Friday, July 27, 2007

Va'Eschanan 5631 Second Ma'amar

The first parsha of Kri'as Sh'ma is written towards the end of this week's parsha. The second pasuk of Kri’as Sh’ma states, “וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְךָ .../You shall love God your Lord with all your heart and with all your soul …” This pasuk and indeed the entire Kri’as Sh’ma is so familiar to us that it is sometimes difficult to step back and really try to understand what is required of us in practical terms. Practically speaking, what does it mean to love God with all our heart, with all our soul?

We find various explanations in Chazal. The Midrash on this pasuk says that “with all your soul” means with all the various attributes that make up the soul. The commentaries understand this to mean that we must dedicate the attributes that comprise our mental faculties towards God – our wisdom, intelligence, understanding, imagination, recall, etc.

What tool can we use to direct all of our mental faculties towards God? The Sfas Emes brings a pasuk in Tehillim, mentioned in the Midrash explaining the first pasuk of Kri’as Sh’ma, “ה' אֶחָד/God is One.” The pasuk in Tehillim states, “מִי לִי בַשָׁמַיִם וְעִמְּךָ לֹא-חָפַצְתִּי בָאָרֶץ/Whom do I have in heaven and when I am with You I desire nothing on earth.” The plain meaning of the pasuk is that we do not desire to worship any god but God. The Sfas Emes broadens the meaning to include everything. The pasuk is teaching us to desire nothing at all but God on earth. There actually is nothing else but God and His will in heaven and on earth. The is the meaning of “God in One.” Realizing this, we will naturally dedicate all our mental faculties towards Him.

The Sfas Emes applies this concept to loving God with all our heart as well. Just as the soul is the seat of the intellect and includes all our mental faculties, so too, the heart is the seat of our feelings. To realize that every feeling that we have exists only because God gives it existence is to understand at the most fundamental level Chazal’s maxim that one does not even bump his finger unless it was decreed above. We are truly, whether we realize it or not, like an axe in the hand of the wood chopper.

This deepens our understanding of the declaration, “ה' אֶחָד/God is One.” It implies that there is nothing else but God. Everything, but God, exists only because He wants it to exist. Therefore, His love is in everything including in our very feelings. Realizing this, helps us to use all our feelings, as well, to love Him. This is the meaning of, “וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ/You shall love God your Lord with all your heart.”

Monday, July 23, 2007

Va'Eschanan 5631 First Ma'amar

The first Midrash on this week’s parsha says that if a person pays attention to his prayer he can rest assured that it is heard as it says in Tehillim, “... תָּכִין לִבָּם תַּקְשִׁיב אָזְנֶךָ/… You prepare their heart; let Your ear be attentive.” If a person’s heart is prepared when he prays God listens to the prayer.

This Midrash is difficult to understand. It implies that if a person does not pay attention to the words of his prayer, he has prayed albeit not properly. But the very definition of prayer is a request, a petition of God. If a person mouths the words while his thoughts are elsewhere, is this prayer?

Click here to read rest of ma'amar.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Devarim 5631 Third Ma'amar

Many times we find ourselves in circumstances in which it is unclear what we must do. What tool can we use to decide the correct course of action? The Sfas Emes establishes a fundamental principle regarding lack of clarity. The ultimate reality is God. To God there is no such thing as a lack of clarity. Any lack of clarity, therefore, is an illusion. It is an external block preventing us from seeing clearly. The way to gain clarity of vision is to remove the block. Removing the block is essentially connecting with God. And since God is everywhere and in everything, everything has the potential of clarity. All that is necessary is to remove the block thus connecting with the Godliness in that which lacks clarity.

How is this done? We find a clue in this week’s parsha. Referring to difficulties judges may have in rendering judgment, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation, “... וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶה מִכֶּם תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו/… and that which is too difficult for you, bring it to me and I will hear it.” The Kesser Shem Tov gives this pasuk broader application according to the Ramban. Although addressing the issue from the perspective of rendering judgment, the same principles apply in any situation where a person needs to decide what to do. Here, “תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי/bring it to me” alludes to and implies bringing the unclear thing to God since Moshe Rabbeinu is the quintessential tool for giving over God’s teaching.

The Sfas Emes explains that bringing something close to God means connecting with the Godliness within the unclear thing. How? The Kesser Shem Tov explains according to the Ramban that one must remove any personal bias. When our personal bias is no longer a factor and our entire motivation is only to know the will of God, we will see the truth and know what is required of us.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Devarim 5631 First & Second Ma'amarim

All languages originate in the physical world, define it and are constrained by it. They are removed from the spiritual and connected to the physical. The single exception is the language of the Torah. The Torah came before the physical world. According to the Zohar, God looked into the Torah and created the universe. Click here for complete ma'amar.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Mas'ei 5632 First Ma'amar

וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת-מוֹצָאֵיהֶם לְמַסְעֵיהֶם .../Moshe wrote their departures for their travels …” This pasuk is somewhat awkward. The pasuk could have stated simply that Moshe recorded their travels or that he recorded their encampments. Why their departure points for their travels?

