Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Beha'aloscha 5631 Second Ma'amar

If a person wants to grow in his service to God, should he deliberately place himself in a situation in which he will be tested or not? According to the Sfas Emes the answer to this question is in this week’s parsha.

After the nation left Mount Sinai they complained that there was no meat to eat. Rashi asks that in fact they did have plenty of meat. The pesukim relate that they left Egypt with cattle and sheep and they entered Israel with cattle and sheep. Why then did they complain? Rashi answers that they were looking for an excuse. The Sfas Emes asks that since they had meat this wasn’t even a lame excuse. It was no excuse at all. What, then, is the meaning of their complaint?

We find a clue at the beginning of the pasuk in which they complain. The pasuk says, “... התאוו תאוה .../… they caused themselves to crave …” We can infer that at first they had no desire yet they caused themselves to desire. How is it that they had no desire initially? Furthermore, since they had no desire, why did they deliberately bring it on? The Sfas Emes explains that they were on a very high spiritual level. They were on a level above nature, a level on which they were free from their evil inclination. Remember, they had spent the previous year, following the receiving of the Torah, in a highly spiritual environment. They were at the foot of Mount Sinai basking in God’s presence which was manifest in the Mishkan. All their physical needs were provided for them allowing them to focus completely on the spiritual.

They were above physical desire yet they caused themselves to crave meat. Why? The Sfas Emes explains that they wanted to reach an even higher spiritual level. They wanted to merit giving God even more satisfaction by eating something as physical as meat in holiness. Certainly being holy even while living a physically oriented life style is a higher level of service than while leading a completely spiritual life.

We even find this concept in a Midrash on the pasuk which required us to serve God, “בכל נפשכם/with all your soul.” The Midrash explains that the way to serve God “with all your soul” is by directing all the attributes and forces within the soul towards the serving God. This includes physical desires. When the nation complained, “נפשנו יבשה/our soul is dry,” they were complaining that because they were living is such highly spiritual environment, they did not have the opportunity to worship God with all the attributes of their souls. Their souls were dry, so to speak. They “rectified” the situation by causing themselves to crave meat.

God, though, did not agree with their approach. It is better for a person to be more concerned with violating the will of God by deliberately placing himself into a risky situation even if he might thereby reach a higher spiritual level. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that one who does this is demonstrating an element of selfishness. Those who are truly concerned only about transgressing God’s will, will be content with a simpler approach and rely on God to provide him with tests.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Beha'aloscha 5631 First Ma'amar

... בהעלֹתך את הנרות אל מול פני המנורה יאירו שבעת הנרות/When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the candelabrum.” The menorah is a physical vessel whose purpose is to hold light which symbolizes the spiritual. The mitzvah of the menorah, then, is singularly suited to teach us about the relationship between the physical and spiritual in this world.

Why is there a mitzvah of lighting the menorah? It cannot possibly be for the light. God does not need the light. The Midrash addresses this question. God told Moshe Rabbeinu, “I did not give this commandment because I need the light of man. Rather, I gave this commandment in order to confer merit upon you and to elevate you.” The Midrash learns this from the pasuk, “ה' חפץ למען צדקו יגדיל תורה ויאדיר/For the sake of [Israel’s] righteousness God desired to make the Torah great and to glorify it.” The Midrash is saying that God gave us the mitzvah of lighting the menorah (and according to another Midrash, all mitzvos) in order to make the Torah great and to glorify it.

How does lighting the menorah glorify the Torah? To answer this question, we need to understand the purpose of the mitzvos and their connection to the Torah. God’s desire is for the Torah to be revealed in this world. The Torah is completely spiritual, though and this world is physical. There must be a mechanism for drawing the spiritual power of the Torah into the physical world. The mitzvos is that mechanism. The mitzvos are the vessels that contain the spiritual light of the Torah.

We see this concept clearly in a pasuk in Mishlei, “... נר מצוה ותורה אור .../… a commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light …” Just as light needs a lamp to hold it, 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.

By performing the mitzvos we are glorifying the Torah by bringing its light into this world. The Sfas Emes teaches us that this is an aspect of Torah Shebe’al Peh/The Oral Law. The Oral Law, as its name implies, was not written down. In this sense, the Oral Law is hidden. The light of the Torah, then, which is hidden in all things is the light of the hidden Oral Law.

God gave the ability to reveal this light, to activate it, so to speak, to the nation of Israel, just as He gave the Oral Law only to us. We are God’s agents in this world to reveal the Torah’s hidden light. The mechanism for revealing this spiritual light is performance of the mitzvos. In fact, the Zohar says that our 248 limbs parallel the 248 positive commandments. Our very limbs become the conduits through which the light of the Torah is drawn down into this world.

