Monday, December 31, 2007

VaEira 5631 First Ma'amar

The Sfas Emes focuses on the main point of the first paragraph of the parsha. In the first pasuk of the parsha God tells Moshe Rabbeinu, “אֲנִי ה'/I am God.” A few p’sukim later He commands Moshe to convey this to the children of Israel and that He will take them out of Egypt. Finally, in the last pasuk of the paragraph, the Torah tells us that they did not accept Moshe Rabbeinu’s message, “מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ/because of shortness of breath.” What is the significance of the message and why were they unable to accept it?

We know that our actions have consequences. It is less known that our actions have spiritual ramifications as well. A person’s actions affect his soul all the way to its source. [We usually think of the soul as being in the body. However, according to Chazal only a small part of the soul is in the body. In fact, the Zohar calls the body a shoe for this reason. Only the soul’s lower extremity is inside a person’s body. Most of a person’s soul extends from the body up through many spiritual realms to its source. The soul can be viewed as a continuum which is more spiritual the closer it is to its source and less spiritual the closer it is to the body. See Nefesh HaChayim 1:5 Haga’ah and Ma’amarim 14 for a detailed discussion of this concept.] The source of a person’s soul is in a very high spiritual place. It is a place that defies our understanding. It follows that we cannot know completely, the consequences of our actions. Instead of relying on ourselves and our own thought processes, it behooves us to subordinate our own mind and will to God’s.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that this concept is the deeper meaning of the Midrash which says that if Reuven had known that his opposition to his brothers’ desire to kill Yosef would be written in the Torah, he would have carried Yosef back to his father on his shoulders. The Midrash is certainly not telling us that Reuven would have done this because of the honor of being written into the Torah. Rather, the Midrash is teaching us that if Reuven had understood how important his opposition was, so important that it would be written in the Torah, he would have approached it with such enthusiasm that he would have carried Yosef back to his father. Reuven did not do this because he did not know, could not know, the ultimate consequences and importance of his actions.

The first Midrash on the parsha teaches us that Shlomo HaMelech and Moshe Rabbeinu grappled with this concept and learnt the lesson as well. Shlomo HaMelech had more wives that the Torah allows a king. The Torah commands a king not to have too many wives lest they steer his heart astray. It was absolutely clear to Shlomo HaMelech that he would not be affected. That is why he allowed himself to have many wives. However, a person’s actions affect him in ways that he does not always understand. Shlomo HaMelech thought that the power of the Torah within him and his connection with God would protect him. But his actions had unexpected consequences for him, consequences that he did not, could not foresee.

Shlomo HaMelech used his wisdom to disregard a commandment. The Midrash sees this alluded to in a pasuk from Koheles (2:12) “וּפָנִיתִי אֲנִי לִרְאוֹת חָכְמָה וְהוֹלֵלוֹת וְסִכְלוּת כִּי מֶה הָאָדָם שֶיָּבוֹא אַחֲרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר-כְּבָר עָשׂוּהוּ/Then I turned my attention to appraising wisdom with madness and folly – for what is man that he would come after the king regarding that which has already been done.” Referring to himself, Koheles says that he used his wisdom for madness and folly. How so? Because he could not know the complete consequences of his actions. He rationalized by saying that God is always with him because of his Torah and will protect him.

The Midrash says that this pasuk refers to Moshe Rabbeinu as well. At the end of last week’s parsha Moshe Rabbeinu complains to God, “ה' לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה/God, why have You done evil to this people?” (Shmos 5:22) God responds at the beginning of our parsha, “'אֲנִי ה/I am God.” The name of God YHVH comes from the Hebrew root which means “being.” It implies that the continued existence of everything in the Creation and everything that happens within the Creation is only because God wills it. The Egyptian exile also continued only because God willed it to. God gives life and existence to everything including the exile.

In fact, every action was decreed at the time of Creation. Koheles alludes to this at the second half of the pasuk mentioned earlier, “...מֶה הָאָדָם שֶיָּבוֹא אַחֲרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר-כְּבָר עָשׂוּהוּ/… what is man that he would come after the king regarding that which has already been done.” This is also the meaning of the pasuk at the end of the Creation, “God blessed the seventh day …because on it He abstained from all His work which God created to make.” (Breishis 2:3) The end of this pasuk is awkward. The pasuk could have ended with, “which God created.” The last words “to make” seem to be extra. “To make” in Hebrew also means, “To do”. With these words the Torah is telling us that every future action was ordained at the time of the Creation. God is telling Moshe Rabbeinu that the exile and all that it entails was decreed. This includes the most recent affliction that happened after Moshe spoke with Pharaoh.

