Friday, December 27, 2013
Why must we sometimes endure exile, distress and troubles? The fundamental reason for all exile on a national level and distress and troubles for each of us individually is so that we will recognize that it is God who is in control, not us. If we do not appreciate Him when things are going well for us, His answer is to hide himself and let us fend for ourselves, in a manner of speaking. Then, when things start to fall apart, we realize just how much we need Him. The Chiddushei HaRim says that if a person would know for sure that God is the source of everything that happens, God would not conceal His presence from that person.
We find this concept in the p’sukim at the beginning of this week’s parsha. After God asks Moshe to tell the children of Israel that He will take them out of Egyptian bondage, redeem us and take us unto Him as a nation, He promises, “... וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם/… You shall know that I am God your Lord, Who is extracting you from under the oppression of
(Shmos 6:7) By the end of the
Exodus it would be obvious that God orchestrated it – and this understanding is
The exile and exodus from
Egypt is a lesson for all generations and for each
of us on a personal level. When we
realize that everything that happens to us is arranged by God, then the reason
for the tribulations is removed and there is a redemption of sorts, reminiscent of our redemption from Egypt. It is for this reason that the Torah commands
to remember the Exodus every day. The
Exodus is a reminder that it is not through our own efforts but rather by the
grace of God that we are not slaves in Egypt today. God was in control in Egypt and He is in control now in
our own lives. The way out of difficult
situations is by remembering this principle.
To the extent that it becomes clear to us that God is in control, not
us, we are able to extract ourselves from every difficult situation in which we
find ourselves. Arriving at this
understanding was the reason that God gave us the difficulty to begin with.
It is not necessary to wait until we are in distress, though. We can prevent difficulties as well by remembering this important lesson. This is the deeper meaning of Chazal’s requirement to remember the Exodus, “... כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ/… all the days of your life.” (Devarim 16:3) The implication is that even during those days when we are truly living, because we are close to God, the source of life, we are required to remember that it is He who took us out of Egypt. By extension, we remember that it is He who is responsible for our good fortune as well as our distress. This is the deeper meaning behind the view that the requirement to remember the Exodus applies even in the days of Mashi’ach, certainly a good time for us. It is a time when Chazal tell us that the evil inclination does not rule. Still, we are required to remember that if it were not for God’s mercy we would still be slaves in
Once we reach the understanding that God is in control, not us, and He removes us from the difficult situation in which we may find ourselves, we are able to accept His yoke upon ourselves. Only after the Exodus, when we were no longer enslaved, were we able to accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven. The Zohar explains that as long as a person has upon him a burden, he cannot accept the yoke of God. This is the reason a slave is exempt from the mitzvah of Kri’as Sh’ma. He is exempt from accepting the yoke of Heaven upon himself because he is subject to the authority of his master. This also explains why we thank God in the second Brachah of Birchas HaMazon for both taking us out of
Egypt and for redeeming us from the house of bondage,
an apparent redundancy. Besides taking
us out of Egypt,
though, removing the Egyptian yoke from us is worthy of thanks in and of
itself. It allowed us to subsequently
accept the yoke of Heaven. We see this
in the p’sukim at the beginning of our parsha.
First God says, “והוצאתי
אתכם מארץ מצרים .../… and I will take you out of the land of Egypt
…” Afterwards He says, “ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם .../…
and I will take you to Me for a nation…”
God takes us for His nation only after he redeems us from the oppressive
yoke of Egypt.
This very same idea applies to each one of us any time we find ourselves in a distressful situation. In order to fully accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven, we first need to be extracted from the situation. We do this by accepting that it is God who put us in the difficulty. He did this so that we may come to the realization that He is in complete control, not us. This recognition helps us to leave the distress behind and allows us to accept the yoke of Heaven. God, in his mercy, has given us these tools so that each of us may experience his own personal Exodus every day. May we merit it!
