Wednesday, March 23, 2016
The Essence of Purim
Why the Holiday is Called Purim/Lots
“עַל־כֵּן קָרְאוּ לַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה פוּרִים עַל־שֵׁם הַפּוּר .../Therefore these days were called Purim/Lots because of the lot…” (Esther 9:26) The name of a holiday usually indicates something very significant about and central to the essence of the day. It seems strange, therefore, that this holiday is called Purim/Lots commemorating the lots that Haman cast to determine the day on which to execute his dastardly plan. How are Haman’s lots central to the essence of Purim?
Thinking about the name of the holiday, another question presents itself. Why is the name of the holiday plural? If it commemorates Haman’s lots, it should be the singular, “Pur/Lot” as the pasuk states, “... הִפִּיל פּוּר .../… He cast a lot …” (Esther 3:7) Why is it, “Purim/Lots”?
The Sfas Emes explains that Haman’s lot relate both to Haman and to us. The lot of the Persians was to destroy the Jews. However, since the Jews are eternal and cannot be destroyed, our lot was that the Persian decree should be overturned. Of course, to merit God’s salvation, we needed to pray and supplicate. Their lot, in effect, caused our lot. The paytan/liturgical poet hints at this in the piyut/liturgical poem Asher Heini that we say after we read the Megillah. “פּוּר הָמָן נֶהְפַּךְ לְפוּרֵינוּ/Haman’s lot turned into our lot.”
Drawing lots gives completely random results. There is nothing more natural than this. The fact that we were saved, that the result of Haman’s lot did not come to fruition, indicates that the events that transpired were in fact miracles God rendered to save us. Haman’s lot could only have become our lot through Divine intervention. Therefore, the name of the holiday Purim/Lots is directly related to the essence of the day – God’s hand in our salvation.
Friday, March 18, 2016
HaShem Is Always Calling Us. How to Hear the Calling.
“וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה .../God called Moshe …” (VaYikra 1:1) This first pasuk of parshas VaYikra relates the first time that God spoke to Moshe from the Mishkan. It teaches us, according to Chazal, that each time God spoke to Moshe, he first called him. What is the significance of this?
The first Midrash on this week’s parsha cites a pasuk in Tehillim (103:20), “בָּֽרְכוּ ה' מַלְאָכָיו גִּבֹּרֵי כֹחַ עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרֽוֹ׃/Bless God, His angels, strong warriors doing His bidding to hear His word.” The word “מַלְאָךְ/angel” also means messenger. In fact, the word mal’ach refers to a human messenger in various places in Tanach. The Midrash explains that “מַלְאָכָיו/His angels” in this pasuk does not refer to angels but rather to human messengers. How are we God’s messengers? The Sfas Emes explains that every Jew is sent into this world to do the will of God. Essentially, we are God’s agents in this world. Angels are messengers because they, too, are sent to this world to do the will of God. The difference between angels and us is that we are able to choose whereas an angel has no choice but to do God’s will.
When we choose to fulfill God’s will with our actions, we become, “עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרֽו׃/doers of His bidding to hear His word.” This is a strange construct. Shouldn’t the pasuk state that we will listen to His word in order to do His bidding? How can we do His bidding before understanding what is required? The Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk is teaching us a deep concept. We don’t always know what God’s will is. In any given situation, what is it that God wants us to do? It is not always clear. The pasuk is teaching us the way to know God’s will. First we need to do His bidding. We do this by first resolving to satisfy His will with our action. Before acting we can think that we want our action to achieve God’s will. If we do this, we will merit understanding God’s will in those very activities.
This concept explains “גִּבֹּרֵי כֹחַ/strong warriors” as well. In addition to strength, the word ko’ach means potential. God’s will is the potential of every action. We learn from this pasuk that a person who is determined to fulfill God’s will with his every action, who wants to be God’s emissary in this world, accomplishing that for which he was sent here, is someone who transforms the potential of God’s will into reality.
