Friday, April 29, 2011
At the beginning of this week's parsha we find, "איש אמו ואביו תיראו ואת שבתותי תשמורו .../A man shall fear his father and his mother and observe My Shabbosim …" (VaYikra 19:3) Why are these two mitzvos – fearing one's parents and observing Shabbos – mentioned in the same pasuk? What is the connection between them?
To answer this question we need to clearly understand what these mitzvos entail and why we perform them. Rashi cites Chazal who teach us the difference between fearing and honoring one's parents.
We fear our parents by not sitting in their place … and by not contradicting their words. We honor our parents by feeding and dressing them and helping them about. To put this in more general terms, fearing parents does not mean that we are obligated to be afraid of them. Awe (or even "respect" in this context) may be a better translation than fear. We show awe/respect for our parents by not relating to them as we might relate to someone with whom we are on equal terms. By not sitting in the place reserved for our parents we show recognition of their status as our parents. We honor them by being proactive in addressing their needs.
The Zohar teaches that God is the Father of our nation. As such, this pasuk can be understood metaphorically as referring to God Himself. How do we relate "not sitting in his place" to God? The prophet teaches us that, "מלא כל הארץ כבודו/His glory fills the entire world." (Yeshaya 6:3) The whole world is His place. By recognizing that everything that happens, every event and every action, big or small is fueled by a Godly life force and acting accordingly we are, in effect, "not sitting in his place."
With this understanding of the first half of the pasuk, we can answer our question. Just like we fear/respect God by recognizing Him in the world and acting accordingly, keeping Shabbos is a testimony to the Creation, to our belief that God created the world, keeps it in existence and gives life to every living thing. Appropriately, the mitzvah of observing the Shabbos directly follows the mitzvah of fearing/being in awe of our Father.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
On the seventh day after leaving
Egypt we found ourselves at the shores of the Red Sea with the entire Egyptian army in hot pursuit. We were fearful and cried out to God. We complained to Moshe Rabbeinu, "המבלי אין קברים במצרים לקחתנו למות במדבר מה זאת עשית לנו להוציאנו ממצרים/Is it because there are no graves in that you took us to die in the desert? What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt ?" (Shmos 14:11) And yet, a few pesukim later we sing, "זה א-לי ואנוהו/This is my God and I will extol Him." (Shmos 15:2) Chazal understand that this pasuk is referring to a level of prophecy. Even a maidservant at the sea saw more than the prophet Yechezkel! Egypt
What happened that caused us to advance from fear and complaining to an incredibly high level of faith and prophecy in such a short time? The answer to this question is dependant on a better understanding of the salvation and the miracle at the
Between our complaining and the splitting of the sea Moshe Rabbeinu delivered a crucial instruction. He said to us, "אל תיראו התיצבו וראו את ישועת ה' ... ה' ילחם לכם ואתם תחרישון/Do not fear. Stand firm and witness God's salvation … God will fight for you and you must remain silent." (Shmos 14:13,14) Then we were told to move forward towards the sea! Chazal teach us that the sea did not split until the water was up to our necks.
The Torah is telling us that the true salvation happened inside us before the sea split. The true salvation was when we stopped complaining and stopped trying to figure out what to do. The salvation came when we were silent and gave our fate over to God. When we walked into the sea at God's behest the pasuk tells us, "הים ראה וינס/The sea saw and fled." (Tehillim 114:3) When the sea saw that we were ready to deliver ourselves completely to God disregarding any physical obstacle, the sea delivered itself to God as well and split.
Chazal allude to this idea in two Midrashim. The first Midrash relates that the sea did not want split. The sea claimed that it was more important that man having been created earlier – on the third day of creation – whereas man was created later – on the sixth day of creation. The second Midrash as the Sfas Emes explains it says that if man relates only to his physical being and the physical world around him, he was indeed created last and is less important that every other creation. However, if he negates the physical in favor of the spiritual, he was spiritually first. When the nation walked into the sea, we negated the physical. The waters had no choice but to split.
