Friday, March 25, 2011

Parshas Parah 5631 Third Ma'amar

The mitzvah of the red heifer involves mixing the ashes of the red heifer with water and sprinkling the mixture on an impure person thus purifying him.  Paradoxically, Chazal[1] teach us that the red heifer also makes a pure person impure.  Why does the red heifer have this quality of making the impure pure and the pure impure?

The Sfas Emes teaches that the answer lies in understanding the symbolism of the ashes.  Ashes are inert and they have very little value.  Accordingly ashes symbolize laziness and bitul.    

Each of us has a fundamental life force within that defines us.  It is who we really are.  Everything else about us is like a garment that surrounds us.  Everything else is an outer trapping.  Bitul means shedding the external garment and recognizing the real us. 

An important way of doing this is by cultivating a sense of shiflus/lowliness.  Lowliness is not to be confused with low self esteem.  Just the opposite is true.  Shiflus/Lowliness means that we recognize that our external desires are outer trappings to our real self.  When we recognize our inner true self, we defeat low self esteem every time.

It's only the outer trappings that become impure.  Our inner self or inner life force is Godly and is always pure.  So, by practicing bitul we can become spiritually pure.

Ashes also represent laziness.  Someone who is lazy actually is suffering from low self esteem.  As a result this person cannot stimulate himself to do anything.  But low self esteem is a part of our outer trappings.  It is not connected to a person's true inner self.

Superficially, bitul and low self esteem look the same, like the ashes of the red heifer.  In reality, they are opposites.  The former is a way of experiencing God and becoming spiritually pure.  The latter distances one from God and leads to spiritual impurity.  This is the reason that the ashes of the red heifer make the pure impure and the impure pure.

[1] Bamidbar R. 19:1

Friday, March 18, 2011

Purim 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

Chazal established four mitzvos that we are required to perform on Purim – reading Megillas Esther, eating a festive meal, giving presents to the poor and mishlo'ach manos – sending portions of food to friends.  The first three are understandable within the context of the holiday.  Even giving presents to the poor which is not directly associated with the holiday can be understood in that Chazal wanted the poor to be able to participate in the festive meal as well.  However, what is the point of sending portions of food to people who already have food?  Furthermore, this mitzvah is unique to Purim.  There is no comparable mitzvah in any other context.  What is the point of it?

The Sfas Emes explains that Chazal established this mitzvah to foster love amongst the nation.  Giving fosters love because it is a mechanism for creating unity.  Only in unity is love for others possible.  The Sfas Emes explains why this is so.

The Torah enjoins us to love our friend as we love ourselves, "ואהבת לרעך כמוך/Love your friend as yourself." (VaYikra 19:18)  How is it possible to love another as we love ourselves?  It seems an impossible task.  Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi in his seminal work Likutei Amarim (32) explains that this mitzvah is indeed impossible if we only relate to our physical bodies.  In that case, we are all separate from one another.  However, although we are separated physically, our souls come together as one at their source.  Our job is to identify with and cultivate a firm belief in this fact.  When our primary view of reality is the spiritual in which we are all connected as one, the lines that separate us tend to blur and loving the other as we love ourselves becomes straightforward.

With this concept we can understand an enigmatic Rashi.  Rashi explains that "friend" in the pasuk "רעך ורע אביך על תעזב .../Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father …" (Mishlei 27:10) refers to God.  In fact, Rashi[1] cites this pasuk in his commentary on the famous adage of Hillel the elder, "What you hate, do not do to your friend."  He writes that since we do not want our friends to cross us, we should make sure not to cross God.  

Apparently Rashi explains that Hillel's adage refers to God because Hillel is declaring that this is the basis and the primary teaching of the entire Torah.  Everything else is simply commentary to this main teaching.  Still, it seems somewhat awkward to say that "friend" refers to God.  This is certainly not the simple meaning.  However, according to our concept it is clear.  The kabbalists[2] teach that the spiritual place where all our souls are one is called K'nesses Yisrael/the Congregation of Israel.  This place is also called the Shechina/the Divine Presence.  The source of all our souls, the place where we are one is the Divine Presence itself.  It's clear then that not forsaking our friend and not forsaking God is one and the same.  

