Monday, January 29, 2007

Beshalach 5631 First Ma'amar

God’s providence on every aspect of Creation became known and revealed to all when He split the Red Sea to save us and destroy the Egyptians. We know this from the following Midrash. The Midrash states on the pasuk, “נכון כסאך מאז מעולם אתה/Your throne is established from then; You are eternal,” that even though You are eternal, Your throne became established only at the time of אז/Then (an allusion to Shiras HaYam/The Song of the Sea which begins with the word אז/Then.) The Midrash explains that God’s throne becoming established means that His providence became known in the world.

When the children of Israel realized that everything, including their very actions and the actions of every creature, is enabled because of the Godliness within, they sang. So, the song that the children of Israel sang was not so much a thank you to God for having saved them. Rather it was a spontaneous outburst of praise upon the realization that God is in everything. The Midrash, in fact, states this explicitly, “As soon as they came to the sea and saw God’s strength, how He punishes the wicked and immersed the Egyptians in the sea, ‘'ויאמינו בה/They believed in God.’ In the merit of this belief, Ru'ach HaKodesh/the holy spirit rested upon them and they sang.” Clearly, the key to their singing was their belief in God’s providence.

For this reason the introduction to Shiras HaYam is in the future tense, “אז ישיר/Then they will sing,” rather than the past tense, “אז שר/Then they sang.” The song is not thanks for a one time event. Rather it is an ongoing praise of God’s direct providence in the world. This is why the first pasuk of Shiras HaYam refers to השירה הזאת/this song, an allusion to a specific already known praise that rises from each part of the Creation.

When we praise God, indicating our belief that God is the force that gives everything its existence, we influence all His creatures to sing. How does a creation sing? To understand this we need to define song. Song is the physical expression of a spiritual essence within. Each creation is unique, has a unique task, a unique spiritual essence and therefore sings its own unique song to the Creator. This is the meaning of Perek Shira/The Chapter of Song which comprises the songs that each creature sings to glorify God. When we are aware of God in the Creation, when we sing God’s praises, the Creation can be said to be singing, as well. We know this from the pasuk "כל פעל ה' למענהו .../God created everything for His praise.

Chazal inform us that King Chizkiyahu did not sing (praise to God.) This is why he did not become the Mashiach. The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Chizkiyahu did not sing because God’s Providence was so clear to him that he was not moved by miracles. Chizkiyahu saw clearly the miracle of God’s life force in nature. To Chizkiyahu there was absolutely no difference between natural and supernatural phenomena. As we’ve said, singing to God is an outburst of praise stemming from the realization that God’s Providence is behind all. To Chizkiyahu this was so obvious that he was not moved to sing praises to God about it.
For us, though, singing God’s praise is a result of that special “aha!” that happens when we realize that God is the source Who gives life to every thing, creature and action in this world enabling us and the entire creation to come close to Him.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sfas Emes's Yortzeit

Friends: Today, the fifth of Shvat, is the Sfas Emes's yortzeit. It is customary to give tzedakah l'iluy nishmaso and to pray to HaShem for the things we need in the zechus of the tzadik. May HaShem view our prayers favorably in the merit of the tzadik Rav Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Gur zt"l.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bo 5631 Second Ma'amar

The seventh plague came and went and Pharaoh still could not bring himself to let us leave Egypt. Imagine the exasperation! God said that there would be a redemption with signs and wonders and yet, we were still in Egypt. Pharaoh was being obstinate. Where was the promised redemption?

The first Midrash on the parsha explains that the we did not deserve the redemption. God had made us His own and instead of embracing God we angered Him by not renouncing idol worship. For this we deserved to be destroyed. (see Yechezkel 20:5-9) God redeemed us so that Pharaoh would not say that God destroyed them because he was unable to redeem them. In order to redeem us in spite of ourselves, God caused Pharaoh to be obstinate. As a result of Pharaoh’s obstinacy we were redeemed.

This is the meaning of a pasuk in Mishlei, “ כובד אבן ונטל החול וכעס אויל כבד משניהם/A stone has weight and sand has mass, but the anger of a fool is heavier than both.” The beginning of this pasuk refers to the nation of Israel. The Hebrew for weight has the same root as the Hebrew for honor. God honored the nation of Israel. We angered God, though. The end of the pasuk refers to Pharaoh. We could not be redeemed immediately on our own merit. So, God arranged a series of events whereby Pharaoh’s obstinacy would be his own undoing.

