Friday, August 31, 2012

Elul 5643 First Ma'amar

The forty days between the giving of the Torah and Tisha B'Av marks a period during which the nation was on a very high level of holiness and closeness to God.  Chazal[1] teach us that the forty days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur were also days of closeness to God.  During this period the nation repented for the sin of the golden calf.  Chazal[2] teach us that Moshe Rabbeinu himself left no stone unturned in heaven during this period to rectify the source of our souls.  

Rashi[3], based on Chazal[4], learns that every punishment that God renders includes a little of the sin of the golden calf.  The Sfas Emes notes that if the sin affects us to this day, certainly the repentance from the sin affects us as well. Furthermore, Chazal[5] teach us that penitents have an intensely strong desire to be close to God.  Their actions therefore have far reaching ramifications.  The nation and Moshe Rabbeinu, through their repentance and rectification, transformed the period preceding Yom Kippur into a time during which it is easy for us to repent and return to God.

May we merit taking advantage of this propitious period to return to God.

[1] Seder Olam 6 (viz. Rashi Shmos 33:11)
[2] Devarim R. 3:11
[3] Shmos 33:34
[4] Sanhedrin 102a
[5] Zohar 1:129b

Friday, August 24, 2012

Elul 5642 First Ma'amar

The month of Elul is a prime time for cultivating and strengthening our relationship with God.  The Chiddushei HaRim notes that a hint to this is embedded in the very word Elul.  He learns it from the following pasuk in Tehillim (100:3), "דעו כי ה' הוא א-להים הוא עשנו כתיב ולא קרי ולו אנחנו עמו וצאן מרעיתו/Know that God is the Lord; He made us and we are His, His people and the sheep of His pasture."  There are many words in the Torah which are traditionally read differently from the way they are spelled.  In this pasuk, the word ולא/and not, is read ולו/and His.  The translation above is according to the traditional reading.  According to the spelling, the pasuk states that God made us, we did not make ourselves. 

The Chiddushei HaRim points out that the two words, לא and לו together, spell אלול.  He explains the significance of these words in the context of the pasuk.  To the extent that we are לא אנחנו/not for ourselves, לו אנחנו/we are His.  When we suppress our own desires in favor of God's, we become His people, His flock.  Significantly, the first day of Elul is the new year for tithing domestic animals[1].  Elul is the time to become subservient to God the way sheep and beasts of burden are subservient to their owners.

According to the Chiddushei HaRim, we first subjugate ourselves to God.  The result is that God accepts us as His people.  However, the Sfas Emes explains that the opposite order is also true.  We can first use our intellect to come to the conclusion that it makes sense to be subservient to God.  As a result, we suppress our own desires in favor of God's.  In fact, this is exactly how Chazal[2] understand the pasuk, "... אדם ובהמה תושיע ה'/… You, God, save man and beast." (Tehillim 36:7) Chazal understand that both "man" and "beast" in this pasuk refer to man.  God saves one who is clever like man, but makes himself subservient like a beast. 

"Man" as a concept, refers to one who is close to God since this is the purpose of man's existence.  It is reached by totally subordinating ourselves to God.  This understanding is the reason that Chazal understand this pasuk as referring only to the nation of Israel.  We have the innate ability to subordinate ourselves to God.  Therefore, Chazal[3] say that we are called, "man" since we come close to God through subordination to Him.  Chazal[4] understand this from the following pasuk as well, "כי אתם המעט מכל העמים/For you are the smallest of all the nations." (Devarim 7:7)  Chazal understand this to mean that we make ourselves small before God.  Therefore God loves us.

We can also understand the following pasuk in this manner, "ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם .../You are my sheep, sheep of my pasture, you are man …" (Yechezkeil 34:31)  God declares that we are His sheep – we have subjugated ourselves to Him.  This is a sign that we must have first used our intellect to reach the conclusion that this pays – we were first "men".

This pasuk can also be understood according to the order of the Chiddushei HaRim.  God praises us by noting first that we are His flock – we have subjugated ourselves.  Because of this we come close to God and become "man".

From our perspective, we say first that He has made us His nation – we are close to Him and are therefore "men".  Because of this we subjugate ourselves to Him like sheep.  This is why the order of the pasuk in Tehillim which is written from our perspective is, "עמו וצאן מרעיתו/His nation and the sheep of His pasture," – first "His nation" and then afterwards, "the sheep of His pasture."

May we merit taking advantage of Elul to subjugate ourselves totally to God so that we can come close to Him and merit redemption.

