Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Shabbos Teshuvah Ha'azinu 5635

At the most basic level repentance means that a person regrets having sinned and determines not to repeat it. However, we know that a person’s actions have ramifications both in the spiritual and in the physical. A sinner has caused damage. He has caused damage in the spiritual realms and this has resulted in damage to the physical world as well. When the sinner repents what happens to the damage the sin has caused? Is it simply wiped away? Furthermore, he has distanced himself from God, the source of all life. How does repentance repair the damage and restore the sinner’s connection with God?

We can gain insight from a Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi explains that on Rosh HaShanah we become new beings. The Sfas Emes explains that repentance is the mechanism for drawing new life to the sinner. In fact, the Sfas Emes says that this is the primary function of repentance. New creations are created from nothing. Before God created light there was, “… tohu vavohu vechoshech …/… chaos, emptiness and darkness …” The first step for the penitent, then, is to realize that because of his sin he has lost the privilege to exist. He exists solely because God is bestowing upon him underserved existence. The Sfas Emes explains that the Hebrew word for repentance – teshuvah – hints at this idea because it contains the same letters as “tohu vavohu/chaos and emptiness.” In addition it contains the letter shin hinting at the third word choshech/darkness.

Once the sinner realizes that he has lost his privilege to exist, he is ready to be created anew. It is at the point of this realization that the heavenly gate opens and he receives new life. This is the meaning of the piyut/liturgical poem which describes God as, “… haposei’ach sha’ar ledofkei bis’shuvah/… He opens the gate for penitents who knock on it.” This is based on a pasuk in Yechezkeil which describes the third Beis HaMikdash. The pasuk states that during the six days of the week the inner courtyard gate facing east will be closed. The gate of heaven is closed. God will open it though for those who knock; for those who realize that their sins have caused the gate, through which life and existence flows, to be closed to them.

The pasuk continues that on Shabbos the gate will be opened. For this reason, the Sfas Emes explains, it is easier to repent on Shabbos. The gate is already open. God gave us a tool to return to Him. He gave us Shabbos Teshuvah. Let us take advantage of this tool to return to Him.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rosh HaShanah 5632 First Ma'amar

There is a popular custom to eat specific fruits and vegetables on the night of Rosh HaShanah. Each food represents some specific thing that we want for the coming year.[*] When contemplating this custom one is struck by the difference between the custom and the actual prayers of Rosh HaShanah. Whereas the foods that we customarily eat represent the requests that we would ask of God, the actual prayers do not even contain a hint of these requests. Why not simply insert the requests into the prayers?

The reason we do not find requests in the Rosh HaShanah prayers is because the Zohar says that we do not ask for material things on Rosh HaShanah. The thrust of the Rosh HaShanah prayers is to attain a closer relationship with God. We ask that God should place His awe upon all His works. We ask that He rule over us directly instead of through intermediaries. We want to come close to Him. On Rosh HaShanah we proclaim His Kingship over all. This is the point of the Rosh HaShanah prayers.

Since requests for material things are purposely omitted from the Rosh HaShanah prayers, why is it permitted to ask in the form of a symbol? The Sfas Emes explains. God created everything with symbolic meaning that we can use in our service to Him. The Zohar calls this "remiza dechachmesa/hint of wisdom." We can look at every thing and find in it a hint, a symbol, that points to serving God. In fact, the symbolic meaning could well be the main reason for their existence. Using symbols to ask for material things points to this concept. To the extent we want the material things to help us to better serve God, we are permitted to ask for our material needs through the symbolism of the foods,. After all, the very existence of these foods is intertwined with what they symbolize.

On Rosh HaShanah God gives the Creation new life for another year. How can we partake of the blessing that God bestows upon the Creation? The key lies in our intention when we accept the life (and all the things) that God gives us. We receive according to our intention to use what we are given to serve Him. May we merit intending to use everything God gives us to better serve Him!

