Friday, March 23, 2012

Parshas HaChodesh 5632 Second Ma'amar

This week we read Parshas HaChodesh which begins, "החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים .../This month shall be for you the beginning of the months …" (Shmos 12:2)  The words for month and for renewal – חודש and התחדשות respectively – have the same root.  The new month represents renewal.  The moon waxes, wanes, disappears then reappears at the beginning of each new month.  This is part of the natural order.  However, the idea of renewal seems to contradict the principle that, "... אין כל חדש תחת השמש/… there is nothing new under the sun." 

We can answer this apparent contradiction from an interesting story regarding the Tanna Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch.[1]  The Gemara relates that when all his students went to Yavneh after the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch went to a different city.  He expected his students to follow him but they didn’t.  Alone in a city known for its decadence, he forgot his Torah learning.  When he had the opportunity to read from a sefer Torah, instead of reading, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you,” he transposed letters and read, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf.”  Although at first glance this appears to be an innocuous mistake, the Sfas Emes explains that Rebbi Elazar actually intended to teach us something about the meaning of renewal in this world.

Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch had the same question we have.  How can we reconcile the concept of renewal – התחדשות – as represented by the new moon, with the principle of, "אין כל חדש תחת השמש/There is nothing new under the sun …"?  Rebbi Elazar's answer was that we have a misconception about renewal.  Renewal does not mean that something new, something that was not here before, is introduced.  Everything is always here.  We fail to see it because our hearts are stopped up.  The reason everything is always here is because the source of everything is a spark of Godliness that gives existence to all.  God is here and therefore everything is here.  The spark of Godliness is within us but because we are numbed by the exile we do not recognize it.  This is what Rebbi Elazar meant when he transposed the letters in the pasuk and read, "... החרש היה לבם/ … their hearts were deaf." 

Renewal – התחדשות – means that our inner spirituality that was concealed from us becomes revealed.  This is what happened at the redemption from Egypt and this is the meaning of, "החודש הזה לכם/This month is for you" which we can now understand as, "Renewal is yours."

[1] Shabbos 147b

Friday, March 16, 2012

Parshas Parah 5631 First and Second Ma'amarim

1.  What is the nature of spiritual impurity (טוּמְאָה) and spiritual purity (טָהֳרָה)?  The Chiddushei HaRim[1] explains that spiritual impurity means that one’s internal spiritual vitality has left.  The spiritually impure person can get it back by subordinating himself to God’s will.  By disregarding his own desires in favor of God’s he can renew his spiritual vitality.  We learn this from the law of the Parah Adumah (red heifer).  The ashes of the Parah Adumah are mixed with water and sprinkled on the impure person thus purifying him.  According to the Chiddushei HaRim these ashes suggest a nullification of one’s self.  The lesson of the Parah Adumah is that by nullifying our own desires in favor of God’s, we come close to Him thereby renewing our own life force.  This is why Parshas HaChodesh follows Parshas ParahParshas HaChodesh represents renewal (חוֹדֶשׁ/Month has the same root as חָדָשׁ/new.)

The Sfas Emes understands this from the first Midrash[2] in Chukas.  The Midrash begins, “זֹאת חֻקַת .../This is the law …” and then brings a pasuk from Iyov, “מִי יִתֵּן טָהוֹר מִטָמֵא לֹא אֶחָד/Who produces purity from impurity.  No one!”  The Midrash translates this pasuk as, “Who produces purity from impurity?  Is it not the One?”  Producing purity from impurity seems impossible.  However, it is only impossible if we believe that impurity has an autonomous existence.  If we understand that even the impurity has a point of spiritual vitality at its core, that God gives existence to the impure as well, it becomes clear that the only difference between purity and impurity is how revealed that spiritual point of vitality is to us.  This spiritual point is simply God’s life force. 

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that this life force, because it is ubiquitous and is the same for all, is called זֹאת/This in the singular.  The parsha of Parah Adumah appropriately begins with this word instead of אֵלֶה/These.  The Parah Adumah contrasts with the golden calf where the idol worshipers said, “אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל/Israel, these are your gods.”  The ashes of the Parah Adumah teach us to subordinate ourselves to the one God, in contradistinction to idols that symbolize disparate forces in the world.  In fact, Chazal teach us that the Parah Adumah is a rectification for the sin of the golden calf.

