Wednesday, December 27, 2006

VaYigash 5631 Second Ma'amar

“ויאמר יוסף אל אחיו אני יוסף העוד אבי חי ולא יכלו אחיו לענות אתו כי נבהלו מפניו/Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’ His brothers could not answer him because they were shocked before him.” The Midrash says that in this pasuk Yosef rebuked his brothers and they were not able to answer because of the shame they felt. The Midrash compares this with God’s rebuke on the ultimate day of judgment, “אוי לנו מיום הדין אוי לנו מיום התוכחה/Woe is to us on the day of judgment; woe is to us on the day of rebuke.” If the brothers could not withstand Yosef’s admonishment, how will we be able to withstand the ultimate admonishment before the redemption. Is the Midrash’s comparison simply one of degrees of rebuke or is there a fundamental connection between Yosef’s chiding his brothers and God’s chastisement on the final day of judgment?

The Sfas Emes explains that the rebukes are fundamentally the same. To understand why, we need to understand why the brothers were ashamed. The Sfas Emes explains that the brothers were mistaken about Yosef himself. The Zohar tells us that Yosef was שומר הברית/keeper of the covenant. Conventionally, this refers to his overcoming the temptations presented to him by the wife of Potiphar. The covenant that he kept was the covenant of the circumcision.

In this world holiness is hidden by gross physicality. The removal of the foreskin represents an unveiling of the holiness that lies within the physical world. (See VaYeira 5632 First Ma’amar for a detailed discussion of this concept.) Yosef, as the keeper of the covenant, represents the holiness that is within the physical world. The brothers, because this was hidden, did not realize it. Once Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, when they were confronted with their mistake, they stood in shame.

At the ultimate redemption as well, it will be made clear for all to see that the physical world in which we live is replete with holiness. God gave us the physical world and our circumstances to use to accomplish God’s will thereby rectifying ourselves and our environment. Before the final redemption, when this fact becomes clear to us we will look back at our lives and wonder how we could have used the physical world for purposes that were at odds with God’s will. Realizing our mistake, we will stand in shame before God. This is why the Midrash compares Yosef’s rebuke and the rebuke on the final day of judgment. They are fundamentally the same.

We can prevent the rebuke and our resulting shame by internalizing the understanding that everything around us and everything that happens to us are tools that God gave us in order to use to accomplish His will and come close to Him. On the day of judgment we will be able to stand before God, not in shame, but proudly having used these tools for their fundamental and ultimate purposes. Amen.

Monday, December 25, 2006

VaYigash 5631 First Ma'amar

At the end of parshas Mikeitz, Yosef frames his younger brother Binyamin. He decides that as a punishment he will keep Binyamin as a servant and free the rest of his brothers. In the beginning of our parsha, Yehudah tries to convince Yosef to take him instead of Binyamin. To this end he recounts the sequence of events from the brothers’ initial encounter with Yosef to the present.

The question that immediately presents itself is that Yehudah’s argument adds nothing that is not already known. He simply recounts the events leading up to the current situation. What is the point of this?

To answer this question it will help to first understand the fundamental difference between Yosef and Yehudah in their approach to serving God. In the second ma’amar of parshas VaYeishev 5631 the Sfas Emes explains, in the name of his grandfather the Chidushei HaRim that Yosef and Yehudah are archetypes of different kinds of tzadikim. Yosef was completely dedicated to God. In this sense, he was removed from the mundane. Yosef saw the Godliness that gives life to everything physical. In fact, the Sfas Emes tells us that Yosef actually represents this hidden Godliness. The Torah calls him the most consecrated of his brothers (Breishis 49:26). Yehudah, on the other hand, revealed the holiness in the mundane. The Torah tells us, regarding Yehudah, “May God hear Yehudah’s voice and bring him to his people.” (Devarim 33:7) The Chidushei HaRim understands this as an allusion to Yehudah bringing God to His people.

There are tzadikim who do not have many followers. They are very holy and removed from the world around them. This is Yosef’s approach. On the other hand, there are tzadikim who have many followers. Their work is in influencing as many people as possible. They bring holiness into the mundane. This is Yehudah’s approach.