Mordechai felt this connection with the nation very strongly and was able to be one with and love the entire nation because of it.  In the Megilla we find, "איש יהודי היה בשושן הבירה ושמו מרדכי .../A Yehudi man was in Shushan, the capital and his name was Mordechai …" (Esther 2:5)  Nowadays the word Yehudi is used generally to refer to anyone who is Jewish.  Literally (and originally) though, Yehudi refers to members of the tribe of Yehuda.  

Why was Mordechai referred to as being from Yehuda when he was actually from the tribe of Binyamin?  The Midrash[3] addresses this question and answers with a play on words.  The Midrash reads Yehudi as yehidi/alone because Mordechai recognized only God and sanctified only Him. 

Because Mordechai was clearly connected to the source of all souls, the Divine Presence, his merit influenced all of Israel.  We find this influence in the Megilla itself, "... ועמוד על נפשם .../… they defended themselves … (lit. he stood on their soul)" (Esther 9:16)  Significantly both the entire clause is in the singular – he stood – and – their soul.

We also find the singular used when Ya'akov descended to Egypt with his family, "כל הנפש הבאה ליעקב מצרימה .../All the souls (lit. soul) who came with Ya'akov to Egypt …" (Shmos 46:26)  Rashi cites the Midrash that the pasuk uses the singular because they worshipped one God.  What is the connection between worshipping one God and the use of the singular נפש/soul?  According to our concept this is understood.  Their souls came together as one in the Divine Presence.

We can also infer the strong unity of the Jews of Shushan from the Chiddushei HaRim on the pasuk preceding our acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai, "ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר/Israel camped there opposite the mountain." (Shmos 19:2)  Here too, the singular "ויחן/He camped" is used.  Rashi cites the Midrash which explains that there was no strife among the nation.  They camped as one person.  Unity, the Chiddushei HaRim explains, is a necessary prerequisite for accepting the Torah.  Chazal teach us that the Jews at the time of Mordechai accepted the Torah as well.  It's clear from the Chiddushei HaRim that they could only have accepted the Torah if they were united.

Let's contemplate unity and love amongst our entire nation this year as we give mishlo'ach manos.  After all, this is its purpose!

[1] Rashi in Shabbos 31a
[2] Pri Eitz Chayim 1 Sha'ar HaTefilla, Nefesh HaChayim 2:18
[3] Esther R. 6:2

Friday, March 11, 2011

VaYikra 5631 Fifth Ma'amar

I am dedicating this week's Ma'amar l'ilui nishmas our dear cousin Ilan Tokayer z"l whose shocking ptira occurred last Thursday.  He was 25. 
בלע המות לנצח ומחה ה' א-להים דמעה מעל כל פנים

Chumash VaYikra begins with an explanation of the burnt-offering, "ושחט אתו על ירך המזבח צפנה לפני ה' .../He shall slaughter it on the northern side of the altar before God …" (VaYikra 1:11).  This pasuk appears in the paragraph explaining the laws of sheep and goat burnt-offerings.  In the previous paragraph explaining the laws of bull burnt-offerings we find, "ושחט את בן הבקר לפני ה' .../He shall slaughter the young bull before God …" (VaYikra 1:5).  The bull, too, must be slaughtered on the northern side of the altar.  Why, then, is there no mention of the north side of the altar here?

The Midrash[1] answers that when the nation of Israel would bring this sacrifice and read this pasuk, "... צפונה לפני ה' .../… on the north side before God …" God remembers the Akeidas Yitzchak.  Apparently, the Midrash views the sheep as an allusion to the ram that was actually sacrificed instead of Yitzchak.  But what is the connection between the north side of the altar and the Akeidas Yitzchak?

The word צפון/north also means hidden.  The Chiddushei HaRim teaches that there are two parts to every sacrifice.  First, there is the physical sacrifice.  The second component is the intent of the one who brings the sacrifice.  When one brings a sacrifice, he should desire to deliver his own soul up to God.  This concept is hinted at in the words at the beginning of the parsha, "... אדם כי יקריב מכם קרבן לה' .../When a person from among you shall bring a sacrifice to God …" (VaYikra 1:2).  This pasuk can also be understood as, "When a person shall sacrifice (himself) from among you to God …"  Akeidas Yitzchak is the personification of the hidden component since it entailed the ultimate sacrifice before God.  The Midrash therefore, associates, "... צפונה לפני ה' .../… on the north side before God …" with the Akeidas Yitzchak.

