Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tavo 5631 Second Ma'amar

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Tavo 5631 First Ma'amar

This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvos of bikurim/first fruits and bi’ur ma’asros/removing tithes (from our possession after the third and sixth years of the shmitta cycle.) The pasuk immediately following these mitzvos is, “הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים .../This day God, your Lord commands you to do these laws …” This pasuk seems to be extraneous. The requirements for these mitzvos are already clearly stated directly before. What is the purpose of this pasuk here?
Click here for entire ma'amar.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Teitzei 5631 Second Ma'amar

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Teitzei 5631 First Ma'amar

כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ/When you go to war against your enemies and God, your Lord delivers him into your hands and you capture his captives.”

The Sfas Emes explains this first pasuk of the parsha homiletically as referring to our ongoing battle with the evil inclination to search out and discover the hidden Godliness in the world. This struggle has a time structure. Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Elul 5631 First Ma'amar

The month of Elul and the third meal of Shabbos are especially propitious times. During these periods we can attain God’s compassion. The mechanism by which God showers us with compassion is the thirteen attributes of mercy. Why are these needed? God is infinite in every way. We would expect God’s compassion to permeate our world at all times. How, then, can one period be better than another period? Why is it necessary for God’s compassion to be channeled, as it were, through the thirteen attributes of compassion? Why is this tool needed? Why can we not receive God’s compassion directly? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Shoftim 5631 Fifth Ma'amar

There are periods during the year that are considered propitious – עֵת רָצוֹן. The kabbalists say that the month of Elul is such a period. The Zohar says that the third Shabbos meal is also such a time. Conventionally this means that God is more open to hearing our pleas during these times. Since God is beyond time and is not affected by it, what does this mean? To God, there is no difference between one period and the next. He is always full of the will and desire that we come close to Him. He constantly desires to shower us with blessing.

The Sfas Emes explains that a propitious time relates to the way the period affects us. In a עֵת רָצוֹן/propitious time it is easier for us to come close to God. Here is why. We are more than the physical bodies that we see. There is a spark of holiness – of spirituality – that God has buried within our physical selves. As we live our lives in the physical world, we usually do not sense this. However during the propitious time it is easier to sense it. To the extent that we sense this spirituality, we are lead to desire more than simply satisfying our physical desires. We are lead to a desire to come close to God. In complete reciprocity, and to the exact extent of our own desire, God’s will and desire to come close to us causes an outpouring of mercy and lovingkindness towards us as we find in Mishlei, “כַּמַּיִם הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם לָאָדָם/As water reflects a face back to a face, so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another.”

Monday, August 13, 2007

Shoftim 5631 First Ma'amar

The pasuk in Mishlei states, “נוֹדָע בַּשְּׁעָרִים בַּעְלָה .../Her husband became known at the gates (of the city) …” The Zohar explains this pasuk as a metaphor for the relationship between the nation of Israel and God. The wife represents the nation of Israel and the husband represents God. The city’s gates represent the gates of the heart. Click here for entire ma'amar.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Re'ei 5631 First and Second Ma'amarim

1. “רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה/Look, I place before you today blessing and curse.” The Chiddushei HaRim notes that this pasuk establishes that we are each able to distinguish between good and bad, between blessing and curse, and to choose the blessing. This is the meaning of the first of the morning blessings, ““... הַנוֹתֵן לַשֶׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין .../… Who gives the heart understanding to distinguish …” We find this concept in the Midrash on, ““... וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים .../… and you shall choose life …” God not only places the choices before us. He also teaches us to choose life. Often, we feel that we are the victims of circumstance. Being a victim implies powerlessness. Click here to see the entire ma'amar.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Eikev 5631 Second Ma'amar

כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיוֹם תִּשְׁמְרוּן לַעֲשׂוֹת לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּן/The entire commandment that I command you this day, you shall keep to fulfill it in order that you may live …” The Midrash Tanchuma cites a pasuk in Mishlei related to this pasuk, “כִּי-חַיִּים הֵם לְמֹצְאֵיהֶם .../For they are life for he who finds them …” The Midrash also explains the uncommon wording of the beginning of the pasuk. The Midrash teaches that if one person starts a mitzvah but another completes it, the mitzvah is considered to belong to the second person.

How does this work? How does a person who finds Torah and performs mitzvos receive life? The Sfas Emes explains that all life comes from God through the Torah and the mitzvos. When we learn Torah and perform mitzvos we connect to the ultimate giver of life, God. A residual attachment remains with us as we find in another pasuk in Mishlei, “... וּמִצְוֹתַי תִּצְפֹּן אִתָּךְ/… and treasure my commandments.” תִּצְפֹּן/You will treasure, also means to hide. The pasuk can therefore also be translated as, “… and you will hide my commandments within yourself.”

This is the case, though, only if we do the mitzvos with intent to attach ourselves to the inner holiness of the mitzvah. Doing mitzvos in a habitual and non-thinking way does not yield this effect. We find a clue to this in another Midrash explaining a pasuk in this week’s parsha. The Midrash tells us, that the mitzvos actually yell at us to do them. The Midrash learns this from a pasuk in Kri’as Shma, “... תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹתַי .../… you shall listen to my commandments …” The Midrash infers from this that the mitzvos make themselves heard so that we could listen to them. Why then, don’t we generally hear them? The Sfas Emes explains that we do not hear the mitzvos when we do them habitually, without thinking. To the extent that we are listening and want to connect to the inner holiness, the life force within the mitzvah, though, we hear their encouragement. In this way we get the most out of each mitzvah.

Indeed the Midrash on the pasuk above, “כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה .../The entire commandment …” says that the word “mitzvah” alludes to the word מִיצוּי/squeeze (as in – squeezing out every last drop thereby taking full advantage of).

We see that two people can do the exact same mitzvah, the same action and yet one will extract the most he can out of the mitzvah by intending to connect to the mitzvah’s inner spirituality and reveal it. This will affect him as well, leaving a residual spirituality in the person. May we merit extricating every benefit possible out of every mitzvah we do.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Eikev 5631 First Ma'amar

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה .../And it will be, because you will heed these laws …” The word, eikev/because appears awkward. The pasuk could have said simply, “If you will heed these laws …” as it says in other places. Rashi, addressing this question, quotes the Midrash that the word eikev/because, which also means heel, refers to “light” mitzvos that people tread on with their heel, so to speak. If we keep even those mitzvos that people tend to neglect, then surely God will keep His promise to our forefathers.

The Sfas Emes expounds on these “light” mitzvos. Which mitzvos are Chazal referring to?
Click here to see entire ma'amar.