Friday, November 29, 2013
The Talmud mentions two opposing views regarding which side of the doorway to light the Chanukah candles. The Sfas Emes explains this debate. He notes the pasuk in Mishlei (3:16), “אֹרֶךְ יָמִים בִּימִינָה בִּשְׂמֹאולָה עֹשֶׁר וְכָבוֹד/Length of days is in its right hand; in its left hand are riches and honor.” Right and left are common analogies for the principle aspect of something vs. a related aspect of secondary importance. Consequently, Chazal teach us that the first part of this pasuk refers to the next world while the second part of the pasuk refers to this world. This world is a tool for us to reach the next world. This world is subordinate to the next world.
“Left” also suggests pushing away. Chazal teach us regarding the relationship between a teacher and student or a mother and child that one should use the left hand to push away and the right to bring close. If pushing away is called for, it should be done with the weaker hand. Bringing close should be done with the stronger hand. This world was created primarily to give us the opportunity to push away and subordinate the transient in favor of the holy.
Since the right represents strength and permanence, we place the mezuzah on the right side of the doorway. This also explains the view that we light Chanukah candles on the right side of the doorway. However, the halachah follows the other view of lighting on the left side of the entrance. Why? In order to understand this we must understand the main point of the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles. The principle spiritual effect of this mitzvah is to displace spiritual darkness with spiritual enlightenment. This was the effect of the original miracle and continues to be the effect of the mitzvah each year. The left side represents spiritual darkness. This is why we light specifically on the left side. It is there that the spiritual power of this mitzvah is needed and is effective. It is specifically in the spiritual darkness represented by the left side that there is room for us to rectify the world and ourselves.
Rashi explains the redundancy in the pasuk, “יְמִינְךָ ה' נֶאְדָּרִי בַּכֹּחַ יְמִינְךָ ה' תִּרְעַץ אוֹיֵב/Your right hand, God, is most powerful; Your right hand, God, crushes the foe.” (Shmos 15:6) Rashi says that when revenge is taken against the wicked even the “left” becomes the “right.” The significance of the “left” becoming the “right” is spiritual light vs. spiritual darkness. Adding to God’s honor and glory is symbolized by the “right.” Lighting Chanukah candles on the left side of the doorway represents bringing spiritual light to the left side thereby turning it into the “right side.”
There is an obvious connection between the first half of the pasuk in Mishlei and the mitzvah of mezuzah. The mezuzah is attached to the right doorpost and the pasuk in Mishlei states, “אֹרֶךְ יָמִים בִּימִינָה .../Length of days is in its right hand …” Regarding the mitzvah of mezuzah the Torah states, “לְמַעַן יִרְבּוּ יְמֵיכֶם ... /In order to lengthen your days …” (Devarim 11:21) The mitzvah of mezuzah lengthens our days and is therefore on the right side which is also associated with a long life. However, why does the pasuk in Mishlei associate the left side with riches and honor?
In order to answer this question we first need to understand what wealth means. Chazal teach us that a wealthy person is one who is happy with his lot. The Maharal explains that the mishnah is giving us a definition of a wealthy person. A definition must relate only to the person and not to any external cause. An external effect cannot be considered a integral definition. This is why the mishnah does not say that a wealthy person is someone with lots of money. Having lots of money, in and of itself, does not automatically define a person as rich. He could have been born into a family with lots of money. He could have won a lottery ticket. In either case, the fact that he has a lot of money does not define him. It is an external effect which comes and goes. Only that which comes from within us - our outlook and actions - can define us. The mishnah teaches us that this outlook is our attitude towards our assets.
This is why the mishnah brings as a proof the pasuk, “יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ/If you eat the toil of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you.” (Tehillim 128:2) A person can be defined as wealthy if he eats from the labor of his own hands. A person who was born into wealth is not necessarily a wealthy person. This is God given money. God gives each of us exactly what we need. Wealth is that which we have that is beyond our needs.