2.  Chazal tell us that we must keep the mitzvah of Parah Adumah simply because God decreed it.[3]  This implies that it has no reason.  However another Midrash in the parsha tells us that God said He would reveal the reasons for this mitzvah to Moshe Rabbeinu![4]  Yet another Midrash tells us that Shlomo HaMelech understood the reason behind every mitzvah except for the mitzvah of Parah Adumah.[5]  Regarding Parah Adumah Shlomo HaMelech tells us in Koheles (7:23), “... אָמַרְתִּי אֶחְכָּמָה וְהִיא רְחוֹקָה מִמֶּנִּי/… I said I will become wise but it eludes me.”

It is clear from these Midrashim that the mitzvah of Parah Adumah has reasons.  Why, then, are the reasons so elusive?  The Sfas Emes explains that the reasons are above the natural world.  A direct approach to finding the reasons therefore, will not work.  The correct approach is to accept the mitzvah simply because God decreed it even though we do not understand.  Then, paradoxically, God grants us an aspect of understanding as well.  This is why God revealed the reasons to Moshe Rabbeinu.  Moshe Rabbeinu represents the knowledge repository and highest level of the nation of Israel.[6]  On that level, God grants understanding.  Shlomo HaMelech, on the other hand, wanted to understand the reasons for this mitzvah in order to become wise, “אָמַרְתִּי אֶחְכָּמָה/I said I will become wise.”  Because of his approach, understanding was kept from him, “וְהִיא רְחוֹקָה מִמֶּנִּי/but it eludes me.”

[1] See Chidushei HaRim Parah
[2] Bamidbar R. 19:1
[3] Yalkut Shimoni Chukas 759
[4] Bamidbar R. 19:6
[5] Bamidbar R. 19:3
[6] Eitz Chaim 32:1, Sha’ar HaPesukim Shmos from “ve’ata neva’eir inyan ge’ulasam

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Purim 5637 First Ma'amar

Why do we celebrate Purim with a party?  Unlike other holidays on which we partake of festive meals, the Purim party is the main vehicle for commemorating our salvation.  It is integral to the holiday.  Why?

To understand this we must understand the sequence of events that lead up to the salvation.  The Purim story begins with a party – Achashveirush's party.  At this party, Achashveirush displayed and used the golden vessels of the Beis HaMikdash.  Achashveirush was not using these vessels because he had no others.  He was making a statement.  Besides the sacrilege, he was saying that there would be no redemption.  The vessels were his and would remain in Shushan.  This was the same Achashveirush who, upon assuming power, cancelled the building of the second Beis HaMikdash.  It was to this party that the Jews of Shushan were invited.  And they went.

Mordechai and Esther understood that this sin caused the decree of destruction that was upon the Jews years later.  If they were to survive this decree, the Jews would need to acknowledge the sin and repent.  Esther told Mordechai, "לך כנוס את כל היהודים הנמצאים בשושן וצומו .../Go and gather all the Jews who are found in Shushan and they should fast …" (Esther 4:16)  This pasuk parallels the pasuk at the beginning of the Megillah, "... עשה המלך לכל העם הנמצאים בשושן ... משתה .../… The king made a party for all the people … who were found in Shushan …" (Esther 1:5) to teach us that the pasuk is referring to the Jews of Shushan.  Esther is making the connection between this fasting and Achashveirosh's party that the Jews attended years earlier.

Incredibly, the seeds of the salvation were planted at this very party at which they sinned.  It was at this party that Achashveirosh deposed Vashti leading the way for Esther to take her place.  How did this happen?  The Sfas Emes explains that the Jews fasted and repented completely out of love of God.  Chazal[1] teach us that when we repent out of love for God, even the sins we committed willfully and knowingly are converted into good deeds.  God, of course, knew that we would repent from love and therefore sowed the seeds of our ultimate salvation in this party that began as a sin.

This idea is alluded to at the end of the pasuk above, "ובכן אבוא אל המלך אשר לא כדת .../… Thus I will go to the king even though it is unlawful …" (Esther 4:16)  Esther is telling Mordechai that she is willing to go to Achashveirosh to intercede on behalf of the Jews even though she would be risking her life by doing so.  

This pasuk can be understood more deeply, though.  It is known that wherever "king" is mentioned alone in the Megillah, it is referring to the King – God.  Esther is telling Mordechai to get the Jews to repent from love.  The sin of the party will then be converted to a good deed.  She (and the entire nation) will then be able to come close to God.  So, the act of the sin itself enabled them to come close to God – "שלא כדת/in an unlawful manner" – because their repentance converted it to a good deed.

We celebrate Purim specifically with a party, then, to commemorate our salvation which came about through the conversion of the sin of attending the original party in Shushan into a good deed when we repented from love of God.

A freilechen Purim!

