Tuesday, November 28, 2006

VaYeitzei 5632 First Ma'amar

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶך חָרָנָה/Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva; he went towards Charan.” (Breishis 28:10) The immediate question that arises, the question the Midrash asks and which Rashi quotes is that the beginning of this pasuk seems extraneous. We know where Ya’akov Avinu lived. Unless there is an indication otherwise, we can assume that his point of departure was Be’er Sheva, his hometown. Why does the Torah make a point of telling us the place from which he left?

Going to Charan was a drastic step for Ya’akov Avinu. He was leaving his father’s house and the Yeshiva of Ever – holy places – for Charan an impure place far from the holiness to which he was accustomed. Such a trip required preparation. The pasuk is making exactly this point. Be’er Sheva is a metaphor. Be’er/Well represents the spiritual and Sheva/Seven represents the physical Creation (e.g. seven days of creation, seven days of the week.) Be’er Sheva, then, represents the spiritual within the physical. It represents that point of spiritual force which gives sustenance and existence to the physical Creation. The pasuk is telling us that Ya’akov Avinu was able to journey to Charan only because he was coming from Be’er Sheva. He was able to journey to the impure city of Charan because his point of departure was a total and complete connection to the spiritual force represented by Be’er Sheva.

The first Midrash on the parsha alludes to this idea. The Midrash cites a pasuk in Mishlei (3:23), “אָז תֵּלֵךְ לָבֶטַח דַּרְכֶּךָ .../Then you shall go securely on your way …” The Midrash says that this pasuk is referring to Ya’akov Avinu’s journey from Be’er Sheva to Charan as it states in the Torah, “וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע .../Yaakov left Be’er Sheva …” What compelled the Midrash to give this interpretation? Furthermore, what proof is the Midrash bringing from the first pasuk in our parsha?

The Sfas Emes explains that the first word of the pasuk אָז/Then is the clue. The gematria of the word אָז is 8. As we’ve noted, seven denotes nature while eight denotes that which is beyond nature. The Midrash understands that this pasuk is referring to Ya’akov because he was on a level beyond nature. It is hinting that the reason Ya’akov Avinu was able to journey securely to Charan was because he first subjugated himself completely to God. Because he was connected completely to that which was beyond nature, he would not be affected by the impurity that would soon surround him. The Midrash knows this because the Torah makes a point of telling us that Ya’akov left from Be’er Sheva. Ya’akov was able to journey securely because his point of departure was that spiritual level represented by Be’er Sheva.

The first pasuk of the parsha is actually imparting good advice. The Torah is teaching us that we can grow spiritually even through the most mundane activities. The key is to prepare before the activity. First realize that there is more to the physical Creation than meets the eye. There is an underlying spiritual force that gives life, existence and meaning to the physical world. Following Ya’akov Avinu’s example, by submitting completely to God, by wanting to connect to the spiritual within the physical, we grow spiritually even from our most mundane activities. The key is to prepare beforehand and remember during the activity.

By the same token, this advice applies to the Exile. The Torah is teaching us that just as Ya’akov prepared himself and was therefore able to grow even in Charan, we, too, can improve ourselves and grow even while outside of the land of Israel.

The same idea applies to Shabbos and the days of the week as well. On Shabbos we can all receive a spiritual revelation if only we are open to experiencing it. Experiencing this revelation actually draws spirituality into the following week. The key here, too, is to remember the spiritual during the days of the week when we are involved in mundane apparently non-spiritual activities. This is also alluded to in the first pasuk of the parsha. Be’er Sheva represents an aspect of Shabbos - Be’er Sheva: lit. the Well of Seven alludes to Shabbos, the seventh day of the week - and Charan represents an aspect of the days of the week. By preparing on Shabbos we can grow spiritually during the days of the week as well.