Actually, the light of the Torah is in us in the form of our souls. Our physical body is the vessel that contains the soul. The soul, a spiritual entity, can only function in the physical world through the physical body that contains it. By performing mitzvos we draw the holiness of the soul into the physical world.
In this way we elevate the physical world. This is why the Torah, when referring to lighting lamps of the menorah which, as we’ve said, allude to the mitzvos, uses the word beha’aloscha whose literal translation is, “when you elevate” instead of behadlakascha/when you light.

There was a time when the spiritual light of the Torah was manifest in this world. Chazal teach us that the light that was created on the first day of Creation was a spiritual light that functioned only during the first week of the Creation. After the first Shabbos, God hid that original spiritual light. An inkling of it is revealed on Shabbos, but mainly it is hidden until the ultimate redemption.
The mitzvos are the tool God gave us to reveal that hidden light to some extent. Since the lamps of the menorah represent the mitzvos, when we perform the mitzvos, we are connecting the seven lamps of the menorah with the spiritual light of the first seven days of the creation. We are drawing that original spiritual light into the physical world.

This idea is hinted at by the pasuk, “... אל מול פני המנורה יאירו .../… the lamps shall cast their light toward the candelabrum …” What does this mean? The lamps are part of the menorah. How can they cast their light towards it? Chazal teach us that the three lamps on each side of the center lamp face the center. The middle lamp represents the Shabbos. The six lamps facing it represent the days of the week. When the days of the week are used to perform mitzvos then there is a revelation of that special hidden spiritual light on Shabbos.

With this idea we can explain an enigmatic Midrash. The Midrash says that Aharon HaCohen was upset because his tribe Levi did not participate in the sacrifices brought by the heads of all the other tribes to dedicate the altar. God told Moshe Rabeinu to console Aharon for he merited the mitzvah of the menorah while they merited bringing sacrifices. Sacrifices may only be brought while the Beis HaMikdash stands whereas the menorah is forever. The obvious question is that the mitzvah of the menorah also applies only while the Beis HaMikdash stands.

However, according to what we’ve said it is clear. The primary reason for lighting the menorah is to draw the spiritual light of the Torah into this world. This is something that lasts forever. The very name of the middle lamp, נר המערבי/the western lamp, hints at this. מערבי/Western has the same root as לערב/to combine. The middle lamp is the ultimate symbol of the coalescence of the spiritual within the physical.

God does not need the light of the menorah. He gave us this mitzvah to confer merit upon us and to elevate us. By performing this mitzvah (and every mitzvah) we draw spiritual light even into the physical darkness.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Naso 5631 Second Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha we find the law of a person who was accused of stealing and then lied about it under oath. If convicted, this person, must, in addition to returning that which was stolen, bring an asham sacrifice and return a fifth more than he stole. Interestingly, he is only required to bring this sacrifice and pay a fifth more after he admits to his sin as the pasuk states, “וְהִתְוַדו את חטאתם אשר עשו .../They shall confess their sin that they committed …”

The Chidushei HaRim points out that we learn the general mitzvah of confession and repentance from this pasuk. Why does the mitzvah of confession for all sins appear specifically here, associated with the laws of theft? The Torah is teaching us that every sin has an aspect of theft associated with it. God created the world and keeps it in existence continuously. He owns, as it were, everything. One who uses the world in ways which are against His will is stealing. He is using someone else’s property without permission.

Internalizing this concept is certainly a strong preventative to sinning.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Naso 5631 First Ma'amar

“... 'איש או אשה כי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹר נדר נזיר להזיר לה/A man or woman who expresses a Nazirite vow to God …” The pasuk uses an apparently extra word, “יַפְלִא/expresses.” The Zohar explains that this word, from the root peleh which means wondrous and hidden, connotes separate as well. The Nazirite vow is no ordinary vow. The Nazirite is one who distances himself from physical desires and pleasures even as he lives in the physical world surrounded by these desires and pleasures. The Torah is teaching us that even though we are physical beings living in the physical world, we are, to an extent, able to separate from the physical and connect to the hidden spiritual aspect inherent in every physical thing and action.

We find other references to these various meanings of the word peleh. For example, in Tehillim, God is referred to several times as “Osei nifla’os/He does wondrous things.” David HaMelech is teaching us that God infused the seen physical world with an unseen spiritual aspect. In the bracha Asher Yatzar we find that God is, “mafli la’asos/He does things wondrously.” In Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 6, Rav Moshe Iserlis explains this as meaning that God created man – a physical being – and hid a soul in him. Again, the word mafli, whose root is peleh, connotes hidden.

