Wednesday, February 24, 2016
How to Take Advantage of the Shabbos Neshama Yeseira/נשמה יתירה Experience
Chazal tell us that although every mitzvah was given to the nation of Israel publicly, Shabbos was given privately as the Torah tells us in this week’s parshah, “בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא .../It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel …” (31:17) What do Chazal mean when they say that Shabbos was given to us privately? Obviously, the nations of the world know about Shabbos. In answer to this question, Chazal explain that although the nations of the world know about Shabbos, there are aspects of Shabbos that the nations of the world do not – cannot - know about. There is an aspect of Shabbos called, “נְשָׁמָה יְתֵרָה/additional soul,” which only Jews can experience. Only Jews can experience it because Shabbos was given only to the nation of Israel to experience.
The Torah alludes to the additional soul in the words, “... וּבַיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ/… and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.” (Shmos 31:17) In a play on the word “וַיִּנָּפַשׁ/He was refreshed,” Chazal say that it suggests, “וַוי אָבְדָה נֶפֶשׁ/Woe, the soul is lost.,” Chazal therefore translate the pasuk, “Since He rested, woe, the soul is lost.” This Chazal is difficult. The plain meaning of the Chazal is that the additional soul is lost as a result of His resting. How can this be? The additional soul is given specifically when He rests. It takes leave when Shabbos ends.
The Sfas Emes explains that Chazal’s hint derives specifically because we experience Shabbos. Since we experience the additional soul on Shabbos and feel its loss when Shabbos ends, we know that it exists. In the words of Chazal, “Since He rested, woe the soul is lost.” Only because we experience Shabbos can we experience the loss of the additional soul when Shabbos ends.
The Ba’al Shem Tov takes this idea a step further. The Ba’al Shem Tov says that knowing about the additional soul can help us to serve God better. The Torah’s allusion to the additional soul – it leaves when the day ends – is given on Shabbos specifically (שבת וינפש), to encourage us to take advantage of it. The additional soul helps us experience a closeness to God that we would otherwise not be able to experience. To take advantage of this gift we need to cultivate a sensitivity towards it.
The Sfas Emes explains further, that cultivating a sensitivity towards experiencing the additional soul thereby being sensitive to its loss with the onset of the coming week, can lead us to repentance. After such an enlightening experience, who would not want to forsake his sins in its favor. The end result of this sensitivity is that the enlightenment spills over to the following week making it easier for us to experience and serve God during the weekdays as well. May we merit it!
Thursday, February 18, 2016
The Month of Adar
An Auspicious Month for Drawing God’s Light into the World
“וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל .../And you will command the children of Israel…” (Shmos 27:20) In the first pasuk of this week’s parsha, God instructs Moshe Rabbeinu to command the children of Israel regarding the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. Usually when God instructs Moshe to tell the people a commandment, He says, “... דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל/… speak to the children of Israel.” Why does God say here, “וְאַתּה תְּצַוֶּה .../And you will command …” when instructing Moshe about this particular mitzvah?
The Sfas Emes teaches us that the lamps of the menorah allude to the mitzvos. In Mishlei (6:23) we find, “... נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר .../… a commandment is a lamp and Torah is light …” Just as light needs a lamp to hold it, so too, the light of the Torah needs a vessel to contain it. As physical light, so too, the light of the Torah is ephemeral. It needs a mechanism for being drawn into and influencing the physical world. That mechanism is the mitzvos. The vessel that holds the light of the Torah in this world is the mitzvos.
When we perform mitzvos we bring the light of the Torah into the world. In fact, the Zohar says that our 248 limbs parallel the 248 positive commandments. Our very limbs become the conduits through which the light of the Torah is drawn down into this world. When we understand that we are merely conduits, that there is nothing inherent in our actions or in us that brings spiritual light into the world, that it is the will of God that the specific actions of the mitzvos have this effect, we accomplish the will of God. That is why this specific mitzvah of preparing the menorah starts with, “וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה .../And you will command …” Only because God commanded us to do the specific activities that are called mitzvos do they have this quality of drawing the Torah’s light into the physical world.
The Midrash, explaining the first few words of this week’s parsha says that the poor of Israel are equal to Eliyahu HaNavi and Daniel. How does the Midrash arrive at this conclusion from, “וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה .../And you will command…”? According to the Sfas Emes, however, it is clear. A Jew, regardless of his spiritual level, who performs a mitzvah with the understanding that the light of that mitzvah comes through him from God, is on the level of our greatest prophets. This is because when a person does a mitzvah he connects to God. In fact, the root of the word mitzvah is the same as that of the Aramaic “צַוְותָּא/connection”. It is encouraging to know that regardless of our backgrounds and spiritual state, each of us can do the will of God and bring the Torah’s light into this world by being aware of this when performing the mitzvos.