What did Yehudah gain by simply rehashing the recent events? The Chidushei HaRim explains that Jews are called Yehudim in Hebrew, after Yehudah. The name Yehudah comes from the root word hoda’a which means “thanks” and “admission.” Jews are called Yehudim because we thank God for everything, large and small. We know that everything comes from Him.

Yehudah understood that everything, even the most difficult situation, is from God. Yehudah knew that to be saved he would have to approach the level of Yosef. On this level he was able to approach Yosef, who represented the actual Godliness hidden in this world. The way he raised himself to Yosef’s level was by repeating the sequence of events leading to the present difficult situation, admitting and accepting, at each step, that it was all from God. The hidden Godliness within the events was thus revealed. The greatest good we can aspire to, is coming close to God himself. Therefore, revelation itself is redemption. That is why immediately following Yehudah’s argument, the Torah tells us that Yosef was no longer able to contain himself and he revealed himself to his brothers. Once the Godliness was revealed, the brothers were saved.

The Torah is teaching us an important lesson. Any time we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we have the tools with which to save ourselves. We need to first understand that God is hidden in even the most difficult circumstances. Even if a person thinks that his own mistakes caused his current situation, (the Torah tells us that Yosef’s brothers blamed themselves for their predicament) when he recognizes that God is the life giving force behind his predicament and asks God for help, he will be answered.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mikeitz 5631 End of Second Ma'amar

It is possible that Pharaoh’s dreams were also meant to prepare Yosef for the coming exile. In fact, the Midrash tells us that in the merit of Yosef, we were stringent regarding illicit relations, no mean feat in decadent Egypt. The Midrash says that this is one of the qualities we exhibited to be worthy of redemption.

Yosef represented the ability to find enlightenment even from within the spiritual concealment which typified ancient Egypt. Yosef is referred to as שומר הברית/shomer habris/keeper of the covenant. Conventionally this is a reference to his overcoming the temptation presented to him by his master Potiphar’s wife. However, when we think about the fundamental definition of a covenant we come to realize that this concept has broader applications. A covenant defines a relationship. It is the point at which two people or entities connect. In the case of the relationship between God and the Creation the point of connection is the spiritual essence that God sent into the physical Creation to give it life and existence. This spiritual essence is the sign that there is a relationship between the Creation and God. Accordingly, Yosef was a שומר הברית/shomer habris/keeper of the covenant in the sense that he connected to God by concentration on the spiritual essence of everything he did. He did this by subjugating his own desires before God’s in everything he did. This quality of Yosef was necessary to ameliorate the effects of the exile in Egypt. Indeed, the Midrash says that the exile of Egypt began only when we stopped keeping the covenant. When we stopped keeping the covenant, a new king arose in Egypt who decreed new decrees. The plain meaning of the Midrash refers to the covenant of circumcision. According to the Sfas Emes, though, the deeper meaning of the Midrash hints to the covenant defining our relationship with God.

This aspect of Yosef is a useful tool to help us find spiritual enlightenment not only in exile but also in any situation which is not ideally conducive to this. For example, it can be applied to lighting up our weekdays in spite of our daily distractions. How do we do this? Most of our actions during the week are spiritually neutral. In conventional terms we would not consider them to be mitzvos. We eat. We go to work. We relate to our spouses and family. However, depending upon our intent in the course of our daily activities, we have the ability to transform everything that we do into a mitzvah. Our intent enables us to find the spiritual essence hiding within every physical activity. The Sfas Emes explains that by subordinating our own desires and thinking instead about raising ourselves spiritually and coming close to God, we can all find the spiritual essence within everything we do.

The Sfas Emes explains this spiritual essence, its concealment and revelation, in terms of the days of the week and Shabbos. The concept of Shabbos is a revelation of the spiritual that is within the physical. By contemplating our actions beforehand we can find this concept during the week as well. The difference between Shabbos and the weekdays is that during the week finding this spirituality requires work whereas on Shabbos it is much easier if we are open to it.

