Friday, August 19, 2016

Va'Eschanan 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

Prayer vs. Repentance

The Midrash[1] in this week’s parsha compares the efficacy of prayer vs repentance through an allegory.  Prayer can be compared to a mikveh whereas repentance can be compared to the sea.  A mikveh is open sometimes, closed sometimes.  The sea, however, is always open.  The gates of prayer are sometimes open, sometimes closed.  The gates of repentance, though, are always open. 

The Midrash seems to be teaching us that there are times when prayer is more easily accepted and other times when it is not.  David HaMelech said clearly, “וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי־לְךָ ה' עֵת רָצוֹן אֱ־לֹהִים בְּרָב־חַסְדֶּךָ עֲנֵנִי בֱּאֶמֶת יִשְׁעֶךָ/As for me, may my prayer to You, God, be at a time of desire; Lord, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.” (Tehillim 69:14)  There is a time of desire when prayer is more easily accepted and a time that is not “of desire”.  Repentance, on the other hand, is always accepted.  

Is this really the case?  Are there times that God is more desirous of our prayers and other times when He is less desirous of them as this pasuk implies and as the Midrash seems to be saying?  This is only so, if we take the Midrash at face value as pitting prayer against repentance.  The Sfas Emes explains though that the gates of prayer and the gates of repentance are not comparable.  The gates of prayer are in our hearts.  Prayer, Chazal teach us, is a “service of the heart”.  Repentance, though, is a rectification of our relationship with God.  

When Chazal call prayer a “service of the heart”, they are teaching us something fundamental about prayer.  In essence Chazal answer the following implied question.  How is it possible to ask God for something?  How does prayer help?  If we deserve that for which we are praying, then God should grant it without prayer and if we do not deserve it then what difference our prayers? 
Chazal therefore teach us that prayer is not simply asking God for something.  Prayer means working on one’s self.  It is a “service of the heart”.  What must we do?  How do we work on ourselves?  The Sfas Emes explains based on the Midrash’s metaphor comparing prayer to a mikveh and repentance to the sea.  A mikveh, as opposed to the sea, is an enclosed concentration of water.  The word mikveh means this.[2]  Water is a metaphor for Godly enlightenment.  The Sfas Emes explains that we are each like a mikveh.  Just as the mikveh contains water, so too, do we contain Godly enlightenment.  Successful prayer starts with accessing the Godly enlightenment within us.  The way to do this is by discarding all our desires in favor of what we will receive from the enlightenment that is in us.  This discarding is what Chazal refer to as a service of the heart which itself is prayer.  Sometimes we are able to do this and sometimes we are not.  Sometimes, sin acts as a barrier preventing us from accessing the Godly enlightenment within us.  In the words of the Midrash, the mikveh is sometimes open, sometimes closed.  

Prayer, according to the Sfas Emes’s understanding, is very introspective.  Repentance, on the other hand, is a rectification of the sinner’s relationship with God.  Repentance, literally return, is the tool that the sinner needs in order to repair the connection with God that was severed to some extent by sin.  The gates of repentance are always open because our sins don’t affect God.  He always wants our return.  As long as we truly return to Him, as long as we dedicate ourselves totally to Him, He is always ready to accept us even though we’ve sinned.

This is the meaning of the pasuk in our parsha, “כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱ־לֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה׳ אֱ־לֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/For who is the great nation who has God so close to them, as God, our Lord is whenever we call to Him.” (Devarim 4:7)  Although conventionally, this pasuk is referring to prayer, the Sfas Emes understands it as referring to the dedication that is needed for the process of returning to God to be successful.  He translates, “בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/whenever we call to Him”, as, “when all our calls are to Him.”  The pasuk, then, is teaching us that God is close to us “when all our calls are to Him” – when we are totally dedicated to Him.

May we merit that the gates of prayer – in our own hearts – as well as the gates of repentance – dedicating ourselves totally to God – always be open to us.

