Monday, December 31, 2007

VaEira 5631 First Ma'amar

The Sfas Emes focuses on the main point of the first paragraph of the parsha. In the first pasuk of the parsha God tells Moshe Rabbeinu, “אֲנִי ה'/I am God.” A few p’sukim later He commands Moshe to convey this to the children of Israel and that He will take them out of Egypt. Finally, in the last pasuk of the paragraph, the Torah tells us that they did not accept Moshe Rabbeinu’s message, “מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ/because of shortness of breath.” What is the significance of the message and why were they unable to accept it?

We know that our actions have consequences. It is less known that our actions have spiritual ramifications as well. A person’s actions affect his soul all the way to its source. [We usually think of the soul as being in the body. However, according to Chazal only a small part of the soul is in the body. In fact, the Zohar calls the body a shoe for this reason. Only the soul’s lower extremity is inside a person’s body. Most of a person’s soul extends from the body up through many spiritual realms to its source. The soul can be viewed as a continuum which is more spiritual the closer it is to its source and less spiritual the closer it is to the body. See Nefesh HaChayim 1:5 Haga’ah and Ma’amarim 14 for a detailed discussion of this concept.] The source of a person’s soul is in a very high spiritual place. It is a place that defies our understanding. It follows that we cannot know completely, the consequences of our actions. Instead of relying on ourselves and our own thought processes, it behooves us to subordinate our own mind and will to God’s.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that this concept is the deeper meaning of the Midrash which says that if Reuven had known that his opposition to his brothers’ desire to kill Yosef would be written in the Torah, he would have carried Yosef back to his father on his shoulders. The Midrash is certainly not telling us that Reuven would have done this because of the honor of being written into the Torah. Rather, the Midrash is teaching us that if Reuven had understood how important his opposition was, so important that it would be written in the Torah, he would have approached it with such enthusiasm that he would have carried Yosef back to his father. Reuven did not do this because he did not know, could not know, the ultimate consequences and importance of his actions.

The first Midrash on the parsha teaches us that Shlomo HaMelech and Moshe Rabbeinu grappled with this concept and learnt the lesson as well. Shlomo HaMelech had more wives that the Torah allows a king. The Torah commands a king not to have too many wives lest they steer his heart astray. It was absolutely clear to Shlomo HaMelech that he would not be affected. That is why he allowed himself to have many wives. However, a person’s actions affect him in ways that he does not always understand. Shlomo HaMelech thought that the power of the Torah within him and his connection with God would protect him. But his actions had unexpected consequences for him, consequences that he did not, could not foresee.

Shlomo HaMelech used his wisdom to disregard a commandment. The Midrash sees this alluded to in a pasuk from Koheles (2:12) “וּפָנִיתִי אֲנִי לִרְאוֹת חָכְמָה וְהוֹלֵלוֹת וְסִכְלוּת כִּי מֶה הָאָדָם שֶיָּבוֹא אַחֲרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר-כְּבָר עָשׂוּהוּ/Then I turned my attention to appraising wisdom with madness and folly – for what is man that he would come after the king regarding that which has already been done.” Referring to himself, Koheles says that he used his wisdom for madness and folly. How so? Because he could not know the complete consequences of his actions. He rationalized by saying that God is always with him because of his Torah and will protect him.

The Midrash says that this pasuk refers to Moshe Rabbeinu as well. At the end of last week’s parsha Moshe Rabbeinu complains to God, “ה' לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה/God, why have You done evil to this people?” (Shmos 5:22) God responds at the beginning of our parsha, “'אֲנִי ה/I am God.” The name of God YHVH comes from the Hebrew root which means “being.” It implies that the continued existence of everything in the Creation and everything that happens within the Creation is only because God wills it. The Egyptian exile also continued only because God willed it to. God gives life and existence to everything including the exile.

In fact, every action was decreed at the time of Creation. Koheles alludes to this at the second half of the pasuk mentioned earlier, “...מֶה הָאָדָם שֶיָּבוֹא אַחֲרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר-כְּבָר עָשׂוּהוּ/… what is man that he would come after the king regarding that which has already been done.” This is also the meaning of the pasuk at the end of the Creation, “God blessed the seventh day …because on it He abstained from all His work which God created to make.” (Breishis 2:3) The end of this pasuk is awkward. The pasuk could have ended with, “which God created.” The last words “to make” seem to be extra. “To make” in Hebrew also means, “To do”. With these words the Torah is telling us that every future action was ordained at the time of the Creation. God is telling Moshe Rabbeinu that the exile and all that it entails was decreed. This includes the most recent affliction that happened after Moshe spoke with Pharaoh.

Of course, Moshe Rabbeinu knew that God is at the root of everything. That’s why he complained to Him. When God sent Moshe Rabbeinu to speak to Pharaoh, though, he had an expectation. He expected that the children of Israel would not be further afflicted. When his expectation was not fulfilled, he complained to God asking Him why He had allowed more harm to befall the people. God’s answer was that Moshe Rabbeinu’s expectation was invalid. Everything that happened and everything that will happen is due to God’s decree that it should occur. Chazal tell us that a person does not lift his finger without it being decreed in heaven. In the words of Koheles, “It has already been done.”

God commands Moshe Rabbeinu to convey this message to the children of Israel but they do not accept it, “מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ/because of shortness of breath.” The word רוּחַ/breath also connotes spirit and is a reference to the soul that gives a person life. [As we’ve said, one end of the soul is in the body but the other end is attached to God, as it were.] In the exile, the children of Israel became detached from the source of life. It was not clear to them that God was behind the exile and willed it. It was very difficult for them to see that their affliction was Divinely ordained. So they did not accept Moshe’s message.

Both Shlomo HaMelech and Moshe Rabbeinu, however, learned that decisions they made based on their own wisdom, decisions which appeared strongly to them to be correct when they were made, turned out to be wrong. When they gained more wisdom, they realized that their original actions were based on flawed thinking. The lesson for us is that we can never be sure of our own wisdom since our current outlook may prove incorrect when we gain more wisdom. Instead, we need to submit to the source of wisdom, God’s will and word.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Shemos 5631 Third Ma'amar

... וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱ-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם/… and I will say to them, ‘The God of your forefathers sent me to you,’ and they will ask me, ‘What is His name,’ what shall I say to them?” Why did Moshe Rabbeinu think they would ask God’s name? Why would this be important? What is the significance of knowing His name?

The Sfas Emes explains that God’s name symbolizes His revelation in this world. During exile we say that the glory of His name is concealed. Redemption means that the glory of His name is revealed. His Providence is clearly apparent to all. In a time of redemption everyone understands that exile is simple a shell preventing us from experiencing God’s presence. The Zohar makes this point when it says that Shabbos is the name of God. Shabbos is that aspect of Creation that represents an uplifting of everything towards its spiritual source. The ultimate spiritual source of everything is God Himself. God is thus more “revealed,” – it is easier to be aware of His presence – on Shabbos. Shabbos, then, is the name of God because His name represents His revelation.

In reality, though, God does not change. There is a higher level of faith whereby one’s recognition and awareness of God are not affected by external circumstances. Moshe Rabbeinu was on this level. During the exile, the nation of Israel was not.
According to this, the significance of the question, “What is His name?” is, “Where do we see the revelation of God in the exile?” God’s answer is that His name is, “אֶהְיֶה/I will be.” God says that although now, in the exile, His presence is hidden, the exile specifically because of its darkness, causes a greater revelation later. Even the Egyptians will recognize that God is in charge.

After the redemption, the nation reached the higher level of faith. We find in Shiras HaYam, “ה' אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה ה' שְׁמוֹ/God is master of war, God is His name.” At the time of redemption there is clear recognition that, “God is His name.” They are one and the same. Significantly the name of God used here is the Tetragrammaton, which means that God is beyond time – He does not change. When He reveals Himself, it becomes clear that the God who is revealed – represented by His name – is the same as the God that was hidden before.