Of course, Moshe Rabbeinu knew that God is at the root of everything. That’s why he complained to Him. When God sent Moshe Rabbeinu to speak to Pharaoh, though, he had an expectation. He expected that the children of Israel would not be further afflicted. When his expectation was not fulfilled, he complained to God asking Him why He had allowed more harm to befall the people. God’s answer was that Moshe Rabbeinu’s expectation was invalid. Everything that happened and everything that will happen is due to God’s decree that it should occur. Chazal tell us that a person does not lift his finger without it being decreed in heaven. In the words of Koheles, “It has already been done.”

God commands Moshe Rabbeinu to convey this message to the children of Israel but they do not accept it, “מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ/because of shortness of breath.” The word רוּחַ/breath also connotes spirit and is a reference to the soul that gives a person life. [As we’ve said, one end of the soul is in the body but the other end is attached to God, as it were.] In the exile, the children of Israel became detached from the source of life. It was not clear to them that God was behind the exile and willed it. It was very difficult for them to see that their affliction was Divinely ordained. So they did not accept Moshe’s message.

Both Shlomo HaMelech and Moshe Rabbeinu, however, learned that decisions they made based on their own wisdom, decisions which appeared strongly to them to be correct when they were made, turned out to be wrong. When they gained more wisdom, they realized that their original actions were based on flawed thinking. The lesson for us is that we can never be sure of our own wisdom since our current outlook may prove incorrect when we gain more wisdom. Instead, we need to submit to the source of wisdom, God’s will and word.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Shemos 5631 Third Ma'amar

... וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱ-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם/… and I will say to them, ‘The God of your forefathers sent me to you,’ and they will ask me, ‘What is His name,’ what shall I say to them?” Why did Moshe Rabbeinu think they would ask God’s name? Why would this be important? What is the significance of knowing His name?

The Sfas Emes explains that God’s name symbolizes His revelation in this world. During exile we say that the glory of His name is concealed. Redemption means that the glory of His name is revealed. His Providence is clearly apparent to all. In a time of redemption everyone understands that exile is simple a shell preventing us from experiencing God’s presence. The Zohar makes this point when it says that Shabbos is the name of God. Shabbos is that aspect of Creation that represents an uplifting of everything towards its spiritual source. The ultimate spiritual source of everything is God Himself. God is thus more “revealed,” – it is easier to be aware of His presence – on Shabbos. Shabbos, then, is the name of God because His name represents His revelation.

In reality, though, God does not change. There is a higher level of faith whereby one’s recognition and awareness of God are not affected by external circumstances. Moshe Rabbeinu was on this level. During the exile, the nation of Israel was not.
According to this, the significance of the question, “What is His name?” is, “Where do we see the revelation of God in the exile?” God’s answer is that His name is, “אֶהְיֶה/I will be.” God says that although now, in the exile, His presence is hidden, the exile specifically because of its darkness, causes a greater revelation later. Even the Egyptians will recognize that God is in charge.

After the redemption, the nation reached the higher level of faith. We find in Shiras HaYam, “ה' אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה ה' שְׁמוֹ/God is master of war, God is His name.” At the time of redemption there is clear recognition that, “God is His name.” They are one and the same. Significantly the name of God used here is the Tetragrammaton, which means that God is beyond time – He does not change. When He reveals Himself, it becomes clear that the God who is revealed – represented by His name – is the same as the God that was hidden before.

Certainly, before the redemption, the nation of Israel was not on this level of faith, hence the question, “What is His name?” Moshe understands this when he says to God, “וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ .../They will not believe.” Even though the pasuk relates subsequently that they did believe, Moshe Rabbeinu was not mistaken. The nation believed the signs that Moshe showed them. They believed that the redemption was at hand. They were on a certain level of faith. This, however, is not what Moshe Rabbeinu was referring to. Moshe Rabbeinu was referring to the total and complete faith that God is present in the exile exactly as He is present in redemption. Moshe Rabbeinu was saying that they were not on his level of faith, the faith of knowing that God is here the way we believe in what we actually see with our eyes. Moshe Rabbeinu knew that he would not be able to make them understand that God is present in the exile the same way He is present in the redemption. After the redemption, though, the pasuk testifies that the nation reached this level, “וַיַאֲמִינוּ בַה'/They believed in God.”

