Thursday, November 29, 2007

VaYeishev 5631 Second Ma'amar

The first half of our parsha recounts the story of Yosef and how his brothers sell him into slavery. The second half of the parsha relates Yosef’s trials and travails as a slave in Egypt. Between the two halves of the parsha, the Torah interjects a parenthetical and rather lengthy interlude, the story of Yehuda, how he leaves his brothers and his father’s house for many years. Why?

The Midrash lists several answers. One answer is that Yehuda understood that selling Yosef into slavery was not a good thing. He was concerned that God would exact punishment from the brothers. His advice therefore was for them to spread apart. His thinking was that God would exact punishment from them only if they were together. What is the meaning of this Midrash?

The key to understanding this Midrash lies in the different approaches Yosef and Yehuda took in serving God. The Chidushei HaRim explains. Yosef and Yehuda are archetypes of two different types of tzadikim. Yosef’s approach was to strive to separate completely from the mundane in order to be dedicated totally and only to God. Yosef saw the Godliness that gives life to everything physical. In fact, the Sfas Emes tells us that Yosef actually represents this hidden Godliness. The Torah calls him the most consecrated of his brothers – נְזִיר אֶחָיו (Breishis 49:26). Yosef believed that by reaching very high levels of holiness, we can affect the surrounding material world without actually having to go out to it.

Yehuda’s approach, on the other hand, was to bring holiness into the mundane. The Torah tells us, regarding Yehuda, “שְׁמַע ה' קוֹל יְהוּדָה וְאֶל-עַמּוֹ תְּבִיאֶנּוּ .../May God hear Yehuda’s voice and bring him to his people.” (Devarim 33:7) The Chiddushei HaRim understands this as an allusion to Yehuda bringing God to His people.

The Chidushei HaRim taught that we find this difference in approach in tzadikim in more recent times. There are tzadikim who strove to separate themselves from the world around them, who did not want many followers. This is Yosef’s approach. On the other hand, there are tzadikim who wanted to spread their teachings among as many as possible. Their work involved influencing as many people as possible even at the expense of lowering their own level of holiness. They bring holiness into the mundane. This is Yehuda’s approach.

With this understanding of the difference between Yehuda and Yosef, the Sfas Emes explains the Midrash. Yehuda understood that his and his brothers’ mission was to bring holiness into the material world. To accomplish this mission, they would need to be a part of the material world. For this reason he advised them to spread out into the world. Only by striving to achieve their mission would they be protected. The Torah relates that he followed his own advice.

The Sfas Emes continues this line of thought in another ma’amar. He explains that the difference in approach between Yosef and Yehuda is actually at the root of our exile. Yosef’s level is, of course, much higher than Yehuda’s. If we are on Yosef’s level, then we can bring holiness to the entire world without leaving our land and the Beis HaMikdash. This is the reason the prophet compares Yosef to the tongue of fire – לֶהָבָה – that will destroy Esav (Ovadia 1:18). The fire of the house of Ya’akov – בֵית-יַעֲקֹב אֵשׁ – is inadequate. Yosef’s level of holiness is necessary for the strength of Ya’akov to spread out. If we are not on a level to merit this, we are forced to spread out, ourselves, into the world to bring the holiness to each place. May Hashem gather in our exiles.

Monday, November 26, 2007

VaYeishev 5631 First Ma'amar

This week's parsha relates the story of how Yosef was kidnapped and separated from his father Ya'akov for 22 years. The Midrash says that after his struggles with Lavan, Esav, and Shechem, Ya'akov Avinu wanted to live a life of peace and calm. This was not to be. Specifically because this was his desire, the distress of Yosef was brought upon him. We usually interpret this Midrash as referring to the physical struggles that Ya'akov endured during the course of his life. However, the Sfas Emes explains that this Midrash is actually referring to Ya'akov Avinu's spiritual struggles culminating in his final spiritual struggle represented by Yosef. What spiritual struggles did Ya’akov endure? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vayishlach 5631 Second Ma'amar

Ya’akov Avinu, in preparation for meeting Esav, prays to God, “קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵן הַזֶה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת: הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו .../I am unworthy of all the kindness and faith that You have shown me for I crossed the Jordan with [only] my staff and now I have become two camps. Please save me from my brother Esav …”

קָטֹנְתִּי/I am unworthy” literally translates as “I have become small.” The simple understanding, Rashi’s understanding is, “I have become small from – because of – all the kindness You have shown me.” Ya’akov Avinu was concerned that the kindnesses that God bestowed upon him had diminished his merits.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains in the name of the Rav from Lublin that Ya’akov Avinu is attributing his realization that he is unworthy to God, including that realization in the kindnesses that God has shown him. Accordingly, the pasuk translates as, “My realization of my own smallness is from – included in – the kindness that You have shown me.” The Rav from Lublin is teaching us that it is good to think of oneself as small. Therefore, the realization itself is a kindness that God bestows.

