to us. What is the gift? If Shabbos is simply a cessation from work, then there is nothing that is being given. The Sfas Emes explains that the gift is the ability to connect to the aspect of Shabbos that is within everything. This connection is alluded to by the words at the end of the pasuk, "... לדעת כי אני ה' .../… to know that I am God …" דעת/Knowledge, in the Torah connotes attachment, connection.
Friday, February 11, 2011
Yirmiyahu HaNavi compares the nation of
to an olive tree, "זית רענן יפה פרי תואר קרא ה' שמך .../God has called your name, 'A leafy olive tree, beautiful with shapely fruit." Why? The first Midrash in our parsha explains. Among liquids oil is unique in that it floats. Even after being mixed, it separates and floats to the top. The nation of Israel as well will never mix with the nations of the world. And when we do the will of God, we are on top. Israel
The Midrash relates oil to the nation of
and other liquids to the nations of the world. The Sfas Emes broadens this metaphor to include all spirituality and physicality. Oil represents the spiritual whereas other liquids represent the physical. Israel
Inside each of us is a spiritual life force, a Godly portion, as it were. Just as oil never mixes with other liquids, our job is to make sure that this spirituality remains untainted by the physical. This is alluded to in God's instruction to Moshe to command the nation, "... ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך .../… Take for yourself pure olive oil …" We do this by making the spiritual the crux of our lives even as we engage the physical world.
Friday, February 04, 2011
1. The parsha begins, "דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו .../speak to the children of
and have them take for me a contribution from every man whose heart impels him …" (Shmos 25:2) The purpose of this command is for the people to give towards the building of the Mishkan. Why then does the Torah use the word "ויקחו/have them take", instead of "ויתנו/have them give"? Israel
The first Midrash on the parsha addressing this issue associates this pasuk with a pasuk in Mishlei (4:2), "כי לקח טוב נתתי לכם תורתי על תעזובו/For I have given you a good teaching. Do not forsake my Torah." The word לקח/teaching has the same root as the word מקח/purchase. The pasuk is advising us to remain connected to the Torah for it is a good purchase. Unlike other purchases, the Torah contains everything as we find, "תורת ה' תמימה .../God's Torah is complete …" (Tehillim 19:8). Furthermore, the seller – God – comes with the purchase.
The Sfas Emes explains. We are incapable of understanding the depths of the Torah. However, we can merit understanding even though we do not have the tools to do so. How? By constantly "taking" the Torah – by constantly trying to understand, God gives us the gift of understanding. This is the meaning of "על תעזובו/Do not leave it."
The Midrash relates to learning Torah. The Sfas Emes expands this concept to include all of our activities. Whenever we "take" anything for ourselves, anytime we want to commence an activity, make a purchase, start a program, our intent should be to give to God. We should have in mind that our action give nachas ru'ach/satisfaction to God. When this is our intent, we will find that events conspire in our favor so that we succeed as Koheles said, "טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו .../The end of a matter is better than its beginning …" (Koheles 7:8)
We can also understand this from the pasuk, "ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל .../Take for me a contribution from everything …" By taking for ourselves in order to give to God, we elevate everything to God.
We find another allusion to the concept of doing everything for God in the Zohar on the words, "כל איש/every man." The Zohar interprets this as, "the entire man." The Torah is telling us that whatever we do, our intent should be to do it for God with our entire being.
Another allusion to this idea can be found in the drasha from which Chazal learn that a wife can be acquired with money as in fact, we do today by giving the bride a ring. The pasuk states, "כי יקח איש אשה/When a man takes a wife …" (Devarim 22:13) The pasuk that relates Avraham Avinu purchasing Efron's field states, "נתתי כסף השדה קח ממני/I have given the price of the field, take it from me …" (Breishis 23:13) Since both pesukim use the word קיחה/taking, Chazal learn from one to the other. Just like Efron's field was purchased with money, so too, a wife can be acquired with money.
Money in Hebrew – כסף – has the same root as the word for pining – כיסופין. The woman in the pasuk is a metaphor for the Torah. When we pine for God we are able to feel His presence in our lives. We "acquire" Him, as it were. Purchasing a field is a metaphor for physical activity. We learn from the desire we have regarding worldly activities how to fulfill God's will as well with all our heart.
The same concept is alluded to in the first Midrash of our parsha. The Midrash relates an allegory of a king who gives his daughter in marriage to a prince who will take her to a far away place. The king cannot bear to leave his daughter but also does not want to prevent the marriage. The king resolves the problem by asking the prince to build a room for him so that he can visit.
As before, the daughter is a metaphor for the Torah. The king represents God and the prince represents each member of the nation of
. To the extent that a person is connected to the Torah he can merit living with the Divine presence just like the king in the allegory could not bear separating from his daughter. The Sfas Emes broadens this concept to include all activities for the sake of God. And this is the meaning of the pasuk from Mishlei mentioned earlier, "תורתי על תעזובו/Do not leave my Torah." If the pasuk tells us not to leave the Torah, we can infer that being connected to the Torah is a continuous lifetime job that affects and influences everything we do. Israel
2. From the pasuk, "... כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו .../… every man who's heart impels him …", we also learn that there are two components to success. The first component is that each should person do what his heart compels him to do, "... אשר ידבנו לבו .../as his heart impels him …" But this is not enough. Certainly each of us is unique and was created for a unique purpose. Still, fulfilling that purpose alone is not enough. We also need to identify with the nation of
. Our unique purpose is not only for us alone. It is also for the nation. This is alluded to by the words, "מאת כל איש/from every man," as we find in parshas Nitzavim, "אתם נצבים היום כולכם ... כל איש ישראל/You are standing today, all of you … every man of Israel ." (Devarim 29:9) Israel
To succeed the nation needs each person to fulfill his unique mission, his raison d'être. Each person also needs to identify with the nation. This is the meaning of, "... כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו/… every man who's heart impels him." The Chiddushei Harim notes that this is also the meaning of a Mishna in Avos (1:14), "אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני/If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am only for myself what am I." Each of us needs to "be for himself" – to accomplish that unique thing the reason for which he was created. But we must do it as a part of the nation of