Friday, September 19, 2014

Nitzavim 5631 First Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha we find the following pasuk.  “לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ ... כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד .../It is not in Heaven [so as] to say, ‘Who will ascend to Heaven to take it for us? … rather it is very close to you …” (Devarim 30:12)  Rashi[1] cites Chazal[2] who say that if the Torah were in Heaven, we would in fact, be required to ascend to Heaven to learn it.  What does this mean?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Chazal are teaching us something very significant about learning Torah.  Intuitively we understand that we need to work hard to attain goals that are far from us.  We view the goal as static so if it is far away we need to move a long way to get to it.  When the goal is close, we do not need to work as hard to attain it.  The Torah, however, is not static.  When our goal is the Torah and and we work hard for it, the Torah itself responds and comes close to us.  It appears that it was never far from us.  When, however, we do not work for it, it remains far away.

Chazal are teaching us that when we want to connect to the Torah so much, with all our heart, that we would search for a way to get it even if it were in Heaven, then it is indeed very close.  It is specifically because we would ascend to Heaven to get it, if required, that it is very close to us.

[1] Rashi ad loc.
[2] Eiruvin 55a

Friday, September 05, 2014

Teitzei 5631 First Ma'amar

כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ/When you go to war against your enemies and God, your Lord delivers him into your hands and you capture his captives.” (Devarim 21:10)

The Sfas Emes explains this first pasuk of the parsha homiletically as referring to our ongoing battle with the evil inclination to search out and discover the hidden Godliness in the world.  This struggle has a time structure.  The cycle of weekdays followed by Shabbos entails hard work during the week after which God is revealed on Shabbos.  By keeping Shabbos we are testifying that God created the world and that the act of creation is constant.  During the week we need to struggle to reveal the Godliness that keeps the world in existence each moment.  Even though on Shabbos there is no struggle, God allows Himself to be revealed only in proportion to the work we did during the week.  
This is the meaning of Chazal’s maxim that whoever struggles (to prepare) on Erev Shabbos will eat on Shabbos.[1]  It follows that Shabbos can be defined as a state of God’s revelation.  

This state can be reached to some extent during the week as well.  The word erev/eve alludes to this because erev also means to mix together.  Therefore Erev Shabbos/Shabbos Eve implies that we can mix aspects of Shabbos into the weekdays.

Although we work hard during the week to uproot our evil inclination and to discover God, we cannot succeed without God’s help.  God does not uproot our evil inclination for us.  Rather he gives us the strength to do it.  This is the meaning of the second part of the pasuk, “...וּנְתָנוֹ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ .../… God, your Lord delivers him into your hands …”  “Into your hands” implies that God puts the strength needed to deal with the enemy – the evil inclination – in our hands but it is still we who must use this God-given strength to uproot the evil and reveal God. 

We find this idea in a pasuk in Tehillim (62:13) “וּלְךָ-ה' חָסֶד כִּי-אַתָּה תְשַׁלֵּם לְאִישׁ כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ/And you God have kindness for you repay a man according to his action.”  Chazal[2] note the apparent contradiction in the pasuk.  Repaying a man according to his action does not seem to be an aspect of kindness.  Does a person not deserve to be repaid according to his action?  However, the question is based on the premise that man can act independently of God.  If man’s actions are independent of God then repaying a person according to his deeds is indeed justice, not kindness.  When we realize, though, that it is God who gives us the strength to act, the question becomes moot.  God repays man according to his action even though the very ability to act comes from God.  This truly is kindness.

This realization that even though it is we who perform mitzvos, it is God who gives us the strength and directs us to do so, is key in serving God.  We are God’s messengers in this world.  He sent us here to perform mitzvos thereby revealing Him in the world. A messenger by definition is one who acknowledges that someone sent him.  If the messenger does not acknowledge the sender, he is no longer a messenger.  He is an independent agent.  This is the meaning of the words at end of the pasuk  “... וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיו/… and you capture his captives.”  These words have the same root as the Hebrew for return - הַשָׁבָה.  The pasuk can thus be translated as, “… and you return your actions to Him (by acknowledging that we are doing on His behalf.)”  The pasuk is teaching us that it is not enough to overcome the evil inclination and do good.  We need to acknowledge that we are God’s agents and not acting independently.  A key part of serving God is affirming our role as God’s messengers and His role in sending us and giving us the ability to act on His behalf.  May we merit it.  Amen! 

[1] Avoda Zara 3a
[2] Rosh HaShanah17b