[*] For example, we eat leek because in Hebrew the word for leek is karti which has the same root as the word for cutting down. We say that this should be a sign that God will cut down our enemies. The Amora Abayei is the source of this custom. It is based on the principle that symbols have significance (simana milsa hi).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Nitzavim VaYeilech - First Ma'amar of VaYeilech 5631

... וְאָעִידָה בָּם אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ/… And I will call upon the heavens and the earth to testify about them (i.e. the nation of Israel).” The heavens and the earth represent the entire Creation. How does the Creation testify? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the entire Creation is affected by the actions of the nation of Israel. When we do good, the Creation responds positively. When, God forbid, the opposite is the case, the Creation responds accordingly. By its response the Creation testifies regarding our actions. When we think about this we come to the realization that it is actually we who are clarifying the inner workings of the Creation. If the Creation responds to our actions then it is as if we are testifying, through our actions, that God is the force that directs everything.

The concept that we are witnesses to the Godly force that underlies the Creation is an aspect of Shabbos. How so? The Zohar says that Shabbos is called a testimony. When we say the pesukim of VaYechulu we are giving testimony that God created the world. Shabbos is the testimony that we give. Chazal say, in fact, that when we say the pesukim of VaYechulu we become partners with God in the Creation. This is because Shabbos as the culmination of Creation represents the entire Creation.

Although generally, nature hides God, nature hides nothing from those who know without doubt that God is the force underlying the Creation. The Sfas Emes goes further and explains that nature does not have the power to hide God from us. The reason is because the source of our souls is above the physical Creation. Chazal tell us that all the souls of the nation of Israel have a single source which is a very high spiritual place, so to speak. In fact, it is such a high place that there is nothing that stands between God, as it were, and the soul of Israel. This is the meaning of the first pasuk of parshas Nitzavim, “אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם .../This day you are all standing before God, your Lord …” The Sfas Emes explains that standing before God implies that there is nothing separating us from Him. There is nothing between us. The implication is that we are between God and the rest of the Creation, so to speak. Anything that comes to the Creation must necessarily come through us.

Rashi alludes to this idea with the following Midrash: Why does the parsha of Nitzavim directly follow the curses of parshas Tavo? The Midrash answers that after the nation heard the curses they became quite upset and complained, “Who can possibly withstand these?!” Moshe Rabeinu, upon hearing this consoled them with parshas Nitzavim where it states, “לְמַעַן הָקִים-אֹתְךָ הַיּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם .../In order to establish you this day as a nation unto Him …” The Midrash explains that the pasuk is comparing the nation to “this day” which is dark at night and light during the day. The Sfas Emes explains that darkness and light come through the nation of Israel. As we explained, this is because the nation of Israel is first in the spiritual structure of the Creation. Because of this, through our actions we have the ability to turn things around.

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים ... לִפְנֵי ה .../You are standing … before God …” also suggests prayer. Standing before God connotes acceptance of and submission to Him. We accept God’s yoke and submit to Him by identifying with the nation of Israel whose collective soul is always before God.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tavo 5631 First Ma'amar

This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvos of bikurim/first fruits and bi’ur ma’asros/removing tithes (from our possession after the third and sixth years of the shmitta cycle.) The pasuk immediately following these mitzvos is, “הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים .../This day God, your Lord commands you to do these laws …” This pasuk seems to be extraneous. The requirements for these mitzvos are already clearly stated directly before. What is the purpose of this pasuk here?

The first Midrash Tanchuma on the parsha addresses this question. The mitzvah of bikurim comprises two main components. First, we are required to bring the first fruit of our produce to the priests in the Beis HaMikdash. After bringing the first fruit we are required to thank God for His bounty and pray to Him for our needs. A person who prays upon bringing his first fruit can ask God for his needs and the needs of the nation of Israel and expect to be answered, as the pasuk says, “Hayom hazeh/This day.” The Midrash understands “This day” as if it is connected to the previous pasuk which describes the person’s prayer. The Midrash says that, in fact, a heavenly voice answers that, “You will merit bringing next year as you have brought this day.” The pasuk by adding, “Hayom hazeh/This day” is teaching us just how powerful the person’s prayer really is.

The proper performance of the mitzvah of bikurim is intimately connected to our sustenance for the coming year. Accordingly, not being able to perform this mitzvah could be devastating to our livelihood. How can we still benefit from God’s blessing if we are not able to keep this mitzvah?