Moshe Rabbeinu was the archetypal emissary. Like an angel, he was so tuned in, as it were, that he was always ready to hear God and do His will. One who is looking to carry out God’s will with his every action, always hears God. The Torah emphasizes this the very first time God spoke to Moshe Rabbeinu after the construction of the Mishkan with the words, “וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה .../God called Moshe.” This, then, is the significance of the first pasuk of this week’s parsha.
God is constantly calling us. The difference between us and Moshe Rabbeinu is that he always heard it because he was prepared to hear it, prepared to always achieve God’s will through his actions. Like Moshe, God sent all of us into this world to be His agents. He gave each of us the tools we need to achieve this. Moshe Rabbeinu was the quintessential agent of God but the Midrash is speaking to each and every Jew. May we each merit transforming God’s will into reality in all of our daily activities.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
The Significance of Being Happy During the Month of Adar
The shekel is a silver coin that was in use at the time of the giving of the Torah. It is a mitzvah for every man to donate a half shekel (or at least its value) to the Beis HaMikdash once a year. The money is used for public sacrifices. Sacrifices must be brought during the year in which they were purchased. For this purpose, the year is considered to start on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Therefore, even though the half shekel was given during Adar, the sacrifices were first purchased during Nissan. This being the case, why was the money given during Adar?
The Sfas Emes explains that the month of Adar, being the end of the year with respect to the counting of the months (Nissan = month #1, Iyar = month #2 … Adar = month #12) is a time of repentance similar to Elul, the end of the year with respect to the counting of years. The difference between Elul and Adar is in the type of repentance that is required. In Elul, we repent out of awe. In Adar we repent out of love of God.
The mitzvah of Shekalim helps us to love God. This is because giving to a cause is a great way to develop an affinity for that cause. When we give to benefit the Beis HaMikdash, our natural inclination towards God is stimulated and brought out. This is also why Chazal teach us to be particularly happy during the month of Adar. What can make a person happier than returning to God out of love.
This idea helps us to understand why Chazal teach us that giving the half shekel was a rectification for the transgression of the golden calf. Once that natural inner desire to be close to God is stimulated and comes to the fore, every barrier falls away. Chazal allude to this idea when they say that even an iron barrier cannot come between us and God. Similarly, God's beloved said, "שימני כחותם על לבך .../[For the sake of my love,] place me like a seal upon Your heart …" (Shir HaShirim 8:6) – with no barrier separating us.
The mitzvah of Shekalim applies only when the Beis HaMikdash stands. Nowadays, we are still stimulated to love God when we hear Parshas Shekalim read on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Adar, maybe even more so since our desire to give to God is not bounded by the mitzvah of giving the half shekel. Since we do not have the Beis HaMikdash our desire to return can be even more intense. As a result, we are inspired to love God and to return to Him out of happiness. After all, God is interested in our return to Him, not in the half shekel. Giving the half shekel is only a tool to help us come close to God.
Why are we encouraged to prepare for the month of Nissan specifically by cultivating love of God and happiness? Elsewhere, the Sfas Emes teaches that every Rosh Chodesh is a time of renewal. The moon's cycle of waning and waxing is an obvious metaphor for renewal. The aspect of renewal is particularly strong in the month of Nissan since it is the first of all the months. This is the renewal which comes specifically through happiness and love of God. Hence we accent happiness and returning to God out of love specifically during the month that precedes Nissan, the month of Adar.
Thursday, March 03, 2016
The Connection between Shabbos and the Mishkan and How It Manifests in Our Lives
“וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁרצִוָּה ה' לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָֽם/Moshe assembled the entire community of the children of Israel and said to them, ‘These are the things that God commanded to do them.” (Shmos 35:1) This first pasuk of our parsha is referring to the building of the Mishkan. However, immediately following this pasuk, before beginning to recount the building of the Mishkan, there are two p’sukim commanding us to keep Shabbos. Why is this? The answer to this question lies in the common theme that we find in the Mishkan and Shabbos. The goal of both the Mishkan and Shabbos is to bring an awareness of God into our lives.
