Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Balak, 5632, First Ma'amar

There is more to the world around us that what we sense with our eyes. Everything physical has a spiritual aspect to it. Even those things which our eyes tell us are antithetical to holiness have a spiritual aspect. They must, otherwise they would not exist. Those who are on a high spiritual level can sense the spirituality. The nation of Israel in the desert were on such a level. Not only were they on this level, but their high spiritual level spilled over, so to speak, on their surroundings such that the peoples they passed and with whom they came into contact experienced a Godly revelation as well. What happens when a person who is not ready for it, experiences a spiritual truth that contradicts the evidence of his own eyes? The Sfas Emes explains that he denies it and believes, rather, what he sees. The wicked cannot see the truth.

This explains the pasuk at the beginning of our parsha, “... עם יצא ממצרים הנה כסה את עין הארץ .../… a nation went out from Egypt; behold, they have covered the face of the earth …” The literal translation is, “He has covered the eye of the land.” “The eye of the land” is a metaphor for eyes which only see the physical. Balak, as well, experienced the revelation which showed the spiritual to be the ultimate reality, not the material world around him. From his perspective, though, the exact opposite happened. The reality of his physical surroundings were covered over with a veneer of spirituality. This is why he was angry with the nation of Israel. They were disturbing his view of reality.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Balak 5631 First Ma'amar

With God's help I created this blog one year ago. The first blog post was parshas Chukas last year.

From now on I will post a link to the ma'amar that was posted last year. I'll also post an additional ma'amar for this year.

Here is the ma'amar that I posted last year for parshas Balak: Balak 5631 First Ma'amar

Friday, June 22, 2007

Chukas 5631 Second Ma'amar

This week’s parsha begins with the laws of the red heifer. The ashes of a red heifer are required as part of the procedure to purify one who has had contact with a corpse. Together with the red heifer are burnt the wood of a cedar tree, hyssop and scarlet thread. Why are these burnt, too? Rashi cites a Midrash explaining that metaphorically the entire procedure of the red heifer is a purification and atonement for the sin of the golden calf. In this context the cedar tree which is very tall represents one whose haughtiness causes him to sin. The hyssop grows low to the ground and the scarlet thread in Hebrew is synonymous with the Hebrew word for worm. These represent humility. The Midrash states that a haughty person who sinned should humble himself like a hyssop and a worm. He will then be atoned.

But isn’t repentance needed for atonement? How does humbling oneself – ridding the haughtiness – atone for sin? The Sfas Emes explains. The primary source of sin is arrogance. If we knew clearly that we continue to live each moment at God’s pleasure and that in reality, we are no more than “an axe in the hands of a mason,” we would not sin. The only way we can come to sin is by removing the yoke of heaven from upon us. At the moment of sin, we are not aware of God. This is why Chazal teach us that haughtiness is akin to idol worship. To prevent sin, then, it is crucial to monitor our arrogance level and replace it with humility. The Sfas Emes teaches that the path to humility is paved with repentance. Humility atones for sin because repentance is a part of the process of humbling ourselves before God. Humility is only possible with proper repentance.

Humbling ourselves before God and submitting to Him leads directly to awe of Him. Chazal teach us that awe of God is the vessel which holds all of our service to God. It is the framework upon which everything hinges. We find in Maseches Shabbos, that although a person’s actions may be judged favorably on the Day of Judgment, this is not enough. He must also be found to have had awe of God as Yeshaya said, “יראת ה' היא אוצרו/Fear of God is his treasure.” For example, filling a storehouse with wheat without adding a certain preservative is a waste because the wheat will rot. In fact, the halachah dictates that one may sell wheat with the preservative included at the price of wheat. The buyer is paying for preservative as if he is buying wheat because without it the wheat is worthless. It will rot. So too, mitzvos without awe of God are not sustainable.

Contemplating awe of God while doing a mitzvah, then, is a way of recognizing that this mitzvah that I am now doing has God’s life-force in it. This thought will help me to properly perform the mitzvah. Contemplating awe of God, though, while performing a mitzvah, takes away from concentration on the mitzvah itself. Would it not be better to concentrate fully on the mitzvah itself? The Sfas Emes explains that this is the point of the analogy to the sale of wheat with preservatives included. Even though the buyer is receiving less wheat, he willingly pays for the preservative because without it the wheat is worthless. Chazal hint to this concept when they say that whether one does less or more, the main thing is to do it for the sake of God. Chazal are teaching us that it is better to contemplate doing for the sake of heaven even if this results in doing a little less.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Chukas 5631 First Ma'amar

“זאת חֻקת התורה .../This is the law of the Torah …” The Zohar at the beginning of this week’s parsha cites a similar pasuk, “וזאת התורה .../And this is the Torah …” What is the difference between these p’sukim? Why does the first add the word “חֻקת/law of”? Based on the Zohar the Sfas Emes explains that “וזאת התורה .../And this is the Torah …” alludes to the essence of the Torah whereas “חֻקת התורה/the law of the Torah” is a reference to Torah shebe’al peh/the oral law.