The Sfas Emes explains that this idea is the deeper meaning of the first Rashi in the parsha. Rashi, in answer to the question first posed above, quotes the answer given by the first Midrash of the parsha. The Midrash says that the pasuk starts with, “וַיֵּצֵא/He left” in order to teach us that when a righteous person leaves a city it is noticed. When the righteous person is in the city, he is the city’s glory, brilliance and splendor. When the righteous person leaves the city, the glory, brilliance and splendor leave with him.

The Sfas Emes explains that the righteous person in the city is an analogy for the spiritual within everything physical. When we remember this during our daily activities, we bring out the spiritual meaning inherent in those activities. This is the hidden glory, brilliance and splendor that we are able to unveil. However, when we go about our daily activities without contemplating the underlying spirituality inherent in everything we do, then our activities really are just mundane. The glory, brilliance and splendor are gone.

Our challenge is to prepare for each day’s activities. We have the ability to transform our mundane activities into meaningful spiritual events which shine. The key is in the preparation.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Toldos 5631 First Ma'amar

This week’s parsha relates the story of the three wells that Yitzchak’s servants dug. Avimelech’s shepherds argued with Yitzchak’s shepherds regarding ownership of the first two wells. Over the third well, however, there was no argument. Yitzchak called the first two wells Eisek and Sitnah respectively. He called the third well Rechovos. What is the significance of this story?

The Chidushei HaRim explains that digging a well in search of water is a metaphor for the search to uncover the Godliness hidden in the physical world. The first two wells Eisek and Sitnah represent this search during the days of the week. Eisek means to work at and Sitnah comes from the word hate as in hating the evil inclination. Rechovos has the same root as the Hebrew word for expansion. Rechovos represents the culmination of the search on Shabbos. This is because on Shabbos there is an expansion of holiness in the physical world. During the week, by performing mitzvos and learning Torah, we attempt to reveal the spiritual Godly light that is hidden in the Creation. According to the extent of our work during the week we merit a revelation on Shabbos.

The Sfas Emes explains that our very purpose in this world is to uncover the spiritual within the physical. Everything in this world is a tool for us to use. When we use the physical world to perform mitzvos and learn Torah we elevate the physical world to a higher spiritual level. In this way we uncover the Godliness underlying the Creation. The Sfas Emes tells us that this was the main work of our forefathers.

We find this in a Midrash Tanchuma regarding learning Torah as well. The Midrash Tanchuma quotes a pasuk in Mishlei (1:20), “חָכְמוֹת בַּחוּץ תָּרֹנָה בָּרְחֹבוֹת תִּתֵּן קוֹלָהּ/Wisdoms shout in the street; in the streets she gives forth her voice.” The Midrash says that Shlomo HaMelech is referring to studying Torah. At first glance the pasuk seems to be saying that Torah should be studied anywhere, even in the streets. However, the Midrash makes it clear that the streets in this pasuk are referring to the “streets of Torah”, those study halls and gathering places that are designated for Torah study. The word בָּרְחֹבוֹת/in the streets, has the same root as the Hebrew word for expansion - הרחבה. The Midrash says that Torah should be studied in a place where it can be expanded. The Sfas Emes explains that this expansion of Torah is more than just better learning. It is an expansion of the Torah’s light into the physical world. The Midrash is teaching us that Torah needs to be studied so that its light will be brought into the physical world. This Torah learning, the Sfas Emes explains, is an aspect of Torah Shebe’al Peh (lit. the Oral Law). The essence of Torah Shebe’al Peh is our ability to produce חִידוּשׁ/novelty through our Torah learning. Essentially when we study Torah we are effecting change in the physical world. Bringing the Torah’s light into the physical world and uncovering the Godliness in the Creation is one and the same thing.