The splitting of the sea then served to strengthen our awe of God and our faith even more as we find, "וייראו העם את ה' ויאמינו בה' ובמשה עבדו/The nation feared God and had faith in God and in Moshe His servant." (Shmos 14:31)
Pesach is called זמן חירותנו/the time of our freedom. We repeat this every year in our prayers to declare that the events of the Exodus influence us today at this time of year even though they occurred so long ago. The Sfas Emes explains that the freedom we celebrate is not just the physical freedom from Egyptian bondage. The main freedom that we celebrate is the freedom from the physical that we experienced at the splitting of the sea. We can aspire to this freedom even now particularly at this time of year.
The Sfas Emes teaches that anytime we find ourselves in dire straits as we did at the shore of the
Red Sea, the best thing we can do is to clarify and accept the will of God with all our heart. We should desire and look forward to God saving us for the sake of His Name so that His greatness is revealed. One who can do this is truly free. His perspective is one of equanimity.
This is exactly what happened at the
Red Sea. We sang Shiras HaYam/The Song of the Sea praising God not so much for splitting the sea. Rather, we sang the song because He saved us and we experienced Him. It was the high level of faith and awe that caused us to sing as the pesukim directly preceding the song indicate, "ויושע ה' ... את ישראל ... וייראו ... את ה' ויאמינו ... אז ישיר .../God saved … and they feared God and believed … Then they sang ..." (Shmos 14:30,31) Israel
Friday, April 22, 2011
In the Haggada we read that God made a covenant with Avraham Avinu promising that his progeny would be afflicted in exile for four hundred years before returning with great riches. This covenant was to be a show of God's affection for Avraham Avinu. How could it be that specifically in the context of this covenant God told Avraham that his descendants would be I exile for four hundred years?
It is natural to view exile negatively. It is after all a trauma both nationally and individually. We know from our own history that exile results in untold suffering. To answer the question regarding what can possibly be positive about exile, we need to better understand the purpose of exile.
The reason we exist and by extension the reason the world exists is to reach a revelation of God. If He were revealed to us, there would be no point to our existence. He therefore created the world as a screen to prevent us from "seeing" Him. This gives us the opportunity to work towards coming close to Him, to revealing Him, to experiencing Him.
God gave us exile so that we may gain the strength to find Him in every situation in which He is concealed. In fact, the very word exile – גלות – has the same root as the word for revelation – התגלות (or גלוי). Exile leads inexorably to redemption which is simply another way of saying revelation.
This is why the promise to bring us into exile and then return us to our own land is followed in the Haggada by, "והיא שעמדה לאבותינו ולנו .../This is what stood by our forefathers and us …" This promise is what helps us in every generation. It gives us the tools we need to use the exile for its true purpose – to reveal God is every situation in which He is concealed. Every concealment of God results in a stronger subsequent revelation.
Actually, everything physical hides a spiritual component. Exile is just the most extreme example of this idea. The Sfas Emes sees a hint to this concept also in the beginning of the passage, "ברוך שומר הבטחתו לישראל ברוך הוא שהקב"ה חישב את הקץ לעשות כמה שאמר לאברהם אבינו בברית .../Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Israel, blessed is He, for God calculated the end (of the exile) in order to do what He said to Avraham Avinu at the covenant …" The Sfas Emes translates, "חישב את הקץ לעשות/He calculated the end in order to do" as, "He calculated the end of doing." "Doing" relates to physical activity. However, through the exile we reach an understanding that every physical action has a spiritual component. We can say that every physical action has within it the possibility of Godly revelation. Exile teaches us to recognize this and not to get bogged down in the physical aspects of our activities but to strive to reveal the spiritual within. It is the end of physical doing.
At the end of the paragraph we read, "והקב"ה מצילנו מידם/And God saves us from their hand." Whereas the plain meaning is clear – God saves us from those who would rise against up to destroy us – the Sfas Emes sees a continuation of the concept of spirituality within the physical. The word מצילנו/He saves us, can also be translated as, "He separates us," as in, "ויצל ... את מקנה אביכם ויתן לי/He … separated your father's livestock and gave them to me." (Breishis 31:9)
The same idea can be understood from the pasuk, "רבות רעות צדיק ומכולם יצילנו ה'/The afflictions of the righteous are many and God saves him from them all." (Tehillim 34:20) The Zohar understands that this pasuk is not referring to afflictions brought upon the righteous but rather to afflictions that come from within as a result of the struggle the righteous has with his evil inclination. The evil inclination wants to prevent the righteous from experiencing closeness to God. Here too, יצילנו/He saves him, can be understood as, "He separates him." From within the darkest straits God separates the spark of holiness and reveals it.