Chazal tell us that God looked into the Torah and created the world. The essence of the Torah is inherent in the world. It is that force which radiates out of the Torah and into every part of the Creation. It is through the Torah that the Creation continues to exist.

Even though the light of the Torah inheres in every part of the Creation, it is not apparent. It is hidden. Our mission is to draw out the Torah’s light, to make it apparent. This task, the Sfas Emes explains, is represented by Torah shebe’al peh. The Torah shebe’al peh is much more than an explanation of the written Torah. It represents our work. It is the avenue through which we can add chidush/novelty whether in deeper understanding of the Torah or by acting according to God’s will.

As opposed to the Torah shebe’al peh/oral law, the essence of the Torah is beyond our comprehension. This is why, “וזאת התורה .../And this is the Torah …”, representing the essence of the Torah, is followed by, “... אשר שׂם משה לפני בני ישראל/… that Moshe placed before the children of Israel.” When the Torah was given, we were all connected to the essence of the Torah through Moshe Rabeinu. This is not a level we could attain on our own, through our own labors.

The Torah shebe’al peh/oral law, on the other hand, represents the Torah we attain and reveal through our labor in this world. This Torah becomes a part of us. In the words of the Chiddushei HaRim it becomes engraved in us. “חֻקת/The law of” in fact, has the same root as the Hebrew word for engrave - חקק. Later in the parsha the Torah refers to Moshe Rabeinu as מחוקק/lawgiver. Here too, it suggests the Torah being engraved in us.

What must we do for the Torah to become engraved in us, to become a part of us? How do we draw out the light of the Torah inherent in everything? The Sfas Emes explains according to the following Chazal. Chazal tell us that we must make our Torah our primary occupation. Chazal say that earlier generations made their Torah their main occupation and their labor transient. They saw success in both. What do we mean when we say that the Torah should be our primary occupation? We’ve said that the light of the Torah is hidden in everything. Making the Torah our primary occupation means, in addition to studying it, looking for the light of the Torah in everything that we do. The spiritual aspect of our actions becomes our primary occupation. The physical activity is only a means to reveal the light of the Torah. In this sense our labor, our physical activity, is transient whereas Torah becomes our main occupation. In order to succeed, though, it is crucial that we take a thoughtful approach to every activity. A person who does everything for the sake of God will realize God’s will in everything he does.

When we do this, the Torah that we reveal becomes a part of us. It becomes engraved in us. This is why Chazal call it “their Torah.” It became theirs when they made it their primary occupation. We find this idea clearly in Rashi’s explanation of the second pasuk in Tehillim, “... בתורת ה' חפצו ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה/… He wants God’s Torah and in his Torah he will meditate day and night …” Why is the Torah first referred to as God’s and then referred to as belonging to the one who studies it? Rashi explains that by working at it he makes it his.

We find this concept in the pasuk in Koheles, “החכם עיניו בראשו .../The wise person’s eyes are in his head …” The word for head has the same Hebrew root as the word for first - ראשון. The wise person always connects to the root, the source, the beginning of every action and thing. The source is of course the life force of God. By attempting to do God’s will in all of our daily activities, we are connecting to the source of our actions.

We find this idea also in Yeshaya, “שאו מרום עיניכם וראו מי ברא אלה .../Lift up your eyes and see Who created these …” The life force of God is not apparent in the physical world. In fact a lot of what happens in the physical world is antithetical to Godliness, to holiness. Yeshaya points out that this is only a concealment of God. In reality God is in everything.

This is the meaning of the first Midrash in this week’s parsha explaining a pasuk in Iyov, “מי יתן טהור מטמא לא אחד/Who produces purity from impurity? No one!” The Midrash translates this pasuk, “Who produces purity from impurity? Is it not the One?” Producing purity from impurity seems impossible. However, it is only impossible if we believe that impurity has an autonomous existence. Actually, impurity is simply God’s concealment. Producing purity from impurity is a matter of removing that which conceals God. Intent before we act is crucial. When we subordinate ourselves to the Source of life, God’s concealment is removed. The impurity is removed. This is the essence of teshuva/repentance – returning to the Source.