The Sfas Emes gives still another interpretation. When Ya’akov Avinu considered all the kindness that God had shown him, he realized how small he was. The pasuk translates then as, “My realization of my own smallness is from – a result of – the kindness you have shown me.” When we think of all the kindnesses that God does for us, which essentially includes everything we are and everything we have, we come to an understanding of our own smallness.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Vayishlach 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו .../Ya’akov sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esav …” (Breishis 32:4) The word מַלְאָכִים/messengers also means angels. The Midrash tells us that the messengers Ya’akov Avinu sent to Esav were actual angels. Why did Ya’akov send angels to meet Esav? Click here for entire ma'amar.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

VaYeitzei 5632 Second Ma'amar

The beginning of this week’s parsha recounts Ya’akov Avinu’s trip to his uncle Lavan and the dream he had along the way. Ya’akov woke up upset that he had slept in such a holy place. He said, “... אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה' בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי/… Indeed, God is in this place and I did not know!” Rashi explains that if he had known, he would not have slept there.

When we think about it we realize just how amazing this is. Ya’akov gained much from having slept in that place. The Midrash tells us that the place he slept was the site of the future Beis HaMikdash. A miracle occurred and the sun set early specifically so that he would stop there. As a result of having slept there, he had a prophetic dream in which he God promised him Eretz Yisrael and to protect him on his dangerous journey. Yet, Ya’akov Avinu was upset that he slept there. He would rather have forfeited the prophecy and God’s promise than to have slept on the holy ground! Why?

A clue can be gleaned from the Zohar on the words “וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי/and I did not know.” The Zohar poses the following question. Why did Ya’akov berate himself for not knowing that God’s presence rested where he slept? How was he to know? The Zohar answers that knowledge in the Tanach connotes connection. [We find, for example, “And Adam knew his wife Chava …” (Breishis 4:1) He connected with her. Another example from last week’s parsha is when God says, referring to Avraham Avinu, “For I have known him …” (Breishis 18:19) Rashi explains that this is an expression of God's love for Avraham Avinu because loving implies drawing someone near and knowing that person.] Ya’akov Avinu understood that the main thing is to come close to God. When Ya’akov Avinu said “לֹא יָדָעְתִּי/I did not know,” he was not berating himself for not knowing. Rather he was berating himself for not being spiritually sensitive enough, not “connected” enough, to realize that the Shechina was in this place. This, then, answers our question. Ya’akov Avinu would have preferred to be in tune enough with God – “connected” to Him, as it were – to have felt the holiness of the site rather than have slept there and receive the prophecy and promise.

Still, after the dream, he did recognize the holiness of the place. He also realized that he received a special enlightenment from God in the form of the prophetic dream. His sense of awe of God became more developed as a result of the dream. We learn from Ya’akov Avinu to recognize any Godly enlightenment that we receive and let it affect us bringing us closer to God.

Many times we have a new thought or a solution to a problem which comes to us in a flash. In some mysterious way, some problem that we were struggling with becomes clear. These new thoughts, clarity and solutions, are messages from God. Their very purpose for us to recognize them as such. God sends them to us to give us a means for strengthening our awe of Him and coming closer to Him. If we do not recognize them as God sent but rather chalk these thoughts up to a “flash of inspiration,” then they haven’t fulfilled their purpose and were wasted. May we merit recognizing God’s messages to us, as Ya’akov Avinu did, and coming closer to Him through them. Amen!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

VaYeitzei 5632 First Ma'amar

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶך חָרָנָה/Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva; he went towards Charan.” (Breishis 28:10) The immediate question that arises, the question the Midrash asks and which Rashi quotes is that the beginning of this pasuk seems extraneous. We know where Ya’akov Avinu lived. Unless there is an indication otherwise, we can assume that his point of departure was Be’er Sheva, his hometown. Why does the Torah make a point of telling us the place from which he left? Click here to view entire ma'amar.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Toldos 5631 Third Ma'amar

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ הָאֱ-לֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֹשׁ/And God will give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine.” Thus begins Yitzchak Avinu’s blessing to Ya’akov. Is it not somewhat strange that the blessing begins with the word “and” as if this is a continuation? Rashi, addressing this question, cites the Midrash which says that the “and” implies a continuity of the blessing itself; in the words of the Midrash, “He will give and give again.” When we try to understand this answer, though, we find that it, too, needs an explanation? The Midrash implies that without the “and” at the beginning of the blessing, Yitzchak is giving a blessing meant to be fulfilled only once. This certainly cannot be. What then, is Midrash really teaching us?

Yitzchak’s blessing actually provokes another fundamental question. The blessing implies that to receive our needs from God is a good thing. We learn from the blessing that it is better to have the things we need than not to have them. Setting aside self indulgence for a moment, why should this be? Why is it not better to live a miserable existence and gain everlasting reward for suffering? The Sfas Emes answers that God wants us to serve Him. He therefore gives us the means to serve Him. He gives us the material means to serve Him as well as help with our spiritual service to Him. Suffering, in and of itself, is not an ideal. Rather, God wants us to use what He gives us to serve Him.