The Sfas Emes explains that this definition of wealth refers not only to money. It applies to every aspect of our lives. Every action that replaces spiritual darkness with spiritual light, every action that turns the “left” into the “right”, every action whose result is a rectification, adds to our “wealth and honor.” This is why the end of the pasuk in Mishlei associates the left with riches and honor. The riches and honor are the result of our actions, not what God gives us unconditionally.
May we all merit, through our actions, especially the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights to supplant darkness with light, to turn the “left” into the “right.”
Friday, November 22, 2013
The Sfas Emes teaches that the source of all hischadshus/renewal that we experience comes from outside the physical world. It comes from the spiritual. If we seek renewal and newness within the physical, we will be frustrated in our efforts. Nature belies renewal and novelty. How can we merit renewal?
The Sfas Emes answers that we can merit renewal by connecting to the spiritual. How? We find a pasuk in the chapter of Tehillim (30:2) that we read during Chanuka, “ארוממך ה' כי דליתני .../I will exult You, God, for you have lifted me up …” The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the word דליתני/you have lifted me up alludes to דלות/meagerness. It is not much of a kindness if God lifts us up and this causes us to become arrogant. Therefore, the Chiddushei HaRim quoting the holy Rav of Parshischa explains that God lifts us up in a way in which we remain humble. He helps us to connect to Him and, remaining humble, we stay connected. Being connected to God is the only way to experience hischadshus/renewal and novelty in this world.
The Chiddushei HaRim also teaches that this is the meaning of the words that we say every morning, “מגביה שפלים .../He lifts up the lowly …” When we think about this we are beset with questions. Once He lifts them up, they are no longer lowly. But to be of a low spirit is something for which we strive. Why, then, would God lift us away from lowliness of spirit? This prayer must be understood differently. When God “lifts” us up, He is not lifting us away from humility. Rather, He is bringing us close to Him – connected to Him, as it were. The Chiddushei HaRim explains that God lifts up those who will remain lowly even after He lifts them up. He helps us to come close to Him and remain humble. Again, being close to God, we are open to experience His hischadshus.
We find this concept in a Zohar explaining the pasuk, “טוב ילד מסכן וחכם ממלך זקן וכסיל .../A poor and wise child is better than an old and foolish king …” (Koheles 4:13) The Zohar says that the child represents the yetzer hatov/good inclination whereas the old king represents the yetzer hara/evil inclination. The good inclination guides us to be wary of the suggestions of the yetzer hara, to realize that life is fraught with dangers – מסכן/poor has the same root as סכנה/danger – and to fear sin. The yetzer hatov helps us to be wise. What is חכמה/wisdom? The Zohar explains that חכמה comprises the same letters as כח מה'/strength (or potential) is from God. The foundation of wisdom is to realize that all power and all potential are from God. The pasuk states this explicitly, “ראשית חכמה יראת ה'/Awe of God is the beginning of wisdom.” (Tehillim 111:10)
When we tread carefully in this world and realize that everything is from God, we “connect” to Him and are able to experience renewal. Things take on newness. One who thinks that he is secure on his own experiences only staleness.
We can understand a pasuk in this week’s parsha according to this concept as well, “... והוא נער/… and he was a youth” (Breishis 37:2) referring to Yosef. The word נער/youth, has the same root as the word התעוררות/revival. Yosef always had hischadshus because he was always connected with God.
Our nation experienced a tremendous hischadshus on Chanukah as well. At the time of the Chanukah story, we as a nation were on quite a low level. The Assyrian Greeks has instituted terrible decrees forbidding us from keeping the mitzvos. We cried out to God and He saved us through miracles and wonders. Every miracle was a hischadshus that came from outside the physical world. This is clearly alluded to in Tehillim (40:2-4), “קוה קויתי ה' ויט אלי וישמע שועתי: ויעלני מבור שאון מטיט היון ... ויתן בפי שיר חדש .../I have greatly hoped for God. He inclined to m me and heard my cry. He raised me from the pit of raging waters, from the slimy mud … He put a new song in my mouth …” The word יון/slimy, in this pasuk alludes to יון/Greece.