We see this concept in a pasuk in Yechezkel referring to the third Beis HaMikdash, “שער החצר הפנימית הפונה קדים יהיה סגור ששת ימי המעשה וביום השבת יפתח וביום החדש יפתח/Sha’ar hechatzeir hapenimis haponeh kadim yehiyeh sagur sheishes yemei hama’aseh uvayom haShabbos yepasei’ach uveyom hachodesh yepasei’ach/The inner courtyard gate that faces east will be closed during the six workdays but on Shabbos it will be opened and on Rosh Chodesh it will be opened.” The gates of the temple opening and closing connote spiritual gates opening and closing. On Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh there is a spiritual revelation that we don’t find naturally during the week. According to the Sfas Emes, this pasuk is not only referring to the day of Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh. It is referring to the concept of spiritual revelation exemplified by Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh. In this sense, we can experience an aspect of Shabbos during the week as well.

We’ve seen that experiencing the concept of Shabbos entails contemplating coming close to God through our daily activities. What is the concept of Rosh Chodesh? Rosh Chodesh represents renewal. The Sfas Emes explains that Rosh Chodesh represents faith that in nature there is a continuous renewal of the continuing existence of the Creation.

Living our lives within the natural world, it is easy to become lulled into thinking that there is no renewal at all. Our observation of nature leads us to this conclusion. Today is the same as yesterday and yesterday was the same as the day before. Shlomo HaMelech wrote in Koheles, “אין כל חדש תחת השמש/Ein kol chadash tachas hashemesh/There is nothing new under the sun.” “Under the sun” is a metaphor for the natural world. Shlomo HaMelech is making our point. He is teaching us that within the natural world there is no indication of renewal. The inference is that “above the sun” – outside of nature – there is renewal. The Sfas Emes explains this as an allusion to the aspect of Shabbos that represents subordination to God’s will and the aspect of Rosh Chodesh that represents faith in continuous renewal. These are certainly qualities that transcend the natural world around us.

The idea of “שומר הברית/shomer habris/keeper of the covenant” includes both these concepts. When we desire to do God's will in our everyday activities and cultivate an understanding that because of the continuous renewal of the Creation, each moment is an opportunity to renew ourselves, we are emulating Yosef. This is a powerful tool. Applying it can transform our lives.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mikeitz 5631 First Ma'amar & beginning of Second Ma'amar

Pharaoh dreamt that seven fat cows came out of the Nile followed by seven emaciated ones. The emaciated cows devoured the fat cows. Even so, the lean cows looked the same as before. He then dreamt that seven fat ears of grain were devoured by seven withered ears. The withered ones looked the same as before.

According to Yosef’s interpretation, Pharaoh’s dreams referred to seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of famine. Yosef suggested that Egypt prepare during the seven years of plenty so that they would be able to survive the subsequent famine.

Every physical thing has a spiritual counterpart which causes it to continue to exist. Even evil owes its continued existence to the Godly life force that is hidden within it. Pharaoh’s dreams are an allusion to this idea.

Describing the lean cows devouring the fat ones Pharaoh tells Yosef, “…they entered them, but one could not tell that they were inside.” When we look at the physical world around us, it seems that the world is autonomous. It looks like it exists on its own. Evil certainly seems to have autonomous power. The S’fas Emes teaches us that this is not the case. Even evil (along with everything else) gets its power to exist from the Godly life force within it.

The children of Israel were about to be exiled. They were going to be under Pharaoh’s rule. Pharaoh viewed himself as a god. The point of the dream was to show Pharaoh, at the outset of the exile in Egypt, that even though the children of Israel were to be under his rule, he had no power against God.

Continuing the line of thought that the good is an allusion to the Godly life force and evil owes its existence to that life force which hides within it, we can learn an important lesson. During the period that the Godly life force is revealed (e.g. seven years of plenty/seven fat cows) we should prepare ourselves for the days when the holiness is hidden. King Solomon teaches us in Koheles (7:14), “On a day of good, be in the good and on a day of evil, see.” This means that we should take full advantage at a time when God reveals Himself to establish the light within us so that it is there during the periods that God hides Himself. If we do this, then we will know how to act during the periods when the holiness is hidden.