According to this we can understand the three signs that God sent Moshe Rabbeinu to show the nation. After each of the first two signs, God says to Moshe that He is giving another sign in case the nation does not believe the previous one. Isn’t this strange? God obviously knows beforehand whether the nation will believe or not. Why did He not simply send Moshe Rabbeinu the sign that He knew would be effective? The explanation according to what we have said, is that there are levels of belief. The highest level is the level of Moshe Rabbeinu, the level akin to seeing something with our own eyes. It is possible, though, to start at a lower level and work up to a higher level. The three signs represented this process. Each subsequent sign represented a higher level of faith than the previous sign.

At the level of faith that Moshe Rabbeinu reached, the surrounding exile and darkness is recognized for what it really is. It is an illusion that God created. It is not reality. The Sfas Emes teaches us that built into Shabbos is a spiritual enlightenment which allows us to experience this, to some extent. Significantly, the chapter in Tehillim that describes Shabbos states clearly that even though we see evildoers succeeding, this is not truth. This is not reality. This is an external illusion. That which gives life and existence to everything, even to the evildoers, is only God. May we merit seeing God in everything both redemption and exile and may we merit redemption this year! AMEN.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Shemos 5631 Second Ma'amar

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ עַל-מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע אֶת-יוֹסֵף/A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Yosef.” (Shmos 1:8) Explaining this pasuk the Midrash says that after Yosef died the nation of Israel stopped circumcising their children. They said, “Let us be like the Egyptians.” As a result God caused the love the Egyptians had for us to turn into hatred. A new king arose who did not know Yosef.

Generally, Chazal give novel interpretations to pesukim when the simple meaning is diffucult. What compelled the Midrash to give this explanation? The key word in the pasuk is “new.” The Chidushei HaRim explains that novelty is an attribute of spirituality. When we contemplate the material world around us it is easy to conclude that nothing new happens. Nature follows predictable laws. Today is the same as yesterday which was the same as the day before. The Chidushei HaRim explains that while this may be the case for the material world it is not true of the spiritual. Shlomo HaMelech teaches this in the pasuk, “... וְאֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ/… and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Koheles 1:9) The implication is that above the sun – beyond nature – there is novelty and renewal. Originality, creativity and novelty are spiritual endeavors. The physical is merely a manifestation of that which already exists in the spiritual.

Because novelty is a spiritual attribute, it is particularly associated with the nation of Israel. The key to change and creativity is the realization that everything physical contains within it spirituality. When we disregard external physical appearances and relate to the underlying spirituality in our actions, the power of creativity is ours. In Egypt we disregarded the spiritual and allowed ourselves to be affected by the physical environment of decadent Egypt. As the Midrash notes, we wanted to be like the Egyptians. So, novelty was taken from us and given to the Egyptians instead.

What, though, is the significance of breaching the covenant of circumcision? After all, in Egypt we fell to very low levels. Why does the Midrash single out circumcision as the reason for losing our connection with God, with novelty?
The Sfas Emes explains. Yosef is called the keeper of the covenant referring to the covenant of the circumcision. The plain meaning is that he resisted the temptations of Potiphar’s wife. However, on a deeper level, circumcision represents unveiling the spiritual that is concealed by the physical. Yosef is called a keeper of the covenant of circumcision because he believed that although the material world around him was decadent, spirituality was concealed within it. Yosef’s belief was complete. He did not notice the physical decadence. He saw only the spiritual.

In our daily lives, we many times see barriers and obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals. We can overcome them by cultivating the belief that the physical is a mask that hides the spiritual. On a spiritual level, there are no barriers. They are illusory. Everything starts with belief that the spiritual light exists but we don’t see it because it is behind a screen. We find a hint to this in the brachah following Sh’ma at night. The bracha starts, “אֱמֶת וֶאֱמוּנָה/Truth and faith.” At night, a time of darkness when we do not see light, Chazal advise us to believe that it is there anyway.