Certainly, before the redemption, the nation of Israel was not on this level of faith, hence the question, “What is His name?” Moshe understands this when he says to God, “וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ .../They will not believe.” Even though the pasuk relates subsequently that they did believe, Moshe Rabbeinu was not mistaken. The nation believed the signs that Moshe showed them. They believed that the redemption was at hand. They were on a certain level of faith. This, however, is not what Moshe Rabbeinu was referring to. Moshe Rabbeinu was referring to the total and complete faith that God is present in the exile exactly as He is present in redemption. Moshe Rabbeinu was saying that they were not on his level of faith, the faith of knowing that God is here the way we believe in what we actually see with our eyes. Moshe Rabbeinu knew that he would not be able to make them understand that God is present in the exile the same way He is present in the redemption. After the redemption, though, the pasuk testifies that the nation reached this level, “וַיַאֲמִינוּ בַה'/They believed in God.”

According to this we can understand the three signs that God sent Moshe Rabbeinu to show the nation. After each of the first two signs, God says to Moshe that He is giving another sign in case the nation does not believe the previous one. Isn’t this strange? God obviously knows beforehand whether the nation will believe or not. Why did He not simply send Moshe Rabbeinu the sign that He knew would be effective? The explanation according to what we have said, is that there are levels of belief. The highest level is the level of Moshe Rabbeinu, the level akin to seeing something with our own eyes. It is possible, though, to start at a lower level and work up to a higher level. The three signs represented this process. Each subsequent sign represented a higher level of faith than the previous sign.

At the level of faith that Moshe Rabbeinu reached, the surrounding exile and darkness is recognized for what it really is. It is an illusion that God created. It is not reality. The Sfas Emes teaches us that built into Shabbos is a spiritual enlightenment which allows us to experience this, to some extent. Significantly, the chapter in Tehillim that describes Shabbos states clearly that even though we see evildoers succeeding, this is not truth. This is not reality. This is an external illusion. That which gives life and existence to everything, even to the evildoers, is only God. May we merit seeing God in everything both redemption and exile and may we merit redemption this year! AMEN.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Shemos 5631 Second Ma'amar

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ עַל-מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע אֶת-יוֹסֵף/A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Yosef.” (Shmos 1:8) Explaining this pasuk the Midrash says that after Yosef died the nation of Israel stopped circumcising their children. They said, “Let us be like the Egyptians.” As a result God caused the love the Egyptians had for us to turn into hatred. A new king arose who did not know Yosef.

Generally, Chazal give novel interpretations to pesukim when the simple meaning is diffucult. What compelled the Midrash to give this explanation? The key word in the pasuk is “new.” The Chidushei HaRim explains that novelty is an attribute of spirituality. When we contemplate the material world around us it is easy to conclude that nothing new happens. Nature follows predictable laws. Today is the same as yesterday which was the same as the day before. The Chidushei HaRim explains that while this may be the case for the material world it is not true of the spiritual. Shlomo HaMelech teaches this in the pasuk, “... וְאֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ/… and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Koheles 1:9) The implication is that above the sun – beyond nature – there is novelty and renewal. Originality, creativity and novelty are spiritual endeavors. The physical is merely a manifestation of that which already exists in the spiritual.

Because novelty is a spiritual attribute, it is particularly associated with the nation of Israel. The key to change and creativity is the realization that everything physical contains within it spirituality. When we disregard external physical appearances and relate to the underlying spirituality in our actions, the power of creativity is ours. In Egypt we disregarded the spiritual and allowed ourselves to be affected by the physical environment of decadent Egypt. As the Midrash notes, we wanted to be like the Egyptians. So, novelty was taken from us and given to the Egyptians instead.

What, though, is the significance of breaching the covenant of circumcision? After all, in Egypt we fell to very low levels. Why does the Midrash single out circumcision as the reason for losing our connection with God, with novelty?
The Sfas Emes explains. Yosef is called the keeper of the covenant referring to the covenant of the circumcision. The plain meaning is that he resisted the temptations of Potiphar’s wife. However, on a deeper level, circumcision represents unveiling the spiritual that is concealed by the physical. Yosef is called a keeper of the covenant of circumcision because he believed that although the material world around him was decadent, spirituality was concealed within it. Yosef’s belief was complete. He did not notice the physical decadence. He saw only the spiritual.

In our daily lives, we many times see barriers and obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals. We can overcome them by cultivating the belief that the physical is a mask that hides the spiritual. On a spiritual level, there are no barriers. They are illusory. Everything starts with belief that the spiritual light exists but we don’t see it because it is behind a screen. We find a hint to this in the brachah following Sh’ma at night. The bracha starts, “אֱמֶת וֶאֱמוּנָה/Truth and faith.” At night, a time of darkness when we do not see light, Chazal advise us to believe that it is there anyway.

We see this again when Moshe Rabbeinu says in response to God’s request to return to Egypt to begin the process of the redemption, “... וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ לִי .../… and they will not believe me …” (Shmos 4:1) Faith is a prerequisite for redemption. In order to merit redemption – seeing God – we must have faith during the preceding darkness.

Responding to Moshe Rabbeinu’s concern, God gives him a sign which gives expression to this concept. God tells Moshe to throw his staff to the ground. When he does this it turns into a snake. When he grabs it, it turns back to a staff. In reality it was a staff. The snake was an illusion. The way to see the reality behind the illusion is by believing it is there, grabbing on to it, connecting with it and, importantly, disregarding external appearances. The staff appeared as a snake. God told him to disregard this and to grab its tail. Upon doing so the snake reverted to a staff. God powers external appearances as well.

God gives existence to the screen that we call reality even when the screen appears to contradict spirituality and holiness. The truth, though, becomes clear to us according to the level of our faith. We can actually experience the spiritual that underlies the physical world by first believing it is there. Once we believe, no physical obstacle can stand between us and our goals. We are connected directly with the source of novelty, creativity and originality.

The Sfas Emes applies this concept to exile and redemption. Exile means that God is concealed. He is not apparent. Redemption means that God is revealed in the world. As we’ve said, a strong belief that the physical world is powered by the spiritual is a necessary prerequisite for redemption to occur. During exile this idea is concealed. If it were revealed there would be no possibility of exile.
We find this concept explained in the Zohar. The Zohar uses the analogy of sound vs. speech to explain God’s presence vs. His influence in the world.

Undifferentiated sound represents God’s oneness. He is everywhere always. In terms of God’s presence, there is no difference between one place and another. Speech is “processed” sound. It is the method by which we relate to and influence others. Speech, therefore, represents God’s influence and revelation in the Creation. With regard to God’s revelation, there are differences between one place and another. Exile means that God’s influence in the world is not apparent. It is concealed. For this reason the Zohar tells us that in Egypt, speech was in exile. God’s influence was not apparent.

Realizing this and believing it means to understand that although we see things differentiated in the physical world, underlying every separate thing is Oneness. The “undifferentiated sound” is ubiquitous. To the person who internalizes this belief totally, there is no fundamental difference between revelation and concealment. This is the deeper meaning of Chazal telling us that faith is the one basic principle as the prophet Habakuk said, “The righteous person lives by his faith.” May we merit it!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vayechi 5631 Third Ma'amar

After Ya’akov blesses each of his children the Torah tells us, “כָּל-אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֵּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם .../All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve in all, and this is what their father said to them and he blessed them …” Since this entire pasuk does not seem to be adding anything that we do not already know, what is it teaching us?

The Sfas Emes understands the whole pasuk homiletically. The Sfas Emes explains that this pasuk alludes to advice that Ya’akov Avinu gave his children to help them live their lives in the service of God. The Sfas Emes understands that the appearance of the words, אֵלֶּה/these and זֹאת/this, in the pasuk is particularly significant. The Zohar teaches that זֹאת/this represents the singular Godly life force which unites all. אֵלֶּה/These, on the other hand, is plural and represents differentiation. Even though the material world consists of multitudes of separate creations, the Godly life force that underlies all is singular. The word, דִּבֵּר/he spoke, as well, has a particular significance. In Aramaic the root דבר means to lead.

According to the Sfas Emes, Ya’akov Avinu is teaching his children that although the physical world to all appearances consists of many separate things, they should lead their lives and manage their affairs with an understanding that underlying everything physical is a point of inner spirituality. He wanted them to understand that the spiritual point, because it gives existence to the physical, is the main thing. Contemplating the spiritual underpinnings of whatever activity is before them will lead them to fulfill the will of God.

