Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Succos 5634 First Ma'amar

There is a famous allegory mentioned by Chazal comparing the relationship between the nation of Israel and God to that between a bride and bridegroom. The Sfas Emes elaborates and relates it to Succos. The Exodus is considered the marriage as the pasuk states, “אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם: הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם .../I am God who sanctifies you, who takes you out of the land of Egypt.” The Hebrew word for marriage – kidushin – is the same as the word for sanctify. The underlying meaning of both is to become dedicated. A married woman is “dedicated” to her husband in the sense that her marriage permits her to him and prohibits her to all others. In the same sense, when God sanctifies us, He makes us dedicated to Him alone.

A Jewish marriage transaction, though, comprises two parts. The first part is the marriage/kidushin by which the husband makes his wife dedicated to him alone. The second part is the chupah by which he takes her into his house. The canopy – chupah – under which a couple marries, symbolizes the husband’s act of taking his wife into his house. When the nation of Israel left Egypt, God took us to live in huts in the desert, “... בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם .../… I settled the children of Israel in huts when I took them out of the land of Egypt …” The Sfas Emes teaches that these huts symbolize the completion of the marriage transaction – the chupah – as it were, between us and God.

That God separated us from among the nations to be dedicated to Him alone causes a certain vulnerability. Separateness draws attention. The huts of the desert symbolize God’s protection over us. We find another pasuk which hints at this as well, “... וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת .../… and for his livestock he made huts …” the word for livestock has the same root as the word for acquisition. The pasuk can therefore be translated as, “… and for His acquisition He made huts …”, referring to the nation of Israel whom God “acquired” by taking us out of Egypt and over whom He spread his protective canopy. Along the same lines we say in Ma’ariv, “הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ/He spreads a canopy of peace on us.” The word poreis/spread, also implies a portion (as in אַכִילַת פְּרַס/eating a piece.) hinting, as well, that God separated us.

Clearly God chose us to be His chosen nation from among the nations. The pasuk states clearly, “... חֵלֶק ה' עַמּוֹ .../… God’s portion is His people …” The Sfas Emes asks, though, that since God is the ultimate completeness, why would He choose only a portion? A portion seems to contradict wholeness. Should not God have chosen all the nations?

When we think about this, though, we realize that the question really does not start. The reason is that wherever God reveals Himself, there is completeness. Where does God reveal Himself? Where does He dwell, as it were? The prophet Yeshaya stated, that God dwells specifically with “broken vessels”, “אֶשְׁכּוֹן וְאֶת-דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל-רוּח/I will dwell with the despondent and lowly of spirit.” These are the righteous whose hearts are broken in their service to God. The Zohar explains that although they are “broken vessels” they are really more complete than any other place. God Himself, chooses to dwell within the righteous and makes them whole. This is a deeper meaning of, “הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ/He spreads a canopy of peace on us.” As we’ve said, poreis/spread, also means a portion. Shalom/Peace has the same root as the word for whole – shalem. This bracha, then, is saying that God separated us from the nations of the world but then protected us with His canopy of peace, making us whole.

It is our duty to spread an awareness of God to the rest of world. God structured the physical world so that there is a spiritual life force inherent in every creation. This spiritual life force, actually a revelation of God in a sense, is a point of completeness within the physical. So too, the nation of Israel is the point of wholeness among all the nations.

This idea relates particularly well to the holiday of Succos. Chazal teach us that Succos is for the nations of the world as well as for us. Seventy cows, representing the seventy nations, were sacrificed. The water libation, unique to Succos, represents the nations of the world as well. The point of this is that Godly abundance comes to the nations through us, the nation of Israel. It is our duty not to keep God, as it were, to ourselves. Rather we are required to request that the kingdom of God spread throughout the Creation. We find a hint to this in Avos. “אַל תִּהְיוּ כַּעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְשִׁים אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנַת לְקַבֵּל פְּרַס/Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward.” Rather we should serve God altruistically. The Tanna uses the word pras for reward. As we’ve seen, pras also means a portion. Therefore, the Tanna is hinting that we should not serve God only for ourselves but rather we should seek to spread awareness of Him throughout the world.

Succos, then, is a culmination of a process of God establishing the nation of Israel as the point from which completeness and abundance will spread to the rest of the world. It is also the beginning of the process of spreading it to the rest of the world. Succos represents the culmination of the “marriage” between the nation of Israel and God, God’s protection and making us whole. It also represents our spreading an awareness of God and His abundance to the entire world. May we merit being God’s channel.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Yom Kippur 5641

It is a mitzvah to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur in preparation for the fast. Chazal also learn from the pesukim that we are required to begin fasting while it is still daytime. In the language of Chazal "מוסיפין מחול על הקודש/We add to the holy from the profane." The Torah and Chazal impart significance to the day before Yom Kippur. It is important, on the one hand to eat on Erev Yom Kippur. It is so important, in fact, that Chazal consider one who eats on Erev Yom Kippur, as if he fasted on that day as well. On the other hand, it is also important to actually begin fasting on Erev Yom Kippur. What is the relationship between Erev Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is a day which enables us to come as close to God as a physical being can. The laws of Yom Kippur, which require us to abstain from physical pleasure are designed so that we may enact a next-world spiritual experience. The less physical and the more spiritual we are, the closer we can come to God. The reason for this is that closeness to God entails breaking any barriers that separate us from Him. Our physical bodies and needs are major barriers that keep us from coming close to God.

