Friday, February 29, 2008

VaYakhel 5635 First Ma'amar

Note: Today is the yartzeit of Rabbeinu, Reb Yitzchak Meir Alter, the Chiddushei HaRim, may we be protected in his merit.

The beginning of this week’s parsha describes the national campaign to gather all the materials needed to build the Mishkan and its accoutrements. In three pesukim the Torah describes how this campaign ended. The craftsmen came to Moshe and told him, “... מַרְבִּים הָעָם לְהָבִיא .../… The people are bringing more than enough …” Then the Torah relates that Moshe Rabeinu commanded the nation to stop bringing more materials. The pasuk tells us, “... וַיִּכָּלֵא הָעָם מֵֽהָבִֽיא/… So the nation stopped bringing.” What was the purpose of this lengthy description? Why was it necessary to describe it at all?

These pesukim are teaching us a basic principle in serving God. Many times we will we be inspired to do some worthy activity. Recognizing that the very inspiration did not originate in our own minds but rather is from God, brings us to a higher level of awe of Him. In fact, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that this is actually the purpose of the inspiration. Thinking that we are the source of the inspiration leads to conceit and self-righteousness.

We find this idea in the service of the angels that prophet Yechezkel describes. Yechezkel tells us, “וְהַֽחַיוֹת רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב .../The living creatures ran forward and returned …” The Sfas Emes, based on the kabbalistic literature understands that this is a metaphor for serving God. We run forward to serve Him but, in order not to be tempted towards arrogance in our service, we need to stop and back off to gain some perspective. We gain perspective by considering the true purpose of our worthwhile activity and that we are standing before God.

This is the reason the elders in the desert told Moshe Rabbeinu that the nation had brought too much. They were not only referring to physical quantities and quotas. They feared that there was too much “forward movement” with no stop to gain perspective in order to thwart the temptation towards self-righteousness. In response to Moshe Rabbeinu’s instructions, we stopped bringing, thus ensuring that our intent for all the materials of the Mishkan was pure.

This concept reappears in the very next pasuk, “וְהַמְּלָאכָה הָֽיְתָה דַיָם לְכָל־הַמְּלָאכָה לַֽעֲשׂוֹת אֹתָהּ וְהוֹתֵֽר/And the materials were enough to do the work and there was extra.” This pasuk contains an apparent contradiction. The beginning of the pasuk says that the materials were enough to do the work. The end of the pasuk says there was extra. The Or HaChaim explains that the pasuk is teaching us God’s love for the nation. Even though we brought more than was needed, He arranged it so that everything that was brought was used for the Mishkan. According to the Sfas Emes, the meaning is that even though there was too much activity of bringing with no stop for reflection, the fact that we stopped in response to Moshe Rabbeinu’s instruction, saved us and the materials that we brought from the corruption of self aggrandizement.

The Chiddushei HaRim teaches this idea on the pasuk in Shir HaShirim, “מַה־יָּפוּ פְעָמַיִךְ בַּנְּעָלִים בַּת־נָדִיב/How nice are your feet in sandals, O daughter of nobility.” The word for sandals – נְעָלִים, has the same root as the word for lock – מִנְעָל. The word for nobility – נְדִיב, has the same root as the word for charitableness – נְדִיבוּת. According to the Chiddushei HaRim, Shlomo HaMelech is teaching us through a metaphor that it is important to temper the will to be generous so that our good intentions to give do not become mixed with self importance.

This concept also explains a pasuk at the beginning of last week’s parsha. God commanded the nation to bring exactly a half shekel each, no more and no less, “הֶֽעָשִׁיר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּה וְהַדַּל לֹא יַמְעִיט מִֽמַּחֲצִית הַשָּׁקֶל .../The prosperous may not exceed and the poor may not diminish from the half shekel.” While the need for a minimum amount may be clear, why did the Torah limit the wealthy from giving more? The Sfas Emes explains that this admonition against giving more is a hint to our concept. God wanted to protect the wealthy from the temptation towards self importance because of their ability to give more. He therefore equalized the wealthy and the poor. He, in effect, told the rich that even though they were able to give more, serving God in this instance meant limiting themselves to prevent any possibility of lording it over others who had less.

May we merit giving with the purest of intentions, Amen.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

VaYakhel 5637 First Ma'amar

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁרצִוָּה ה' לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָֽם/Moshe assembled the entire community of the children of Israel and said to them, ‘These are the things that God commanded to do them.” This first pasuk of our parsha is referring to the building of the Mishkan. However, immediately following this pasuk, before beginning to recount the building of the Mishkan, there are two p’sukim commanding us to keep Shabbos. Why is this? The answer to this question lies in the common theme that we find in the Mishkan and Shabbos. The goal of both the Mishkan and Shabbos is to bring an awareness of God into our lives.

When the nation of Israel stood at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, Chazal tell us that we stood united. We were united and one with God. The sin of the golden calf separated us from God and divided the nation. This is the influence of the plurality of paganism which is diametrically opposed to the oneness of monotheism.

In order to rectify the sin of the golden calf and the results of the sin, the Midrash tells us that God gave us the Mishkan. How did the Mishkan rectify the sin? Building the Mishkan entailed many different activities. In fact, building the Mishkan entailed every major category of human activity. These are the thirty nine categories of work which are prohibited on Shabbos and are derived the Mishkan. Every activity in the Mishkan was dedicated towards the same goal – the manifestation of the Divine Presence. Building the Mishkan, then, united us and our actions in the service of God. Once the Mishkan was built the barrier between us and God caused by the sin of the golden calf was removed.