God explains this to Moshe Rabeinu at the beginning of our parsha, “בא אל פרעה כי אני הכבדתי את לבו .../Go to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart …” The situation in Egypt does not seem promising for the nation of Israel. Pharaoh shows no sign of weakening his resolve to keep the Jews even after seven terrible plagues. God tells Moshe not to despair and not be concerned for it is He who has hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to be able to redeem the unworthy nation. What appears to be a cause for concern is actually the very thing that will permit the nation to be redeemed.

This is an important lesson for each of us when we find ourselves in a predicament and wonder where God is. Why isn’t He helping me? The lesson of Egypt teaches us not to despair in these situations. We can remember that God caused Pharaoh to be obstinate and continue the bondage in order to bring about the redemption. God is always helping us. In every situation He has our best interests in mind. Even if we do not understand how, we can understand that God arranges everything that happens to us for our own benefit.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bo 5631 First Ma'amar

The Chidushei HaRim asks why it was necessary for God to bring specifically ten plagues upon the Egyptians. God could have accomplished His purpose with any number of plagues or with no plagues at all. Why ten? The Chidushei HaRim answers that the ten plagues removed God’s concealment from the ten commands with which the world was created and changed them fromעשרה מאמרות/ten commands to עשרת הדברות/ten commandments.

The Sfas Emes explains this enigmatic answer. God created the world withעשרה מאמרות/ten commands. These are stated clearly in the first chapter of Breishis. God constructed the Creation mechanism so that when He uttered the words of creation, the words themselves gave their creations existence. So, for example, when God said, “יהי אור/Let there be light,” those words gave existence to light. The life force behind everything in this world is those letters in the beginning of the Torah which describe the Creation. The letters are the means through which God extends His Will to create and continue the existence of the entire creation. This is a crucial concept. The Creation was not a one time act. It is a continuous.

Looking around us, though, it is not clear at all that the life force that gives everything existence is in the letters of these very commands. In fact, it is not obvious that there is a spiritual life force at all. The Godly life force in Creation is hidden. The purpose of the plagues that God wrought upon Egypt was to clearly reveal that the physical Creation owes its continuing existence to a Godly life force. It was to make it known that there is more to the world around us than our eyes perceive. Each plague revealed God in one aspect of the creation. Each plague removed a barrier preventing us from being aware of God in that aspect of nature referred to in one Creation מאמר/command. This is why God brought ten plagues upon the Egyptians; one plague for each of the ten commands by which God created the world.

What does the Chidushei HaRim mean, though, when he says that each מאמר/command changed to a דבור/utterance? The Chidushei HaRim is using a play on words. Although in Hebrew the root דבר/DBR means speech, in Aramaic it means leader. The Zohar uses this same play on words when it explains, “ודברת בם/You will speak about them.” The Zohar explains this as, “You will guide your actions according to the word of God.” דבור/Leadership symbolizes the revelation of God in the world. In the exile God’s truth is hidden. The Zohar describes this as the aspect of דבור/leadership being in exile.

We find this concept regarding Moshe Rabeinu’s speech impediment. When God asked Moshe Rabeinu to return to Egypt to speak to Pharaoh and begin the redemption process, he responds, “לא איש דברים אנכי/I am not a man of words.” When the Torah was given, however, the pasuk says, “אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה .../These are the words that Moshe spoke …” How did Moshe change from a man with a speech impediment to one who could speak and explain the entire Torah to the nation? The Midrash teaches us that after he merited receiving the Torah he was healed. In the exile Moshe Rabeinu was not a man of words. Moshe Rabeinu understood that in the exile God’s influence was far from apparent. But at the giving of the Torah, God’s leadership was clear for all to see. It follows that Moshe Rabeinu’s speech impediment, which symbolized God’s concealment, was healed.