This is why the ultimate coming close to God occurs after our soul leaves the physical body. Then, there is a complete nullification of the self to God. God, as it were, completely engulfs us. The prophet Yirmiyahu hinted at this concept when he said, “'מקוה ישראל ה/God is the hope of Israel.” The word for hope – מקוה, also means a mikveh – a purifying bath. According to Chazal, the prophet is teaching us that just as a mikveh purifies, so too, God purifies. And just as a mikveh purifies only when a person immerses his entire body in the waters, so too, God purifies only when a person nullifies himself completely to God. This happens when a person’s soul is no longer bound by his physical body. Minimizing bodily pleasures on Yom Kippur, therefore, enables us to come close to God.

Since the greatest bliss we can experience is coming close to God, Yom Kippur is a day of joy. Our physicality, though, prevents us from fully experiencing the joy of connecting with God. To reach a state of joy from which we can enter Yom Kippur, the Torah commands us to eat and drink on Erev Yom Kippur. Rabbeinu Yonah in Sha’arei Teshuvah, in fact, makes this very point. He says that since we cannot experience joy on Yom Kippur, we have a mitzvah to be joyful on Erev Yom Kippur through eating and drinking.

Even from a state of joy, though, we do not enter Yom Kippur directly. Our state of joy allows us to first experience the aura of Yom Kippur which “spills over,” so to speak, onto the moments directly preceding and following the day itself. We, therefore abstain from food and drink and other physical pleasures during the moments preceding Yom Kippur. From the experience of connecting with the aura of the moments preceding Yom Kippur from within the state of joy we are in, we can connect with the enlightenment of Yom Kippur itself. This, then, explains the relationship between Erev Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur.

In order to properly experience Yom Kippur, therefore, it is important, to eat and drink on Erev Yom Kippur with intent to reach a state of joy. From within this state we can nullify ourselves to God and experience in some sense a glimpse of the next world.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Yom Kippur 5640

It is a mitzvah to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur in preparation for the fast. Chazal teach us that whoever eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishrei is considered to have fasted on both the ninth and tenth of Tishrei. It is certainly a good idea to eat before a fast. But why is this not simply good advice? Why is it actually a mitzvah, a biblical requirement? Click here for entire ma'amar.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shabbos Teshuvah Ha'azinu 5635

At the most basic level repentance means that a person regrets having sinned and determines not to repeat it. However, we know that a person’s actions have ramifications both in the spiritual and in the physical. A sinner has caused damage. He has caused damage in the spiritual realms and this has resulted in damage to the physical world as well. When the sinner repents what happens to the damage the sin has caused? Is it simply wiped away? Furthermore, he has distanced himself from God, the source of all life. How does repentance repair the damage and restore the sinner’s connection with God? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Rosh HaShanah 5632 Third Ma'amar

The Midrash on the pasuk in parshas Emor which mentions Rosh HaShanah cites the following pasuk from Tehillim, “לְעוֹלָם ה' דְּבָרְךָ נִצָּב בַּשָּׁמָיִם/Forever, God, Your word stands firm in the heavens.” What is the connection between this pasuk and Rosh HaShanah?

The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that this pasuk harks back to God’s command to create the heavens and is to be understood literally. God’s command, “Let there be a firmament …,” the very words of the declaration, stand firm in the heavens and give them existence. The same applies to all the commands of the Creation. The Sfas Emes explains that God's commandments (i.e. "Let there be light", etc.) are at the root of every part of the Creation. The spiritual sustenance that enables every part of the Creation to continue to exist flows out of God’s very declarations that brought them into existence in the first place. The spiritual energy at the source and its physical counterparts are therefore intimately connected. The Creation was set up so that the spiritual energy actually becomes the physical creations.

The Midrash relates this pasuk to Rosh HaShanah because Rosh HaShanah represents the spiritual energy before it changes into disparate material creations. The tekia gives a clue to this concept as well. The tekia is a simple sound. It represents sound before it is broken into parts by speech and reminds us of the source of life and existence before it becomes physical and broken into disparate physical forms*.

On Rosh HaShana we want to connect – to experience – through the sound of the Shofar, to God’s spiritual life force. May we merit it!

