Friday, July 27, 2012
The first Midrash on this week's parsha explains a pasuk in Mishlei (15:4) "מרפא לשון עץ חיים/A soothing tongue is a tree of life." Certainly speaking soothingly to someone has a positive effect and depending on the situation can truly be a lifesaver. Chazal, however, understood this pasuk as referring to Torah. "עץ חיים/A tree of life", alludes to the Torah. The Zohar explains that just as the trunk of a tree gives life to all the parts that hang from it, the Torah gives life to everything that exists. Everything that exists "hangs" from the Torah. This is because God first created the Torah and then used it to create the world.
The Torah is more than words written on parchment. The Torah is a powerful spiritual force that permeates the Creation. Every part of the Creation contains a spark of holiness, a spark of the Torah. In this sense, the world is akin to a garment or covering that contains the Torah.
This concept applies to everything in existence including the nations of the world and their languages. The seventy languages of the nations are also creations. When the Torah is explained in a language other than the holy tongue, that language becomes like a garment and a vehicle for the Torah. The holiness of the Torah shines out through that language and the language itself is affected and is elevated. In this sense, Chazal interpret the pasuk in Mishlei as, "The Torah heals the tongue - languages." It is for this reason that Chazal permitted the Torah to be written in all languages (as opposed to Tefillin and Mezuzos which are permitted in the holy tongue only.)
This is the reason that Moshe Rabbeinu interpreted the Torah into seventy languages as we find, "... הואיל משה באר את התורה הזאת .../… Moshe began to explain this Torah …" (Devarim 1:5) Rashi on this pasuk explains that Moshe Rabbeinu interpreted the Torah in seventy languages. The languages already contained a spark of holiness. Everything in this world contains some holiness. By translating the Torah into the seventy languages, the enlightenment of the Torah elevated those those languages and made them usable for holiness. In effect, Moshe Rabbeinu unlocked the languages of the nations for holiness.
The Sfas Emes applies this concept to each of us. As we've said, everything in the Creation contains a spark of the Torah. It must in order to exist. Certainly a member of the nation of
Israel has a
strong spark; he has a nefesh/soul within him. Our nefesh/soul is just one part of
our soul. It is the lowest part, in a
manner of speaking. It is attached to
the ruach/spirit. The ruach/spirit,
in turn, is connected to the neshama/soul. The two higher parts of the soul do not reside
within us. Instead, they can be
understood as connecting us to the highest spiritual realms.
The Sfas Emes teaches that by introspecting and accepting the holiness within ourselves, we merit additional holiness that comes from without. He learns this from another pasuk in Mishlei (5:15) "שתה מים מבורך ונוזלים מתוך בארך/Drink water from your own cistern, and flowing water from your own well." A well differs from a cistern in that a well contains water that flows from elsewhere whereas a cistern's water is static. The pasuk is teaching us that our nefesh/soul that resides within us is static until we introspect and receive its holiness, until we drink from its waters. Then it becomes like a well whose waters flow through it from elsewhere. We then receive enlightenment from outside ourselves, from the highest spiritual realms, from the throne of glory, the Shechina.
Friday, July 20, 2012
The laws of vows at the beginning of this week's parsha teach us the power of speech.
Through vows the Torah gave us the ability to give our verbal commitments the power of a biblical prohibition. For example, we can vow that apples are prohibited to us. When a person makes such a vow, apples become prohibited to him just as non-kosher animals are prohibited to him. This applies only the nation of
Israel. What is the nature of this power of speech and
how can we use it in serving God?
The prohibition that a person transgresses when he violates his vow is, "לא יחל דברו ככל היוצא מפיו יעשה/… he shall not profane his words; everything that comes out of his mouth, he shall do." (Bamidbar 30:3) Why does the Torah use the word, "profane"? Why not simply state that he may not do something that is against what he said? Rashi explains that the pasuk is telling us that one who made a vow may not make his words חולין/unholy. We can infer from Rashi that a person's words are inherently holy. If he does not respect his verbal commitment, he is making light of the inherent holiness in his speech.
The power of our speech, then, comes from the holiness that is inherent in it.
The Sfas Emes teaches that, because of this holiness inherent in our speech, we can use our power of speech to bring ourselves close to God through words of Torah. In fact, this is the reason that God requires us to say Kri'as Shma twice daily. This is also the reason that Chazal instituted Brachos and Tefillos. All these are tools that capitalize on the power of speech in order to bring us closer to God.
However, this only works if we respect the holiness in our speech. When we honor our commitments and use our power of speech for Torah and mitzvos instead of transgressions, we are showing respect for the holiness of speech.
To the extent that we respect the holiness of our speech, our Kri'as Shma, Tefillos and Brachos bring us closer to God. More than this, to the extent that we respect this holiness by guarding our tongue we merit being able to honor all our verbal commitments. This is because our commitments and prayers for God's help are more powerful. The commitment itself is a power that helps to actualize it.