The pasuk, therefore, starts with אֵלֶּה/these, representing the way the world appears and ends with זֹאת/this, representing the way things are in reality. We, as well, can benefit from Ya’akov Avinu’s advice by recognizing the spiritual that is the basis for the material world including our very actions. It is the merit of this recognition that helps us to fulfill God’s will.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Vayechi 5631 Second Ma'amar

הקבצו ושמעו בני יעקב ושמעו אל ישראל אביכם/Gather and hear, children of Ya’akov, and listen to your father Yisrael.” Since the pasuk uses the word אל/to instead of the shorter conjunctive form ל/to, the Midrash says that Ya’akov Avinu is comparing himself to God which is also spelled, א-ל. Ya’akov Avinu is telling his children, “Just like God creates worlds, so too, your father creates worlds.” What does this mean and why is Ya’akov telling this to his children? Click here to see entire ma'amar

Friday, December 14, 2007

VaYigash 5631 Third Ma'amar

When Ya’akov and Yosef met after twenty two years the pasuk relates that Yosef fell on his neck and cried. The pasuk does not tell us that Ya’akov reciprocated. It seems that Ya’akov, in fact, did not reciprocate otherwise the pasuk would have told us this just like it does when describing the meeting of Yosef and Binyomin. What, then, was Ya’akov doing at this very moving moment? Rashi cites Chazal who tell us that Ya’akov was reciting kri’as Shma.

Why was Ya’akov reciting kri’as Shma at this time? The Maharal explains that when Ya’akov saw Yosef – whom he thought was dead or captured – king over Egypt, he was filled with gratitude towards God. Ya’akov was moved to recite kri’as Shma to express his awe and love for God.

Why, then, did not Yosef recite kri’as Shma as well? The Chidushei HaRim explains that this points up a fundamental difference between Ya’akov’s level of spirituality and Yosef’s level. Yosef lived in the king’s house. Yosef, was occupied with activities of the material world, even as he was totally connected to God. Yosef, as one occupied with matters of the material world was able to kiss his father. Ya’akov, on the other hand, was on a level above the material world. [See VaYeitzei 5631 First Ma’amar] Therefore he attached to God through kri’as Shma and was unable to kiss Yosef.

Chanukah 5631 Eighth Night

The eighth day of Chanukah is called Zos Chanukah/This is Chanukah, after the Torah reading for this day which contains the words “zos chanukas hamizbei’ach/this is the dedication of the altar.” Aside from the nice play on words what is the significance of the name?

The Sfas Emes explains that Zos Chanukah indicates something very fundamental about Chanukah. The Chanukah story begins with the persecution of the Jews by the Assyrian Greeks. The situation was bleak indeed. The gentile rulers were powerful. How could we overcome them? From the depths of this darkness came the salvation.

The word zos/this is laden with symbolism. In the Zohar we find the word zos alluding to Jerusalem and the kingdom of heaven. The Midrash on the pasuk, “... בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ/… in this I trust,” says that it is an allusion to God – in God I trust – and refers to God’s saving the nation at the Red Sea, “ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם .../God will fight for you …” The early kabbalists teach that zos alludes specifically to that point of spirituality through which God gives existence to the physical. David HaMelech as well, asked God to preserve this recognition of His presence within us, “... שָׁמְרָה-זֹּאת לְעוֹלָם לְיֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבוֹת לְבַב עַמֶּךָ .../… Preserve this forever – the product of the thoughts of Your people’s hearts …”

Zos, then, is a reference to the Godliness hidden within us and all of Creation. Knowing that everything, including God’s obscurity is powered by this point of God given spirituality, essentially, knowing that God is “in” everything and that everything is therefore “good” is a tremendous tool for strengthening one’s faith particularly in times of exile. This, in fact, is the fundamental meaning of the pasuk in Eicha, “זֹאת אָשִׁיב אֶל-לִבִּי עַל-כֵּן אוֹחִיל/This I will bear in mind; therefore I have hope.” The prophet is teaching us that when we bear in mind zos – that the exile as well is from God and that He is present even in the darkness of it – we have good reason for hope.

This concept is the lesson of Chanukah. The salvation came when the nation realized that God was with them in the darkness as well. We find this idea as well in the following pesukim from Tehillim, “:מִשְּׁמוּעָה רָעָה לֹא יִירָא נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה': סָמוּךְ לִבּוֹ לֹא יִירָא עַד אֲשֶׁר-יִרְאֶה בְצָרָיו/He will have no fear of evil tidings; his heart is firm, confident in God. His heart is steadfast, he shall not fear, he will even [expect to] see [vengeance upon] his tormentors.” When a person is trusting in God, he knows that salvation is at hand. The Chidushei HaRim points out that, significantly, the last letters of the words, “נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה' סָמוּך/his heart is firm, confident in God, steadfast” spells out חֲנוּכָּה/Chanukah.

The chapter in Tehillim that we say on Chanukah bears out this idea. “הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה/You have transformed my lament into dancing for me; You undid my sackcloth and girded me with happiness.” The word for transformed – הָפַכְתָּ – also means to overturn or to turn inside out. The difference between lament and dancing is whether God is hidden or revealed. Dancing is lament turned inside out, as it were. The important point is that God is present in both. The Midrash on the curses in parshas BeChukosai makes this point when it says that the difference between the blessings and the curses is that the blessings are in order of the Hebrew alphabet whereas the curses are backwards.

The second half of the pasuk continues this idea. It is important to understand that the sackcloth, a clear reference to exile and God’s concealment is only a cover. When the sackcloth is undone, when the concealment is removed, God is revealed in the form of salvation and closeness to Him. Then we are girded with happiness. This is the meaning of Chanukah, the days of miracles, when the nation of Israel was at a very low point and God helped them. It is encouraging to know that according to the extent of concealment so is the extent of the good since everything is from God and everything is for good. And according to our recognition of this fact and our trust in God so the underlying good will be revealed and we will merit salvation.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Mikeitz 5631 Third Ma'amar

Chazal teach us that the best place to light Chanukah candles is outside the entrance of the house. We can surmise that this is the best place since the purpose of the mitzvah is to spread an awareness of the miracle of Chanukah. People passing by the house are sure to see the candles burning.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that there is also a deeper reason based upon a ma’amar of Rabba bar Rav Huna. Rabba bar Rav Huna said that a person who has learnt Torah but has no fear of Heaven is like a treasurer who has been given the keys to the inner sanctum but not to the outer gates. How will he get in? Without fear of Heaven, he has no access to his Torah. His Torah does not affect him.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that lighting the Chanukah candles at the entrance to the house can be likened to one who has been given the keys to the outer gates. Control over the gates not only gives access to that which is inside, it also protects that which is inside from outside influences – the materialism of this world. Fear of Heaven, represented by the keys to the outer gates, and by extension by the Chanukah lights, not only enables a person’s Torah to affect him; it also affords protection against being drawn after the materialism of this world. For this reason Chazal established the entrance of the home as the best place for lighting the candles.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Chanukah 5631 First Night Second Ma'amar

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev writes in Kedushas Levi that each year on Chanukah the strength of the original miracle of Chanukah is revealed and God showers His nation with salvation and redemption. The strength of the original miracle is a spiritual enlightenment which manifests in the physical world as salvation and redemption. The Sfas Emes explains that we can feel this spiritual enlightenment to the extent that we separate from the physical and attach to the spiritual.

How can we do this? Is there a technique we can use to connect to the spiritual? The Sfas Emes teaches us that there is. We can use the mitzvah to help us connect to that which is beyond the natural world. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that this is the main characteristic of this mitzva and, in fact, of all mitzvos. So, to facilitate this attachment to the spiritual, Chazal gave us the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles. Mitzvos are the tools that we use to turn mundane physical activities into spiritual endeavors. [A mitzvah is imbued with a spiritual aura. When a person performs a mitzvah, the spiritual aura of the mitzvah actually surrounds him. (see Nefesh HaChaim 1:12] Contemplating the spiritual enlightenment of the original miracle and its connection to the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles helps us to attach to the enlightenment and to feel it.

The Chidushei HaRim continues this idea. He teaches that Chazal established the days of Chanukah as days of praise and thanks for the same reason. Praising God and thanking Him for the Chanukah salvation opens up the spiritual enlightenment of these days so that they affect us and enlighten us. The Chidushei HaRim teaches that this is the idea underlying the pasuk in Tehillim, “זֵכֶר עָשָׂה לְנִפְלְאוֹתָיו .../He made a remembrance for His wonders …” So that we may feel the spiritual enlightenment of the ancient miracles in our days, God turned them into mitzvos.