[1] Rosh HaShana 2a
[2] Chullin 5b
[3] Yevamos 61a
[4] Tanchuma Eikev 3

Friday, August 10, 2012

Eikev 5632 Third Ma'amar

Chazal[1] teach us that everything is in the hands of God except for fear of Heaven.  They learn this from the following pasuk in our parsha, "מה ה' א-להיך שואל מעמך כי עם ליראה את ה' א-להיך ללכת בכל דרכיו ולאהבה אותו ולעבוד את ה' א-להיך ... לשמור את מצוות ה' .../What does God your Lord ask of you if not to fear God your Lord, to go in His ways, and to love Him, and to serve God your Lord … to observe God's commandments …" (Devarim 10:12)  However, looking at this pasuk we see that much more is required of us than fear of Heaven alone.  While fear of Heaven is the first requirement, the pasuk goes on to list essentially everything else in the Torah including serving God as best we possibly can and doing all the mitzvos.  And conventionally, we understand this Chazal as meaning that the only thing about which we have a choice is whether to fear God.  Everything else is in His hands.  How then, can Chazal infer from this pasuk that everything is in God's hands except for fear of Heaven?  Furthermore, are Chazal saying that we have free will only regarding fear of Heaven?

The Sfas Emes explains.  Chazal are teaching us that awe of God is the prerequisite for everything that follows.  When Chazal say that everything is in the hands of God, they mean that the power of God is latent in everything.  Of course, we have a choice as to whether we will perform a mitzvah.  However, even if we decide to perform it we will only be able to acknowledge the spirituality latent in that mitzvah (and in everything else) if we fear God – acknowledging His presence.  This is what Chazal[2] mean when they said that awe of God is the key to unlocking the spirituality of the Torah that is inherent in everything.

We can learn the importance that Chazal attached to awe of God as a prerequisite in our service to Him from a homily on the pasuk above.  "מה ה' ... שואל מעמך .../What does God … ask of you?"  Chazal[3] read the word מה/what, as מאה/hundred, and learn that we are required to say one hundred blessings each day.  What compelled Chazal to learn מאה/one hundred blessings, from מה/what, of this pasuk specifically?

The answer involves an understanding of the significance of a blessing.  When we say, for example, the blessing, בורא פרי העץ/Who has created fruit of the tree, we are acknowledging that the power of God is in the fruit of the tree.  The blessing is a recognition of our limitations.  The word מה/what, as well, alludes to our limitations (as in ונחנו מה/for what are we.)  Chazal therefore learn of our requirement to say blessings specifically from this pasuk because this pasuk teaches us the importance of understanding our limitations by acknowledging God in everything.  May we merit it!   eaGGoalllll

[1] Brachos 33b
[2] Shabbos 31b
[3] Menachos 43b

Friday, August 03, 2012

VaEschanan 5631 Second Ma'amar

The first parsha of Kri’as Sh’ma is written towards the end of parshas Va’Eschanan.  The second pasuk of Kri’as Sh’ma states, “וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְךָ .../You shall love God your Lord with all your heart and with all your soul …” (Devarim 6:5)  This pasuk, indeed the entire Kri’as Sh’ma, is so familiar to us that it is sometimes difficult to step back and really try to understand what is required of us in practical terms.  Practically speaking, what does it mean to love God with all our heart and with all our soul?

We find various explanations in Chazal.  The Midrash on this pasuk says that “with all your soul” means with all the various attributes that make up the soul.[1]  The commentaries understand this to mean that we must dedicate the attributes that comprise our mental faculties towards God – our wisdom, intelligence, understanding, imagination, recall, etc.

What tool can we use to direct all of our mental faculties towards God?  The Sfas Emes quotes a pasuk in Tehillim, mentioned in the Midrash explaining the first pasuk of Kri’as Sh’ma, “ה' אֶחָד/God is One.” (Devarim 6:4) The pasuk in Tehillim (73:25) states, “מִי לִי בַשָׁמַיִם וְעִמְּךָ לֹא-חָפַצְתִּי בָאָרֶץ/Whom do I have in Heaven and when I am with You I desire nothing on earth.”  The plain meaning of the pasuk is that we do not desire to worship any god but God.  The Sfas Emes broadens the meaning to include everything.  The pasuk is teaching us to desire nothing at all but God on earth.  There actually is nothing else but God and His will in Heaven and on earth.  This is the meaning of “God is One.”  Realizing this, we will naturally dedicate all our mental faculties towards Him.

The Sfas Emes applies this concept to loving God with all our heart as well.  Just as the soul is the seat of the intellect and includes all our mental faculties, so too, the heart is the seat of our feelings.  To realize that every feeling that we have, exists only because God gives it existence is to understand at the most fundamental level Chazal’s maxim that one does not even bump his finger unless it was decreed above.[2]  We are truly, whether we realize it or not, like an axe in the hand of the wood chopper.

This deepens our understanding of “ה' אֶחָד/God is One.”  It implies that there is nothing else but God.  Everything, but God, exists only because He wants it to exist.  Therefore, His love is in everything including in our very feelings.  Realizing this, helps us to use all our feelings, as well, to love Him.  This is the meaning of, “וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ/You shall love God your Lord with all your heart.”

[1] Devarim R. 2:37
[2] Chulin 7b