[1] Devarim R. 2:12
[2]See Breishis 1:9

Friday, August 12, 2016

Likutim Tisha B'Av

Rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash- What Does It Take?
Chazal[1] teach us that the Beis Hamikdash is considered as if it was destroyed in any generation in which it is not built.  Chazal seem to equate destroying with building implying that building is no more difficult than destroying.  Why is this?  Experience and observation show that it is much easier to destroy than to build!
The Sfas Emes gives three answers to this question.
1)      Since there is a divine aspect to the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, the human act of building presents no hindrance.  Therefore, in order for the Beis HaMikdash to be rebuilt we just need to reach a state at which the Beis HaMikdash would not be destroyed if it existed.  That it is not being rebuilt yet, is a clear indication that it would be destroyed if it existed now, otherwise, we would be able to rebuild it with God’s help.

2)     God wants the Beis HaMikdash to exist.  It is the mechanism through which He reveals Himself in the physical world, the place where the Shechina resides.  The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed only because if it had continued to exist, we would have suffered even more than we did by its destruction.  Chazal tell us that God destroyed wood and stones instead of destroying us.  This then is the only barrier preventing the Beis HaMikdash from being rebuilt.  The moment it can exist at no danger to us, it will be rebuilt immediately.  Since it is not being rebuilt, it must be that it would pose a danger to us if it existed, and would therefore be destroyed.

3)     It really is more difficult to rebuild than to destroy and it is possible to conceive of a generation during which the Beis HaMikdash would not have been destroyed but nevertheless cannot be rebuilt.  Chazal are not saying that if it is not rebuilt in a specific generation it would have been destroyed in that generation had it existed.  Rather, they are saying that it is as if it was destroyed in that generation.  The punishment of the Beis HaMikdash not being rebuilt is as severe as the destruction itself.  The reason is that the experience of and the sadness caused by the destruction should provide us with sufficient extra strength and motivation to overcome any obstacle preventing rebuilding.  The suffering that we experienced due to the destruction and its terrible consequences throughout our history should give us much more motivation to rebuild than the prophet’s exhortations to the nation to prevent the destruction in the first place.  That it doesn’t is certainly a punishment as severe as the destruction itself.  This, it seems, is the reason that Chazal teach us that the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash was worse for the nation than the destruction of the first.  At the time of the second destruction, we had already experienced the first destruction and its consequences.  This, of itself, should have been enough to sufficiently motivate us to prevent the second destruction.  That it did not is the reason Chazal say that the second destruction was worse for us.  Failing to prevent the second destruction after having already experienced the first one is a much greater cause for consternation than the first destruction.
God will help us, in His compassion, for the honor of His name, and we will merit seeing the consolation of Tzion and Yerushalayim quickly in our times Amen, May it be His will!

[1]Yalkut Shimoni Tehilim 137, 886; Yerushalmi Yom 1:1 (5a)

Friday, August 05, 2016

Mas'ei 5633 First Ma'amar

Points of Departure and Journeys

וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶם לְמַסְעֵיהֶם ... וְאֵלֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶם/Moshe wrote their departure points for their journeys … and these are their journeys according to their departure points.” (Bamidbar 33:2)  The beginning of the pasuk stresses the departure points whereas the end of the pasuk stresses the journeys.  Why?

The Sfas Emes teaches that the departure points in the pasuk allude to the original departure point, Egypt.  In fact, the first pasuk states clearly, “אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אַשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם .../These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt …” (Bamidbar 33:1)  The departure from Egypt was our point of reference throughout the sojourn through the desert culminating in our arrival in the land of Israel.  Until we arrived in the land of Israel at the end of all the journeys mentioned, we were considered to be leaving Egypt.  Each milestone further distanced us from Egypt and brought us a step closer to our destination.  The Exodus was complete only upon our arrival in the land of Israel. 

Leaving Egypt and arriving in Israel is a metaphor for separating from the physical in order to attach to and experience God.  The physical world serves the purpose of helping us reach God.  The metaphor teaches us that it is important to separate from the physical in as much as this helps us to come close to God.  There is no requirement to be disgusted by the physical per se.  In fact, God made the physical attractive to us specifically so that we would not hesitate to use it for the sake of Heaven.  The pasuk therefore first stresses the departure points to show us that we need them for the journey.

The physical world is our point of reference in serving God.  As we “travel” and come closer to God the departure point fades, we have left some part of the physical behind and the “leaving” is complete.  The second part of the pasuk stresses the journeys because really, the journey is the key thing.  The journey is our main focus of attention until we reach the next milestone in our life journey of coming close to God.  The departure points – the physical world – give us a context, a reference point, for our journey to come close to God and the journey – our work to serve God – gives meaning to the departure points.