The Midrash in this week’s parsha also hints at this idea. The Midrash associates each of the wells Yitzchak dug with one of the books of the Torah. Rechovos is associated with the book of Devarim based on the pasuk in Devarim (12:20), “כִּי-יַרְחִיב ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ.../When God your Lord expands your borders …” since, as we've noted, the word יַרְחִיב/expands has the same root as Rechovos. The Sfas Emes explains that the deeper meaning of this pasuk is that God is expanding His holiness throughout nature. The well named Rechovos, as the Chidushei HaRim taught, represents Shabbos, the day on which holiness expands into the physical world.

As we’ve said, our forefathers’ main work was to uncover the light of the Torah, the Godliness in the Creation. Yitzchak spent his life striving to reveal the Godliness within everything. In fact, Esav was able to play on this to fool his father. When Esav asked Yitzchak how to take tithe salt and straw, Yitzchak viewed this as another way of uncovering the Godly life force in even the most mundane things of this world. Through tithing, the No’am Elimelech explains, the food is raised to a higher spiritual level. Esav’s scheme was to fool Yitzchak by appearing to want to find ways of bringing out the holiness in even the lowliest objects.

Yitzchak was particularly open to this because he used every possible avenue in serving God. We find a hint to this in the pasuk referring to Yitzchak’s success, “... וַיֵלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וְגָדֵל עַד כִּי גָדַל מְאֹד/… and he grew constantly greater until he had grown very great.” The Zohar in this week’s parsha, referring to a Midrash in Breishis, explains that the word מְאֹד/very alludes to the evil inclination. The Midrash explains the pasuk, “... והנה טוב מאד/… and it was very good.” This pasuk refers to God’s observation of the Creation when it was completed. The Midrash says that this refers to the evil inclination and the angel of death. The evil inclination is needed, the Midrash explains, because without it people would not marry, build houses, etc. The angel of death is necessary, the Zohar explains because the fear of death is a main motivator for teshuvah. The pasuk, “and it was very good” refers to the evil inclination and the angel of death because the world as we know would not be able to function without them. The pasuk is teaching us that Yitzchak used everything, even the evil inclination, to reveal God in the world.

Chazal teach us that we should strive to uncover the Godliness in everything in the Creation even to the extent of using our evil inclination to do so. The pasuk says, “וְאָהַבְתָּ ... בכל לבבך.../And love … with all your heart …” (Devarim 6:5) The Hebrew word for heart contains the letter beis twice even though it could be written with one beis. Chazal teach us that this alludes to our two inclinations, the good and the evil, emanating from the heart. The Torah is teaching us that we should use both to serve God. May we merit emulating our forefathers and, through our actions and Torah learning reveal the spiritual in the physical world.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Chayei Sarah 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים .../And the life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years …” (Breishis 23:1) In every other instance that the Torah tells us the length of an individual’s life, the language is clear and straightforward. For example, “These are the days that Adam lived, 900 years and 30 years.” Another example from the end of this week’s parsha is, “And these are the years of Yishma’el’s life, 100 years and 30 years and 7 years.” Stating that the life of Sarah was 127 years seems awkward. The pasuk is apparently teaching us something in addition to the number of years that Sarah lived.

The first Midrash of the parsha sheds light on this pasuk. The Midrash mentions an enigmatic pasuk in Tehillim, "יוֹדֵעַ ה' יְמֵי תְמִימִים .../God knows the days of the complete ... " (Tehillim 37:18) What does this mean? After all, God knows everything. What is David HaMelech teaching us?

The Sfas Emes explains each word in this pasuk. יוֹדֵעַ/Know, connotes connection. We find, for example, “And Adam knew his wife Chava …” (Breishis 4:1) He connected with her. Another example from last week’s parsha is when God says, referring to Avraham Avinu, “For I have known him …” (Breishis 18:19) Rashi explains that this is an expression of God's love for Avraham Avinu because loving implies drawing someone near and knowing that person.