Whether we come close to God through our actions or not, is completely dependent on our intent. If our intent is to do His will, the Godliness inherent in the action becomes revealed, we come closer to God and we become purified. This is our main occupation in this world. It is our Torah shebe’al peh.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Korach 5631 Second Ma'amar

The Sfas Emes teaches a fundamental principle. When we subordinate ourselves to God realizing that all our strength comes from Him, he gives us everything we need. When we separate ourselves from God, the source of everything we have, and try to take whatever we want, even what we have is taken from us.

The Sfas Emes understands this from the first Midrash in this week’s parsha. The Midrash quotes a pasuk in Mishlei, “אָח נִפְשָׁע מִקִּרְיַת-עֹז .../A rebellious brother [is deprived] of a strong city …” According to the Midrash, the pasuk is referring to Korach who rebelled against Moshe Rabbeinu. Because he rebelled, he was deprived even of the strength and honor that he had.

The Sfas Emes explains that the first words of the parsha, “ויקח קֹרח/Korach took” implies rebellion against God. Onkelos, for instance, translates this as, “Korach separated himself” implying a separation from Moshe Rabbeinu and God. The Zohar explains that he took for himself. One who subordinates himself completely to God has no need to take anything for himself since God gives him everything he needs. Korach’s mistake then, was that he wanted to take for himself rather than subordinate himself to Moshe Rabbeinu, from whence his honor came.

When he separated himself, even that which he had was taken from him because he cut himself off from the only source of his strength. We find this idea in a pasuk in Tehillim, “אשרי אדם עוז לו בך .../Happy is the man whose strength is in You.” We also find in Yeshaya, “או יַחֲזֵק בְּמָעוּזִי יעשה שלום לי שלום יעשה לי/If [Israel] would grasp my stronghold, he would make peace with me; peace, he would make with me.” By recognizing that God is the source of our strength we connect to Him and we attain peace.

The Sfas Emes explained in the previous ma’amar that the Creation is considered at peace when all parts of it elevate towards God, the One source of all. This happened for the first time on the first Shabbos, Shabbos Breishis and it happens to an extent on every Shabbos. Therefore, when we consciously recognize God as the source of everything we have, we are actively promoting an aspect of Shabbos and peace in the world.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Korach 5631 First Ma'amar

Why did Korach challenge Moshe Rabbeinu’s authority? Korach himself explains, “The entire community is holy and God is among them so why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?” Korach is right. The entire nation is holy and God is among them. What was his mistake?

Korach believed that each person can come close to God on the basis of his own merit. While individual merit is important, it is a mistake to think that it is adequate. The nation of Israel is one organism. Each part of the organism – each Jew – can only reach his potential within the context of the entire organism. We learn this from a Zohar which describes God’s revelation on Shabbos. The Zohar teaches us that God only sits on the throne of glory on Shabbos, a time when the entire Creation is elevated towards its singular source. That singular source is, of course, God Himself. God’s sitting on the throne of glory represents His revelation. So, God’s revelation is dependent on each part of the Creation striving towards Him.

When we say that each part of the Creation strives towards God we mean that each part is doing its unique function. A creation brings honor to its Creator by doing that for which it was created. When every part of the Creation is accomplishing its unique task, the entire Creation is complete and can be said to be at peace. This happened for the first time on the first Shabbos, Shabbos Breishis. This is why the Zohar in this week’s parsha says, “… the Creation could not exist until God came and brought peace to it. What is peace? Shabbos.” With the advent of Shabbos, each facet of the Creation automatically was elevated towards the Source. God, in response, sat on the throne of glory.

The Sfas Emes explains that if this is the case regarding the relationship between God and the Creation, that each created thing only comes close to God (and God to it) as it performs its unique task within the context of the Creation as a whole, then surely each individual Jew can only come close to God within the context of the nation of Israel.

The Midrash makes this very point when citing the difference between the nation of Israel and the other nations of the world, “The other nations of the world have many priests and many different ways of worship. We have one God, one Torah, one law, one altar, one high priest and you 250 men all want the high priesthood?” The Midrash is telling us that we need only one high priest. His contribution is for all of us. The nation’s job is to connect to him and through him to achieve a closeness to God. An organism has many parts, each of which has its own unique function for the benefit of the entire organism. Each individual’s service benefits the whole and the whole, in turn benefits the individual. Korach, though, believed that each individual could approach God on his own merit. This is why the Zohar says that Korach contested peace and Shabbos.