As we’ve said, the ten plagues removed God’s concealment from theעשרה מאמרות/ten commands with which the world was created. As we and the Egyptians became more aware of God with each plague, each aspect of nature represented by one of the ten commands was changed to an aspect of God’s דבור/leadership. Finally, they were aware of God in all aspects of nature. This is why the Chidushei HaRim said that the ten commands which created the world changed to עשרת הדברות/ten aspects of (God’s) leadership.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Va'Eira 5631 Second Ma'amar

Why must we sometimes endure exile, distress and troubles? The fundamental reason for all exile on a national level and distress and troubles for each of us individually is so that we will recognize that it is God who is in control, not us. If we do not appreciate Him when things are going well for us, His answer is to hide from us and let us fend for ourselves, in a manner of speaking. Then, when things start to fall apart, we realize just how much we need Him. The Chidushei HaRim says that if a person would know for sure that God is the source of everything that happens, there would be no reason to conceal His presence.

We find this concept in the p’sukim at the beginning of this week’s parsha. After God asks Moshe to tell the children of Israel that He will take them out of Egyptian bondage, redeem them and take them unto Him as a nation, He promises, “... וידעתם כי אני ה' אלקיכם המוציא אתכם מתחת סבלות מצרים/… You shall know that I am God, your Lord Who is extracting you from under the oppression of Egypt.” By the end of the Exodus it would be obvious that God orchestrated it.

The exile and exodus from Egypt is a lesson for all generations and for each of us on a personal level. When we realize that everything that happens to us is orchestrated by God, then the reason for the tribulations is removed and there is a redemption of sorts, reminiscent of our redemption from Egypt. It is for this reason that we are commanded to remember the Exodus every day. It is a reminder that it is not through our own efforts but rather by the grace of God that we are not slaves in Egypt today. The way out of difficult situations is by remembering this principle. To the extent that it becomes clear to us that God is in control, not us, we are able to extract ourselves from every difficult situation in which we find ourselves.
It is not necessary to wait until we are in distress. We can prevent difficulties as well by remembering this important lesson. This is the deeper meaning of Chazal’s requirement to remember the Exodus, “... כל ימי חייך/… all the days of your life.” The implication is that even during those days when you are truly living, because you are close to God, the source of life, you are required to remember that it is He who took you out of Egypt. By extension, we remember that it is He who orchestrates our good fortune as well as our distress. It is the deeper meaning behind the view that this requirement applies even in the days of Mashi’ach, certainly a good time for us. It is a time when Chazal tell us that the evil inclination does not rule. Still, we are required to remember, that if it were not for God’s mercy we would still be slaves in Egypt.

Only after the Exodus when we were no longer enslaved, were we able to accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven. The Zohar explains that as long as a person has upon him a burden, he cannot accept the yoke of God. This is the reason a slave is exempt from the mitzvah of Kri’as Sh’ma. He is exempt from accepting the yoke of heaven upon himself because he is subject to the authority of his master. This also explains why we thank God in the second Brachah of Birchas HaMazon for both taking us out of Egypt and for redeeming us from the house of bondage. Besides taking us out of Egypt, removing the Egyptian yoke from us is worthy of thanks in and of itself. It allowed us to subsequently accept the yoke of heaven. We see this in the p’sukim at the beginning of our parsha. God takes us for His nation only after he redeems us from the oppressive yoke of Egypt.

This very same idea applies to each one of us any time we find ourselves in a distressful situation. In order to fully accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven, we first need to be extracted from the situation. We do this by accepting that it is God who put us in the difficulty. He did this so that we may come to the realization that He is in complete control, not us. This recognition helps us to leave the distress behind and allows us to accept the yoke of heaven. God, in his mercy, has given us these tools so that each of us may experience his own personal Exodus every day. May we merit it!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Va'Eira 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 Rabeinu, “אני ה'/I am God.” A few pesukim 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 Rabeinu’s message, “מקוצר רוח/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.] 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 submit our own mind and will to the Will of God.