May we merit using all the mitzvos and the mitzva of lighting the Chanuka candles in particular as the tool they were meant to be, to help us come closer to God and receive His good.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

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, November 29, 2007

VaYeishev 5631 Second Ma'amar

The first half of our parsha recounts the story of Yosef and how his brothers sell him into slavery. The second half of the parsha relates Yosef’s trials and travails as a slave in Egypt. Between the two halves of the parsha, the Torah interjects a parenthetical and rather lengthy interlude, the story of Yehuda, how he leaves his brothers and his father’s house for many years. Why?

The Midrash lists several answers. One answer is that Yehuda understood that selling Yosef into slavery was not a good thing. He was concerned that God would exact punishment from the brothers. His advice therefore was for them to spread apart. His thinking was that God would exact punishment from them only if they were together. What is the meaning of this Midrash?

The key to understanding this Midrash lies in the different approaches Yosef and Yehuda took in serving God. The Chidushei HaRim explains. Yosef and Yehuda are archetypes of two different types of tzadikim. Yosef’s approach was to strive to separate completely from the mundane in order to be dedicated totally and only to God. 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 – נְזִיר אֶחָיו (Breishis 49:26). Yosef believed that by reaching very high levels of holiness, we can affect the surrounding material world without actually having to go out to it.

Yehuda’s approach, on the other hand, was to bring holiness into the mundane. The Torah tells us, regarding Yehuda, “שְׁמַע ה' קוֹל יְהוּדָה וְאֶל-עַמּוֹ תְּבִיאֶנּוּ .../May God hear Yehuda’s voice and bring him to his people.” (Devarim 33:7) The Chiddushei HaRim understands this as an allusion to Yehuda bringing God to His people.

The Chidushei HaRim taught that we find this difference in approach in tzadikim in more recent times. There are tzadikim who strove to separate themselves from the world around them, who did not want many followers. This is Yosef’s approach. On the other hand, there are tzadikim who wanted to spread their teachings among as many as possible. Their work involved influencing as many people as possible even at the expense of lowering their own level of holiness. They bring holiness into the mundane. This is Yehuda’s approach.

With this understanding of the difference between Yehuda and Yosef, the Sfas Emes explains the Midrash. Yehuda understood that his and his brothers’ mission was to bring holiness into the material world. To accomplish this mission, they would need to be a part of the material world. For this reason he advised them to spread out into the world. Only by striving to achieve their mission would they be protected. The Torah relates that he followed his own advice.

The Sfas Emes continues this line of thought in another ma’amar. He explains that the difference in approach between Yosef and Yehuda is actually at the root of our exile. Yosef’s level is, of course, much higher than Yehuda’s. If we are on Yosef’s level, then we can bring holiness to the entire world without leaving our land and the Beis HaMikdash. This is the reason the prophet compares Yosef to the tongue of fire – לֶהָבָה – that will destroy Esav (Ovadia 1:18). The fire of the house of Ya’akov – בֵית-יַעֲקֹב אֵשׁ – is inadequate. Yosef’s level of holiness is necessary for the strength of Ya’akov to spread out. If we are not on a level to merit this, we are forced to spread out, ourselves, into the world to bring the holiness to each place. May Hashem gather in our exiles.

Monday, November 26, 2007

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. The Midrash says that after his struggles with Lavan, Esav, 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. 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. What spiritual struggles did Ya’akov endure? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vayishlach 5631 Second Ma'amar

Ya’akov Avinu, in preparation for meeting Esav, prays to God, “קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵן הַזֶה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת: הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו .../I am unworthy of all the kindness and faith that You have shown me for I crossed the Jordan with [only] my staff and now I have become two camps. Please save me from my brother Esav …”

קָטֹנְתִּי/I am unworthy” literally translates as “I have become small.” The simple understanding, Rashi’s understanding is, “I have become small from – because of – all the kindness You have shown me.” Ya’akov Avinu was concerned that the kindnesses that God bestowed upon him had diminished his merits.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains in the name of the Rav from Lublin that Ya’akov Avinu is attributing his realization that he is unworthy to God, including that realization in the kindnesses that God has shown him. Accordingly, the pasuk translates as, “My realization of my own smallness is from – included in – the kindness that You have shown me.” The Rav from Lublin is teaching us that it is good to think of oneself as small. Therefore, the realization itself is a kindness that God bestows.

The Sfas Emes gives still another interpretation. When Ya’akov Avinu considered all the kindness that God had shown him, he realized how small he was. The pasuk translates then as, “My realization of my own smallness is from – a result of – the kindness you have shown me.” When we think of all the kindnesses that God does for us, which essentially includes everything we are and everything we have, we come to an understanding of our own smallness.

Monday, November 19, 2007

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. Why did Ya’akov send angels to meet Esav? Click here for entire ma'amar.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

VaYeitzei 5632 Second Ma'amar

The beginning of this week’s parsha recounts Ya’akov Avinu’s trip to his uncle Lavan and the dream he had along the way. Ya’akov woke up upset that he had slept in such a holy place. He said, “... אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה' בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי/… Indeed, God is in this place and I did not know!” Rashi explains that if he had known, he would not have slept there.

When we think about it we realize just how amazing this is. Ya’akov gained much from having slept in that place. The Midrash tells us that the place he slept was the site of the future Beis HaMikdash. A miracle occurred and the sun set early specifically so that he would stop there. As a result of having slept there, he had a prophetic dream in which he God promised him Eretz Yisrael and to protect him on his dangerous journey. Yet, Ya’akov Avinu was upset that he slept there. He would rather have forfeited the prophecy and God’s promise than to have slept on the holy ground! Why?

A clue can be gleaned from the Zohar on the words “וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי/and I did not know.” The Zohar poses the following question. Why did Ya’akov berate himself for not knowing that God’s presence rested where he slept? How was he to know? The Zohar answers that knowledge in the Tanach 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.] Ya’akov Avinu understood that the main thing is to come close to God. When Ya’akov Avinu said “לֹא יָדָעְתִּי/I did not know,” he was not berating himself for not knowing. Rather he was berating himself for not being spiritually sensitive enough, not “connected” enough, to realize that the Shechina was in this place. This, then, answers our question. Ya’akov Avinu would have preferred to be in tune enough with God – “connected” to Him, as it were – to have felt the holiness of the site rather than have slept there and receive the prophecy and promise.

Still, after the dream, he did recognize the holiness of the place. He also realized that he received a special enlightenment from God in the form of the prophetic dream. His sense of awe of God became more developed as a result of the dream. We learn from Ya’akov Avinu to recognize any Godly enlightenment that we receive and let it affect us bringing us closer to God.

Many times we have a new thought or a solution to a problem which comes to us in a flash. In some mysterious way, some problem that we were struggling with becomes clear. These new thoughts, clarity and solutions, are messages from God. Their very purpose for us to recognize them as such. God sends them to us to give us a means for strengthening our awe of Him and coming closer to Him. If we do not recognize them as God sent but rather chalk these thoughts up to a “flash of inspiration,” then they haven’t fulfilled their purpose and were wasted. May we merit recognizing God’s messages to us, as Ya’akov Avinu did, and coming closer to Him through them. Amen!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

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? Click here to view entire ma'amar.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Toldos 5631 Third Ma'amar

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ הָאֱ-לֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֹשׁ/And God will give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine.” Thus begins Yitzchak Avinu’s blessing to Ya’akov. Is it not somewhat strange that the blessing begins with the word “and” as if this is a continuation? Rashi, addressing this question, cites the Midrash which says that the “and” implies a continuity of the blessing itself; in the words of the Midrash, “He will give and give again.” When we try to understand this answer, though, we find that it, too, needs an explanation? The Midrash implies that without the “and” at the beginning of the blessing, Yitzchak is giving a blessing meant to be fulfilled only once. This certainly cannot be. What then, is Midrash really teaching us?

Yitzchak’s blessing actually provokes another fundamental question. The blessing implies that to receive our needs from God is a good thing. We learn from the blessing that it is better to have the things we need than not to have them. Setting aside self indulgence for a moment, why should this be? Why is it not better to live a miserable existence and gain everlasting reward for suffering? The Sfas Emes answers that God wants us to serve Him. He therefore gives us the means to serve Him. He gives us the material means to serve Him as well as help with our spiritual service to Him. Suffering, in and of itself, is not an ideal. Rather, God wants us to use what He gives us to serve Him.