May we merit God lifting us close to Him thereby experiencing hischadshus in our lives.
Friday, November 15, 2013
“... כי שרית עם א-להים ועם אנשים ותוכל/… for you have struggled with [angels of] God and with men and have prevailed.” The ability to influence the world around us, both physical and spiritual, through our actions is a quality that Ya’akov Avinu passed down to his progeny. Our actions have ramifications in all the spiritual realms. And the spiritual realms directly influence the physical world. We find this concept in a Zohar in our parsha.
The Zohar quotes a pasuk from Tehillim (91:11), “כי מלאכיו יצוה לך לשמרך בכל דרכך/He will command His angels concerning you, to protect you in all your ways.” The Zohar says that the angels in the pasuk are referring to a person’s positive and negative inclination. We generally think of our inclinations as a part of us – our desire to do good and our lusts to gratify ourselves. We don’t personify them in the form of angels. Why does the Zohar view our inclinations as angels?
To answer this question we need to understand what an angel is. The Sfas Emes explains that our desires do not begin as a part of us and our makeup. Rather, God sends them into us for a specific purpose. They have a life of their own, as it were. These desires are called angels. In Hebrew the word for angel is, מלאך/mal’ach. Mal’ach means messenger. The desires that God implants in us are His messengers. When we act because of a desire we have, God’s messenger is the spiritual force that underpins the action.
Sometimes the spiritual force underlying our actions is clear to us and to others. At other times it is not clear at all. Sometimes God is more revealed and sometimes less revealed. Chazal use a metaphor of angels of chutz la’aretz/outside of Israel and angels of Israel to describe this clarity or the lack of it. Angels of chutz la’aretz represent God’s influence in a concealed way whereas the angels of Israel represent His revelation.
A person sends a messenger when the mission that needs to be accomplished is far from him. Likewise God sends us messengers/angels because we are far from Him. He sends us messengers in the form of the mitzvos that we do and their spiritual underpinnings. He sends us messengers in the form of desires to do good and bad. The messengers/desires that He sends us help us to accomplish His will.
This is the meaning of the pasuk we brought earlier according to the Zohar. The angels are His messengers. They are the inclinations that He sends us and we have the ability to clarify and reveal those messengers, the spiritual and motive force within our actions. When we accomplish this the messenger has fulfilled its purpose and returns to the One who sent it.
Friday, November 08, 2013
The beginning of this week’s parsha recounts Ya’akov Avinu’s trip to his uncle Lavan and the dream he had along the way. Ya’akov woke up upset that he had slept in such a holy place. He said, “... אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה' בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי/… Indeed, God is in this place and I did not know!” (Breishis 28:16) Rashi explains that if he had known, he would not have slept there.
When we think about it we realize just how amazing this is. Ya’akov gained much from having slept in that place. Rashi tells us that the place in which he slept was the site of the future Beis HaMikdash. A miracle occurred and the sun set early specifically so that he would stop there. As a result of having slept there, he had a prophetic dream in which God promised him Eretz Yisrael and also promised to protect him on his dangerous journey. Yet, Ya’akov Avinu was upset that he slept there. He would rather have forfeited the prophecy and God’s promise than to have slept on the holy ground! Why?
A clue can be gleaned from the Zohar on the words “וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי/and I did not know.” The Zohar poses the following question. Why did Ya’akov berate himself for not knowing that God’s presence rested where he slept? How was he to know? The Zohar answers that knowledge in Tanach connotes connection. Ya’akov Avinu knew that his primary purpose was to come close to God. When Ya’akov Avinu said “לֹא יָדָעְתִּי/I did not know,” he was not berating himself for not knowing. Rather he was berating himself for not being spiritually sensitive enough, not “connected” enough, to realize that the Shechina was in this place. This, then, answers our question. Ya’akov Avinu would have preferred to be in tune enough with God – “connected” to Him, as it were – to have felt the holiness of the site rather than to have slept there and receive the prophecy and promise.