This revelation is the essence of redemption. This is the meaning of God's promise to Avraham Avinu that at the end of the exile, "ויצאו ברכוש גדול/They will leave with great riches." (Breishis 15:14) The riches allude to the sparks of holiness that are hidden within the exile. Revelation is a sure indication of the end of exile, may we merit it speedily!!
Friday, April 15, 2011
Note: This is the second ma'mar I posted today. Don't miss the first one below this one!
In the previous ma'amar, the Sfas Emes explained that on the Shabbos preceding the very first Pesach, we as a nation came of age. It was the first time we performed a mitzvah, as a nation, the mitzvah of taking the lambs for the Korban Pesach. We had kept Shabbos as a day of rest before but that was Moshe Rabbeinu's initiative. Therefore, this Shabbos is different than all those that preceded it. We became "big", so to speak, on this Shabbos therefore it is called the "Big" Shabbos.
Chazal teach us, though, that the process of the Korban Pesach occurred over three periods. On Rosh Chodesh Nissan, God commanded us regarding the Korban Pesach. On the 10th of Nissan which fell on Shabbos the year of the Exodus, we separated from idol worship and took the lamb. Finally on the 14th of Nissan, we brought the sacrifice. What then, was particularly special about the 10th of Nissan?
The Sfas Emes explains that each of these three periods represent a different phase of the redemption. On Rosh Chodesh Nissan, God told Moshe Rabbeinu that the nation would be redeemed on 14th of Nissan, "כחצות הלילה אני יוצא בתוך מצרים .../At midnight I am going out into the midst of
…" (Shmos 11:4) From God's perspective, the redemption was already completed on Rosh Chodesh. Importantly, our souls have their source in the Shechina/Divine Presence. Therefore, the roots of our souls experienced redemption on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Egypt
On the 10th of Nissan, Moshe Rabbeinu told the nation, "משכו וקחו לכם צאן .../Draw and take for yourselves sheep …" (Shmos 12:21) Chazal infer from the seemingly extraneous word משכו/draw, that the nation drew away from idol worship before taking the lambs for the Pesach sacrifice. The spiritual redemption for the nation occurred on the 10th of Nissan when we freed ourselves from Egyptian idolatry.
Finally, the physical redemption from Pharaoh and
Egypt began on the 14th of Nissan when the lambs were sacrificed.
That the 10th of Nissan fell on Shabbos that year of the Exodus is significant. The Zohar teaches that the primary shefa/abundance that comes into the world on Shabbos is spiritual, not physical. Shabbos, therefore, is a day on which sensitive souls can derive untold benefit.
It is therefore particularly significant that the 10th of Nissan, the day of our spiritual redemption, fell on Shabbos, the day of spiritual shefa. Appropriately, it was this day of Shabbos that was established as the Great Day of redemption.
Still, from the perspective of the roots of our souls, from the perspective of the Divine Presence, the redemption began on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Why, then, is Rosh Chodesh Nissan not considered the Great Day?
Interestingly, Chazal learn from pesukim in Yechezekeil that even though the time of redemption had arrived, the nation was unworthy of redemption until we performed a mitzvah. "ואת ערום ועריה/And you were naked and bare," (Yechezkeil 16:7) – we had no mitzvos. The beginning of this pasuk is, "רבבה כצמח השדה נתתיך ותרבי ותגדלי ותבואי בעדי עדיים .../I made you numerous, like the plants of the field. You flourished and grew, and came to have great charm …" The beginning of the pasuk implies that we were ready for redemption. The end implies that we were not. Chazal say that we needed a mitzvah. Why was mitzvah performance important to the redemption?