We see this again when Moshe Rabbeinu says in response to God’s request to return to Egypt to begin the process of the redemption, “... וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ לִי .../… and they will not believe me …” (Shmos 4:1) Faith is a prerequisite for redemption. In order to merit redemption – seeing God – we must have faith during the preceding darkness.

Responding to Moshe Rabbeinu’s concern, God gives him a sign which gives expression to this concept. God tells Moshe to throw his staff to the ground. When he does this it turns into a snake. When he grabs it, it turns back to a staff. In reality it was a staff. The snake was an illusion. The way to see the reality behind the illusion is by believing it is there, grabbing on to it, connecting with it and, importantly, disregarding external appearances. The staff appeared as a snake. God told him to disregard this and to grab its tail. Upon doing so the snake reverted to a staff. God powers external appearances as well.

God gives existence to the screen that we call reality even when the screen appears to contradict spirituality and holiness. The truth, though, becomes clear to us according to the level of our faith. We can actually experience the spiritual that underlies the physical world by first believing it is there. Once we believe, no physical obstacle can stand between us and our goals. We are connected directly with the source of novelty, creativity and originality.

The Sfas Emes applies this concept to exile and redemption. Exile means that God is concealed. He is not apparent. Redemption means that God is revealed in the world. As we’ve said, a strong belief that the physical world is powered by the spiritual is a necessary prerequisite for redemption to occur. During exile this idea is concealed. If it were revealed there would be no possibility of exile.
We find this concept explained in the Zohar. The Zohar uses the analogy of sound vs. speech to explain God’s presence vs. His influence in the world.

Undifferentiated sound represents God’s oneness. He is everywhere always. In terms of God’s presence, there is no difference between one place and another. Speech is “processed” sound. It is the method by which we relate to and influence others. Speech, therefore, represents God’s influence and revelation in the Creation. With regard to God’s revelation, there are differences between one place and another. Exile means that God’s influence in the world is not apparent. It is concealed. For this reason the Zohar tells us that in Egypt, speech was in exile. God’s influence was not apparent.

Realizing this and believing it means to understand that although we see things differentiated in the physical world, underlying every separate thing is Oneness. The “undifferentiated sound” is ubiquitous. To the person who internalizes this belief totally, there is no fundamental difference between revelation and concealment. This is the deeper meaning of Chazal telling us that faith is the one basic principle as the prophet Habakuk said, “The righteous person lives by his faith.” May we merit it!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vayechi 5631 Third Ma'amar

After Ya’akov blesses each of his children the Torah tells us, “כָּל-אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֵּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם .../All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve in all, and this is what their father said to them and he blessed them …” Since this entire pasuk does not seem to be adding anything that we do not already know, what is it teaching us?

The Sfas Emes understands the whole pasuk homiletically. The Sfas Emes explains that this pasuk alludes to advice that Ya’akov Avinu gave his children to help them live their lives in the service of God. The Sfas Emes understands that the appearance of the words, אֵלֶּה/these and זֹאת/this, in the pasuk is particularly significant. The Zohar teaches that זֹאת/this represents the singular Godly life force which unites all. אֵלֶּה/These, on the other hand, is plural and represents differentiation. Even though the material world consists of multitudes of separate creations, the Godly life force that underlies all is singular. The word, דִּבֵּר/he spoke, as well, has a particular significance. In Aramaic the root דבר means to lead.

According to the Sfas Emes, Ya’akov Avinu is teaching his children that although the physical world to all appearances consists of many separate things, they should lead their lives and manage their affairs with an understanding that underlying everything physical is a point of inner spirituality. He wanted them to understand that the spiritual point, because it gives existence to the physical, is the main thing. Contemplating the spiritual underpinnings of whatever activity is before them will lead them to fulfill the will of God.