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 Midrash teaches us that Shlomo HaMelech and Moshe Rabeinu 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. “ופניתי לראות חכמה והוללות ושכלות כי מה האדם שיבוא אחרי המלך את אשר כבר עשוהו/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 Rabeinu as well. At the end of last week’s parsha Moshe Rabeinu complains to God, “ה' למה הרעותה לעם הזה/God, why have You done evil to this people?” God responds at the beginning of our parsha, “אני 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, “... מה האדם שיבוא אחרי המלך את אשר כבר עשוהו /… 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.” 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 Rabeinu 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 Rabeinu knew that God is at the root of everything. That’s why he complained to Him. When God sent Moshe Rabeinu 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 Rabeinu’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 Rabeinu to convey this message to the children of Israel but they do not accept it, “מקוצר רוח/because of shortness of breath.” The word רוח/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 Rabeinu, 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, January 12, 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!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Shemos 5631 First Ma'amar

“ ואלה שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה את יעקב .../These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Ya’akov …” The Sfas Emes explains the significance of the word שמות/names. He also explains why the Torah tells us that they came to Egypt with Ya’akov.

In Koheles we find, “טוב שם משמן טוב .../A (good) name is better than good oil …” The Midrash on this pasuk says that Chanania and Misha’el represent people with a good name. They were thrown into a fiery furnace and were saved. Nadav and Avihu represent good oil since as כהנים/priests they were anointed with the special anointing oil. They were killed by burning. Clearly, a good name is better than good oil. Why is this so? What is the significant difference between Chanania and Misha’el on the one hand and Nadav and Avihu on the other?

According to the Midrash good oil alludes to someone who, like Nadav and Avihu, receives his great stature from heaven. He did not work for it. He did not earn it. Nadav and Avihu were born into it. A good name, on the other hand, is the result of hard work. A person’s good reputation can be measured by how far it traveled. The greater his good reputation, the farther his name has traveled, the harder he worked to achieve it. The Midrash is teaching that a person’s received greatness will not save him but a person’s earned greatness will save him.

The children of Israel were not on the level of our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. Our forefathers were above nature. They were connected to God and saw God in everything. The physical world was no barrier for them. Last week, in the first ma’amar on parshas VaYechi, the Sfas Emes explained why the Torah uses the word, ויחי/He lived, referring to Ya’akov’s stay in Egypt rather than the more usual וישב/He dwelt, or ויחי/He was. The Torah is stressing that Ya’akov “lived” in the ultimate sense of being attached to the Source of all life.

Ya’akov taught his children that even though they were not on his level, they could see God in everything, too, by working on their אמונה/belief. The key is to believe that God is in everything regardless of how things appear to be. Through hard work the Godly light within all of Creation became revealed to them. In this sense, their mission (and ours as well) was to reveal and spread the Godly enlightenment specifically within nature. This was their mission in Egypt.

Egypt was one of the most immoral places on Earth. A lot of hard work indeed was required to come to the realization that the physical reality of their surroundings was simply a screen masking the light of God. This is the deeper meaning of the “backbreaking work” that was required of the children of Israel in Egypt. Their revelation of God, was something that they earned through hard work.

The word שמות/names in the first pasuk of our parsha represents this hard work since it suggests the good name that results from hard work. The Torah makes a point of telling us, at the very beginning of their descent to Egypt, that through their hard work the children of Ya’akov reached a level of seeing the Godliness in the physical. This is why the Torah tells us that they came to Egypt with Ya’akov. They came with the spiritual level represented by Ya’akov.

This is the meaning of the Midrash which says, “God said, ‘The names of the tribes are more beloved to me than the anointing oil used to anoint priests and kings.” Their names represented their personal accomplishments. God loves personal achievement.

In our current exile as well, we have the ability, through אמונה/belief, to reveal the hidden Godliness in everything around us. The prophet Zechariah, referring to the redemption from this exile, said, “…On that day God will be One and His Name will be One.” The Zohar explains the significance of God being one and His name being one. God’s oneness is not affected by exile. However, in the exile His oneness is hidden. His Name being one refers to His revelation. When will His name be one? When will His oneness be revealed? When our אמונה/belief that God is hidden in everything including the exile is complete, He will be revealed. The essential definition of redemption is God revealing Himself just as the essential definition of exile is God’s concealment. When God is revealed, by definition the exile is over. May we merit it speedily!

Thursday, January 04, 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?

The physical world exists because of the spiritual life force within it. This spiritual life force emanates from God through a spiritual hierarchy until it reaches the physical world. Ya’akov Avinu was part of this spiritual hierarchy. Ya’akov Avinu was the vehicle through which the spiritual life force that was responsible for the continuing existence of Egypt and the Egyptians descended. This is why the parsha starts with the words “ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים/Ya’akov lived in the land of Egypt …” instead of the more usual “וישב יעקב .../Ya’akov dwelt.” ויחי/He lived suggests that he also gave life to the land of Egypt. Ya’akov compared himself to God as a creator of worlds in the sense that he gave life to Egypt.