[1] Yoma 86b

Friday, March 02, 2012

Tetzaveh (Parshas Zachor) 5632 Second Ma'amar

Many people live in fear.  There is probably no aspect of life that is not subject to people’s fears.  Fear holds us back from improving ourselves.  In order to improve and come close to God it is imperative that we move beyond our fears.  How can we do this?  Fear stems from egocentrism.  Egocentrism is another way of saying God’s concealment.  When we are thinking about ourselves, we are not open to experiencing God.  The opposite of egocentrism is subjugating our own desires in favor of God’s will.  When we do this, God is revealed to us, we feel His presence in our lives and our fears evaporate. 

The Sfas Emes learns this from a Midrash[1] that Rashi cites on the first pasuk of parshas Zachor[2].  Rashi explains the juxtaposition of the preceding paragraph which admonishes us as merchants to keep correct weights and parshas Zachor which relates Amalek’s attack on the nation of Israel and subsequent defeat.  Rashi explains that the former leads to the latter.  When we use fraudulent weights we should be worried about provocation from the enemy.  Why is this so?  Why does dishonesty regarding weights lead to being attacked by Amalek?

The Sfas Emes understands weights metaphorically as referred to God’s presence in this world.  Since God is infinite, how can we finite beings experience Him?  The Sfas Emes explains that we can only experience Him because He reveals Himself in measured doses than we can handle.  The weights of the first parsha refer to these measured doses of God’s revelation.  Dishonesty with weights is an allegory for not recognizing God’s life-force which underpins everything in this world including our very actions.  The result of not recognizing God, relying solely upon ourselves is fear. 

When, on the other hand, we cultivate our faith that God is the continuing cause of everything we find that we have no reason to fear.  This is the significance of Moshe Rabbeinu holding up his hands in prayer during the battle with Amalek.  The pasuk states, “וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה .../Behold his hands were faithful …” (Shmos 17:12)  It was this faith, nothing else, that enabled the nation to defeat Amalek.

This concept explains why parshas Shekalim precedes parshas Zachor.  The shekel, as we’ve said, represents God’s revelation in measured doses.  When we recognize fully that God gives of His life-force in measured doses to each component of the Creation including ourselves and our actions, then there is no concealment, no room for fear and we are ready to defeat Amalek. 

The key is to subordinate our desires to His.  Then what we thought impossible like eradicating Amalek becomes reality.  In this week’s Haftarah[3] we read that Shaul HaMelech showed mercy to Agag the king of Amalek and did not follow Shmuel HaNavi’s instructions to kill him.  He certainly thought that there was no way to eradicate Amalek completely at that time.  He could not envision it.  But if he had strengthened his faith and believed wholeheartedly that God would certainly help him succeed regardless of what he thought, the belief itself would have caused a revelation of God and would have helped him succeed to wipe out Amalek completely.

Our faith affects our reality.  This explains why God told Shmuel, “... וּדְּבָרַי לֹא הֵקִים .../… and he did not establish my words …” (Shmuel I 15:11) instead of the more understandable “... וּדְּבָרַי לֹא קִיֵם .../… and he did not fulfill my words …”  Shaul had the power to establish God’s words, to turn them into reality. The pasuk in Tehillim (37:3) states, “בְּטַח בַּֽה' וַֽעֲשֵׂה־טוֹב שְׁכָן־אֶרֶץ וּרְעֵה אֱמוּנָה׃/Trust in God and do good so that you may dwell in the land and nourish yourself with belief.”  Chazal[4] tell us that according to the strength of our belief, God reveals Himself to us by helping us to be successful in serving Him.  Our reality is affected according to the extent of our faith.

This is also the reason Shmuel says, “... הִנֵּה שְׁמֹעַ מִזֶבַח טוֹב לְהַקְשִיב מֵחֵלֶב אֵילִים/… Behold accepting (God’s will) is better than a sacrifice, listening is better than the fat of rams.” (Shmuel I 15:22)  The prophet could not be clearer.  All things being equal sacrifices are certainly a very high level of serving God.  However, when God instructs us not to sacrifice as He instructed Shaul HaMelech, following God’s will when it conflicts with our understanding is not just a higher level.  Doing otherwise becomes anathema to serving God. 

May we merit internalizing the belief that God will help us succeed in our service to Him and that with strong faith in Him, there is nothing in this world that can prevent us from succeeding.  Amen.

[1] Tanchuma Ki Seitzei 8
[2] Rashi on Devarim 25:14 beg. Zachor eis asher
[3] Shmual I 15:2-34
[4] Shmos R. 33:1