This then, is the meaning of the Midrash. When we use the things that God gives us in order to serve Him, we are essentially turning the material abundance into spiritual abundance. When we add abundance to the spiritual realms we cause a new cycle, a renewal, of material abundance in the physical world. Thus, “He will give and give again.”

The following Midrash states this idea clearly. In the Torah we find that sometimes God addresses Moshe Rabbeinu, “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה/God said to Moshe.” We also find that Moshe addresses God, “וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לה'/Moshe said to God.” The Midrash understands that speaking to someone is a form of influence. Certainly the very revelation of God to someone is a form of giving abundance to that person. After all, the greatest good, the greatest pleasure we can possibly experience is being close to God. The Midrash teaches us, that this idea applies in the opposite direction as well. When the Torah tells us that Moshe spoke to God, it is teaching us that Moshe can “influence” God, as it were. Of course, God is infinite and therefore never changes. He certainly is not influenced by anything. However, “God” here, is an inference to the spiritual realms which are at the root of the physical world. God structured the Creation so that material abundance begins with blessing in the spiritual realms – “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה/God said to Moshe” – but then the strength of the spiritual realms is dependent upon our actions here in the physical world – “וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לַה'/Moshe said to God.”

The Midrash presents this idea in the form of an analogy to a cave situated right near the sea. The water of the sea enters the cave and then flows back into the sea. The cave initially receives the water from the sea, but the cave also returns the water to the sea. The initial blessing and influence is spiritual and comes from God, as we find in Yitzchak’s blessing, “... מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם .../… from the dew of the heavens …” Only afterward does it descend to this material world in the form of material abundance.
Moshe Rabbeinu represents the entire nation of Israel. What is true for him is true for us as well. We have the ability, and the duty, to return to God, that which he gives us, by using the things He gives us to do His will, to perform mitzvos and acts of kindness. By doing this we point up the difference between the nation of Israel and the nations of the world. The nations of the world see the material abundance and do not relate it back God. They imbue power to the physical itself, the very basis of idol worship. We, on the other hand, revert everything physical back to its spiritual roots.

Strengthening the spiritual brings more blessing and renewal down to the physical world. This is the meaning of the pasuk in Koheles and Chazal’s explanation, “... אֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ/… There is nothing new under the sun.” Chazal understand this to be a metaphor for the physical world. Under the sun, in the physical world, there is nothing new. However, above the sun, in the spiritual, there is novelty, renewal. Only through the spiritual, therefore, is it possible to bring renewal and novelty into the physical world.

May we merit Yitzchak’s blessing, “He will give and give again,” by using the material things God gives us to fulfill His will. Amen!

Monday, November 05, 2007

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? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Chayei Sarah 5631 Third Ma'amar

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה/This was the life of Sarah, 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of Sarah’s life.” The pasuk is constructed in an awkward way. Is her life defined by her years? Secondly, the first half of the pasuk lists each category of years – single digits, tens and hundred – separately. The end of the pasuk includes all the years together – “the years of Sarah’s life.” Why is this? Why not simply state, “Sarah lived 127 years”? In answer to this question Rashi cites the Midrash which explains that all the days of her life were equal in their goodness.

Saying that all the days of here life were equal in their goodness seems to contradict the principle that we are here in this world in order to grow. Growing implies change. It implies that all our days are not equal. We start at a certain level or as a blank slate and we grow closer to God or the opposite depending upon our deeds, words and thoughts. What, then, is the meaning of this Midrash?

The Sfas Emes explains. The idea underlying this Midrash is that truly living, (as in, “This was the life of Sarah,”) can be defined as completely actualizing one’s potential. Generally people tend to become wiser and more settled with age. As we grow older we come to realize the folly of certain poor character traits and actions we may have had and, by exchanging the poor attributes for better ones and by improving our actions, we grow. This is, for most of us, a lifelong task and, with God’s help, we may reach a level of truly living by the end of our lives.

There are a few, however, who live each day to its fullest. The Sfas Emes explains that each day of a person’s life, has a unique rectification associated with it. The one who merits achieving the rectification is the one who is truly living. Accordingly, it is possible for one with exemplary character traits to grow as well. This person can ascend from level to level by actualizing his potential, by fulfilling the day’s rectification, each day of his life. The Midrash is teaching us that this was the level of Sarah Imeinu. All her days were equal in their goodness because she had no blemish that she needed to cure and return to goodness. Instead, they were equal in goodness because she realized the full potential of each day of her life. May we learn from Sarah Imeinu’s example and live each day to its fullest potential. Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

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. Click here for rest of ma'amar.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

VaYeira 5632 Second Ma'amar

God constructed the Creation hierarchically, from least spiritual to most spiritual. This physical world is the least spiritual. Connecting the physical world to the most spiritual are myriads of spiritual realms. We, through our souls, are connected to all the spiritual realms. [This is because only a small part of the Jewish soul resides in the body. Most of the soul stretches from the body through the spiritual realms up to the most holy spiritual place. In fact, the Zohar calls the body a shoe for this reason. Only the “heel” of the soul, as it were, is in the body.] It follows that our physical actions affect all the spiritual worlds. When our actions are good, we have a positive effect on the spiritual worlds and God reveals His Providence in this world. When our actions are not good, we have a negative effect and God hides His Providence.

Avraham Avinu, sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day just in case travelers happened by, represents the epitome of love for God. When the Zohar explains the mitzvah of loving God, it uses Avraham Avinu as the quintessential example. Avraham Avinu, from the time he recognized God, disregarded himself completely in order to accomplish God’s will.

Avraham Avinu surely understood the results of his actions in the spiritual realms. He brought an awareness of God to all those with whom he came in contact. Although his actions affected high spiritual realms, he always remembered that he was only flesh and blood at the entrance of the tent. The entrance of the tent represents a level of initiation. Regardless of how much he accomplished, with regard to serving God, Avraham Avinu considered himself to be at the beginning, at the “entrance.”

We need to understand that our actions have powerful ramifications in the highest spiritual realms and, as a result, here in the physical world. We also need to consider that in relation to God and serving Him, we are always at the “entrance.”

Sunday, October 21, 2007

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. Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Lech Lecha 5632 Third Ma'amar

In the beginning of our parsha God commands Avraham Avinu, “לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ ... אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ: וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל .../‘Leave your land … to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation …” The Ramban asks the following question. Generally, the Torah tells us that receiving God’s bounty is dependent upon our righteousness. One example is, “אִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ ... /If you follow my laws …” God tells us that if we listen to Him, He will bless us with His good. However, here, with no introduction whatsoever, God grants Avraham Avinu an incredible gift. What did Avraham Avinu do to deserve this blessing?

The Sfas Emes explains that the command, “לֶךְ-לְךָ/Leave” itself is the clue. This is essentially a command to leave behind those things with which we are familiar in order to follow God and do His will. The command does not even define God’s will. God told Avraham Avinu simply to leave all that with which he was familiar to follow God to wherever he was led.

It is a command that God is constantly sending to each of us. Most people, though, are not tuned in and do not hear it. The Zohar on this week’s parsha says that people tend not to think about why the world exists and what keeps it in existence. The Zohar says, “Woe to those who are asleep who do not know and do not think …” Avraham Avinu was awake. He was searching. When God commanded, he heard and acted. This is the reason that he merited God’s blessing.

Like Avraham Avinu, even if we do not know what God requires of us, the very intent to fulfill God’s will, to leave behind the familiar and enter uncharted territory in a quest to come close to God, God gives us the understanding and we merit it. Avraham Avinu, as well, did not know where God was leading him. Yet, his desire to come close to God was so strong that he was willing to leave all that was familiar to him behind to do so.

May we all merit hearing God’s command to follow Him and do His will.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

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. Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

No'ach 5631 Second Ma'amar

אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק.../These are the offspring of No’ach; No’ach was a righteous man …” The strange construct of this first pasuk of our parsha requires an explanation. Rashi cites the Midrash which explains that the offspring of the righteous are their good deeds. What does this mean? What are Chazal teaching us? After all, not only the righteous perform mitzvos. What is special about the mitzvos that the righteous perform and what does it mean when Chazal say that those mitzvos are their “offspring”?

