Friday, December 26, 2014

VaYigash 5631 First Ma'amar

At the end of parshas Mikeitz, Yosef frames his younger brother Binyamin. He decides that as a punishment he will keep Binyamin as a servant and free the rest of his brothers.1 In the beginning of our parsha, Yehudah tries to convince Yosef to take him instead of Binyamin. To this end he recounts the sequence of events from the brothers’ initial encounter with Yosef to the present.2 The question that immediately presents itself is that Yehudah’s argument adds nothing that is not already known. He simply recounts the events leading up to the current situation. What is the point of this?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Jews are called Yehudim in Hebrew, after Yehudah. The name Yehudah comes from the root word hoda’a which means “thanks” and “admission.” Jews are called Yehudim because we thank God for everything, large and small. We know that everything comes from Him.

Yehudah understood that everything, even the most difficult situation, is from God. Yehudah knew that to be saved he would have to accept God’s providence in the entire sequence of events leading up to the present. By accepting God’s hand in the events, by acknowledging that God was “in” the events and their cause, he was removing the screen that hid God. He was saying, in essence, “I recognize that God is the cause of these events,” thus revealing God. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains in parshas Mikeitz that Yosef himself symbolized the Godliness hidden in the material world.3

The greatest good we can aspire to, is coming close to God himself, experiencing God, as it were. Therefore, revelation itself is redemption. That is why immediately following Yehudah’s argument, the Torah tells us that Yosef was no longer able to contain himself and he revealed himself to his brothers. Once the Godliness was revealed, the brothers were saved.

The Torah is teaching us an important lesson. Any time we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we have the tools with which to extricate ourselves. We need to first understand that God is hidden in even the most difficult circumstances. Even if a person thinks that his own mistakes caused his current situation – the Torah tells us that Yosef’s brothers blamed themselves for their predicament – when he recognizes that God is the life giving force behind his predicament and asks God for help, he will be answered. May we merit it!

1 Breishis 44:2-17
2 Breishis 44:18-33
3 Mikeitz 5631 Second Ma’amar

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Chanuka 5631 Eighth Night

The eighth day of Chanukah is called Zos Chanukah/This is Chanukah, after the Torah reading for this day which contains the words “zos chanukas hamizbei’ach …/this is the dedication of the altar ...” (Bamidbar 7:84)  Aside from the nice play on words what is the significance of the name?

The Sfas Emes explains that Zos Chanukah indicates something very fundamental about Chanukah.  The Chanukah story begins with the persecution of the Jews by the Assyrian Greeks.  The situation was bleak indeed.  The gentile rulers were powerful.  How could we overcome them?  From the depths of this darkness came the salvation.

The word zos/this, is laden with symbolism. In the Zohar[1] we find the word zos alluding to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Heaven.  The Midrash[2] says that the word zos/this in the pasuk, “... בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ/… in this I trust,” (Tehillim 27:1) is an allusion to God – in God I trust.  The early kabbalists[3] teach that zos alludes specifically to that point of spirituality through which God gives existence to the physical. David HaMelech as well, asked God to preserve this recognition of His presence within us, “... שָׁמְרָה־זֹּאת לְעוֹלָם לְיֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבוֹת לְבַב עַמֶּךָ .../… Preserve this forever – the product of the thoughts of Your people’s hearts …” (Divrei HaYamim 1 29:18)

Zos, then, is a reference to the Godliness hidden within us and all of Creation.  Knowing that everything, including God’s obscurity is powered by this point of God-given spirituality, essentially, knowing that God is “in” everything and that everything is therefore “good” is a tremendous tool for strengthening one’s faith particularly in times of exile.  This, in fact, is the fundamental meaning of the pasuk in Eicha (3:21), “זֹאת אָשִׁיב אֶל־לִבִּי עַל־כֵּן אוֹחִיל/This I will bear in mind; therefore I have hope.”  The prophet is teaching us that when we bear in mind zos – that the exile as well is from God and that He is present even in the darkness of it – we have good reason for hope.

This concept is the lesson of Chanukah.  The salvation came when the nation realized that God was with them in the darkness as well.  We find this idea as well in the following pesukim from Tehillim (112:7-8), “מִשְּׁמוּעָה רָעָה לֹא יִירָא נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה': סָמוּךְ לִבּוֹ לֹא יִירָא עַד אֲשֶׁר־יִרְאֶה בְצָרָיו/He will have no fear of evil tidings; his heart is firm, confident in God. His heart is steadfast, he shall not fear, he will even [expect to] see [vengeance upon] his tormentors.” When a person trusts in God, he knows that salvation is at hand. The Chiddushei HaRim points out that, significantly, the last letters of the words, “נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה׳ סָמוּךְ/his heart is firm, confident in God, steadfast” spell out חֲנוּכָּה/Chanukah.

The chapter in Tehillim that we say on Chanukah bears out this idea. “הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה/You have transformed my lament into dancing for me; You undid my sackcloth and girded me with happiness.” (Tehillim 30:12)  The word for transformed – הָפַכְתָּ – also means to overturn or to turn inside out. The difference between lament and dancing is whether God is hidden or revealed. Dancing is lament turned inside out, as it were. The important point is that God is present in both. The Midrash[4] on the curses in parshas BeChukosai makes this point when it says that the difference between the blessings and the curses is that the blessings are in the order of the Hebrew alphabet whereas the curses are backwards.

The second half of the pasuk continues this idea. It is important to understand that the sackcloth, a clear reference to exile and God’s concealment is only a cover. When the sackcloth is undone, when the concealment is removed, God is revealed in the form of salvation and closeness to Him. Then we are girded with happiness. This is the meaning of Chanukah, the days of miracles, when the nation of Israel was at a very low point and God helped us. It is encouraging to know that according to the extent of concealment so is the extent of the good since everything is from God and everything is for good. And according to our recognition of this fact and our trust in God so the underlying good will be revealed and we will merit salvation.

[1] Zohar 1:93b-94a
[2] VaYikra R. 21:4
[3] Sha’arei Ora 1:14a-b
[4] VaYikra R. 35:1