Essentially, God hides himself to test us. Before every test, there is a Godly enlightenment. Knowing how to act during the test is a direct result of being aware of this enlightenment and assimilating it. This is the ultimate lesson of Pharaoh’s dreams.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Chanukah 5631 Third Night

In Maseches Shabbos we find two opposing views regarding which side of the doorway to light the Chanukah candles. The Sfas Emes explains this debate. He notes the pasuk in Mishlei, “אורך ימים בימינה בשמאלה עושר וכבוד/Orech yamim bimina bismolah osher vechavod/Length of days is in its right hand; in its left hand are riches and honor.” Right and left are common analogies for the principle aspect of something vs. a related aspect of secondary importance. Consequently, Chazal teach us that the first part of this pasuk refers to the next world while the second part of the pasuk refers to this world. This world is a tool for us to reach the next world. This world is subordinate to the next world.

“Left” also suggests pushing away. Chazal teach us regarding child rearing among other things that one should push away with the left hand and bring close with the right. In this world we push away the physical in favor of the spiritual.

Since the right indicates the main thing, we place the mezuzah on the right side of the doorway. This also explains the view that we light Chanukah candles on the right side of the doorway. However, the halachah follows the other view of lighting on the left side of the entrance. Why? In order to understand this we must understand the main point of the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles. The principle spiritual effect of this mitzvah is to displace spiritual darkness with spiritual enlightenment. This was the effect of the original miracle and continues to be the effect of the mitzvah each year. The left side represents spiritual darkness. This is why we light specifically on the left side. It is there that the spiritual power of this mitzvah is needed and is effective. It is specifically in the spiritual darkness represented by the left side that there is room for us to rectify the world and ourselves.

Rashi explains the pasuk, “ימינך ה' נאדרי בכח ימינך ה' תרעץ אויב/Yemincha HaShem nedari bako’ach yemincha HaShem tir’atz oyeiv/Your right hand, God, is most powerful; Your right hand, God, crushes the foe.” He answers the question why the pasuk repeats the words, “your right hand.” Rashi says that when revenge is taken against the wicked even the “left” becomes the “right.” The significance of the “left” becoming the “right” is spiritual light vs. spiritual darkness. Adding to God’s honor and glory is symbolized by the “right.” Lighting Chanukah candles on the left side of the doorway represents bringing spiritual light to the left side thereby turning it into the “right side.”

There is an obvious connection between the first half of the pasuk in Mishlei and the mitzvah of mezuzah. The mezuzah is attached to the right doorpost and the pasuk in Mishlei states, “… אורך ימים בימינה/Orech yamim bimina …/Length of days is in its right hand …” Regarding the mitzvah of mezuzah the Torah states, “... למען ירבו ימיכם .../… lema’an yirbu yemeichem …/… in order to lengthen your days …” However, why is the left side associated with riches and honor?

In order to answer this question we first need to understand what wealth means. The mishnah in Maseches Avos teaches that a wealthy person is one who is happy with his lot. The Maharal explains that the mishnah is giving us a definition of a wealthy person. A definition must relate only to the person and not to any external cause. Something external to the person cannot define him. This is why the mishnah does not say that a wealthy person is someone with lots of money. Having lots of money, in and of itself, does not automatically define a person as rich. He could have been born into a family with lots of money. He could have won a lottery ticket. In either case, the fact that he has a lot of money does not define him. Only that which comes from within us - our outlook and actions - can define us. The mishnah teaches us that this outlook is our attitude towards our assets.

This is why the Mishnah brings as a proof the pasuk, “יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך/Yegi’a kapecha ki sochal ashrecha vetov lach/If you eat the toil of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you.” A person can be defined as wealthy if he eats the labor of his own hands. A person who was born into wealth is not necessarily a wealthy person. This is God given money. God gives each of us exactly what we need. Wealth is that which we do for ourselves above our needs.