In order to understand this Midrash we need to understand that actions are imbued with meaning by the intent of the one who performs them. Two people can fulfill the exact same mitzvah, perform the same action, and yet the results of their actions can differ. In truth, every mitzvah, regardless of who performs it has spiritual ramifications. God structured the world so that effects in spiritual realms are dependent upon our physical actions in the material world. A tzadik, though, can lay claim to the spiritual effects of his mitzvos. They affect him directly. The reason, the Sfas Emes explains, is that the tzadik identifies so strongly with the mitzvos he does. The tzadik puts his life energy into the mitzvah that he performs. In Iyov we find, “... וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/… and from my flesh I will perceive God.” To the extent we put our life energy towards the fulfillment of a mitzvah, we perceive its effects.

To the extent we do a mitzvah with all our strength and for the moment of the mitzvah, are totally dedicated to it, we will experience the spiritual effect of the mitzvah.

The Sfas Emes, therefore, understands this first pasuk of the parsha literally. Because No’ach united with his wife as a tzadik, for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah, the result of the union were offspring who were worthy as they reflected his intent.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

No'ach 5631 First Ma'amar

... נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק/… No’ach was a righteous man …” (Breishis 6:9) The word צַדִּיק/righteous has the same root as צֶדֶק/justice and צוֹדֵק/correct. Just as in a court room, a house of justice, there is a struggle between two sides until one side emerges "correct," so too, a righteous person is one who has emerged victorious from various struggles with his evil inclination. A חָסִיד/pious individual, on the other hand, is on a higher level. He no longer has a struggle with his evil inclination. Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Breishis 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיְכַל אֱ-לֹהִים בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ... /On the seventh day God completed his work that he did …” (Breishis 2:2) This pasuk implies that God’s work was completed on the seventh day itself, not before. What work did God do on the seventh day? Rashi answers that the world was still lacking מְנוּחָה/rest. God created rest on the seventh day.

We usually think of rest as a cessation from activity. Rashi, however, relates to rest as something positive. What is this positive entity called מְנוּחָה/rest? Click here for entire ma'amar.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Succos 5632 Fourth Ma'amar (VeZos HaBracha)

... ה' מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן ... /… God came from Sinai, He shone to us from Sei’ir, He appeared from Mount Paran …” What is the meaning of this pasuk? God is everywhere. What does it mean to say that God came from a specific place? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Succos 5634 Fourth Ma'amar

The water libation that was poured in the Beis HaMikdash only on Succos, was drawn each day of the holiday amid great fanfare and festivities from the Mei HaShiloach. The Talmud describes the drawing of the water, the dancing, juggling and music which continued throughout each night of Succos until the sacrifice in the morning. The festivities were referred to as Simchas Beis HaSho’eiva/The Rejoicing of the House of the Drawing. The Gemara, in describing the festivities says that the people did not sleep during Succos. During the day they witnessed the special sacrifices and studied Torah. At night they watched and participated in the Simchas Beis HaSho’eiva. Festivities of this sort accompanied no other event in the Beis HaMikdash. What was the significance of these festivities? Why were they associated specifically with the drawing of the water libation? Why did the people not sleep?

Chazal say that the festivities were called Simchas Beis HaSho’eiva/The Rejoicing of the House of the Drawing because from there they drew Ruach HaKodesh. Chazal find a hint to this in a pasuk in Yeshaya, “וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן מִמַּעַיְנֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה/You will draw water with joy from the fountains of salvation.” The Sfas Emes says, too, that water is life and implies Ruach HaKodesh which is also life as the pasuk says when God created man, “וַיִפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִים/He blew into his nostrils the soul of life,” a reference to the holy spirit which is Ruach HaKodesh.

What was the significance of this Ruach HaKodesh and what is its connection to the Simchas Beis HaSho’eiva? The Sfas Emes explains that enlightenment, blessing, for the entire year was dependent upon the enlightenment received during the seven days of Succos. This is why regarding Succos the pasuk states, “וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַה' שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה .../You will celebrate it, a holiday for God, seven days during the year.” Succos is the only holiday where the Torah relates the days of the holiday to the year. Regarding Pesach, for example, the Torah does not mention the word shana/year. The enlightenment came from the level of Ruach HaKodesh the people reached during the festivities. The Ruach HaKodesh the people attained on Succos was crucial to assure a good coming year. This is the reason that they did not sleep during the entire festivities. They did not want to lose a moment.

Chazal mention the idea of not sleeping in order to take advantage of every moment regarding Moshe Rabbeinu’s ascent to Mount Sinai. Moshe Rabbeinu knew that he had forty days during which to receive. He understood that there was no way to even measure the amount he could receive every moment. He, therefore, did not sleep so as not to lose even a second.

This is why the people did not sleep, but what compelled the Midrash to associate water drawing with drawing Ruach HaKodesh? The Sfas Emes explains that the key was the rejoicing. The joy was the tool the people used to draw Ruach HaKodesh upon themselves and receive abundance and enlightenment.

This, then answers our questions. The water of the water libation symbolized the true spiritual life, the enlightenment which the people received through Ruach HaKodesh. The festivities enabled the people to reach a level of Ruach HaKodesh. And, finally, because they understood the ramifications the enlightenment they received had for the entire year, they dared not lose a moment. They did not sleep throughout the festivities. Ultimately, the Simchas Beis HaSho'eiva is a tool, a tool we unfortunately do not have today, to bring God's enlightenment and abundance into our lives. May we merit once more to participate in the great rejoicing of the Simchas Beis HaSho’eiva. Amen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Succos 5634 First Ma'amar

There is a famous allegory mentioned by Chazal comparing the relationship between the nation of Israel and God to that between a bride and bridegroom. The Sfas Emes elaborates and relates it to Succos. The Exodus is considered the marriage as the pasuk states, “אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם: הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם .../I am God who sanctifies you, who takes you out of the land of Egypt.” The Hebrew word for marriage – kidushin – is the same as the word for sanctify. The underlying meaning of both is to become dedicated. A married woman is “dedicated” to her husband in the sense that her marriage permits her to him and prohibits her to all others. In the same sense, when God sanctifies us, He makes us dedicated to Him alone.

A Jewish marriage transaction, though, comprises two parts. The first part is the marriage/kidushin by which the husband makes his wife dedicated to him alone. The second part is the chupah by which he takes her into his house. The canopy – chupah – under which a couple marries, symbolizes the husband’s act of taking his wife into his house. When the nation of Israel left Egypt, God took us to live in huts in the desert, “... בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם .../… I settled the children of Israel in huts when I took them out of the land of Egypt …” The Sfas Emes teaches that these huts symbolize the completion of the marriage transaction – the chupah – as it were, between us and God.

That God separated us from among the nations to be dedicated to Him alone causes a certain vulnerability. Separateness draws attention. The huts of the desert symbolize God’s protection over us. We find another pasuk which hints at this as well, “... וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת .../… and for his livestock he made huts …” the word for livestock has the same root as the word for acquisition. The pasuk can therefore be translated as, “… and for His acquisition He made huts …”, referring to the nation of Israel whom God “acquired” by taking us out of Egypt and over whom He spread his protective canopy. Along the same lines we say in Ma’ariv, “הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ/He spreads a canopy of peace on us.” The word poreis/spread, also implies a portion (as in אַכִילַת פְּרַס/eating a piece.) hinting, as well, that God separated us.

Clearly God chose us to be His chosen nation from among the nations. The pasuk states clearly, “... חֵלֶק ה' עַמּוֹ .../… God’s portion is His people …” The Sfas Emes asks, though, that since God is the ultimate completeness, why would He choose only a portion? A portion seems to contradict wholeness. Should not God have chosen all the nations?

When we think about this, though, we realize that the question really does not start. The reason is that wherever God reveals Himself, there is completeness. Where does God reveal Himself? Where does He dwell, as it were? The prophet Yeshaya stated, that God dwells specifically with “broken vessels”, “אֶשְׁכּוֹן וְאֶת-דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל-רוּח/I will dwell with the despondent and lowly of spirit.” These are the righteous whose hearts are broken in their service to God. The Zohar explains that although they are “broken vessels” they are really more complete than any other place. God Himself, chooses to dwell within the righteous and makes them whole. This is a deeper meaning of, “הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ/He spreads a canopy of peace on us.” As we’ve said, poreis/spread, also means a portion. Shalom/Peace has the same root as the word for whole – shalem. This bracha, then, is saying that God separated us from the nations of the world but then protected us with His canopy of peace, making us whole.