Just as God chooses each of us for a unique task, He chose Aharon HaCohen for a unique task. Aharon HaCohen was chosen for holiness. The pasuk in Divrei HaYamim states this clearly, “... וַיִבָּדֵל אהרֹן להקדישו קֹדש קדשים הוא ובניו עד עולם .../… Aharon was set apart, to sanctify him as holy-of-holies, he and his sons forever …” Korach was right. The entire nation is holy. However, he missed the point. The nation receives holiness through Aharon and his sons.

Korach was jealous of Aharon because he thought that Aharon received his position on the merit of his service to God. Korach thought that others were just as worthy if not more worthy than Aharon. He did not understand that God assigned Aharon a unique mission that only Aharon could accomplish. This assignment was not a reward. It was not based on anything Aharon did to deserve this mission. Aharon was simply an agent just as we are all agents to accomplish our own unique missions. This is what Moshe Rabeinu meant when he told Korach, “לכן אתה וכל עדתך הנועדים על ה' ואהרֹן מה הוא כי תלינו עליו/Therefore, you and your entire community assemble against God, for what is Aharon that you complain against him?” Korach’s jealousy of Aharon indicates that he entirely missed the point. The greatness of Aharon was in that he completely subordinated himself to his assigned mission. Chazal praise Aharon specifically in that he did not change anything that he was asked to do. He considered himself a tool ready to do God’s will.

God assigns each of us a unique task within the context of the entire nation of Israel. There is a symbiotic relationship between each individual and the nation of Israel as a whole. Each individual, by performing his unique task, contributes to the entire nation and is elevated, too. Each of us benefits as well, from the unique contributions of every other individual.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Shelach 5631 Second Ma'amar

... ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם .../… and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes …” Rashi explains that the word תתורו/wander, comes from תור/spy or scout. He writes that the heart and eyes are like the body’s spies. “The eyes see, the heart desires and the body does the sin.”

It is no coincidence that this pasuk appears in the same parsha as the story of the twelve spies. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that there is an underlying similarity between these two seemingly disparate subjects. In order to understand this similarity we need to first understand why the spies were sent and what they did wrong.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains. The nation in the desert lived with explicit miracles. They ate food that dropped from the sky every day. They saw the clouds of glory and the pillar of fire. Coming in to Israel they would be living within nature. The challenge would be to maintain their high level of faith. The challenge would be to realize that just as God provided for them in the desert in an explicit way, He is within nature as well, albeit, implicitly. Success in this challenge would be to reach a level of understanding that nature is a bigger wonder than the miracles of the desert. As part of the transition to living within nature, the spies were sent to scout the land. Their ultimate mission was to maintain the level of faith they had in the desert when exposed to explicit miracles. Their ultimate mission involved seeing the land and its inhabitants and realizing that even though the inhabitants were strong and live in fortified cities, God is within everything. In this ten of the twelve spies failed. They did not maintain their high level of faith. They were fooled by what they saw.

According to the Sfas Emes, this is exactly the meaning of the admonition at the end of the parsha to not follow our eyes and heart. Our eyes and heart (i.e. our desires) see the external physical world. The Torah is admonishing us to recognize instead, the Godliness that underlies the external physical world. This explains the next pasuk, “למען תזכרו ועשיתם את כל מצותי .../So that you will remember and you will do all of my commandments …” The beginning of this pasuk is apparently awkward. If the pasuk were telling us to remember the mitzvos in order to do them it would be worded that way. The pasuk seems to be stating two separate things. Remember and then do the mitzvos. Remember what? The Sfas Emes explains that the word for “remember” in Hebrew means more than simply recalling. It is much deeper. It means to internalize something until it becomes a part of the person. At that point there is no possibility of forgetting. The beginning of this pasuk is really a continuation of the previous pasuk. The Torah is telling us, “Do not follow your physical eyes and desires so that you may internalize the underlying Godliness of everything physical. Through this internalization you will be able to do all My mitzvos.”

The Sfas Emes teaches that this approach applies to any mitzvah and service to God. Viewing things solely according to the laws of nature, many times leads us to believe that we cannot succeed. According to the laws of nature, for example, Avraham Avinu was unable to have children. Avraham Avinu had children because he believed God’s promise to him, "'והאמין בה .../and he had faith in God …”

When we imagine that we cannot succeed either because of previous sins or because of a general feeling of unworthiness, we have succumbed to the advice of the evil inclination. This way of viewing things only considers external physical reality and not the underlying spiritual reality. Believing that we can accomplish and succeed at any mitzvah with God’s help will lead inexorably to success in Avodas HaShem.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Shelach 5631 First Ma'amar

In the beginning of parshas Shelach, God tells Moshe Rabbeinu to send spies into the land of Israel, “שלח לך אנשים ויתורו את ארץ כנען .../Send out men who shall spy out the land of Canaan …” However, in parshas Devarim when Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the story, he says that the nation asked him to send the spies. Furthermore, Chazal teach us that sending the spies did not find favor in God’s eyes. How can we reconcile the two versions of this story and why did God command Moshe Rabbeinu to send the spies if He was against it?