The Sfas Emes explains that this definition of wealth refers not only to money. It applies to every aspect of what we do in our lives. Every action that replaces spiritual darkness with spiritual light, every action that turns the “left” into the “right”, every action whose result is a rectification, adds to our “wealth and honor.” This is why the end of the pasuk in Mishlei associates the left with riches and honor. The "left" is where we can grow and rectify ourselves and the world. The left represents the darkness to which we can add light. Riches and honor are the result of our actions, not what God gives us unconditionally.

May we all merit, through our actions, especially the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights to supplant darkness with light, to turn the “left” into the “right.”

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chanukah 5631 Second Night

When the Beis HaMikdash was standing, God’s presence was easily experienced. At that time it was obvious to all that God was the continuing source of all life. It was obvious that our souls are directly connected to the Source. After the destruction, this was hidden. Nevertheless, we can find this spark of holiness within us. The way we can find it is dependent upon how we perform the mitzvos.

There is a hint to this in an apparently unrelated Gemara in Maseches Pesachim. The Gemara brings several pesukim regarding searching with candles. A pasuk in Tzefania states, “... אחפש את ירושלם בנרות .../… achapeis es Yerushalayim baneiros …/… I will search Yerushalayim with candles …” From this pasuk we see that candles are used to search. The Gemara then brings the following pasuk from Mishlei, “נר ה' נשמת אדם חפש כל חדרי בטן/Neir HaShem nishmas adam chofeis kol chadrei vaten/Man’s soul is the lamp of God which searches all one’s inner chambers.”

Metaphorically, Yerushalayim refers to God’s presence. As we explained in the ma’amar of the first night of Chanukah, נרות/neiros/candles represent the mitzvos. The pasuk in Tzefania is teaching us that we can use the mitzvos to search for God’s presence. From the pasuk in Mishlei we learn that we can find God’s presence within us. In fact Rav Elazar states in Maseches Ta'anis that a person should always consider that holiness is within him.[1] This is the deeper meaning of the pasuk, “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם/Ve’Asu li mikdash veshachanti besocham/Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.” God declares that if we make ourselves into a sanctuary for Him – by doing the mitzvos – He will dwell within us. This pasuk is not teaching us that God is in us. Obviously, He is everywhere. The pasuk is teaching us that we can experience God’s presence.

The Sfas Emes teaches that the way to use the mitzvos to discover God’s presence within us is to do the mitzvos with our entire being. He points out that נר/neir/candle stands for נפש/nefesh/soul and רוח/ru’ach/spirit. Also, the Zohar says that the gematria of נר/neir/candle is 250. This equals our 248 limbs with which we perform the mitzvos with love and awe. (i.e. 248 limbs + love + awe = 250) When we concentrate on doing a mitzvah with our entire being the holy life force within us is awakened and we experience it.

Chanukah is particularly suited for discovering and experiencing the holiness latent within us. The very fact that at the time of the miracle of Chanukah the priests were not able to light the menorah symbolizes spiritual darkness. The miracle of the oil was God’s help to bring us spiritual light once more. Just like the mitzvos in general, the Chanukah lights in particular are a powerful tool for experiencing God’s presence.

Expounding on this theme, the Kedushas Levi explains that the word חנוכה/Chanukah can be broken into two words, חנו/chanu/they rested, and כה/ko/thus. Rest represents a level of enlightenment reached after a struggle the way Shabbos rest/enlightenment follows the struggle of the days of the week. כה/Ko/Thus is the word with which all the prophets begin there prophecies as in “כה אמר ה'/Ko amar HaShem/Thus says God.” Moshe Rabeinu as well sometimes began prophecies this way. However, he began some prophecies with, “זה הדבר/Zeh hadavar/This is the thing.” Chazal tell us that these two ways of beginning a prophecy indicate a fundamental difference in the way the prophet received the message. Moshe Rabeinu’s prophecy was clear whereas there was a certain lack of clarity in the messages received by the other prophets. The Kedushas Levi explains that the word חנוכה/Chanukah indicates that on Chanukah there was an enlightenment/rest even for the aspect of God’s concealment, of spiritual darkness, as it were, represented by כה/ko/thus.

