Friday, April 25, 2014
At the beginning of this week's parsha we find, "איש אמו ואביו תיראו ואת שבתותי תשמורו .../A man shall fear his mother and his father 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 – kavod as opposed to yirah – 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 20, 2014
“דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיָשֻׁבוּ .../Speak to the children of
Israel and tell them to return …” (Shmos 14:2) The children of Israel
had left Egypt three days earlier. God commands Moshe Rabbeinu to instruct the
nation to turn around and head back towards the Egyptians. Pharaoh will think that the nation has lost
its way in the desert and will be goaded into pursuing them. When he confronts the nation of Israel,
God will destroy him and the Egyptians.
The question that jumps out at us as we read these p’sukim is,
“Why?” What was to be gained by
returning? If God wanted to destroy the
Egyptian army, He certainly had ample opportunity beforehand.
God took us out of
not because we deserved it but rather to fulfill His promise to our
forefathers. But God wanted us to be
redeemed on our own merits. So, he gave
us the opportunity. He instructed us to
double back towards the Egyptians. Such
a counter-intuitive act required a very high level of faith in God. Chazal teach us that due to this faith, God
split the sea for us. Furthermore, Chazal tell us that at the time
of the splitting of the sea, we were being judged to see if we were worthy of
such a miracle. In other words, God wanted us to deserve
This explains why we were fearful when the Egyptians came and why Moshe Rabbeinu cried out to God. When you think about it, it seems strange. God instructed us to return so that He could wipe out the Egyptians before us. We knew this. And yet, when we saw the Egyptians coming, the Torah relates that we were very afraid. Not only were we very afraid, but Moshe Rabbeinu cried out to God. Why? Moshe Rabbeinu certainly knew that God was going to save us. We knew it as well. The answer is that the children of
of course believed that God was going to save them. Our concern was that we would not be saved on
our own merit.
With this idea we can understand the difference between a miracle we do not deserve but which God performs anyway in His infinite kindness and a miracle that we deserve. Both
Egypt and the sea represented barriers, challenges
that stood between the nation and freedom, physical freedom and spiritual
freedom. It is important to see these
barriers for what they really are, namely challenges put in our path. They have no independent existence apart from
this. They are placed between us and our
goals so that we may overcome them and earn closeness to God. Overcoming the challenge and looking back, we
see it for what it really is. However,
if God takes us past the challenge in His kindness, the challenge still appears
real and tangible to us. When God took
us out of Egypt
in his infinite benevolence, even though we did not deserve it, the barrier
remained. In our minds, Egypt
was still there.
When God saved us at the sea because we warranted it, however, the barrier itself was removed. This is why, according to Chazal, the sea did not split until the water reached their noses. God only split the sea because of the faith we had in Him. We find this same idea in Hallel, “הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו: הַיָּם רָאָה וַיָּנֹס .../Yehudah became His sanctuary, Yisrael His dominions. The sea saw and fled …” (Tehilim 114:2-3) The sea is no more than a challenge, an obstacle in our path. When we walked into the sea we showed that we were unwilling to allow the sea to stand between us and God. We came close to God. The sea saw this and fled. This is the meaning of another Midrash which says that when Moshe Rabbeinu stretched his hand over the sea it refused to split. It only split when it saw God.
When God helps us and through his lovingkindness moves us past barriers that stand between us and our goals, those barriers are still real to us. They may pop up again in different circumstances. However, when we work on ourselves to serve God and come close to Him notwithstanding the impediments that stand in our way, those impediments, having served their purpose, fall.
Friday, April 11, 2014
Why do we associate the Shabbos preceding Pesach with Pesach. Chazal teach us that a great miracle happened on this Shabbos. The Shabbos before the Exodus fell on the 10th of Nissan. On this day, God instructed us to take lambs for the Pesach sacrifice. The miracle was that the Egyptians could not do anything to stop us. But usually we would associate the day of the month, not the day of the week, with the miracle. Why do we associate the day of the week, in this case, Shabbos, with Pesach?
The Sfas Emes explains that there is an intrinsic connection between redemption and Shabbos. Particularly, there is an intrinsic connection between a miraculous redemption and Shabbos. God could have redeemed us in a natural way without violating the laws of nature. He wanted to redeem us specifically in a miraculous way to show us that we can have a relationship with Him and that He wants to relate to us in a way that is not bound by natural law.
During the week, God relates to the world indirectly through spiritual agents and a spiritual hierarchy. Shabbos, on the other hand, is an aspect of revelation in which God relates to the world directly. Parallely, God took us out of Egypt Himself, “אני ולא מלאך/I and not an agent. (Haggadas Pesach) Significantly, the Torah refers to Pesach as Shabbos.