The Sfas Emes explains. From the perspective of the highest, most spiritual level of our souls the redemption was already experienced on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. However, spirituality cannot be experienced in the physical world unless there is some vessel that can contain it. The mitzvos are the vessels that can contain spirituality in the physical world. Therefore even though our souls experienced spiritual redemption on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, we could not experience that spirituality in the physical world until we had performed a mitzvah that could contain it.
The 10th of Nissan was the beginning of the spiritual redemption in the physical world because it is the day on which we performed our first mitzvah as a nation, the taking of the lambs.
Why is the Shabbos before Pesach called Shabbos HaGadol/The Great Shabbos?
The Midrash in this week’s parsha cites a pasuk from Tehilim (27:1-3), “ה' אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי ... אִם־תָּקוּם עָלַי מִלְחָמָה בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ/God is my light and my salvation … though war rises against me, in this I trust.” David HaMelech is teaching us that we must trust in God as our light and salvation rather than rely on our own knowledge and wisdom.
Chazal relate this trust to the faith that Moshe Rabbeinu exhorted us to have at the splitting of the
Red Sea, “ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן/God will fight for you and you will be silent.” (Shmos 14:14) By being silent rather than relying on ourselves we ensure that God will fight for us. The Midrash continues that certainly if we give praise to God, He will fight for us. The Sfas Emes understands that this Midrash is teaching us that there is a fundamental difference between performing mitzvos that we were commanded and acting on the basis of our own knowledge and wisdom.
We learn the importance of approaching God through the commandments from the tragic death of Aharon’s two sons Nadav and Avihu who were killed for bringing a strange fire onto the altar, a fire that God had not commanded them to bring. Chazal teach us that Nadav and Avihu were righteous. They acted for the sake of Heaven. Why were they punished? The Chiddushei HaRim teaches that the primary sin of Nadav and Avihu was that they performed a service that they were not commanded.
This concept forms the basis for understanding why the Shabbos before Pesach is called Shabbos HaGadol. Chazal tell us that the 10th of Nissan at the time of the Exodus fell on Shabbos. Moshe Rabbeinu instructed us to designate a lamb on this day in preparation for the Pesach sacrifice four days later. This day was highly significant since taking the lamb was the very first mitzvah that we fulfilled as a nation.
Even though we fulfilled mitzvos beforehand – the Midrash teaches us that Moshe Rabbeinu requested and received permission from Pharaoh to instate the Shabbos as a day of rest – still, Chazal teach us that it is greater to fulfill a mitzvah that we are commanded than one that we are not commanded – גָדוֹל הַמְצוּוֶה וְעוֹשֶׂה מִמִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְצוּוֶה וְעוֹשֶׂה.
Taking the lamb was the first mitzvah that God commanded us to do. On this Shabbos our essence changed just as the essence of a child who comes of age changes. The child’s mitzvos that he performs before becoming a bar/bat mitzvah are within the framework of his education. The mitzvos the child performs once he comes of age are essentially different. They are the real thing.
In fact, the Midrash in Shir HaShirim explains the following pasuk in a similar vein. “לְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנֶיךָ טוֹבִים שֶׁמֶן תּוּרַק שְׁמֶךָ .../Because of the fragrance of your fine oils, your name is flowing aromatic oil …” (Shir HaShirim 1:3) According to the Midrash this pasuk is a metaphor for performing the mitzvos. Our forefathers performed the mitzvos even though they were not commanded. They are compared to the fragrance of fine oils. We perform mitzvos because we were commanded. We are compared to the very oil itself. Even though our forefathers, who intuited the mitzvos, were obviously on a much higher spiritual level than us, the mitzvos that we fulfill have more impact, as it were, because we were commanded.