The Sfas Emes finds the answer to these questions in the first Midrash on the parsha. The Midrash says that there is nothing as precious to God as a shli’ach mitzvah/one sent to do a mitzvah. An emissary is one whose sole motive is to do the sender’s will. If he has other personal motives, he is no longer simply an emissary. He is on his own mission as well. An emissary who has no personal motives in the mission is called, in the words of the Midrash, one who puts his soul into the success of his mission.

The Chiddushei HaRim, expounding on this point explains that it is highly significant that the two spies Yehoshua sent to Jericho disguised themselves as potters. A clay pot has no intrinsic value. Its value is defined totally by its functionality. The spies were totally prepared to do Yehoshua’s will with absolutely no personal ulterior motives. The significance of being a shli’ach mitzvah is that, as Chazal teach us, a person sent to do a mitzvah is protected against harm.

Both the version that Moshe Rabbeinu relates in Devarim and the version of our parsha are true. The people wanted to send spies into the land. Out of kindness, God commanded Moshe to send spies even though the nation had already asked for it and even though He was against it. The spies were being sent on a dangerous mission. It was physically dangerous and spiritually dangerous. God turned the mission into a mitzvah in order to afford the spies protection. They became shlichai mitzvah/emissaries sent to do a mitzvah. In order to become true emissaries, though, they needed to suppress their own desires and motives and proceed with the mission simply because God commanded it. If they had done this they would have been protected. Ten of the spies failed to do this and the results were tragic.

This Midrash is teaching us something very important about our lives in this world. The Chiddushei HaRim used to say that we are all shlichei mitzvah/emissaries sent do to a mitzvah. God sent us into this world to do His will. In this sense, we are His agents. However, we are only His agents, in the true sense, when we perform His mitzvos because we want to do His will rather than for any ulterior personal motives.

This world is a dangerous place fraught with pitfalls and traps. It is easy to be snared. The advice we glean from the Midrash is to suppress our own desires to do the will of God. We have the ability to transform all of our daily activities into mitzvos. In fact, another Midrash in this week’s parsha says that God left nothing out. There is no action that cannot be transformed into a mitzvah. By making everything we do a mitzvah we connect to the inner Godly life force that inheres in each action. This connection affords us protection in this world.

There was, however, a positive mission that spies were sent to accomplish. Before entering the land of Israel, there was no need to work at attaining any physical need. Every physical need was provided. God was manifest in the daily lives of the people. After entering the land of Israel, the nation would have to work within nature to satisfy their physical needs. Maintaining the same level of faith while living within the boundaries of nature would not be easy. The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the larger context of the spies’ mission was to help make this difficult transition as smooth as possible. They were supposed to show that the light of the Torah exists within nature as well. In fact, the word for spies - meraglim - has the same root as hergeil/habit. The spies were supposed to teach us how to bring the light of the Torah into our daily lives.

This concept is alluded to in the Zohar on a pasuk from this week’s parsha, “... ויבֹא עד חברון/… he came to Chevron.” The Zohar explains that Chevron represents the Torah SheBe’al Peh/Oral Law. The word Chevron has the same root as the Hebrew word for connection – chibur. A person who studies the oral law is called a chaver. All a Torah scholar’s actions are drawn after the Torah. His essence is connected to the Torah. He brings the light of the Torah into his daily activities. For this reason we say in our morning brachos, “שתרגילנו בתורתך/You have made us accustomed to Your Torah.” In essence we are praising God for helping us to bring the light of the Torah into our daily lives, through the mitzvos.

God told Moshe, “... ויתורו את ארץ כנען/… and they shall spy out the land of Canaan.” “ויתורו/And they shall spy out” has the same root as the word for Torah. God wanted the spies to show the nation that it was possible to bring the light of the Torah into the physical world. It was possible to live in the physical world, to work within the boundaries of nature and still live a spiritual life. This was the spies’ ultimate mission. This is our ultimate mission as well and it is accomplished by realizing that in every aspect of our lives we are shlichai mitzvah/emissaries to do a mitzvah in this world.