"יְמֵי/The days of" suggests nature - the physical world - since time was created together with the physical world and only applies in the physical world. The life force that underlies everything in the Creation is outside of time. The righteous, though, through their actions, brings the entire Creation closer to its life giving source. How? What is special about the actions of the righteous? The righteous, after all, also live in the physical world. Their days are also filled with many mundane activities that make up our lives just like everyone else. The difference is the intent behind their actions. The righteous understand that spirituality underlies everything physical. Physical actions, even mundane actions can have spiritual purpose. We are here to uncover the spiritual purpose that underlies everything. The righteous connect to the spiritual purpose of all their physical activities.

Finally, the word תְּמִימִים/complete in the pasuk also has this connotation. A person who connects the physical and spiritual in his actions is performing “complete” actions. His actions make him complete as well. The Midrash on this pasuk in Tehillim conveys this point. The Midrash says that just as the righteous are complete, so too, their years are complete. What is the Midrash teaching us when it says that their years are complete? The actions of the righteous elevate the natural world to a level on which the connection between the physical world and its spiritual underpinnings is revealed. During their years, the Creation is complete.

This is the meaning of a pasuk in Mishlei (13:16), כָּל-עָרוּם יַעֲשֶׂה בְדָעַת וּכְסִיל יִפְרֹשׂ אִוֶּלֶת/Every cunning man acts with knowledge, but a fool spreads stupidity." The Sfas Emes understands that a cunning man in this pasuk refers to one who is righteous. As we've noted, knowledge connotes connection. When Shlomo HaMelech says that the righteous act with knowledge he is essentially saying that they connect their physical actions to their underlying spiritual purpose. Ultimately, physical activity is a tool for connecting to the Source. The fool, on the other hand, separates his physical activities from their spiritual purpose (The Hebrew word in this pasuk for spread – יִפְרֹשׂ – has the same letters as the Hebrew word for separate – יִפְרֹשׁ.) The pasuk in Tehillim, "God knows the days of the complete" is thus understood as, "God connects with the physical world through the actions of the righteous.”

With this understanding we can explain the first pasuk in this week's parsha. The pasuk is teaching us more than just the number of years that Sarah lived. The pasuk is teaching us that during her years, because of her actions through which God connected to the physical world, the physical world was elevated. The word for life in the pasuk is not referring to her own life but rather to the life/existence of the Creation. The pasuk is saying that the existence/life of the Creation was "hers" as Chazal teach us in Maseches Avos that the righteous sustain the world which was created with ten commands. The ten commands represent the Godly force that underlies the Creation. Chazal are saying that the righteous sustain the world by elevating the physical to the spiritual force that is the foundation of the physical world.

As a result of her actions, God bestowed bounty and blessing on the world. This is hinted at by the end of the pasuk in Tehillim mentioned earlier, יוֹדֵעַ ה' יְמֵי תְמִימִים וְנַחֲלָתָם לְעוֹלָם תִּהְיֶה/God knows the days of the complete and their inheritance is forever.” The word for inheritance has the same root as the word for river – נַחַל . When, because of the actions of the righteous, God connects to the physical world, the result is a river of bounty to the world.

Our challenge is to emulate the righteous, to elevate the physical world to a level of completeness. We can do this by performing complete actions, physical actions whose purpose is to connect to God.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Vayeira 5632 First Ma'amar

Iyov said, “וְאַחַר עוֹרִי נִקְּפוּ זֹאת וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/After my skin was stricken they pierced this, and from my flesh I perceive God.” (Iyov 19:26) The Midrash in this week’s parsha attributes these words to Avraham Avinu as well. Avraham Avinu continues, “If I had not circumcised myself how would God have been revealed to me?” (Breishis R. 48:2)

Why is God’s revelation to Avraham Avinu dependent upon his circumcision? Furthermore, God spoke to Avraham several times before he was circumcised. What, then, is the meaning of Avraham Avinu’s statement that he received revelation only after the circumcision?

The Sfas Emes explains. The Creation was not a one time act. The act of creation is constant and continuing. There is a spiritual force emanating from God which gives continued existence to every facet of the Creation. Revealing this point of spirituality – by believing it is there – is in essence revealing God’s presence in the world.