The pasuk, therefore, starts with אֵלֶּה/these, representing the way the world appears and ends with זֹאת/this, representing the way things are in reality. We, as well, can benefit from Ya’akov Avinu’s advice by recognizing the spiritual that is the basis for the material world including our very actions. It is the merit of this recognition that helps us to fulfill God’s will.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Vayechi 5631 Second Ma'amar

הקבצו ושמעו בני יעקב ושמעו אל ישראל אביכם/Gather and hear, children of Ya’akov, and listen to your father Yisrael.” Since the pasuk uses the word אל/to instead of the shorter conjunctive form ל/to, the Midrash says that Ya’akov Avinu is comparing himself to God which is also spelled, א-ל. Ya’akov Avinu is telling his children, “Just like God creates worlds, so too, your father creates worlds.” What does this mean and why is Ya’akov telling this to his children? Click here to see entire ma'amar

Friday, December 14, 2007

VaYigash 5631 Third Ma'amar

When Ya’akov and Yosef met after twenty two years the pasuk relates that Yosef fell on his neck and cried. The pasuk does not tell us that Ya’akov reciprocated. It seems that Ya’akov, in fact, did not reciprocate otherwise the pasuk would have told us this just like it does when describing the meeting of Yosef and Binyomin. What, then, was Ya’akov doing at this very moving moment? Rashi cites Chazal who tell us that Ya’akov was reciting kri’as Shma.

Why was Ya’akov reciting kri’as Shma at this time? The Maharal explains that when Ya’akov saw Yosef – whom he thought was dead or captured – king over Egypt, he was filled with gratitude towards God. Ya’akov was moved to recite kri’as Shma to express his awe and love for God.

Why, then, did not Yosef recite kri’as Shma as well? The Chidushei HaRim explains that this points up a fundamental difference between Ya’akov’s level of spirituality and Yosef’s level. Yosef lived in the king’s house. Yosef, was occupied with activities of the material world, even as he was totally connected to God. Yosef, as one occupied with matters of the material world was able to kiss his father. Ya’akov, on the other hand, was on a level above the material world. [See VaYeitzei 5631 First Ma’amar] Therefore he attached to God through kri’as Shma and was unable to kiss Yosef.

Chanukah 5631 Eighth Night

The eighth day of Chanukah is called Zos Chanukah/This is Chanukah, after the Torah reading for this day which contains the words “zos chanukas hamizbei’ach/this is the dedication of the altar.” Aside from the nice play on words what is the significance of the name?

The Sfas Emes explains that Zos Chanukah indicates something very fundamental about Chanukah. The Chanukah story begins with the persecution of the Jews by the Assyrian Greeks. The situation was bleak indeed. The gentile rulers were powerful. How could we overcome them? From the depths of this darkness came the salvation.

The word zos/this is laden with symbolism. In the Zohar we find the word zos alluding to Jerusalem and the kingdom of heaven. The Midrash on the pasuk, “... בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ/… in this I trust,” says that it is an allusion to God – in God I trust – and refers to God’s saving the nation at the Red Sea, “ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם .../God will fight for you …” The early kabbalists teach that zos alludes specifically to that point of spirituality through which God gives existence to the physical. David HaMelech as well, asked God to preserve this recognition of His presence within us, “... שָׁמְרָה-זֹּאת לְעוֹלָם לְיֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבוֹת לְבַב עַמֶּךָ .../… Preserve this forever – the product of the thoughts of Your people’s hearts …”

Zos, then, is a reference to the Godliness hidden within us and all of Creation. Knowing that everything, including God’s obscurity is powered by this point of God given spirituality, essentially, knowing that God is “in” everything and that everything is therefore “good” is a tremendous tool for strengthening one’s faith particularly in times of exile. This, in fact, is the fundamental meaning of the pasuk in Eicha, “זֹאת אָשִׁיב אֶל-לִבִּי עַל-כֵּן אוֹחִיל/This I will bear in mind; therefore I have hope.” The prophet is teaching us that when we bear in mind zos – that the exile as well is from God and that He is present even in the darkness of it – we have good reason for hope.

This concept is the lesson of Chanukah. The salvation came when the nation realized that God was with them in the darkness as well. We find this idea as well in the following pesukim from Tehillim, “:מִשְּׁמוּעָה רָעָה לֹא יִירָא נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה': סָמוּךְ לִבּוֹ לֹא יִירָא עַד אֲשֶׁר-יִרְאֶה בְצָרָיו/He will have no fear of evil tidings; his heart is firm, confident in God. His heart is steadfast, he shall not fear, he will even [expect to] see [vengeance upon] his tormentors.” When a person is trusting in God, he knows that salvation is at hand. The Chidushei HaRim points out that, significantly, the last letters of the words, “נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה' סָמוּך/his heart is firm, confident in God, steadfast” spells out חֲנוּכָּה/Chanukah.