* For a fascinating discussion of this concept, see Ya’aros Devash 1:6. Reb Yonasan Aibshutz explains the juxtaposition of the different names of God in the pasuk, ““עלה א-להים בתרועה ה' בקול שופר.” The Tetragrammaton has no consonants. As such it is comparable to the tekia which is a simple sound unbroken by parts of the mouth. The name א-להים, on the other hand, has consonants. It is comparable to the teruah which is sound broken using parts of the mouth. It represents God’s influence in the physical world.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rosh HaShanah 5632 Second Ma'amar

On Rosh HaShanah, God provides abundance for the entire year. God’s blessing begins as something spiritual that becomes physical in the material world. In the transformation from spiritual to physical, other changes take place as well. Spiritual abundance is uniform. Physical forms, on the other hand, differ. This concept is suggested by the very name of the holiday. Literally, Rosh HaShanah means the head of the year. However, the word shanah/year also means change. In this sense, Rosh HaShanah connotes the beginning or source of abundance before it changes from spiritual to physical.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Rosh HaShanah 5632 First Ma'amar

There is a popular custom to eat specific fruits and vegetables on the night of Rosh HaShanah. Each food represents some specific thing that we want for the coming year.[*] When contemplating this custom one is struck by the difference between the custom and the actual prayers of Rosh HaShanah. Whereas the foods that we customarily eat represent the requests that we would ask of God, the actual prayers do not even contain a hint of these requests. Why not simply insert the requests into the prayers? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Elul 5640

אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי/I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” The first letters of each word of this pasuk spell out “Elul.” What is the connection between the month of Elul and this pasuk?

The Sfas Emes explains. First, we need to know and understand that there is a special relationship between the nation of Israel and God that has nothing to do with the nations of the world. Shabbos, for example, was given solely to us. God declares, “בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִיא/It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel.” Yeshayahu prophesied, “I have formed this nation for Me,” and, “you are My witnesses.” The nation of Israel is on a level on which we can live a life of holiness dedicated to God without associating with the nations of the world.

The goodness of our hearts, though, dictates that we help the nations as well. In fact, Israel’s collective mission is to elevate and rectify the Creation. In order to do this, many times we need to come into contact with elements of society and situations that are less than ideal spiritually.

This applies to the entire year. However, during the month of Elul we need to draw inwards, to connect with our roots. During the entire year we dirty ourselves with sins because we integrate with the world and are exposed to the evil in it. During the month of Elul, the principle of “your own life comes first” applies.

Chazal hinted at this concept when they established Rosh Chodesh Elul as the Rosh Hashana for ma’aseir beheimah. The mitzvah of ma'aseir beheimah entails tithing domestic animals that we own. Every tenth animal is tithed. The halachah requires that only animals born in the same year be counted for the tithing. The cutoff date is Rosh Chodesh Elul. An animal born before Rosh Chodesh Elul cannot be counted with an animal born after Rosh Chodesh Elul.

It is highly significant that Rosh Chodesh Elul is the Rosh HaShana for ma’aseir beheimah. Indeed, the concept of ma’aseir beheimah applies to our year as well. Even though during the entire year the holy and mundane are naturally integrated, during the month of Elul, we separate and concentrate on the holy alone. We introspect and remember that ultimately we were created to serve God. We thus fulfill, “אֲנִי לְדוֹדִ/I am for my beloved.

If we succeed in fulfilling, “אֲנִי לְדוֹדִ/I am for my beloved” during Elul then God fulfills וְדוֹדִי לִי/and my beloved is for me” during Tishrei showering life and holiness upon the entire coming year.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Nitzavim 5631 First Ma'amar

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ ... כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד .../It is not in heaven [so as] to say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven to take it for us? … rather it is very close to you …” Rashi cites Chazal who say that if the Torah were in heaven, we would in fact, be required to ascend to heaven to learn it. What does this mean?

The Chidushei HaRim explains that Chazal are teaching something very significant about learning Torah. Intuitively we understand that we need to work hard to attain goals that are far from us. We view the goal as static so we need to move a long way to get to it. When the goal is close, we do not need to work as hard to attain it. The Torah, however, is not static. When we desire Torah and work hard for it, the Torah itself responds and comes close to us. It appears that it was never far from us. When, however, we do not work for it, it remains far away.

This, then, is what Chazal mean. When we want to connect to the Torah so much, with all our heart, that we would search for a way to get it even if it were in heaven, then it is indeed very close. It is specifically because we would ascend to heaven to get it, if required, that it is very close to us.

Monday, September 03, 2007

VaYeilech 5631 First Ma'amar

... וְאָעִידָה בָּם אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ/… And I will call upon the heavens and the earth to testify about them (i.e. the nation of Israel).” The heavens and the earth represent the entire Creation. How does the Creation testify? The Chiddushei HaRim explains Click here for entire ma'amar.