This then, is the meaning of the Midrash. When we use the things that God gives us in order to serve Him, we are essentially turning the material abundance into spiritual abundance. When we add abundance to the spiritual realms we cause a new cycle, a renewal, of material abundance in the physical world. Thus, “He will give and give again.”

The following Midrash states this idea clearly. In the Torah we find that sometimes God addresses Moshe Rabbeinu, “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה/God said to Moshe.” We also find that Moshe addresses God, “וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לה'/Moshe said to God.” The Midrash understands that speaking to someone is a form of influence. Certainly the very revelation of God to someone is a form of giving abundance to that person. After all, the greatest good, the greatest pleasure we can possibly experience is being close to God. The Midrash teaches us, that this idea applies in the opposite direction as well. When the Torah tells us that Moshe spoke to God, it is teaching us that Moshe can “influence” God, as it were. Of course, God is infinite and therefore never changes. He certainly is not influenced by anything. However, “God” here, is an inference to the spiritual realms which are at the root of the physical world. God structured the Creation so that material abundance begins with blessing in the spiritual realms – “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה/God said to Moshe” – but then the strength of the spiritual realms is dependent upon our actions here in the physical world – “וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לַה'/Moshe said to God.”

The Midrash presents this idea in the form of an analogy to a cave situated right near the sea. The water of the sea enters the cave and then flows back into the sea. The cave initially receives the water from the sea, but the cave also returns the water to the sea. The initial blessing and influence is spiritual and comes from God, as we find in Yitzchak’s blessing, “... מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם .../… from the dew of the heavens …” Only afterward does it descend to this material world in the form of material abundance.
Moshe Rabbeinu represents the entire nation of Israel. What is true for him is true for us as well. We have the ability, and the duty, to return to God, that which he gives us, by using the things He gives us to do His will, to perform mitzvos and acts of kindness. By doing this we point up the difference between the nation of Israel and the nations of the world. The nations of the world see the material abundance and do not relate it back God. They imbue power to the physical itself, the very basis of idol worship. We, on the other hand, revert everything physical back to its spiritual roots.

Strengthening the spiritual brings more blessing and renewal down to the physical world. This is the meaning of the pasuk in Koheles and Chazal’s explanation, “... אֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ/… There is nothing new under the sun.” Chazal understand this to be a metaphor for the physical world. Under the sun, in the physical world, there is nothing new. However, above the sun, in the spiritual, there is novelty, renewal. Only through the spiritual, therefore, is it possible to bring renewal and novelty into the physical world.

May we merit Yitzchak’s blessing, “He will give and give again,” by using the material things God gives us to fulfill His will. Amen!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Toldos 5631 First Ma'amar

This week’s parsha relates the story of the three wells that Yitzchak’s servants dug. Avimelech’s shepherds argued with Yitzchak’s shepherds regarding ownership of the first two wells. Over the third well, however, there was no argument. Yitzchak called the first two wells Eisek and Sitnah respectively. He called the third well Rechovos. What is the significance of this story? Click here to see entire ma'amar.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Chayei Sarah 5631 Third Ma'amar

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה/This was the life of Sarah, 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of Sarah’s life.” The pasuk is constructed in an awkward way. Is her life defined by her years? Secondly, the first half of the pasuk lists each category of years – single digits, tens and hundred – separately. The end of the pasuk includes all the years together – “the years of Sarah’s life.” Why is this? Why not simply state, “Sarah lived 127 years”? In answer to this question Rashi cites the Midrash which explains that all the days of her life were equal in their goodness.

Saying that all the days of here life were equal in their goodness seems to contradict the principle that we are here in this world in order to grow. Growing implies change. It implies that all our days are not equal. We start at a certain level or as a blank slate and we grow closer to God or the opposite depending upon our deeds, words and thoughts. What, then, is the meaning of this Midrash?

The Sfas Emes explains. The idea underlying this Midrash is that truly living, (as in, “This was the life of Sarah,”) can be defined as completely actualizing one’s potential. Generally people tend to become wiser and more settled with age. As we grow older we come to realize the folly of certain poor character traits and actions we may have had and, by exchanging the poor attributes for better ones and by improving our actions, we grow. This is, for most of us, a lifelong task and, with God’s help, we may reach a level of truly living by the end of our lives.

There are a few, however, who live each day to its fullest. The Sfas Emes explains that each day of a person’s life, has a unique rectification associated with it. The one who merits achieving the rectification is the one who is truly living. Accordingly, it is possible for one with exemplary character traits to grow as well. This person can ascend from level to level by actualizing his potential, by fulfilling the day’s rectification, each day of his life. The Midrash is teaching us that this was the level of Sarah Imeinu. All her days were equal in their goodness because she had no blemish that she needed to cure and return to goodness. Instead, they were equal in goodness because she realized the full potential of each day of her life. May we learn from Sarah Imeinu’s example and live each day to its fullest potential. Amen.