Chanukah is an opportunity for us to discover this enlightenment. By contemplating these concepts before lighting the Chanukah candles we can take advantage of this special mitzvah for what it was truly intended, to awaken the spiritual life force within us as the pasuk says, “חופש כל חדרי בטן/... chofeis kol chadrei vaten/… search all of one’s inner chambers.”

[1] Tosfos on that Gemara says that this refers to God being within him.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

VaYeishev 5631 First Ma'amar

This week's parsha relates the story of how Yosef was kidnapped and separated from his father Ya'akov for 22 years.[1] The Midrash says that after his struggles with Lavan, Eisav, and Shechem, Ya'akov Avinu wanted to live a life of peace and calm. This was not to be. Specifically because this was his desire, the distress of Yosef was brought upon him.[2] We usually interpret this Midrash as referring to the physical struggles that Ya'akov endured during the course of his life. However, the Sfas Emes explains that this Midrash is actually referring to Ya'akov Avinu's spiritual struggles culminating in his final spiritual struggle represented by Yosef.

The difficulty for Ya'akov in his journey to and travails with Lavan, Esav, and Shechem was that these troubles took him away from a life of holiness in a place which was conducive for connecting with God, sheltered from the ugliness of the outside world. Metaphorically, Ya'akov's departure from the house of his father Yitzchak, all that happened to him during his exile, and his subsequent return, parallel the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week. Shabbos is not only a time conducive to connecting to God because we are not distracted by our weekday activities. It is spiritually a higher level day on which the entire world is truly closer to God than during the days of the week. As such, Shabbos is also a concept representing a certain level of closeness to God.

Before Ya'akov went to Lavan, he was on a level of Shabbos in his relationship with God. Just as Shabbos is separate from the days of the week so to Ya’akov was completely separate from anything worldly. His efforts with Lavan, Esav, and Shechem represented a descent into the physical world, a descent from a level of complete separation from the distractions of the world around him, a level of Shabbos, into a level of the days of the week. Ya'akov needed to work hard, paralleling the work of the days of the week, to maintain his connection to God even as he lived in Lavan's house with its accent on the physical world. The beginning of this week's parsha suggests Ya'akov's return to a level of Shabbos, "וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב .../Ya'akov dwelt ..." (Breishis 37:1) The first word of the parsha, וַיֵּשֶׁב/He dwelt, comes from the same root as the word Shabbos.

The difficulties that Ya'akov experienced with Lavan, Esav and Dina were an attempt to separate him from God. Living a life of serenity, of Godliness, even in the physical world is the ultimate desire of the righteous. It means spreading an awareness of God in the physical world, a place were He is normally hidden. It means bringing the level of Shabbos into the physical world. This concept is symbolized by Yosef. This is the deeper meaning of the distress of Yosef mentioned in the Midrash. How so? The word Yosef means to add. The strength of Yosef was the ability to spread an awareness of God in the physical world. If Ya'akov Avinu was on a Shabbos level of attachment to God, then Yosef, the Sfas Emes explains, was tosfos Shabbos/an addition to Shabbos. The Midrash says that this is why Ya'akov Avinu was prepared to meet Esav only after Yosef was born. With Yosef he was able to overcome the this-worldliness that Esav represented.

Shabbos is made for connecting to God. We learn from Ya'akov that we can live a life in which we reveal God during our daily activities as well. We do this by cultivating a desire that the result of our activities be a greater awareness of God. Accepting Shabbos early symbolizes this work because when we accept Shabbos early we are actually bringing the holiness of the Shabbos into what would otherwise be a part of the week. Working to raise our weekday experiences to a Shabbos level, essentially yearning for Shabbos during the week, enables us to accept Shabbos early.
[1] Breishis chapt. 37
[2] Breishis R. 84:3