How can physical beings living within the confines of space and time live a life style distanced from the physical and connected to its hidden spiritual roots? The Midrash on this pasuk addresses this very issue. The Midrash explains a pasuk from Shir HaShirim, “שוקיו עמודי שש מיֻסדים על אַדְנֵי פז .../His thighs are pillars of marble set upon sockets of fine gold …” The Midrash says that “שוקיו/His thighs” refers to this world. This is because “שוקיו/His thighs” has the same root as “תשוקה/desire” and God yearned to create the world as we find in another pasuk in Shir HaShirim, “... ועלי תשוקתו/… his desire is upon me,” referring to God yearning for the Creation. How do we know that this pasuk refers to the Creation? The Midrash answers with a pasuk describing the completion of the Creation, the Shabbos, “... ויכֻלו השמים והארץ/The heavens and the earth were completed …” “ויכֻלו/They were completed” has the same root as the Hebrew word for yearning. We find, for example, in Tehillim, “כלתה נפשי/my soul yearns.” From here we know that God yearned to create the world.

How, though, can “ויכֻלו/They were completed” prove this, though? If anything, “ויכֻלו/They were completed” refers to the Creation yearning, not God yearning. The Sfas Emes explains that God created a physical world far removed from spirituality. In this lowly physical world the possibility of yearning for Him can exist. We long for that which we do not have, not for the things that we already have. On Shabbos with the completion of the Creation, every part of the Creation yearned to do the will of God, in essence, to come close to Him. On Shabbos, everything is naturally elevated and yearns to come closer to God. When the Midrash says that God yearns for this world, then, it means that He yearns for our yearning to come close to Him. This is why the pasuk of, “ויכֻלו/They were completed” meaning that the Creation longs for God, is followed by, “ויכל א-להים/The Lord completed,” suggesting that God also longed for the Creation. In fact, the implication is that because the Creation yearned for God, God in response yearned for the Creation.

Once we long to come close to God, how do we do it? The Midrash continues, “... מיֻסדים על אדני פז/… set upon sockets of fine gold.” Sockets of fine gold are the base upon which the world rests. This is a reference to three things on which the world is based, chochma/wisdom, bina/understanding, and da’as/knowledge. Since the Creation is defined as that which yearns for closeness to its Creator, it follows that the base of the Creation is that which can be used to come close to the Creator. We need to use our wisdom to realize that we cannot fathom God and we need to subordinate our will to His. Realizing this, leads to awe of God as the pasuk states, “הן יראת ה' היא חכמה .../Behold, fear of God is wisdom ...” Understanding means that we internalize our awe of God to prevent us from sinning as the pasuk continues, “... וסור מרע בינה/… and turning from evil is understanding.” Finally, knowledge is drawing the wisdom and understanding into our actions and midos.

The Midrash teaches us that we can live in the physical world and still connect to its spiritual roots. First, we need to long for it. Yearning to attach to the hidden spiritual life force, to come close to God, leads to using our wisdom, understanding and knowledge to reach this goal.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shavuos 5631 First Day (1rst half of the ma'amar)

The Torah refers to Shavuos as Yom HaBikurim/The Day of the First Fruit. The Torah itself explains that on Shavuos a meal offering is brought from the new wheat harvest. This new wheat is referred to as the first fruit. On a deeper level the Sfas Emes associates the name Yom HaBikurim with the giving of the Torah which occurred on Shavuos. What is the connection between Yom HaBikurim and the giving of the Torah?

The Zohar teaches that God used the Torah to create the world. If God used the Torah, then the life force that causes every creation to continue to exist comes through the Torah. Chazal teach that the Torah itself is called, ראשית/first. The first source of power, is the Torah. Rashi in the beginning of Breishis quotes a pasuk in Tehillim, “כֹח מעשיו הגיד לעמו .../He told his nation the power of His deeds …” Rashi explains that this pasuk refers to the story of the Creation in the Torah. The Sfas Emes understands this to mean that the Torah itself is the power of His deeds.

This concept is alluded to in the first bracha of Krias Shma of Shacharis, “המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית/In His goodness He renews the workings of the Creation every day continuously.” Chazal explain that טוב/good is an allusion to the Torah. This bracha can be translated, then, as, “With the Torah He renews the workings of the Creation every day continuously.”

Each day God renews the Creation subtly. We are not generally aware of the creative force that keeps the entire Creation from ceasing to exist at every moment. This creative force is within everything. On Shavuos, the day the Torah was given, every part of the Creation became aware of its spiritual root, the source of the creative force. God’s creative force was thus revealed. This is the meaning of Moshe Rabbeinu’s statement, “פנים בפנים דבר ה' עמכם בהר .../God spoke with you face to face on the mountain …” This is also hinted at by Chazal when they said that with every word that God uttered the Creation was filled with perfume. Also, every word that God uttered split into the seventy spoken languages of the world. The concept is the same. The giving of the Torah resulted in a universal awareness of God’s spiritual life force that comes into the universe through the Torah.

