Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Re'ei 5631 First and Second Ma'amarim

1. “רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה/Look, I place before you today blessing and curse.” The Chiddushei HaRim notes that this pasuk establishes that we are each able to distinguish between good and bad, between blessing and curse, and to choose the blessing. This is the meaning of the first of the morning blessings, “... הַנוֹתֵן לַשֶׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין .../… Who gives the heart understanding to distinguish …” We find this concept in the Midrash on, “... וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים .../… and you shall choose life …” God not only places the choices before us. He also teaches us to choose life. Often, we feel that we are the victims of circumstance. Being a victim implies powerlessness. The Chiddushei HaRim is teaching us that God always gives us a choice and empowers us to choose.

2. The first Midrash on the parsha says that when reading the curses and rebukes in parshas Ki Savo, it is impermissible to stop in the middle. The Midrash explains that God does not want the curses. Rather He wants us to learn from them. When we contemplate the curses and rebukes and then return to God we transform the curses and rebukes into blessing. The Zohar says that a person who accepts his tribulations with love and returns to God transforms those torments into torments of love. He understands that, through the torments, God has shown him a way to return.

Based on this Zohar the Sfas Emes understands the first pasuk in this week’s parsha, not as a choice between two exclusive options. Rather the Sfas Emes understands that God places before us both blessing and curse together. We have the ability to transform the curse into blessing as well. This is why the Midrash teaches us not to stop in the middle of reading the rebukes in the Torah. The rebukes and curses are not separate from the blessing. Everything is potentially blessing.

3. “אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹת ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם .../The blessing, that you will listen to the mitzvos of God your Lord …” The simple meaning of the words implies that the blessing is mitzvah observance. Conventionally, though, blessing is the result of mitzvah observance. In fact, this is how Rashi understands the pasuk, “The blessing is on the condition that you listen …” The Sfas Emes, however, explains the pasuk according to the simple meaning. He bases his understanding of the pasuk on a Midrash in our parsha.

In Mishlei a lamp is used as a metaphor for both the Torah and mitzvos on the one hand and the soul on the other hand. “כִּי נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר .../For a mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light …” Here Shlomo HaMelech compares mitzvos to a lamp and the Torah to the lamp’s light. In another pasuk in Mishlei we find, “נֵר ה' נִשְׁמַת אָדָם .../Man’s soul is the lamp of God …” According to the Midrash God says, “My lamp is in your hands and your lamp is in My hands.” If we protect and keep His lamp, he will protect and keep our lamp.

The Sfas Emes develops this metaphor further. He explains that the Torah is the mechanism through which God gives life to every thing in existence including our actions. The spiritual life-giving force flows out of the Torah into every thing and action in the Creation. It is hidden, though. We have an obligation to reveal this inner spirituality which pervades everything. We do this by performing the mitzvos. The Sfas Emes teaches that every action is a potential mitzvah depending on our intent when we act. The metaphor of a lamp is exact. When the Midrash says that God’s lamp is in our hands, it means that we are able to and required to light the lamp. This happens when we observe the mitzvos. Every act, if done with the intent to serve God, unleashes and reveals the latent spiritual light inherent in the act. The revelation of spiritual light is itself the blessing. It heightens our awareness of God, the ultimate Blessing. This is the exact meaning of the pasuk, “אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹת/The blessing: that you will listen to the mitzvos …”

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