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Chanukah 5631 First Night

The pasuk in Mishlei states, “... נר מצוה ותורה אור .../… neir mitzvah veSorah or…/… a commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light …” Just as the oil, wick and light need a lamp to hold them, so too, the light of the Torah needs a vessel to contain it. The vessel that holds the light of the Torah in this world is the mitzvos. The Zohar explains that Shlomo HaMelech associated mitzvos with a lamp because we perform the mitzvos with our 248 limbs with love of God and fear of Heaven. Two hundred forty eight limbs + love of God + fear of Heaven = 250 which is the gematria of neir/lamp. The Zohar is teaching us that we can rectify our deeds and limbs in this world by imbuing them with the light of the Torah. We do this by performing the mitzvos. Each mitzvah holds a unique aspect of the spiritual light of the Torah. When we do a specific mitzvah we draw the unique spiritual force associated with it into the physical world.

This concept applies not only to the 613 mitzvos mentioned in the Torah. It also applies to those mitzvos that were instituted by Chazal including, of course, the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah. What is the unique spiritual force triggered by the mitzvah of Chanukah lights? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah contains the spiritual enlightenment of the original miracle of the menorah in the Beis HaMikdash on the first Chanukah. Lighting the Chanukah candles draws the enlightenment of the original miracle once again into the world. In fact, the Tur Shulchan Aruch writes that we light Chanukah candles in order להזכיר/lehazkir/to mention the miracle. Notice that he does not write, “in order לזכור/lizkor/to remember the miracle.” The nuance is not as apparent in English but in Hebrew, these two words are actually two forms of the same verb. להזכיר/lehazkir/to mention is a stronger form of לזכור/lizkor/to remember. It implies an action that is being done to the object of the verb.[1] Since the object of the verb here is the miracle, the Tur is telling us that by lighting the Chanukah candles we are bringing to light the actual original miracle. Lighting the Chanukah candles is not merely a way of remembering the original miracle. By lighting the candles we are triggering the same latent spiritual force that caused the original miracle (i.e. bringing it to life.)

This is why the prayer that we say after lighting the candles starts with the words, “הנרות הללו קודש הם/HaNeiros halalu kodesh heim/These candles are holy.” Generally, the objects that we use to perform mitzvos (e.g. lulav, matzah) are not considered holy. They may be tossed once they are no longer needed. The same principle should apply to the lights of Chanukah. Yet, the prayer states that they are holy. Why? According to the Chiddushei HaRim, though, it is clear. They are holy because they contain the spiritual force of the original miracle.

This explains the language of the brachah that Chazal instituted before lighting the Chanukah lights. We say, “להדליק נר חנוכה/lehadlik neir Chanukah/to kindle the Chanukah lamp.” We don’t say, “להדליק נר בחנוכה /lehadlik neir beChanukah/to kindle a lamp on Chanukah.” The language of the brachah suggests the original Chanukah lamp. Performing the mitzvah activates the spiritual force of the original Chanukah menorah.

This concept helps us understand a puzzling halachah about the Chanukah lights. A person who sees Chanukah lights is required to say the blessing, “שעשה נסים לאבותינו/she’asah nisim la’avoseinu/who made miracles for our forefathers” even if he himself does not light. Generally one is required to say this blessing upon seeing the place where a miracle occurred either to him or his forefathers. Why do Chazal require us to say this particular blessing upon seeing Chanukah lights? According to what we’ve said, though, it is clear. Since the Chanukah lights contain the spiritual force of the original miracle, seeing the Chanukah lights is akin to seeing the actual place of the miracle. This is why Chazal required the blessing usually reserved for seeing the place the miracle occurred.

Each of us has the ability to release the spiritual force of the original miracle of the menorah by lighting Chanukah candles. Our very souls are intimately connected with the mitzvos. A clear awareness of the spiritual effect of our physical action strengthens that spiritual effect. Contemplating this concept while lighting the Chanukah lights is the best way to draw the spiritual force inherent in the mitzvah into the world.