This concept is also alluded to by the Zohar. The Zohar states that the ten commandments parallel the ten sayings with which God created the world. What is the relationship between the ten sayings and the ten commandments? The ten sayings are the mechanism through which God infuses the world with life force, with existence. Paradoxically, they are also the mechanism by which God’s life force is hidden behind a façade of “nature.” Looking around us, it is not apparent that there is a spiritual life force at all. The ten commandments, on the other hand, are a clear revelation of God’s will. At the giving of the ten commandments it was revealed that the Creation receives existence through the Torah. The difference between the hidden aspect of the ten sayings and the revelation aspect of the ten commandments is hinted at by the word for saying and the word for commandment. מאמר/Saying is a lighter form whereas דיבור/speech is a more powerful form. We find, for example, in Koheles, “... דבר מלך שלטון .../… A kings word is rule …” (The Sfas Emes points out in parshas Bo 5631, that דיבור/speech in Aramaic means leadership, certainly an aspect of revelation. )

In fact, the primary קבלת התורה/acceptance of the Torah, is this revelation. Onkelos alludes to it when he translates , “וירד ה' על הר סיני .../God descended onto Mount Sinai …” as, “God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai.” The literal translation is problematic since God’s glory fills the entire Creation. Onkelos understands God’s descending as revelation.

The answer to our first question, then, is that Yom HaBikurim/Day of the First Fruit suggests ראשית/first (The Midrash says that Bikurim are also called Reishis.) Shavuos is the day on which the entire Creation connected to and became aware of the aspect of “Reishis” – the power of life that diffuses throughout the Creation through the Torah. As the Sfas Emes said before, this revelation is the primary קבלת התורה/acceptance of the Torah. May we merit it!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Shavuos 5631 First Night

The proper performance of mitzvos requires preparation. This is such an important concept that God built it right into the Creation. In Tehillim we find, “משמים השמעת דין ארץ יָרְאָה וְשָׁקָטָה/From heaven You made judgment heard; the earth feared and subsided.” This pasuk contains an apparent contradiction. How can the earth be both fearful and calm at the same time? Chazal tell us that first the earth was fearful. Afterwards it was calm. Rashi explains that it was fearful before we accepted the Torah. After we accepted the Torah it was calm. Why did the earth care whether we accepted the Torah or not? Reish Lakish explains that God created the world on the condition that the nation of Israel accept the Torah. If we had not accepted the Torah, the Creation would have lost it raison d’etre and would have ceased to exist. So, before we accepted the Torah, the earth was understandably fearful.

The Sfas Emes points out that Chazal are teaching us that fear before and calm after go hand in hand. The fear is a prerequisite which leads to the calm. The universe was apprehensive because its very existence depended upon Israel accepting the Torah. By making the existence of the world dependent upon our accepting the Torah, God had built into nature, at the time of Creation, a tension that naturally produced conditions which were conducive to accepting the Torah. This tension can be seen as a preparation for accepting the Torah.

The Sfas Emes teaches us that what was true for nature at the giving of the Torah is true for us with regard to each and every mitzvah. Ideally, mitzvos are performed with love. In order to reach the ideal, we need to be concerned about doing them. We need to care. One who is concerned about performing a mitzvah makes sure that he is in a state of readiness for when the opportunity presents itself. This is the meaning of the pasuk, “ושמרתם ועשיתם .../You will keep and you will do …” Chazal tell us that “ושמרתם/You will keep” refers to negative commandments. Negative commandments are generally associated with fear or awe whereas positive commands are associated with love. The feeling of fear or awe which prevents us from transgressing negative commandments corresponds to the concern which keeps us in a state of preparedness for performing mitzvos with love. Through this state of preparedness we merit “ועשיתם/and you will do”, referring to the positive commandments. We find this concept in a pasuk in Tehillim as well, “סור מרע ועשה טוב/Turn from evil and do good.” Turning from evil prepares us to do good.

The pasuk in Tehillim uses an earth metaphor to teach us that by being concerned about performing mitzvos and then performing them with love, following the dictum we learn from “... ארץ יראה ושקטה/… the earth feared and subsided,” we elevate the physical world as well.

This is the concept of “זכור ושמור/Remember and keep.” The first time the ten commandments are mentioned in the Torah at the giving of the Torah, we find, “זכור את יום השבת .../Remember the Shabbos day …” Forty years later, when Moshe repeats the story of the acceptance of the Torah he says, “שמור את יום השבת .../Keep the Shabbos day …” Why the change from זכור/Remember to שמור/Keep? Moshe Rabbeinu certainly did not change what God said. Chazal tell us that God said, and we heard, both זכור/Remember and שמור/Keep simultaneously. The mitzvah of keeping Shabbos actually comprises both a positive and negative commandment. זכור/Remember refers to observing the positive commandment of Shabbos. שמור refers to the negative commandment of Shabbos. On a deeper level זכור/Remember on its highest level is not really remembering at all. Rather it is a connection to something at such a deep level that it becomes a part of us to the extent that there is no possibility of forgetting. This is a very high level that not everyone merits reaching. However, Chazal are teaching us that a person who is careful about שמור – a person who keeps himself in a constant state of preparedness, whose primary concern is to do mitzvos, God’s will – is included in זכור/Remember on its highest level as well. That person will merit achieving God’s will.