It is our duty to spread an awareness of God to the rest of world. God structured the physical world so that there is a spiritual life force inherent in every creation. This spiritual life force, actually a revelation of God in a sense, is a point of completeness within the physical. So too, the nation of Israel is the point of wholeness among all the nations.

This idea relates particularly well to the holiday of Succos. Chazal teach us that Succos is for the nations of the world as well as for us. Seventy cows, representing the seventy nations, were sacrificed. The water libation, unique to Succos, represents the nations of the world as well. The point of this is that Godly abundance comes to the nations through us, the nation of Israel. It is our duty not to keep God, as it were, to ourselves. Rather we are required to request that the kingdom of God spread throughout the Creation. We find a hint to this in Avos. “אַל תִּהְיוּ כַּעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְשִׁים אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנַת לְקַבֵּל פְּרַס/Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward.” Rather we should serve God altruistically. The Tanna uses the word pras for reward. As we’ve seen, pras also means a portion. Therefore, the Tanna is hinting that we should not serve God only for ourselves but rather we should seek to spread awareness of Him throughout the world.

Succos, then, is a culmination of a process of God establishing the nation of Israel as the point from which completeness and abundance will spread to the rest of the world. It is also the beginning of the process of spreading it to the rest of the world. Succos represents the culmination of the “marriage” between the nation of Israel and God, God’s protection and making us whole. It also represents our spreading an awareness of God and His abundance to the entire world. May we merit being God’s channel.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Yom Kippur 5641

It is a mitzvah to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur in preparation for the fast. Chazal also learn from the pesukim that we are required to begin fasting while it is still daytime. In the language of Chazal "מוסיפין מחול על הקודש/We add to the holy from the profane." The Torah and Chazal impart significance to the day before Yom Kippur. It is important, on the one hand to eat on Erev Yom Kippur. It is so important, in fact, that Chazal consider one who eats on Erev Yom Kippur, as if he fasted on that day as well. On the other hand, it is also important to actually begin fasting on Erev Yom Kippur. What is the relationship between Erev Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is a day which enables us to come as close to God as a physical being can. The laws of Yom Kippur, which require us to abstain from physical pleasure are designed so that we may enact a next-world spiritual experience. The less physical and the more spiritual we are, the closer we can come to God. The reason for this is that closeness to God entails breaking any barriers that separate us from Him. Our physical bodies and needs are major barriers that keep us from coming close to God.

This is why the ultimate coming close to God occurs after our soul leaves the physical body. Then, there is a complete nullification of the self to God. God, as it were, completely engulfs us. The prophet Yirmiyahu hinted at this concept when he said, “'מקוה ישראל ה/God is the hope of Israel.” The word for hope – מקוה, also means a mikveh – a purifying bath. According to Chazal, the prophet is teaching us that just as a mikveh purifies, so too, God purifies. And just as a mikveh purifies only when a person immerses his entire body in the waters, so too, God purifies only when a person nullifies himself completely to God. This happens when a person’s soul is no longer bound by his physical body. Minimizing bodily pleasures on Yom Kippur, therefore, enables us to come close to God.

Since the greatest bliss we can experience is coming close to God, Yom Kippur is a day of joy. Our physicality, though, prevents us from fully experiencing the joy of connecting with God. To reach a state of joy from which we can enter Yom Kippur, the Torah commands us to eat and drink on Erev Yom Kippur. Rabbeinu Yonah in Sha’arei Teshuvah, in fact, makes this very point. He says that since we cannot experience joy on Yom Kippur, we have a mitzvah to be joyful on Erev Yom Kippur through eating and drinking.

Even from a state of joy, though, we do not enter Yom Kippur directly. Our state of joy allows us to first experience the aura of Yom Kippur which “spills over,” so to speak, onto the moments directly preceding and following the day itself. We, therefore abstain from food and drink and other physical pleasures during the moments preceding Yom Kippur. From the experience of connecting with the aura of the moments preceding Yom Kippur from within the state of joy we are in, we can connect with the enlightenment of Yom Kippur itself. This, then, explains the relationship between Erev Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur.

In order to properly experience Yom Kippur, therefore, it is important, to eat and drink on Erev Yom Kippur with intent to reach a state of joy. From within this state we can nullify ourselves to God and experience in some sense a glimpse of the next world.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Yom Kippur 5640

It is a mitzvah to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur in preparation for the fast. Chazal teach us that whoever eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishrei is considered to have fasted on both the ninth and tenth of Tishrei. It is certainly a good idea to eat before a fast. But why is this not simply good advice? Why is it actually a mitzvah, a biblical requirement? Click here for entire ma'amar.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

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? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Rosh HaShanah 5632 Third Ma'amar

The Midrash on the pasuk in parshas Emor which mentions Rosh HaShanah cites the following pasuk from Tehillim, “לְעוֹלָם ה' דְּבָרְךָ נִצָּב בַּשָּׁמָיִם/Forever, God, Your word stands firm in the heavens.” What is the connection between this pasuk and Rosh HaShanah?

The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that this pasuk harks back to God’s command to create the heavens and is to be understood literally. God’s command, “Let there be a firmament …,” the very words of the declaration, stand firm in the heavens and give them existence. The same applies to all the commands of the Creation. The Sfas Emes explains that God's commandments (i.e. "Let there be light", etc.) are at the root of every part of the Creation. The spiritual sustenance that enables every part of the Creation to continue to exist flows out of God’s very declarations that brought them into existence in the first place. The spiritual energy at the source and its physical counterparts are therefore intimately connected. The Creation was set up so that the spiritual energy actually becomes the physical creations.

The Midrash relates this pasuk to Rosh HaShanah because Rosh HaShanah represents the spiritual energy before it changes into disparate material creations. The tekia gives a clue to this concept as well. The tekia is a simple sound. It represents sound before it is broken into parts by speech and reminds us of the source of life and existence before it becomes physical and broken into disparate physical forms*.

On Rosh HaShana we want to connect – to experience – through the sound of the Shofar, to God’s spiritual life force. May we merit it!

* For a fascinating discussion of this concept, see Ya’aros Devash 1:6. Reb Yonasan Aibshutz explains the juxtaposition of the different names of God in the pasuk, ““עלה א-להים בתרועה ה' בקול שופר.” The Tetragrammaton has no consonants. As such it is comparable to the tekia which is a simple sound unbroken by parts of the mouth. The name א-להים, on the other hand, has consonants. It is comparable to the teruah which is sound broken using parts of the mouth. It represents God’s influence in the physical world.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rosh HaShanah 5632 Second Ma'amar

On Rosh HaShanah, God provides abundance for the entire year. God’s blessing begins as something spiritual that becomes physical in the material world. In the transformation from spiritual to physical, other changes take place as well. Spiritual abundance is uniform. Physical forms, on the other hand, differ. This concept is suggested by the very name of the holiday. Literally, Rosh HaShanah means the head of the year. However, the word shanah/year also means change. In this sense, Rosh HaShanah connotes the beginning or source of abundance before it changes from spiritual to physical.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

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? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Elul 5640

אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי/I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” The first letters of each word of this pasuk spell out “Elul.” What is the connection between the month of Elul and this pasuk?

The Sfas Emes explains. First, we need to know and understand that there is a special relationship between the nation of Israel and God that has nothing to do with the nations of the world. Shabbos, for example, was given solely to us. God declares, “בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִיא/It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel.” Yeshayahu prophesied, “I have formed this nation for Me,” and, “you are My witnesses.” The nation of Israel is on a level on which we can live a life of holiness dedicated to God without associating with the nations of the world.

The goodness of our hearts, though, dictates that we help the nations as well. In fact, Israel’s collective mission is to elevate and rectify the Creation. In order to do this, many times we need to come into contact with elements of society and situations that are less than ideal spiritually.

This applies to the entire year. However, during the month of Elul we need to draw inwards, to connect with our roots. During the entire year we dirty ourselves with sins because we integrate with the world and are exposed to the evil in it. During the month of Elul, the principle of “your own life comes first” applies.

Chazal hinted at this concept when they established Rosh Chodesh Elul as the Rosh Hashana for ma’aseir beheimah. The mitzvah of ma'aseir beheimah entails tithing domestic animals that we own. Every tenth animal is tithed. The halachah requires that only animals born in the same year be counted for the tithing. The cutoff date is Rosh Chodesh Elul. An animal born before Rosh Chodesh Elul cannot be counted with an animal born after Rosh Chodesh Elul.