When the nation of Israel stood at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, Chazal tell us that we stood united. We were united and one with God. The sin of the golden calf separated us from God and divided the nation. Paganism divides. Monotheism unites.
In order to rectify the sin of the golden calf and the consequences of the sin, the Midrash tells us that God gave us the Mishkan. How did the Mishkan rectify the sin? Building the Mishkan entailed many different activities. In fact, building the Mishkan entailed every major category of human activity. These are the thirty-nine categories of work which are prohibited on Shabbos and are derived from the Mishkan. Every activity in the Mishkan was dedicated towards the same goal – the manifestation of the Divine Presence. Building the Mishkan, then, united us and our actions in the service of God. Once the Mishkan was built the barrier between us and God caused by the sin of the golden calf was removed.
But before the Mishkan was built we were divided. In effect, we needed the unifying influence of the Mishkan in order to build it. How were we able to overcome this problem? The answer is through the mitzvah of Shabbos. God unified the nation by giving us the mitzvah of Shabbos first. Shabbos, the day on which creation was completed and God, the ultimate Unity was revealed was the day on which we could unite in serving God, the source of unity.
This is also the reason the parsha starts with the word “וַיַּקְהֵל/He assembled.” No other mitzvah in the Torah begins with this word. Why does the mitzvah of building the Mishkan begin this way? The reason is that “וַיַּקְהֵל/He assembled” connotes a unified group. The noun associated with this verb is “קְהִילָה/community” – a group of people having common interests. Once we were united in serving God through the mitzvah of Shabbos we were ready to build the Mishkan to complete the rectification for the sin of the golden calf.
Shabbos unites the Creation under God, the source of unity. The Mishkan unites individual actions towards the goal of serving God. From the Mishkan we learn that all of our seemingly mundane activities during the course of the week can be consecrated in the service of God.
We find this relationship of general unity (i.e. Shabbos) and unity in the details (i.e. Mishkan) in the two Parshiyos VaYakhel and Pekudei which in many years are read together. Parshas VaYakhel starts with Shabbos, the revelation of the Divine Presence, and proceeds to describe the building of the Mishkan. This is a top down approach. Parshas Pekudei lists every detail of the Mishkan. The end result is unity through revelation of the Divine Presence. This is a bottom up approach. As we’ve seen, the first approach leads directly to the second. First God reveals Himself through Shabbos showering blessing upon us from above and influencing our actions (i.e. top down). Then we build the Mishkan and God is revealed through our actions in this world (i.e. bottom up).
When contemplating the intricate detail in which the Torah describes the Mishkan and its vessels the following question comes to mind. Chazal tell us that blessing is found only in things which are not counted. Here we find a detailed list of every part of the Mishkan! How, then, is blessing found in the Mishkan? To answer this question, the Midrash quotess a pasuk in Mishlei (28:20) which states, “אִישׁ אֱמוּנֽוֹת רַב־בְּרָכוֹת וְאָץ לְהַֽעֲשִׁיר לֹא יִנָּקֶֽה/A man of faith will abound in blessings but one who impatiently pursues wealth will not be exonerated.” The Midrash tells us that “אִישׁ אֱמוּנֽוֹת/A man of faith” refers to Moshe Rabbeinu. The Midrash explains that because Moshe Rabbeinu was a man of faith he abounded in blessings when he built the Mishkan. As a man of faith, Moshe Rabbeinu dedicated his every disparate action towards one common goal thus turning the many into one. This is why there was blessing in the Mishkan even though the details were listed.
This same idea applies to our daily activities. The Mishkan itself and the work we did in it can be viewed as a microcosm of our daily lives. The Mishkan experience enabled us to apply this focus on serving God to our daily activities. If I go about my daily activities with faith in God, I dedicate all my actions to the common goal of serving God. As a result, God showers blessing upon me and all my daily activities.