This is the inner meaning of the principle Chazal learn with regard to keeping Shabbos, “מי שישנו בשמירה ישנו בזכירה/Whoever is in the category of keeping, is also in the category of remembering.” Chazal use this principal to explain why women are required to keep the positive commandment of Shabbos even though ordinarily they are not required to keep those positive commandments which we are obligated to perform only at specific times. The Sfas Emes explains that there is a deeper meaning as well to this principle. To reach the highest level of remembering, a level at which one identifies completely with the mitzvos, one needs to nurture a sense of care and concern keeping himself in a state of readiness for those very mitzvos.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bemidbar 5631 Third Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha the Torah describes the arrangement of the nation’s encampment in the desert. The Mishkan was in the exact center of the encampment. Surrounding the Mishkan were Moshe and Aharon, Aharon’s children and the Levites. The remainder of the nation camped farther away around the Mishkan. The Levites’ task was to guard the Mishkan. Only the Levites were permitted to come close to the Mishkan, to take it down when they traveled, to carry the vessels of the Mishkan and to erect it when they camped. A member of any other tribe who approached the Mishkan to do this work was subject to death at the hand of God.

The Levites merited this task because they did not participate in the sin of the golden calf. However, there were certainly members of other tribes who were on a higher level than the lowest of the Levites. Why were the lowest of the Levites permitted to approach the Mishkan while these righteous people were not? The Sfas Emes explains that although subordination to God and working hard to serve Him properly is His primary desire of us, there is a limit to how close God will allow us to come to Him. God chose the Levites and no amount of work will change this. Having said this, we are still able to come as close to God as the Levites by strongly identifying with the nation. By feeling a part of the nation of Israel, and by realizing that God chose the entire nation, we participate in the closeness of the Levites as well. The Levites, after all, represent us in their service before God.

We find this idea in a Midrash in this week’s parsha. At the end of the paragraph describing the encampment of the Levites the pasuk states, “והלוים יחנו סביב למשכן העדות ... ויעשו בני ישראל ככל אשר צוה ה' את משה .../And the Levites camped around the Mishkan of the testimony … and the children of Israel did all that God had commanded Moshe …” What is it that the children of Israel did? The Midrash explains that they moved farther away from the Mishkan to make room for the Levites.

The Sfas Emes notes that the Midrash is teaching us that the nation helped the Levites to come close to God by making room for them. The nation understood that the Levites were God’s chosen within the nation and acquiesced to God’s will that their service would be through the chosen ones rather than directly. By identifying with the nation as a whole each individual would benefit from the closeness of the Levites whose work was on behalf of the nation. The Sfas Emes points out that this is the meaning of the pasuk, “... לקחתי את הלוים מתוך בני ישראל .../… I took the Levites from the midst of the children of Israel …” The Levites were not coming close to God in a vacuum. Rather they were serving God from amongst the nation of Israel. The Levites could only come close to God because they were coming from the nation.

When we identify with, subordinate ourselves to, and understand our role as part of the nation, our task as individuals gains clarity.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bemidbar 5631 First & Second Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha a census is conducted that counts the entire nation of Israel. God tells Moshe Rabeinu to count the Levites separately for, “... והיו לי הלויים/… the Levites shall be Mine.” Why did God single out the Levites? Why did He make them His? The Midrash, addressing this question, says that whoever brings God close, God, in turn, brings that person close to Him. After the sin of the golden calf, the Levites brought God close to them. In response to Moshe Rabbeinu’s call, “Whoever is for God, come to me!” “All the children of Levi gathered around him.” God, in turn, brought the Levites close to Him.

The Chiddushei HaRim points out, though, that the Levites were not the only ones who resisted the temptation to sin. In fact, most of the nation did not participate in the idol worship. Why, then, did God bring particularly the Levites close to Him? The Chiddushei HaRim notes, that there is a big difference between passively not sinning and actively taking a stand. According to the Chiddushei HaRim, Chazal are teaching us this difference. The Levites, by gathering around Moshe made a clear declaration that they rejected the idol worship and were for God alone. They actively drew Him near to them. While it is certainly true that most of the rest of the nation did not participate in the idol worship, neither did they do the much more difficult thing and actively take a stand against it. Therefore, in response to the Levites coming close to God, God drew them near to Him as well.