Still, after the dream, he did recognize the holiness of the place. He also realized that he received a special enlightenment from God in the form of the prophetic dream. His sense of awe of God became more developed as a result of the dream. He grew spiritually because of it. We learn from Ya’akov Avinu to recognize any Godly enlightenment that we receive and let it affect us bringing us closer to God.
Many times we have a new thought or a solution to a problem which comes to us in a flash. In some mysterious way, some problem that we were struggling with becomes clear. These new thoughts, clarity and solutions, are messages from God. The Sfas Emes teaches us that their very purpose is for us to recognize them as such. God sends them to us to give us a means for strengthening our awe of Him and coming closer to Him. If we do not recognize them as God-sent but rather chalk these thoughts up to “flashes of inspiration,” then they haven’t fulfilled their purpose and were wasted. May we merit recognizing God’s messages to us, as Ya’akov Avinu did, and coming closer to Him through them. Amen!
 Zohar 1:150a-b
 We find, for example, “And Adam knew his wife Chava …” (Breishis 4:1) He connected with her. Another example from last week’s parsha is when God says, referring to Avraham Avinu, “For I have known him …” (Breishis 18:19) Rashi explains that this is an expression of God's love for Avraham Avinu because loving implies drawing someone near and knowing that person.
Friday, October 04, 2013
Chazal teach us that the generation of the Flood transgressed three sins, idolatry, illicit relations and thievery. Surprisingly, of the three, the decree of the Flood was sealed because of thievery. Idolatry and illicit relations are two of the cardinal sins. We are required to forfeit our lives rather than transgress them. Why was the decree of the Flood sealed specifically for thievery? What is it about stealing that makes it even worse than idolatry and illicit relations?
The fundamental reason that a person can permit himself to steal is that he does not recognize the owner’s rights. Chazal apply this concept to our relationship with God. They teach us that a person who eats without first making a brachah is considered to have stolen from God. The reason is that he is not acknowledging God’s ownership of the bread he eats.
The Sfas Emes expands this concept and applies it to all of life. He says that being in this world and benefiting from it while not recognizing that God is the force underlying everything constitutes theft. For this reason the Chiddushei HaRim says that the Torah requires confession when a thief returns a stolen object, “וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת־חַטָאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ .../They will confess their sin that they committed and return the principal amount of his guilt …” (Bamidbar 5:7) Confession is required when repenting from any sin. Why does the Torah mention it specifically by repentance from the sin of theft?
The Chiddushei HaRim explains that confession here actually alludes to repentance for anything because every sin contains an aspect of theft. At the moment of the sinful act, there is always a denial of God. If the sinner recognized God before him, he would be unable to sin. As the Sfas Emes teaches, not acknowledging that God is the motive power underlying our actions constitutes theft.
The generation of the Flood did more than simply steal from their fellow man. They stole from God by not recognizing Him in the Creation. The Sfas Emes teaches us that to the extent that we recognize God in the world, God is revealed in the world. Because generation of the Flood did not recognize God in the world, there was no divine revelation. Life is dependent upon divine revelation. When there is no divine revelation, we learn from the generation of the Flood that life ends. This is the meaning of the pasuk, “... קֵץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי כִּי־מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס .../… The end of all flesh has come before Me, because the earth was filled with thievery …” (Breishis 6:13) This is the exact opposite of the pasuk, “... מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ/… the world is filled with His glory.” (Yeshayah 6:3) When we recognize God, the world is filled with His glory. When we do not, it is the end of life. This is the reason the decree of the Flood was sealed specifically because of thievery; thievery representing not acknowledging God in the Creation.
The Zohar states this concept as well. The Zohar says that No’ach’s ark is a metaphor for the Shechinah. “... וַיִּשְׂאוּ אֶת־הַתֵּבָה וַתָּרָם .../… They lifted the ark and it was raised …,” (Breishis 7:17) is an allusion to the Shechinah leaving the world. The Zohar says that once the Shechinah is no longer with us, there is no one to watch over the world and judgment rules. The Sfas Emes understands that the Shechinah leaving means that the source of life has left.