The Sfas Emes explains that the intent behind the sacrifice is really the main thing.  A person brings a physical sacrifice to help him reach a deep level of subordination to God.  Just as a sacrifice so too every activity has a hidden spiritual component that represents the will of God that underlies the activity.  Therefore, this subordination applies to every activity and to every facet of our lives.  It's just easier with a sacrifice because of the obvious association between the physical act of the sacrifice and the subordination of the one who brought it.  Our job is to live with a view towards accomplishing God's will through every action that we take.

This concept can help us understand why we do not bring personal sacrifices on Shabbos[2].  During the week, we experience God by striving to subordinate ourselves to His will through our actions.  We want our actions to be a manifestation of His will.  On Shabbos, because of its holiness, we are able to experience God even without the tool of physical activity.  This is why creative activity, in the form of the 39 categories of creative work, is prohibited on Shabbos.  The purpose of physical activity is to help us reveal God in our lives.  On Shabbos we can reveal God in our lives without the activity.  So, on Shabbos, the goal of the sacrifice can also be attained simply by intending to subordinate ourselves to God, without the need for a physical sacrifice.

[1] VaYikra R. 2:11
[2] Temurah 2:1

Friday, March 04, 2011

Shekalim 5631 First Ma'amar

The shekel is a silver coin that was in use at the time of the giving of the Torah.  It is a mitzvah[1] for every man to donate a half shekel (or at least its value) to the Beis HaMikdash once a year.  The money is used for public sacrifices.  Sacrifices must be brought during the year in which they were purchased.  For this purpose the year is considered to start on Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  Therefore, even though the half shekel was given during Adar, the sacrifices were first purchased during Nissan.  This being the case, why was the money given during Adar?

The Sfas Emes explains that the Adar, being the end of the year with respect to the counting of the months[2] (Nissan = month #1, Iyar = month #2 … Adar = month #12) is a time of repentance similar to Elul, the end of the year with respect to the counting of years.  The difference between Elul and Adar is in the type of repentance that is required.  In Elul, we repent out of fear or awe.  In Adar we repent out of love of God.

The mitzvah of Shekalim helps us to love God.  This is because giving to a cause is a great way to develop an affinity for that cause.  When we give towards the Beis HaMikdash, our natural inclination towards God is         stimulated and brought out. 

This idea helps us to understand why Chazal[3] teach us that giving the half shekel was a rectification of the transgression of the golden calf.  Once that natural inner desire to be close to God is stimulated and comes to the fore, every barrier falls away.  Chazal[4] allude to this idea when they say that even an iron barrier cannot come between us and God.  Similarly, God's beloved said, "שימני כחותם על לבך .../[For the sake of my love,] place me like a seal upon Your heart …" (Shir HaShirim 8:6) – with no barrier separating us.

The mitzvah of Shekalim applies only when the Beis HaMikdash stands[5].  Nowadays, we are still stimulated to love God when we hear Parshas Shekalim read on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Adar, maybe even more so since our desire to give to God is not bounded by the mitzvah of giving the half shekel.  As a result of this pining to sacrifice for God, we are inspired to return to Him out of love.  After all, God is interested in our return to Him, not in the half shekel.  Giving the half shekel is only a tool to help us come close to God.

Why are we encouraged to prepare for the month of Nissan specifically by cultivating love of God and happiness?  Elsewhere[6], the Sfas Emes teaches that every Rosh Chodesh is a time of renewal.  The moon's cycle of waning and waxing is an obvious metaphor for renewal.  The aspect of renewal is particularly strong in the month of Nissan since it is the first of all the months.

Elsewhere[7] the Sfas Emes teaches us that there is no renewal in this world, "אין כל חדש תחת השמש/There is nothing new under the sun." (Koheles 1:9)  The implication is that all renewal comes from "above the sun", from the spiritual realms.  In essence the more we attach ourselves to God, so to speak, the more we are open to the renewal that ultimately comes from Him.  The best way to come close to God is by cultivating happiness and a love for Him.  Hence we accent happiness and returning to God out of love specifically during the month that precedes Nissan, the month of Adar. 

[1] Viz Yad HaChazaka Shekalim 1:1, 4:1, 4:11
[2] Rosh HaShana 1:1
[3] Tanchuma Ki Sisa 2
[4] Pesachim 85b – ma'amar of Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi
[5] Viz Yad HaChazaka Shekalim 1:8
[6] Sfas Emes Mikeitz 5631 Second Ma'amar and other places
[7] Ibid.