The Sfas Emes takes this concept a step further. We should not infer from the Midrash and the Chiddushei HaRim’s interpretation that either one has a relationship with God or one does not. The Sfas Emes infers that God relates to each of us according to the level of our faith in Him. The stronger our faith, the closer He draws us to Him. We find this concept in the first Midrash of this week’s parsha. The Midrash quotes a pasuk in Tehillim, “צדקתך כהררי אל משפטיך תהום רבה .../Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains; Your judgments are like the vast deep …” The Midrash says that the first part of the pasuk is an allusion to tzadikim/righteous people, whereas the second part of the pasuk alludes to resha’im/wicked people. The righteous who believe that God rules over every aspect of creation, large and small alike, merit seeing the hidden light in everything. The prophet Yeshaya says that the wicked do their deeds in darkness and say, “מי רֹאֵנו ומי יֹדעֵנו/Who sees us and who knows of us?” They do not believe that God sees their actions. Correspondingly, the truth is kept from them as we find in Iyov, “וימנע מרשעים אורם .../Light is withheld from the wicked.” We see, then, that whether God allows us to come close to Him, to feel His presence, is dependent upon our belief that His presence is with us. When we believe His presence is here in our lives, in everything, He allows us to experience it. If, on the other hand, we do not believe it, then God withholds His truth from us.

We find the same idea in a Midrash from parshas Naso. The Midrash says that whoever increases the glory of heaven, increases respect for himself as well. On the other hand, whoever decreases respect for heaven by increasing is own honor, actually decreases his own honor while the honor of heaven remains the same. What is the meaning of this Midrash? How does the honor of heaven remain the same if, by our actions, we decrease it?

This Midrash is based on the same concept that we’ve explained. Whether God’s presence is revealed or hidden is dependent on the intent we imbue in our actions. If we know and believe that we are a tool, an agent of God in this world, that we are not our own masters but rather, are doing the will of God, then God’s kingdom becomes more manifest; it becomes clearer that everything is from God. By striving to fulfill God’s will through our actions, by believing that God is with us, we increase the honor of heaven and as a result our own esteem increases as well. This is the meaning of the Midrash mentioned earlier on the pasuk, “צדקתך כהררי אל .../Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains …” The righteous see God in everything. They draw the honor of heaven into this world, into nature.

On the other hand, a person who believes that he is the master of all his actions, who acts to increase his own honor, is akin to an idol worshipper since he removes God from the equation. In this case, the glory of heaven remains as it was – hidden. The Zohar mentions the exact same idea on the pasuk, “שִׁחֵת לו לא בניו מומם .../Corruption is not His; it is His children’s flaw …” The Zohar explains that our corruption prevents blessing from reaching us. Since blessing does not reach us, we are flawed. God remains hidden.

The notion that we have the power to draw God’s glory into the finite, that God becomes revealed in this world as a result of our actions and thoughts is mentioned by the Chiddushei HaRim. In the first pasuk of this week's Haftara, God told the prophet Hoshea, “והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים אשר לא יִמד ולא יִסָפֵר/The number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea which cannot be measured nor counted.” The Midrash points out the contradiction in this pasuk. The pasuk starts by relating to “the number of the children of Israel” and ends by asserting that “it cannot be measured nor counted.” Stating that there is a number implies knowledge of the number. Why can it not be counted? The Midrash answers that God showed Hoshea the Jewish nation through their significant numbers. First there was only one Jew – Avraham Aveinu. Then there were two, Avraham and Yitzhak. Then there were the three Avos followed by twelve tribes, seventy souls who went down to Egypt, 600,000 males who left Egypt and finally, he compared them to the sand and the stars which effectively have no number.

This resolves the contradiction but what is the point of it? What is the Midrash teaching us? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that “no number” represents the infinite. It represents God’s presence. Numbers represent the finite, nature. God told Hoshea that the nation of Israel has the ability to reveal the level of “no number” of the infinite within the level of “number” within the finite; we can elevate the physical, the finite to a higher level, to a level on which God is revealed in nature.

For this reason the beginning of this week’s parsha records the date on which God commanded Moshe Rabeinu to take a census of the nation. Why is the date of God’s instruction mentioned specifically by the mitzvah of the census? We live in the physical which is governed by time. Numbers, as we have seen connotes the physical. The Torah is teaching us that our main mission is to draw the light of the Torah and holiness into time, into the physical.

This Midrash teaches us how. We do it by harking back to our roots, to our forefathers. This is the reason for the census. It highlights the fact that although we are many, we come from one. The census reminds us of our roots. This is why God tells Moshe Rabeinu, “שאו את רֹאש כל עדת בני ישראל .../Take a census of the entire community of the children of Israel …” The literal translation is, “Take the heads of the entire …” ראש/Head connotes ראשית/first. It indicates that although we are many, we must connect to those who came before us. This is hinted at, also, by the way the census was conducted. The pasuk tells us that they declared their lineage according to their families and their paternal houses. This was not a simple head count. Each Jew is part of a family, a paternal house. Each one of us has a father who has a father who has a father in an unbroken chain leading back to our first father Avraham Avinu. This is the meaning of the pasuk in Tehillim, “אם לא שויתי ודוממתי נפשי כגמול עלי אמו .../I swear I compared my soul to a just weaned baby next to his mother …” We need to relate to our forebears like a just weaned baby relates to his mother. A just weaned baby yearns for his mother and understands intuitively that she is his source. So too, must we relate to our ancestors in this way. We need to feel, just like the baby, that we stem from our forebears.