[1] Other examples: לשמוע/lishmo’a/to listen and להשמיע/lehashmi’a/to make others listen; לחתום/lachtom/to sign and להחתים/lehachtim/to sign up others. The first is more passive whereas the second means the person is doing something to the verb’s object.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Vayishlach 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו .../Ya’akov sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esav …” (Breishis 32:4) The word מַלְאָכִים/messengers also means angels. The Midrash tells us that the messengers Ya’akov Avinu sent to Esav were actual angels.[1] Why did Ya’akov send angels to meet Esav?

To answer this question we must understand what angels signify. Chazal teach us that we create an angel each time we do a mitzvah.[2] The angels that Ya’akov sent to Esav represented Ya’akov’s mitzvos. Why did Ya’akov feel compelled to send his “mitzvah angels” to Esav? Angels are the vehicle through which God directs nature.[3] Our mitzvos affect nature. The means by which our mitzvos affect nature is through the angels that our mitzvos create.

Meeting Esav and, for that matter, traveling to Lavan represent Ya’akov entering and interacting with the physical world. Ya’akov himself was on a level above nature. He connected to God without the need for mitzvos and their effects (i.e. the angels). However, when he lowered himself into the physical world he needed the mitzvos and their power to affect the physical world around him and to bring him close to God even from within the natural world. This idea is clear in a pasuk in Tehillim (91:11), “כִּי מַלְאָכָיו יְצַוֶּה-לָּךְ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בְּכָל-דְּרָכֶיךָ/For He will command His angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways.” The angels/mitzvos will protect you as you move through the material world.

We see this concept clearly in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week. On Shabbos the physical world automatically becomes closer to its spiritual roots. In fact, Shabbos as a concept represents this connectedness to the spiritual. This is why Ya’akov who was on a level above nature in his connectedness to God, represents an aspect of Shabbos. We have the ability to reach this spiritual level during the week as well but it requires work. It requires a high level of mitzvah observance. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk “שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ/Six days shall you labor and accomplish all your work” (Shmos 20:9,10) refers specifically to the mitzvos. Significantly the word מַלְאָךְ/angel has the same root as the word מְלָאכָה/work. We spend the days of the week doing מְלָאכָה/work (i.e. mitzvos) to create מַלְאָכִים/angels.

In order to interact with Esav representing the physical world, Ya’akov Avinu had to send his מַלְאָכִים/messengers, his mitzvos, which affect the physical world, to afford him protection. We learn from Ya’akov Avinu that each of us has the ability to immerse and act in the physical world, really to use the physical world, to come close to God. We are intimately connected with the way the world works both spiritually and physically. The Zohar says that our 613 limbs and tendons – 248 limbs and 365 tendons – parallel 613 specific spiritual forces in the world.[4] There are also 613 mitzvos in the Torah – 248 positive mitzvos and 365 negative mitzvos. Each time we do a mitzvah, we rectify that part of the Creation associated with the specific limb and activate that spiritual force that conforms to that mitzvah. We create an “angel.” In this way we remove God’s concealment and come close to Him from within the physical world.

Spiritually, Ya’akov Avinu’s successful return from Lavan and Esav represents an ascent from a level of weekday work to a level of Shabbos. This is why the Midrash in this week’s parsha explains that Ya’akov Avinu entered the land of Israel and came to Shechem on Erev Shabbos.[5] He prepared for Shabbos and kept it before it was given. This is also the reason the pasuk says, “וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם .../Ya’akov came safely to the city of Shechem …” (Breishis 33:18) שָׁלֵם/Safely also means “whole.” His successful return from Esav and Lavan represents a spiritual completeness. It also suggests Shabbos as the Zohar says that Shabbos is שָׁלוֹם/peace[6] which has the same root as שָׁלֵם/complete. As Ya’akov, may we merit connecting to God through the mitzvos even as we live and work within the physical world.

[1] Breishis R. 75:4
[2] Zohar Chadash 57a and 92a; also see Avos 4:13
[3] See Breishis R. 10:6 - There is no blade of grass that does not have a spiritual force telling it to grow.
[4] Zohar 1:134b
[5] Breishis R. 79:6
[6] Zohar 3:176b