It is highly significant that Rosh Chodesh Elul is the Rosh HaShana for ma’aseir beheimah. Indeed, the concept of ma’aseir beheimah applies to our year as well. Even though during the entire year the holy and mundane are naturally integrated, during the month of Elul, we separate and concentrate on the holy alone. We introspect and remember that ultimately we were created to serve God. We thus fulfill, “אֲנִי לְדוֹדִ/I am for my beloved.

If we succeed in fulfilling, “אֲנִי לְדוֹדִ/I am for my beloved” during Elul then God fulfills וְדוֹדִי לִי/and my beloved is for me” during Tishrei showering life and holiness upon the entire coming year.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Nitzavim 5631 First Ma'amar

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ ... כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד .../It is not in heaven [so as] to say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven to take it for us? … rather it is very close to you …” Rashi cites Chazal who say that if the Torah were in heaven, we would in fact, be required to ascend to heaven to learn it. What does this mean?

The Chidushei HaRim explains that Chazal are teaching something very significant about learning Torah. Intuitively we understand that we need to work hard to attain goals that are far from us. We view the goal as static so we need to move a long way to get to it. When the goal is close, we do not need to work as hard to attain it. The Torah, however, is not static. When we desire Torah and work hard for it, the Torah itself responds and comes close to us. It appears that it was never far from us. When, however, we do not work for it, it remains far away.

This, then, is what Chazal mean. When we want to connect to the Torah so much, with all our heart, that we would search for a way to get it even if it were in heaven, then it is indeed very close. It is specifically because we would ascend to heaven to get it, if required, that it is very close to us.

Monday, September 03, 2007

VaYeilech 5631 First Ma'amar

... 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 Click here for entire ma'amar.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tavo 5631 Second Ma'amar

In the third year of the shmitah cycle we are required to perform the mitzvah of bi’ur ma’asros. This mitzvah involves distributing all tithes separated but not yet distributed. An integral component of this mitzvah is to declare, according to a formula prescribed in the Torah, that the mitzvah was done properly. The formula starts with this sentence, “בִּעַרְתִּי הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִן-הַבַּיִת וְגַם נְתַתִּיו לַלֵּוִי וְלַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה כְּכָל-מִצְוָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנִי לֹא-עָבַרְתִּי מִמִּצְוֹתֶיךָ וְלֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי/I have rid the house of the holy (portion) and have also given to the Levite, to the [resident] alien, to the orphan and to the widow according to Your entire commandment that You have commanded me. I did not transgress Your commandments nor did I forget.” Chazal teach us that each part of this sentence is referring to a different aspect of the laws of tithing. The final clause, “nor did I forget,” is referring to the blessing that we are required to recite before tithing. This declaration is called viduy ma’asros/confession of tithes.

Viduy ma’asros is a review of a person’s performance of the mitzvah of tithing. This is why the declaration includes the different aspects of the mitzvah and how they were performed properly, according to halachah as prescribed in the Torah and by Chazal. Why, though, is the blessing on the mitzvah included? The blessing we recite before performing a mitzvah is not a part of the mitzvah. A mitzvah performed is valid even if no blessing preceded it.

The Chidushei HaRim addresses this question. The answer is tied to the concept of saying blessings on mitzvos before fulfilling the mitzvah rather than afterwards. The Gemara uses uncommon language to state that the blessing for a mitzvah must precede the mitzvah. The Gemara calls it, “עובר לעשייתן/Oveir l’asiyasan.” The word oveir is translated as “pass” as in, Reuven’s car passes Shimon. The word connotes the past. In grammar it is used to describe the past tense. The Gemara therefore asks, “How do we know that this word in our context of saying blessings means specifically to say the blessing before performing the mitzvah?” The Gemara answers that to pass someone means to go before him. When Reuven’s car passes Shimon, Reuven is now in front of Shimon. In this sense, the word oveir/pass implies saying the blessing before doing the mitzvah.

Why, though, does the Gemara use language which is subject to confusion? Would it not be better to state clearly that we are required to make a blessing before fulfilling the mitzvah? The Chidushei HaRim asks this question and answers that the Gemara specifically used language that could, at first glance, connote “after.” The reason is that it makes sense to recite the blessing following the mitzvah rather than before it. After performing a mitzvah, we would thank God for giving us the opportunity to fulfill it and for helping us merit it. Why then do we, in fact, say the blessing beforehand? The Chidushei HaRim explains that it is the way of Jews to express gratitude to God specifically before everything. This is because we tend to remember Him. He is on our minds.

Saying blessings before doing the mitzvos, then, is an indication of a fundamental aspect of our relationship with God. This is why Chazal include declaring that we did not forget to recite the blessing in viduy ma’asros. Although not an integral part of the mitzvah of tithing per se, it indicates an integral part of our relationship with God. We are declaring that we did not forget You, God, therefore we said the blessing and expressed gratitude to You for the mitzvah even before we did it. We are grateful for the opportunity and the wherewithal. And, most importantly, we remember You.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

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?
Click here for entire ma'amar.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Teitzei 5631 Second Ma'amar

This week’s parsha begins with the laws of a captured woman. “וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת-תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָׁה/And you saw in captivity, a beautiful woman and you desire her, and you take her for a wife.” The Torah permits a Jewish soldier, under certain circumstances, to take a non-Jewish woman in the heat of his passion. A strange law, to be sure. Rashi, citing Chazal, explains that the Torah is addressing a person’s evil inclination. If God had not permitted the captured woman, the soldier would take her in sin. God permitted her to him because it is not within the soldier’s ability to overcome the temptation.

The Sfas Emes asks, “Would it not be better to lessen the power of the evil inclination so that the soldier can overcome the temptation?” Why actually permit what would under any other circumstance be considered a low act? To answer this question we must understand the nature of permitted acts and prohibited acts. The Hebrew for permitted and prohibited is heter and issur respectively. These words also mean released and bound. The Ba’al HaTania explains that a prohibition is called issur because the act binds one to the evil which is within it. The Sfas Emes extrapolates that a permitted act is one which enables a person to attach himself to the holy life force within it – the spiritual aspect of the act – instead of the physical. If the act is done for the sake of heaven, the spiritual underpinnings of the act are revealed. Even if the act is not done for the sake of heaven, one is not bound to evil. In fact, in principle, there is no other difference between a permitted act and one that is prohibited. Actions, in and of themselves are neutral.

This, then, is the reason the Torah permitted the captive woman to a Jewish soldier rather than lessen the temptation. Once the captive woman is permitted, marrying her does not bind one to evil. Indeed, the Torah goes on to detail the laws of a hated wife implying, according to Chazal, from the juxtaposition of these two laws, that one leads to the other. A Jewish soldier who marries a non-Jewish female captive will not be bound to the evil within this act. Since, the act is not generally done for the sake of heaven but rather to fill a physical desire, in all likelihood, he will divorce her.

This concept is expounded upon in the Midrash on this week’s parsha. The Midrash teaches us that in order to facilitate a connection to the spiritual within everything, God associated mitzvos with everything we do. One who builds a house is required to build a fence around the roof. When he puts up the door, he needs to attach a mezuzah to the doorpost. When he puts on new clothing, he needs to ensure that they are not made of a mixture of wool and linen. Connecting to the spiritual, to the light of the Torah within the mitzvah act, is essentially connecting to God.

The Sfas Emes takes this concept one step further and applies it not only to stated mitzvos but to all actions. Any act that is done for the sake of heaven is a mitzvah. This is hinted at in the pasuk from Mishlei that the above Midrash cites, “כִּי לִוְיַת חֵן הֵם לְרֹאשֶׁךָ .../For they are an adornment of grace for your head …” referring to the teachings of the Torah. The Midrash in a play on words relates, “רֹאשֶׁךָ/your head” to “רְשֻׁיוֹתֶךָ/your permitted actions.” By striving to act for the sake of heaven we turn mundane actions into holy ones and make ourselves holy and fulfill the mitzvah of, “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ/You shall be holy. Conversely by refraining from certain actions for the sake of heaven we fulfill the mitzvah of, “וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם .../And you shall not explore after your heart and eyes …” By contemplating before any action that it is for the sake of heaven, in order to accomplish God’s will, the act becomes consecrated and we become consecrated as well.