The holy Rav of Parshischa explains that we connect to our roots, to our forefathers, to our heritage, through our actions. When our actions relate back to our roots, back to our forefathers, we merit infinite blessing. We find this concept in Tana D’vei Eliyahu. The prophet Eliyahu teaches us that each Jew must say, “מתי יגיע מעשי למעשי אבותי אברהם יצחק ויעקב/When will my actions reach the level of the actions of my forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.” Does Eliyahu actually expect us to reach the level of the Avos? The Rav of Parshischa answers that the word יגיעו/reach has the same root as נגיעה, the Hebrew word for “connection” or “touch.” Eliyahu is not teaching us that we should aspire to reach the level of our forefathers. Each generation is different and we cannot compare the actions of one generation to the actions of another. Rather, he is teaching us that our actions must connect with and relate to the actions of our forefathers. We’ve connected with the Avos when we strive to emulate them. By connecting to our forefathers through our actions, we ultimately connect to the Source of life and draw God’s light into the physical world.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bechukosai 5636 Second Ma'amar

“ואולך אתכם קוממיות/I led you upright.” Rashi, quoting Chazal, explains that they left Egypt with an upright stance – בקומה זקופה. Walking erect connotes a sense of pride. In fact, Chazal explain further that we left Egypt walking uprightly and we were not afraid of anyone. Although the pasuk is referring to the Exodus, this is a forerunner of every future redemption.

This seems to contradict a different saying of Chazal, though, that in order to have proper awe of God, we may not walk upright because, as the prophet Yeshaya said, His glory fills the entire world. Walking with pride shows a lack of awe for God’s glory. How can we reconcile these two concepts? How can we walk uprightly, with a sense of pride when relating to the world but still feel God’s presence and be in awe of Him?

Chazal give us a clue in the previous pasuk, “והתהלכתי בתוככם/I will walk among you.” Chazal explain that in the future, God will walk among us (i.e. we will feel His presence) and yet, we will not tremble. Even though we will not tremble, Chazal tell us that we will still be in awe of God as the pasuk continues, “והייתי לכם לא-להים/I will be your God.” We see that it is possible to feel God’s presence, be in awe of Him and yet not to tremble. In fact, in another place Chazal teach us that we were created this way. Chazal tell us that one of the ways in which we are comparable to angels is that we walk erect. In the ideal world, we should be able to be in awe of God and still walk uprightly. The Sfas Emes explains, however, that since nowadays we are not yet in the ideal world, because of the distractions of this world, the only way to have proper awe is by physically acting out complete subservience.

Chazal are promising us that there will come a time when we will be so completely rectified that we will be able to accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven, feel God’s presence and be in awe of Him without the need to manifest this awe by physically showing total subservience (i.e. a bent posture.) God Himself testifies that we were on this level when we left Egypt – “I led you out with an upright stance.”

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Bechukosai 5636 First Ma'amar

“אם בחֻקֹתי תלכו .../If you will follow my statues …” Chazal tell us that בחֻקֹתי/my statutes” from the root חֹק/statute refers to mitzvos that have no apparent reason. The prohibition against wearing a garment made of linen and wool, for example, is a decree having no apparent reason. It is a חֹק/statute. “תלֵכו/You will follow” on the other hand, from the root הלוך/go, implies a reasoned decision. People generally think about where they want to go. Decide. Then go. It seems that חֹק/statute with הלוך/go is an awkward combination.

Addressing this issue, the Midrash quotes a pasuk in Tehillim, “חִשבתי דרכי ואשיבה רגלי אל עדֹתיך/I considered my ways and returned my feet to Your testimonies.” “עדֹתיך/Your testimonies” refer to the mitzvos. David HaMelech is saying that to attain clarity in action and thought it is not enough to rely on our logical faculty. We need to perform the mitzvos. In Mishlei we find, “ועל בינתך אל תִּשָׁעֵן/Do not rely on your own understanding.”

In what capacity, then, can we use our mental abilities, our logic in serving God? The Sfas Emes explains that we should use our intelligence to understand the need to perform God’s mitzvos and submit to Him. We need to understand and consciously consider before any act that this act is for the sake of God, lesheim shamayim. “... בחֻקֹתי תלֵכו .../… You will follow my statues …” then means, “Use your intelligence to submit to My will.”

We see this idea in the Midrash that Rashi quotes to explain, “אם בחֻקֹתי תלֵכו .../If you follow my statues …” The Midrash says that this cannot refer to performing mitzvos since the very next words in the pasuk are, “ואת מצותי תשמרו/and keep my mitzvos.” Rather, the Midrash says, it is referring to laboring at studying the Torah. How do the words, “אם בחֻקֹתי תלֵכו .../If you follow my statues …” refer to laboring at Torah? According to the Sfas Emes, Chazal are teaching us that we must use our power of reason represented by “הלוך/go” to know what to do to submit to God’s will represented by “חֹק/statute.”