Avraham Avinu first realized this when he was commanded to circumcise himself. The removal of the foreskin represents the removal of the outer physical shell hiding God’s presence. When it is removed, God’s presence is automatically revealed. This realization prompted him to declare, “... וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/… from my flesh I perceive God.” Avraham Avinu is not referring only to God’s revelation in his immediate prophecy. He is rather referring to his perception of God’s revelation in the entire Creation.

This is why the first pasuk of the parsha states, “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו .../He appeared to him …” (Breishis 18:1) instead of “וַיֵּרָא ה' אֶל-אַבְרָם .../God appeared to Avrum” (Breishis 12:7) as the pasuk states when God spoke to him earlier before the circumcision. “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו .../He appeared to him …” is more general. The pasuk is telling us that God’s presence concealed in every part of Creation, giving life to every part of Creation, was now revealed to him.

The idea that there is a life giving spark of Godliness concealed in every part of the Creation is alluded to by the first word of the parsha, “וַיֵּרָא/He appeared.” This word is closely related to, “וַיַּרְא/He saw.” In the description of the Creation at the beginning of parshas Breishis, as each stage of Creation comes to a close we find the declaration, “וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים כִּי-טוֹב/God saw that it was good.” (Breishis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25) Finally when the entire Creation is complete the pasuk tells us, “וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד .../God saw all that he had done and behold it was very good …” (Breishis 1:31) The Sfas Emes explains that the first part of each of these pesukim caused the second part. Everything that God created was good because He saw it. God bestows “good”/life upon His Creation by observing it. It is God’s observation or Providence which gives life to the Creation.

We see this concept clearly in the deeper meaning of the pasuk referring to God’s Providence upon the land of Israel, “... תָּמִיד עֵינֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בָּה .../… God’s eyes are constantly upon it...” (Devarim 11:12) The land of Israel is the point from which life extends to the entire world. The reason that life and existence extend to the entire world from the land of Israel is because God’s Providence is always upon it.

The circumcision is a metaphor for revealing God’s presence in the world. In general terms, this is, in fact, our mission on Earth. When we recognize this and apply this recognition to our daily activities, we are, so to speak, removing the physical shell that conceals God’s presence. We, thus, reveal God’s presence in the world.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lech Lecha 5632 First Ma'amar

... לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ/Leave your country, your birth place and your father’s house for the land that I will show you.” (Breishis 12:1) Why did God not reveal the land to Avraham Avinu immediately? The reason, according to the Midrash, was to make the task more precious to him and to give him a reward for each step that he took to get there.[1]

Coming to the land of Israel represents a quest to understand and achieve God’s will. We can understand God’s will by subordinating our own to His. We show God that we want to subordinate our own will to His by being willing to sacrifice all to see His will. This is the lesson we learn from Avraham Avinu. He had such a burning desire to know God’s will that he was ready to leave everything he knew behind him to pursue it. When he did this, God’s will revealed to him.

We learn an important principal from Avraham Avinu. Many times God’s will is beyond our ken. We do not understand what God wants from us. We do not understand why things happen to us. We find it difficult to leave behind that which we understand, know and are comfortable with to delve into uncharted territory. However, if we express our desire to understand by always being open to hear and accept God’s will even at the expense of suppressing our own, even if it is beyond our current understanding and knowledge, it will be revealed to us. This is clear from a pasuk in Tehillim (45:11), “שִׁמְעִי בַת וּרְאִי וְהַטִּי אָזְנֵך וְשִׁכְחִי עַמֵּךְ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ/Listen daughter and see and incline your ear and forget your nation and your father’s house.” An attitude of openness and acceptance, a mode of listening, seeing and hearing even at the expense of current understanding and knowledge, is needed. This open attitude of acceptance of that which is beyond our grasp is the prerequisite for understanding God’s will.
[1] Breishis R. 39:9