The Midrash, addressing this question, says that Moshe Rabbeinu foresaw a time when there would be no Beis HaMikdash and we would not be able to observe the mitzvah of bikurim. Moshe Rabbeinu knew the power of prayer from his own experience. When he prayed to enter Israel, God stopped him. If he had continued, God would have acquiesced, as it were, to Moshe’s prayer. Even so, because of his prayer God allowed him to see all of Israel. In order to still benefit from God’s blessing, Moshe Rabbeinu instituted prayer thrice daily.

Why thrice daily? What is the connection between praying three times a day and bikurim? After all, it is already a mitzvah to pray. Why does this not suffice? What extra advantage is there from an officially instituted practice of praying three times a day? The Chiddushei HaRim explains the relationship between praying three times a day and the mitzvah of bikurim. The benefit of bikurim is because we are giving our first fruit to God’s priests. We are thinking of Him before we think of ourselves. This same idea applies to prayer. Moshe Rabbeinu requires us to dedicate the first moments of every daily time change to God, morning, afternoon and evening. Even though one may pray the entire afternoon and the entire night, the halacha encourages us to pray at the beginning of each time period before engaging in other activities. By instituting set times for daily prayer at the beginning of each time change, Moshe Rabbeinu transferred the challenge of bikurim to a different activity – prayer – for when the mitzvah of bikurim is not applicable.

The Midrash continues that if “this day” teaches us the power of our prayers and defines the reach of our expectations through prayer why is it simply not attached to the end of the previous pasuk? Why is there an entire additional pasuk that says once again that God commanded us to perform these mitzvos? The Midrash answers that the Torah is teaching us a new concept. We learn from this extra pasuk to relate to the mitzvos as if they are being newly received each day.

The Sfas Emes is bothered by this statement. It implies that the mitzvos are not really new each day but we should view them as if they are. Is the intent of the Midrash then to mislead us, God forbid?!

The Sfas Emes explains that there is certainly an aspect of renewal in everything that God created because creation is a constant act, not a one time act. The universe and everything in it is constantly being created anew as we say in our morning prayers, “He renews the Creation in His goodness each day constantly.” Furthermore, each physical creation has in it a spiritual life force to which it owes its continued existence whose energy is being constantly replenished. However, this spiritual energy flow and the associated renewal is hidden by the physical as Shlomo HaMelech said in Koheles, “אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשֶׁמֶשׁ/There is nothing new under the sun.” “Under the sun” represents the physical world. The Sfas Emes explains that the renewal is not noticeable in the physical.

The Torah is teaching us that we have the power to reveal and shed light on the renewal aspect of the Creation through performance of the mitzvos. This is the Midrashic meaning of the pasuk. “Hayom hazeh/This day” represents the constant renewal of the creation. According to the (Sfas Emes’s explanation of the) Midrash, the pasuk can be read, “הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים .../The aspect of renewal is what God your Lord commanded you to find with the mitzvos.”

How successful we are at revealing the spiritual in the physical is dependent on the strength of our belief that it is there. Chazal express this idea in another pasuk from this week’s parsha, “וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע .../If you will truly listen …” “Shamo’a tishma/You will truly listen” is a repetition of the word for listen. Why does the pasuk repeat? Chazal explain that if you listen to the old (in the past), you will merit listening to the new (in the future). The Hebrew for listen connotes acceptance. The Sfas Emes understands that the old represents the physical whereas the new represents the spiritual life-force which is the source of renewal in the world. Chazal are teaching us that to the extent that we believe that there is a Godly spiritual life-force hidden within the physical, that Godliness will be revealed to us.

This is the meaning of the Midrash. The mitzvos, along with everything else really are renewed each day and in fact continuously. The renewal is spiritual and hidden, though. How then, can we experience this renewal, this Godly revelation? The Midrash teaches us that we can experience a daily renewal by viewing the mitzvos as if they were given to us today.

We find the idea that God reveals Himself to us according to our belief Him also in the pasuk in Tehillim, “בֹּאוּ נִשְׁתַּחַוֶה וְנִכְרָעָה .../Come let us prostrate ourselves and bow …” Here too, we find a repetition. Prostration is the ultimate symbol of submission. Prostration before God connotes submission to God. It connotes submission to whatever God’s Truth is. The word for bow in this pasuk is in the reflexive form implying a causative connection between the will to submit to God and receiving the benefits of that submission. To the extent we submit to God, we merit a revelation of God’s Truth.