The chapter in Tehillim that we say on Chanukah bears out this idea. “הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה/You have transformed my lament into dancing for me; You undid my sackcloth and girded me with happiness.” The word for transformed – הָפַכְתָּ – also means to overturn or to turn inside out. The difference between lament and dancing is whether God is hidden or revealed. Dancing is lament turned inside out, as it were. The important point is that God is present in both. The Midrash on the curses in parshas BeChukosai makes this point when it says that the difference between the blessings and the curses is that the blessings are in order of the Hebrew alphabet whereas the curses are backwards.

The second half of the pasuk continues this idea. It is important to understand that the sackcloth, a clear reference to exile and God’s concealment is only a cover. When the sackcloth is undone, when the concealment is removed, God is revealed in the form of salvation and closeness to Him. Then we are girded with happiness. This is the meaning of Chanukah, the days of miracles, when the nation of Israel was at a very low point and God helped them. It is encouraging to know that according to the extent of concealment so is the extent of the good since everything is from God and everything is for good. And according to our recognition of this fact and our trust in God so the underlying good will be revealed and we will merit salvation.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Mikeitz 5631 Third Ma'amar

Chazal teach us that the best place to light Chanukah candles is outside the entrance of the house. We can surmise that this is the best place since the purpose of the mitzvah is to spread an awareness of the miracle of Chanukah. People passing by the house are sure to see the candles burning.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that there is also a deeper reason based upon a ma’amar of Rabba bar Rav Huna. Rabba bar Rav Huna said that a person who has learnt Torah but has no fear of Heaven is like a treasurer who has been given the keys to the inner sanctum but not to the outer gates. How will he get in? Without fear of Heaven, he has no access to his Torah. His Torah does not affect him.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that lighting the Chanukah candles at the entrance to the house can be likened to one who has been given the keys to the outer gates. Control over the gates not only gives access to that which is inside, it also protects that which is inside from outside influences – the materialism of this world. Fear of Heaven, represented by the keys to the outer gates, and by extension by the Chanukah lights, not only enables a person’s Torah to affect him; it also affords protection against being drawn after the materialism of this world. For this reason Chazal established the entrance of the home as the best place for lighting the candles.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Chanukah 5631 First Night Second Ma'amar

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev writes in Kedushas Levi that each year on Chanukah the strength of the original miracle of Chanukah is revealed and God showers His nation with salvation and redemption. The strength of the original miracle is a spiritual enlightenment which manifests in the physical world as salvation and redemption. The Sfas Emes explains that we can feel this spiritual enlightenment to the extent that we separate from the physical and attach to the spiritual.

How can we do this? Is there a technique we can use to connect to the spiritual? The Sfas Emes teaches us that there is. We can use the mitzvah to help us connect to that which is beyond the natural world. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that this is the main characteristic of this mitzva and, in fact, of all mitzvos. So, to facilitate this attachment to the spiritual, Chazal gave us the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles. Mitzvos are the tools that we use to turn mundane physical activities into spiritual endeavors. [A mitzvah is imbued with a spiritual aura. When a person performs a mitzvah, the spiritual aura of the mitzvah actually surrounds him. (see Nefesh HaChaim 1:12] Contemplating the spiritual enlightenment of the original miracle and its connection to the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles helps us to attach to the enlightenment and to feel it.

The Chidushei HaRim continues this idea. He teaches that Chazal established the days of Chanukah as days of praise and thanks for the same reason. Praising God and thanking Him for the Chanukah salvation opens up the spiritual enlightenment of these days so that they affect us and enlighten us. The Chidushei HaRim teaches that this is the idea underlying the pasuk in Tehillim, “זֵכֶר עָשָׂה לְנִפְלְאוֹתָיו .../He made a remembrance for His wonders …” So that we may feel the spiritual enlightenment of the ancient miracles in our days, God turned them into mitzvos.