Why, though, did God use Ya’akov as the mechanism for giving life and existence to Egypt? A Zohar in parshas VaYeishev gives us a clue. The Zohar says that the redemption from Egypt could only have happened because the brothers treated Yosef like a slave. What is the connection between the redemption and the way that Yosef’s brothers treated him? Since the relationship between the brothers and Yosef was one of masters to a slave – they sold him – and Yosef ruled over the Egyptians, it follows that the brothers were also rulers over the Egyptians. The fact that we were slaves to the Egyptians for a period of time was a temporary anomaly which was corrected with our redemption from Egypt. If the brothers had not sold Yosef, had not treated him as a slave, and we had subsequently gone to Egypt, we would not have been redeemed from Egypt, according to the Zohar. This Zohar is teaching us that for redemption to occur, the seeds of redemption must be planted before the exile.

This concept explains our Midrash as well. God used Ya’akov as the vehicle for imparting life to Egypt in order to subordinate Egypt to Ya’akov. This was another seed of the redemption which God planted before the exile. It made the redemption possible.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Vayechi 5631 First Ma'amar

“ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים .../Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt ...” The Sfas Emes addresses two difficulties. Firstly, ויחי/He lived, is a strange choice of words. Usually when the Torah relates that someone lived in a specific place, it uses the word וישב/He dwelt. The Chidushei HaRim suggests that, ויהי/He was, would have been more appropriate than ויחי/He lived.

Secondly, in a sefer Torah, there is always a blank space between two parshas. VaYechi is the only parsha in the entire Torah which begins directly following the last word of the previous parsha with no break whatsoever. This is referred to as a closed parsha. Why is this?

Ya’akov Avinu is associated with the attribute of אמת/truth. The prophet Micha tells us, “תתן אמת ליעקב/Give truth to Ya’akov.” On the level of truth, God is revealed. On the level of truth exile does not exist since exile means that God hides Himself. Egyptian society was pagan and immoral. It was very difficult to see God in Egypt. By using the word ויחי/He lived, the Torah is telling us that even in decadent Egypt, Ya’akov “lived.” Living means to attach to the Source of all life. Chazal tell us that wicked people are considered dead even during their lives. This is because they have separated from God, the Source of life. Ya’akov “lived” even in Egypt. On the level of אמת/truth, it did not matter that he was in Egypt. God gives life to the immoral Egyptians, too. For Ya’akov, He was revealed even in Egypt. This is why the parsha starts with, “ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים .../Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt ...” instead of the more usual וישב יעקב/Yaakov dwelt.

But why is the parsha closed? Chazal tell us that Ya’akov wanted to reveal the end of days to his children. The end of days is a time when all exile comes to an end and God is revealed. The exile is a temporary screen behind which God hides Himself. Behind the screen of the exile and giving life to it (and to everything else) is the eternal Source of life. Ya’akov wanted to convey to his children that God is there even in Egypt. He wanted it to be clear to them, as it was clear to him, that God is everywhere, even in the exile. He wanted them to see the Godliness in Egypt just as he saw it. If Ya’akov had explained this to his children, though, they would have reached Ya’akov’s level of emes. God would have been revealed to them and there would have been no exile. Chazal in fact tell us that the bondage in Egypt only began after Ya’akov passed on. In God’s plan, the exile was necessary. So, although Ya’akov “lived,” the parsha was closed. He was not permitted to pass it on to his children.

However, Chazal tell us that Ya’akov was permitted to teach them that even if they could not see Godliness in the immoral and corrupt Egyptian civilization, they could believe that He was there. Belief that God was there when the reality of their surroundings was the immoral and pagan Egyptian culture required a lot of hard work. But, through אמונה/belief, they would be able to see the אמת/truth, that God is in the exile as well.

Believing that God is the source of all power in the world enables us to see Him in the world. The stronger our belief, the more God is revealed. Working to reach this high level of אמונה/belief enables us to find Godly enlightenment even where God is concealed.