This understanding sheds light on an enigmatic Midrash in this week’s parsha. The Midrash cites a pasuk in Yechezkeil (7:11), “הֶחָמָס קָם לְמַטֵּה־רֶשַׁע לֹא מֵהֶם ... וְלֹא־נֹהַּ בָּהֶם/Violence has arisen and become a rod against evil; it is not from them … there is no sobbing for them.” The prophet is referring to Nebuchadnezer. He is telling us that even though Nebuchadnezer destroyed evil, it was only God’s help that enabled him to succeed. In the words of the prophet, “… it is not from them …”
The Midrash understands this pasuk homiletically as referring to the generation of the Flood. החמס/Thievery stood up before God like a rod and said that it is not of them and has no rest in them. This last is a play on words, changing נֹהַּ/sob to נֹחַ/rest.
What does, “he has no rest in them” mean? Elsewhere, the Sfas Emes explains that on the first Shabbos, the culmination of the Creation resulted in a revelation of God. Each part of the Creation was fulfilling its unique task such that the entire Creation acted as one harmonious system. A system in which all the parts operate smoothly can be considered to be at rest because there is no noise in the system. This is the reason that there is an elevation of the entire Creation towards God on Shabbos. He is more revealed. When “thievery” said that it has no rest in them, it means to say that the generation of the Flood was lacking a connection to God. God was hidden because the generation did not acknowledge Him. Because God was not revealed there was no “rest” in the Creation.
This also explains another Midrash which says that No’ach was not worthy of being saved. He was only saved because Moshe Rabbeinu was to come from him. This seems to fly in the face of the pesukim which state clearly that he was righteous. However, according to the Sfas Emes, since No’ach was part of the generation that did not recognize God, there could be no rest for God in this generation, meaning that the generation was not connected to Him. True, No’ach was righteous in his own right, but the generation had a fatal flaw. It could not continue to exist. No’ach’s saving grace was his progeny.
Friday, August 02, 2013
“אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹת ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם .../The blessing, that you will listen to the mitzvos of God your Lord …” (Devarim 11:27) The simple meaning of the words implies that the blessing is mitzvah observance. Conventionally, though, blessing is the result of mitzvah observance. In fact, this is how Rashi understands the pasuk, “The blessing is on the condition that you listen …” The Sfas Emes, however, explains the pasuk according to the simple meaning. He bases his understanding of the pasuk on a Midrash in our parsha.
In Mishlei a lamp is used as a metaphor for both the Torah and mitzvos on the one hand and the soul on the other hand. “כִּי נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר .../For a mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light …” (Mishlei 6:23) Here Shlomo HaMelech compares mitzvos to a lamp and the Torah to the lamp’s light. In another pasuk in Mishlei we find, “נֵר ה' נִשְׁמַת אָדָם .../Man’s soul is the lamp of God …” (Mishlei 20:27) According to the Midrash God says, “My lamp is in your hands and your lamp is in My hands.” If we protect and keep His lamp, He will protect and keep our lamp.
The Sfas Emes develops this metaphor further. He explains that the Torah is the mechanism through which God gives life to every thing in existence including our actions. The spiritual life-giving force flows out of the Torah into every thing and action in the Creation. It is hidden, though. We have an obligation to reveal this inner spirituality which pervades everything. We do this by performing the mitzvos. The Sfas Emes teaches that every action is a potential mitzvah depending on our intent when we act. The metaphor of a lamp is exact. When the Midrash says that God’s lamp is in our hands, it means that we are able to and required to light the lamp. This happens when we observe the mitzvos. Every act, if done with the intent to serve God, unleashes and reveals the latent spiritual light inherent in the act. The revelation of spiritual light is itself the blessing. It heightens our awareness of God, the ultimate Blessing. This is the exact meaning of the pasuk, “אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹת/The blessing: that you will listen to the mitzvos …”