The Chiddushei HaRim understands this concept from the brachah we make before doing a mitzvah. We say “... אֲשֶּׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ .../… that He made us holy with His mitzvos and commanded us …” We are able to do the will of God and bring the light of the Torah into the world through the mitzvos, only because this is the way God structured the world. He commanded us to do the mitzvos. Therefore, we are able to be His conduits to bring His light into the world.
The Chiddushei HaRim explains that this is the intent of Chazal when they taught that a person who wants to protect his assets should plant a maple/אֶדֶר tree as we find in Tehillim (93:4), “אַדִּיר בַּמָרוֹם ה'/God is strong on high.” A play on the similarity between the words for maple – אדר – and on high – אדיר, planting a maple/אֶדֶר tree is a metaphor for knowing that our assets and strength, everything really, comes from God. Chazal are teaching us that the awareness itself is protective and strengthening. This concept and metaphor applies to the month of Adar as well. The word Adar in Hebrew – אדר – is also similar to the Hebrew words for maple and on high. The month of Adar, then, is an especially appropriate time to work on our awareness that when we perform the mitzvos we are conduits for drawing God’s light, the light of the Torah into the physical world.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
How to Succeed in Torah and Mitzvos
Advice from the Sfas Emes
In this week’s parasha, God describes the Mishkan and its vessels to Moshe Rabbeinu. The Midrash tells us that because Moshe Rabbeinu had difficulty understanding the intricacies of the Menorah, God showed him a virtual Menorah. Even so, Moshe Rabbeinu found it too difficult to make so God told him to throw a talent of gold into the fire and God Himself would fashion it.
The Sfas Emes asks that if Moshe Rabbeinu could not make the Menorah why did God bother showing it to him in the first place? God, after all, certainly knew the limits of Moshe Rabbeinu’s capabilities. The Sfas Emes explains that it was crucial for Moshe Rabbeinu to desire to make the Menorah, even if he could not. But if Moshe Rabbeinu had trouble picturing the Menorah from God’s description of it, then he was not able to properly desire it. So, God showed Moshe Rabbeinu a virtual Menorah so that he would know what he must desire. Moshe Rabbeinu then did whatever he could to the best of his ability. Because of Moshe Rabbeinu’s desire to see the completed Menorah, God helped and finished the job.
The Sfas Emes says that this is an important lesson that applies to every Jew and to every mitzvah for we certainly do not have the power to achieve the will of God. How could we? God is infinite and we are finite. However, we are required to yearn to achieve the will of God and to work towards that goal to the best of our abilities. According to the intensity of our desire, we can achieve the will of God with His help even if it is beyond our capabilities.
Along these same lines the Chiddushei HaRim explains a Gemara in Maseches Megillah (6b). Rebbi Yitzchak says that if someone tells you that he worked hard in Torah and he found success, believe him – יָגַעְתִּי וּמָצָאתִי תַּאֲמִין. The Chiddushei HaRim points out the incongruity in Rebbi Yitzchak’s words. Rebbi Yitzchak’s choice of words connotes a found item. Chazal tell us that items are found unintentionally – ג' בָּאִין בְּהֵיסֶח הַדָעַת ... מְצִיאָה – the exact opposite of focused work towards a goal. Conventionally, if a person works hard and says that he succeeded and realized his goal, then we can believe him because we believe that his hard work caused his success. Why does Rebbi Yitzchak say that if a person works hard to attain Torah and succeeds, he “found” success, implying an unintentional find not directly resulting from his hard work?
The Chiddushei HaRim answers that Rebbi Yitzchak is teaching us a profound lesson about success in Torah. The reality is that an understanding of the ultimate truth in the Torah is beyond our capabilities. The only way to reach this understanding is for it to be given to us. Rebbi Yitzchak is teaching us that God gives the gift of understanding and connecting with Truth to those who try hard to acquire it.
We see this clearly when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. He worked hard. He did not eat or drink for forty days. At the end of the forty days the pasuk relates, “וַיִּתֵּן אֶל־מֹשֶׁה ... שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת/He gave Moshe … the two tablets of testimony …” (Shmos 31:18) The Midrash says that the Torah was given to Moshe Rabbeinu as a gift.
When it comes to serving God, He helps us to attain goals that are beyond our abilities. The key to success is to cultivate a strong desire for it.