May we merit using all the mitzvos and the mitzva of lighting the Chanuka candles in particular as the tool they were meant to be, to help us come closer to God and receive His good.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Chanukah 5631 First Night

The pasuk in Mishlei states, “... נר מצוה ותורה אור .../… neir mitzvah veSorah or…/… a commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light …” Just as the oil, wick and light need a lamp to hold them, so too, the light of the Torah needs a vessel to contain it. The vessel that holds the light of the Torah in this world is the mitzvos. The Zohar explains that Shlomo HaMelech associated mitzvos with a lamp because we perform the mitzvos with our 248 limbs with love of God and fear of Heaven. Two hundred forty eight limbs + love of God + fear of Heaven = 250 which is the gematria of neir/lamp. The Zohar is teaching us that we can rectify our deeds and limbs in this world by imbuing them with the light of the Torah. We do this by performing the mitzvos. Each mitzvah holds a unique aspect of the spiritual light of the Torah. When we do a specific mitzvah we draw the unique spiritual force associated with it into the physical world.

This concept applies not only to the 613 mitzvos mentioned in the Torah. It also applies to those mitzvos that were instituted by Chazal including, of course, the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah. What is the unique spiritual force triggered by the mitzvah of Chanukah lights? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah contains the spiritual enlightenment of the original miracle of the menorah in the Beis HaMikdash on the first Chanukah. Lighting the Chanukah candles draws the enlightenment of the original miracle once again into the world. In fact, the Tur Shulchan Aruch writes that we light Chanukah candles in order להזכיר/lehazkir/to mention the miracle. Notice that he does not write, “in order לזכור/lizkor/to remember the miracle.” The nuance is not as apparent in English but in Hebrew, these two words are actually two forms of the same verb. להזכיר/lehazkir/to mention is a stronger form of לזכור/lizkor/to remember. It implies an action that is being done to the object of the verb.[1] Since the object of the verb here is the miracle, the Tur is telling us that by lighting the Chanukah candles we are bringing to light the actual original miracle. Lighting the Chanukah candles is not merely a way of remembering the original miracle. By lighting the candles we are triggering the same latent spiritual force that caused the original miracle (i.e. bringing it to life.)

This is why the prayer that we say after lighting the candles starts with the words, “הנרות הללו קודש הם/HaNeiros halalu kodesh heim/These candles are holy.” Generally, the objects that we use to perform mitzvos (e.g. lulav, matzah) are not considered holy. They may be tossed once they are no longer needed. The same principle should apply to the lights of Chanukah. Yet, the prayer states that they are holy. Why? According to the Chiddushei HaRim, though, it is clear. They are holy because they contain the spiritual force of the original miracle.

This explains the language of the brachah that Chazal instituted before lighting the Chanukah lights. We say, “להדליק נר חנוכה/lehadlik neir Chanukah/to kindle the Chanukah lamp.” We don’t say, “להדליק נר בחנוכה /lehadlik neir beChanukah/to kindle a lamp on Chanukah.” The language of the brachah suggests the original Chanukah lamp. Performing the mitzvah activates the spiritual force of the original Chanukah menorah.

This concept helps us understand a puzzling halachah about the Chanukah lights. A person who sees Chanukah lights is required to say the blessing, “שעשה נסים לאבותינו/she’asah nisim la’avoseinu/who made miracles for our forefathers” even if he himself does not light. Generally one is required to say this blessing upon seeing the place where a miracle occurred either to him or his forefathers. Why do Chazal require us to say this particular blessing upon seeing Chanukah lights? According to what we’ve said, though, it is clear. Since the Chanukah lights contain the spiritual force of the original miracle, seeing the Chanukah lights is akin to seeing the actual place of the miracle. This is why Chazal required the blessing usually reserved for seeing the place the miracle occurred.

Each of us has the ability to release the spiritual force of the original miracle of the menorah by lighting Chanukah candles. Our very souls are intimately connected with the mitzvos. A clear awareness of the spiritual effect of our physical action strengthens that spiritual effect. Contemplating this concept while lighting the Chanukah lights is the best way to draw the spiritual force inherent in the mitzvah into the world.

[1] Other examples: לשמוע/lishmo’a/to listen and להשמיע/lehashmi’a/to make others listen; לחתום/lachtom/to sign and להחתים/lehachtim/to sign up others. The first is more passive whereas the second means the person is doing something to the verb’s object.