The Sfas Emes explains that there are places that have no intrinsic importance. Rather, they are important specifically because we distanced ourselves from them. The Torah refers to the encampments as journeys in order to accentuate this idea. The reason these encampments are listed is because we left them. As with the encampments so too, in life, there are many things whose primary raison d’être is to provide us the opportunity to improve ourselves by distancing from them.

We see that our intent and the way we relate to things affects the importance of those things. The Sfas Emes, expounding on this concept, explains that it is our intent directly affects the existence of things. When we create wealth, for instance, for the sake of heaven, that wealth has intrinsic spiritual value and thus it will endure. By the same token we give importance to negative aspects of this world by avoiding them thus recognizing their role in helping us to improve ourselves.

We find the idea clearly in a Midrash from parshas Matos. The Midrash says that when a person grabs wealth for himself by not recognizing God’s hand in it, he tends to lose it. The children of Reuven and Gad were wealthy. However, their love for their wealth caused them to separate from their brothers and remain outside of the land of Israel. As a result the tribes of Reuven and Gad were the first to be exiled. Had the children of Reuven and Gad recognized the hand of God in their wealth, they would have entered the land with the other tribes. Recognizing their abundance as a gift from God would have imbued lasting duration in their affluence.

Relating to this same idea another Midrash in parshas Matos states that the love the children of Reuven and Gad had for their assets caused them to give their assets greater importance than they gave themselves. We see that they told Moshe Rabbeinu that they would build enclosures for their flocks and only afterward would they build cities for their children. They were more concerned for their wealth than for their children. Paradoxically, by treating their flocks with secondary importance they would have ensured a perpetuation of their wealth. Treating them with primary importance caused their loss.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Matos 5631 Second Ma'amar

וּמִקְנֶה רַב הָיָה לִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וְלִבְנֵי-גָד .../The children of Reuven and the children of Gad had much livestock …” The Midrash on this pasuk says that when a gift such as wisdom, power or wealth, comes from God on the merit of a person’s Torah, it will last. However, if a person grabs wisdom, power or wealth it will not last. They did not come from God. Because of love for their wealth, the tribes of Reuven and Gad refused to enter the land of Israel. Significantly, they were the first of the tribes to be exiled.

The Midrash thus differentiates between a gift that comes from God and a gift that one grabs for himself – a gift that does not come from God. Does not everything come from God, though? Is it possible to grab a gift that God does not what me to have? What does the Midrash mean when it refers to a gift that does not come from God?

Of course everything comes from God. However, God’s power is sometimes revealed and sometimes hidden. Whether it is revealed or hidden depends upon a person’s thoughts. The one who realizes that everything he owns comes from God, will experience the Godly power inherent in everything he owns. He will not lose his possessions. The one who thinks that God has little to do with what he owns, rather he believes that they are his due to his own strength or wisdom will not experience the Godly power inherent in them. Left to the vagaries of chance, so to speak, he may very well lose everything.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Pinchas 5631 Second Ma'amar

... אֶת-קָרְבָּנִי לַחְמִי ... תִּשְׁמְרוּ לְהַקְרִיב לִי .../… Take care to offer me my offering of my food …” What is the significance of sacrifice?

Everything in the physical Creation has a spiritual source. The ultimate source, of course, is God Himself. This spiritual source is the channel through which God bestows blessing on the physical creation. The structure of the Creation, physical and spiritual, though, is such that there are blockages which prevent this.

How can these blockages be overcome? One of the ways is through sacrifice[1]. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. The root of this word means to draw near. The korban is a means of drawing everything to its source. By offering a sacrifice to God we clarify that He is the ultimate Source. The realization and belief removes the blockages, elevates and draws us close to Him.

For this reason Chazal established our daily prayers based on the times of the daily sacrifices. They wanted to teach us that just as the sacrifices draw the physical close to its spiritual source, so too, prayer draws us closer to God. By asking God for everything, big or small, we recognize that He is the Source of everything. The very act of prayer with this intent removes the blockages that separate the physical from its spiritual source.

On Shabbos there is an additional prayer corresponding to the additional korban that is brought. The significance of the additional korban is tied to the relationship between Shabbos and the preceding weekdays. When we work to serve God during the week, we experience the results on Shabbos. The reward for our labors during the week is a spiritual experience of closeness to God on Shabbos. It is easy and natural to think that we deserve this experience, that it is payment for our weekday work. This is a mistaken line of thought, though. God owes us nothing. Just as the weekday korban and, by extension, the weekday prayers teach us that everything comes from God and we make that clear by asking Him for everything, large or small, the additional korban, and by extension, the additional prayer teach us that even that which we merit through our hard work in serving God, we receive only because this is His desire.

[1] “Sacrifice,” the English translation for the Hebrew korban misses the underlying meaning of the concept. Sacrifice implies that in order to receive, something must be given up. While this may be the case, it is also possible to sacrifice without receiving anything. Korban, though, teaches us what actually happens every time a korban is brought.