While God did not command us to keep the Shabbos until after we left
, still, our approach to performing mitzvos changed on this Shabbos. In a sense, with the first commandment – the taking of the lamb – we came of age. Before this Shabbos, we kept Shabbos as child before he becomes a bar-mitzvah. From this Shabbos onward, we kept Shabbos like an adult. For this reason this Shabbos is called Shabbos HaGadol. Our relationship to Shabbos changed from a child’s relationship to that of an adult. Egypt
Friday, April 08, 2011
This week's parsha describes the process of purifying a metzora/leper. The Midrash in this week's parsha quotes a pasuk in Tehillim (50:16), "ולרשע אמר א-להים מה לך לספר חוקי ותשא בריתי עלי פיך/And to the wicked God said, 'To what purpose do you recount my decrees and bear My covenant upon your lips?" The Midrash explains that God does not desire the praises of the wicked. The Midrash brings this pasuk to shed light on the beginning of our parsha, "זאת תהיה תורת המצורע ביום טהרתו/This will be the law of the leper on the day of his purification." (VaYikra 14:2)
What is the connection between the pasuk in Tehillim and the pasuk from our parsha? To answer this question we need to understand why the pasuk uses the word toras/law of. In fact, the Torah uses this word in various places. For example, "תורת הזב/the law of the zav" (VaYikra 15:32)
Even though in these instances, the word תורה means law, it hints to the Torah. The Torah is not simply a scroll with words on it. The Torah is a powerful spiritual entity through which flows spiritual power into the physical world.
Our pasuk that begins the description of the leper's purification contains the word תורה/law/Torah so that we may infer that rectification comes about only through the spiritual power embodied by the Torah. In fact, not only rectification but all actions are possible only because of the power those actions receive through the Torah.
To the extent that we rectify our actions we can come close to and experience the spiritual power of the Torah for everything in the physical world has its spiritual roots in the Torah. Our very souls have their roots in the spiritual entity that we call Torah. However, to the extent that our souls are flawed, we cannot come close and experience our spiritual roots. When the Midrash teaches that God does not desire the praises of the wicked it means that they are spiritually incapable of connecting to their source.
Friday, April 01, 2011
The Midrash teaches us that when God created the world, He established months and years. When he chose Ya'akov and his children, He established the month of redemption. Apparently there is a special relationship between the nation of
and the month of Nissan. What is that relationship? What is the Midrash really teaching us? Israel
The Sfas Emes explains that God established the month of Tishrei as the beginning of the year because that is when He created the world. Although we were created with the creation of the world just like every other creation, our spiritual beginnings were in Nissan when God chose us to be His servants and to observe his mitzvos. Our spiritual beginnings hold more import for us than our physical beginnings. We find, for example, Chazal say that it is worse to goad someone into sinning than it is to kill him. Spiritual death is worse than physical death.
Because our spiritual beginnings are so much more important that our physical creation, God tells us in the first of the ten commandments, "אנכי ה׳ א־להיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים/I am God your Lord who took you out of the land of Egypt," (Shmos 20:2) instead of, "I am God your Lord who created you." Of course, our physical creation is a prerequisite for our spiritual growth and is therefore a crucial part of God's plan. However, the goal of and reason for the physical creation is revealing and experiencing God in this world, coming close to Him, as it were. This beginning occurred in Nissan.
This is also why the Torah says, "החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים .../This month is yours, the beginning of the months …" (Shmos 12:2) instead of, "This month is the beginning of the months …" We can relate to the novelty of Nissan, the month that we were made into a nation, more than to the month Tishrei in which we were created. The novelty of Nissan, the redemption and revelation of God's glory through the wonders, the Torah and the mitzvos was given specifically to us, the nation of
We find an interesting relationship between Nissan and Tishrei, or more specifically, between Pesach and Rosh HaShana in the Zohar. The Zohar teaches that Chametz represents the evil inclination. Eating Matzah on Pesach protects us against the evil inclination represented by Chametz. In fact, the Zohar refers to Matzah as medicine (lit. healing food). On Shavuos we received the Torah which is also an antidote against the evil inclination. The Zohar says that this is the reason that the Shtei Halechem/two loaves that we bring on Shavuos is made specifically of Chametz. On Shavuos we totally conquer the evil inclination.
The Zohar goes as far as to say that all those who took the medicine of Matzah on Pesach and learned Torah as well are not judged on Rosh Hashana. Judgment on Rosh HaShana is reserved, according to the Zohar, for those who did not take the medicine on Pesach and left the medicine of the Torah in favor of Chametz, the evil inclination.
On an individual level, to the extent that serving God and advancing spiritually is more important to us than the physical world, our judgment is in Nissan, when God displays the aspect of love and kindness rather than in Tishrei when He reveals the aspect of judgment and awe.