Friday, July 13, 2012
The beginning of this week's parsha relates that God gave Pinchas His covenant of peace, "... הנני נותן לו את בריתי שלום/… I am hereby giving him my covenant of peace." (Bamidbar 25:12) God's covenant of peace may be something we can all aspire towards. It represents closeness to God.
However, the Sfas Emes notes that it is not possible to achieve closeness to God without a prior struggle. In the holy Zohar (3:251b) we find that unleavened bread/מצה – alludes to a struggle with the evil inclination. The Aramaic word for struggle is matzusa/מצותא. The struggle/מצותא brings us to mitzvah/מצוה representing closeness to God.
Chazal encourage us to struggle with the evil inclination, "לעולם ירגיז אדם יצר טוב על יצר הרע/One should always incite the good impulse to fight the evil impulse." (Brachos 5a) What should one do if he struggled and failed? Chazal tell us that he should recite Kri'as Shma. What does it help to say Kri'as Shma? Reciting Kri'as Shma is a time when we are close to God. The Sfas Emes posits that even if we fail, there is merit in the struggle itself. This merit manifests at a time that is more conducive to closeness to God. So, one who struggled, even if he failed to overcome his temptations, will experience a different Kri'as Shma than one who never struggled at all.
The Sfas Emes sees this concept clearly in our activities during the days of the week culminating in Shabbos. Shabbos is certainly more conducive to experience closeness to God than the days of the week. Yet, struggling (and not struggling) with our evil impulses during the week directly affects our Shabbos experience. Struggling with our evil impulses during the week, even if we failed to always overcome them, will lead us to a more spiritual Shabbos than if we did not struggle at all.
The Sfas Emes sees this concept in the Chazal (Avos 4:3), "כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים/Any argument that is for the sake of heaven will survive." Our fight with our evil impulses leads us to the plateau of closeness to God. The fight itself is the key.
Pinchas received this gift for free, as it were – without the struggle that is usually required. He received this gift because he was moved to anger and revenge for the sake of God's honor. He risked his life to avenge God's honor and in return God granted him His covenant of peace – closeness to Him.
Friday, July 06, 2012
Balak complains to Bil'am, "... עם יצא ממצרים הנה כסה את עין הארץ .../… a nation came out of Egypt, behold it covers the face of the land …" (Bamidbar 22:8) Literally, "… it covers the eye of the land …" The Sfas Emes explains that this wording can be understood in two ways.
1. People perceive reality in two ways. Most see things as they appear physically. Some also see the inner wisdom and spirituality within the physical. The nation of
was on a high spiritual level. The
people saw the inner spirituality in themselves and everything that surrounded
them. Their spiritual power was so
strong that it affected their environment to the extent that the nations they
passed also experienced a revelation of the spiritual latent in everything
physical. The nations though, because of
their low spiritual level, were unable to assimilate these experiences. Instead of being enlightened and recognizing
the spiritual as reality, they experienced it as a veneer that covered their
reality – the physical world with which they were familiar. Balak expressed this feeling when he said, כסה את עין הארץ/it covers the eye of land. The eye of the land refers to his physical
reality which was being covered by an experience of the truth, the connection
of everything to God. Naturally, this
was disconcerting for him. Egypt
2. כסה את עין הארץ/It covers the eye of land, can be understood in another way. עין הארץ/Eye of the land refers to God's providence over the physical world as we find, "... תמיד עיני ה' א-להיך בה .../… God your Lord's eyes are always upon it (the land) …" (Devarim 11:12)
God's providence is hidden in everything. God's providence is hidden in each one of us. This is the spiritual power that is within us. We have the ability to use this power, latent within us, for spiritual goals. We can also abuse it by applying it to further physical goals. Everything has a consequence, though. If we use our spiritual power to better our position in the physical world, we expose that power to the physical world and the nations of the world can rule over it. It is then that we are harassed by the nations. It is then that the nations are able to make religious life difficult for us. However, to the extent that we protect our spirituality, it is not exposed to the nations and they cannot touch the holiness of the nation of
כסה את עין הארץ/It covers the eye of the land, means that the nation of Israel used the spiritual power within to attain spiritual goals. We thereby protected that power from exposure to the nations.
The Sfas Emes explains that both understandings flow from the same concept. To the extent that we do not use our inner spiritual life-force to further physical goals, we recognize that the spiritual is reality. We attach more importance to the spiritual than to the physical. In fact, when this recognition is total – at the final redemption – the physical will be understood clearly to have no separate existence. It is simply a manifestation of the spiritual reality.
In essence, this represents the ultimate rectification of the physical world. Balak and Bil'am recognized this and were concerned. They wanted no part of this rectification. They liked the physical world as they perceived it. This is what Balak meant when he said that they are covering God's providence (they are not using it to enhance the physical) and they are sitting directly opposite me (they are going to affect me as well!)
May we merit recognizing the spiritual power that is latent within us and using it to bring us closer to God. Amen!