The Sfas Emes is teaching us that we reach uprightness by performing mitzvos rather than trying to figure it out for ourselves. We use our intelligence to understand what we must do to submit to God’s will.

Clarifying the point further, Chazal tell us that regarding words of Torah a person should make himself like an ox to a yoke and a donkey to a burden. The Sfas Emes explains that just as an ox must go wherever the yoke leads him, so a person should follow the will of God wherever it leads him. Just as a donkey carries his burden, so a person carries with him the entire Creation which is elevated because of him.
This double comparison exactly parallels learning Torah and performing mitzvos. We need to learn Torah to determine the will of God and follow it just as an ox is lead by the yoke. When we learn Torah with this in mind, our actions are influenced as well. We take a moment before a mitzvah to consider, “I am doing God’s will.” Then our actions are elevated and become a vehicle for elevating the entire Creation just as the donkey carries his burden.

The results are illustrated in the next p’sukim which describe a world of plenty. Our actions, with the proper intent, draw the power of Torah into the physical world even to the point where barren trees, representing the lowest most impure places, are imbued with that power and give fruit.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Behar 5636 First Ma'amar

At the end of parshas Behar we find, “כי לי בני ישראל עבדים עבדי הם .../For the children of Israel are servants to me; they are my servants…” Why the repetition? The Sfas Emes explains that first God chooses the children of Israel. Then, the children of Israel choose God by accepting upon themselves the yoke of heaven. This idea is clearly the meaning of two p’sukim in parshas Ki Savo, “את ה' האמרת היום/Today you have made God unique.” In the next pasuk we find, “וה' האמירך היום/And God has made you unique today.”

The Sfas Emes teaches that there is a continuum of acceptance ranging from no acceptance at all to complete acceptance. He alone rules over us to the extent that we subordinate ourselves to Him. We find this concept earlier in this week’s parsha. The pasuk states, “כי עבדי הם ... לא ימכרו ממכרת עבד/For they are my servants … they will not be sold like slaves.” These very same words, “עבדי הם/they are my servants” appear in the pasuk referred to earlier. This pasuk ends with a prohibition against selling a Jew on an auction block in the fashion that slaves are sold, “לא ימכרו ממכרת עבד/ they will not be sold like slaves.” The Sfas Emes teaches us that this prohibition is also a promise. To the extent that we subordinate ourselves to God, we will not be subject to the rule of others. We find this idea in Pirkei Avos as well, “Whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government is removed from him.” According to the Sfas Emes, this is not all or nothing, black or white. Rather, to the extent that we accept the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government is removed.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Emor 5632 Second Ma'amar

In the previous ma’amar, the Sfas Emes explains how to reach pure intention in the service of God. He teaches that there is a two step process. First, God brings us close to Him. “Us,” the Sfas Emes, makes clear, refers to the nation of Israel as a whole. It is important for us, then, to identify with and view ourselves as part of the nation in order to be included in this. Once God brings us near, we accept His rule over us and subordinate all our desires and actions to Him. This acceptance results in purity of intention.

This ma’amar further expounds on this concept. To continue to exist, the physical world needs to constantly receive spiritual sustenance. The mechanism for infusing this life force includes the ten sayings with which God created the world. Through the ten sayings the world receives the spiritual sustenance it needs to continue to exist. A pasuk in Tehillim suggests this, “יום ליום יביע אומר .../Day to day utters speech …” The plain meaning of this pasuk is that the daily workings of the universe cause us to utter praises to God each day for each day the Creation is renewed. The Sfas Emes explains that the word אומר/speech in this pasuk is an allusion to the sayings through which spiritual power comes into the world.

The chapter in Tehillim continues by comparing the rising of the sun with a groom who emerges from his chamber in the morning. The Midrash explains the comparison. Just as a groom enters in purity and emerges impure so too the sun goes from purity to impurity. The physical in relation to the spiritual realms is called impure because it cannot exist without the spiritual much like a body is dead without the soul. Each day God renews the workings of the Creation and draws new life from the source of life to all the creations. In this context purity represents life that comes from the source of life whereas impurity is the physical Creation without the spiritual.

We see that אמירה/saying connotes a connection with the source of life. In this context the Midrash on the parsha tells us that Israel needs two אמירות/sayings. The Sfas Emes expounds. We need to desire to become pure by accepting God over us. We can succeed only by first identifying with and feeling a part of the nation of Israel.

Significantly, another Midrash in this week’s parsha states that slander prevents purity. According to the Sfas Emes, this is because a person who slanders another Jew is not feeling a part of the nation of Israel. He is therefore missing the first “אמירה/saying.” He is missing the first essential step in the process of becoming pure in his service to God.

The Sfas Emes clearly is teaching that the way to succeed in avodas HaShem is by developing a strong sense of identity with Knesses Yisrael. May we merit it!