This explains, too, why the Torah tells us that Shabbos is a remembrance for the Exodus, “וזכרת כי עבד היית בארץ מצרים ויוציאך ה' א-להיך משם ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה על כן צוך ה' א-להיך לעשות את יום השבת/Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and God, your Lord took you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore God, your Lord commanded you to make the Shabbos day.” (Devarim 5:15) It is clear why the holidays such as Pesach are a remembrance for the Exodus but what is the connection between the Exodus and keeping the Shabbos? According to what we’ve said though, it is clear. God wanted to relate to us in a direct way uninhibited by nature. This is the way that God relates to the world on Shabbos. Therefore, keeping the Shabbos is a testimony to our special above nature relationship with God that began at the Exodus.
This also explains an enigmatic statement that we make in the Haggadah. We say, “אלו לא הוציא הקב"ה את אבותינו ממצרים הרי אנו ... משועבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים/If God had not taken our forefathers out of Egypt we … would still be subjugated to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Would we really still be enslaved to Pharaoh today, thousands of years later? What are Chazal teaching us? The Maharal gives a hint. This statement is saying that if God did not take us out Himself, we would still be subjugated. If God did not take us out directly, miraculously, our relationship with Him and our national life would be according to the laws of nature. We would still be subordinate to those laws as we were when we were slaves in Egypt. God’s direct intervention in the Exodus freed us from this subordination from then and forever.
So, when we remember the Exodus, we are not simply remembering our freedom from slavery. We are remembering the special direct and beyond nature relationship with God that began with the Exodus. This relationship is especially clear on Shabbos but since it is beyond time and nature it can apply to all times and all places, if we let it.
Friday, April 04, 2014
This week's parsha describes the process of purifying a metzora/leper. The Torah makes a big deal about leprosy. Two full parshas in the Torah, deal with its laws. Why is this? Chazal teach us that leprosy comes from speaking evil about and slandering others.
The Sfas Emes explains that Chazal are teaching us an important underlying concept about the connection between the physical and spiritual. Leprosy is the physical manifestation of spiritual damage caused by speaking lashon hara. Chazal are teaching that there is a close parallel between what happens to us physically and spiritually. Furthermore, we can learn about the spiritual by observing the physical.
The Sfas Emes explains what we learn. The primary physical sources of life are the heart and lungs. The blood goes out from the heart to all parts of the body and returns. The Torah teaches, “... דמו בנפשו ... his blood is associated with his life-force …” (VaYikra 17:14)
Spiritually, Chazal teach us that the strength of our nation primarily involves the mouth particularly when we study Torah out loud as Chazal learn from the pasuk in Mishlei (4:22), “ כי חיים הם למוצאיהם .../For they are life to those who find them …” Chazal understand that this pasuk refers to one who learns Torah and in a play on words read the last word, “למוצאיהם/to those who find them, as “למוציאיהם/to those who bring them out (or, say them out loud.)” Furthermore various Chassidic masters have taught us that things which a person says with all his heart, enter the heart of others more easily – דברים היוצאים מן הלב נכנסין אל הלב.
Combining these two ideas the Sfas Emes teaches that when we learn Torah out loud with all our hearts, those very words of Torah return to ourselves with new and novel understandings just like the blood goes out to all a person’s limbs and returns. Chazal alluded to this very idea in a Midrash on the pasuk in Koheles (1:7), “כל הנחלים הולכים אל הים והים איננו מלא אל מקום שהנחלים הולכים שם הם שבים ללכת/All the streams flow into the sea yet the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they return to flow again.” The Midrash teaches that all the Torah a person learns is in his heart. Just as the streams don’t fill up the sea, the Torah will not fill his heart. He will always desire to learn more. And just as the waters return to flow again, the Torah even as he teaches another from the depths of his heart always returns to him, the teacher. What does this mean? Obviously, the teacher doesn’t lose what he knows by teaching it. The Sfas Emes therefore understands that the Torah that he says out loud (so others can hear) returns to him with new and deeper understandings.
It is exactly the opposite when someone slanders another. This also comes from the heart, specifically the left side of the heart where a person’s evil inclination resides as we find in another pasuk in Koheles (10:2), “... ולב כסיל לשמאלו/… and a fool’s heart tends towards his left.” Just as the Torah that a person speaks returns to him with new and deeper understanding, a person’s “leftist” speech returns to his heart as an air of nonsense – רוח שטות.
It is the tongue and the mouth that connect the physical and the spiritual. This is why Chazal teach us that everything depends on the tongue as we find in a pasuk in Mishlei (18:21), “מות וחיים ביד לשון/Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”