But before the Mishkan was built we were divided. In effect, we needed the unifying influence of the Mishkan in order to build it. How were we able to overcome this problem? The answer is through the mitzvah of Shabbos. God unified the nation by giving us the mitzvah of Shabbos first. Shabbos, the day on which creation was completed and God, the ultimate Unity was revealed was the day on which we could unite in serving God, the source of unity. This is also the reason the parsha starts with the word “וַיַּקְהֵל/He assembled.” No other mitzvah in the Torah begins with this word. Why does the mitzvah of building the Mishkan begin this way? The reason is that “וַיַּקְהֵל/He assembled” connotes a unified group. The noun associated with this verb is “קְהִילָה/community” which signifies a group of people having common interests. Once we were united in serving God and with God through the mitzvah of Shabbos we were ready to build the Mishkan to complete the rectification for the sin of the golden calf.

Shabbos unites the Creation under God, the source of unity. The Mishkan unites individual actions towards the goal of serving God. From the Mishkan we learn that all of our seemingly mundane activities during the course of the week can be consecrated in the service of God.

(Note: Parshas VaYakhel is usually ready together with parshas Pekudei. This was the case in 5637 (1877) when the Sfas Emes first said this ma'amar. The ma'amar therefore contains references to both parshiyos. This year VaYakhel and Pekudei are read on two separate Shabbosim.) We find this relationship of general unity (i.e. Shabbos) and unity in the details (i.e. Mishkan) in parshiyos VaYakhel and Pekudei. Parshas VaYakhel starts with Shabbos, the revelation of the Divine Presence, and proceeds to describe the building of the Mishkan. This is a top down approach. Parshas Pekudei lists every detail of the Mishkan. The end result is unity through revelation of the Divine Presence. This is a bottom up approach. As we’ve seen, the first approach leads directly to the second. First God reveals Himself through Shabbos showering blessing upon us from above and influencing our actions (i.e. top down). Then we build the Mishkan and God is revealed through our actions in this world (i.e. bottom up).

When contemplating the intricate detail in which the Torah describes the Mishkan and its vessels the following question comes to mind. Chazal tell us that blessing is found only in things which are not counted. Here we find a detailed list of every part of the Mishkan! How, then, is blessing found in the Mishkan? To answer this question the Midrash brings a pasuk in Mishlei which states, “אִישׁ אֱמוּנֽוֹת רַב־בְּרָכוֹת וְאָץ לְהַֽעֲשִׁיר לֹא יִנָּקֶֽה/A man of faith will abound in blessings but one who impatiently pursues wealth will not be exonerated.” The Midrash tells us that “אִישׁ אֱמוּנֽוֹת/A man of faith” refers to Moshe Rabbeinu. The Midrash explains that because Moshe Rabbeinu was a man of faith he abounded in blessings when he built the Mishkan. As a man of faith, Moshe Rabbeinu dedicated his every disparate action towards one common goal thus turning the many into one. This is why there was blessing in the Mishkan even though the details were listed.

This same idea applies to our daily activities. The Mishkan itself and the work we did in it can be viewed as a microcosm of our daily lives. The Mishkan experience enabled us to apply this focus on serving God to our daily activities. If I go about my daily activities with faith in God, I dedicate all my actions to the common goal of serving God. As a result, God showers blessing upon me and all my daily activities.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ki Sisa 5631 Second Ma'amar

Chazal tell us that although every mitzvah was given to the nation of Israel publicly, Shabbos was given privately as the Torah tells us in this week’s parshah, “בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא .../It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel …” What do Chazal mean when they say that Shabbos was given to us privately? Obviously, the nations of the world know about Shabbos. In answer to this question, Chazal explain that although the nations of the world know about Shabbos, there are aspects of Shabbos that the nations of the world do not – cannot - know about. There is an aspect of Shabbos called, “נְשָׁמָה יְתֵרָה/additional soul,” which only Jews can experience. Only Jews can experience it because Shabbos was given only to the nation of Israel to experience.

The Torah alludes to the additional soul in the words, “... וּבַיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ/… and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.” In a play on the word “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ/He was refreshed,” Chazal say that it suggests, “וַוי אָבְדָה נֶפֶשׁ/Woe, the soul is lost.,” Chazal therefore translate the pasuk, “Since He rested, woe, the soul is lost.” This Chazal is difficult. The plain meaning of the Chazal is that the additional soul is lost as a result of His resting. How can this be? The additional soul is given specifically when He rests. It takes leave when Shabbos ends.

The Sfas Emes explains that Chazal’s hint derives specifically because we experience Shabbos. Since we experience the additional soul on Shabbos and feel its loss when Shabbos ends, we know that it exists. In the words of Chazal, “Since He rested, woe the soul is lost.” Only because we experience Shabbos can we experience the loss of the additional soul when Shabbos ends.

The Ba’al Shem Tov takes this idea a step further. The Ba’al Shem Tov says that the experiencing the additional soul can help us to serve God better. The allusion that the additional soul leaves when the day ends is given on Shabbos specifically, to encourage us to take advantage of it. The additional soul helps us experience a closeness to God that we would otherwise not be able to experience.

The Sfas Emes explains further, that cultivating a sensitivity towards experiencing the additional soul thereby being sensitive to its loss with the onset of the coming week, can lead us to repentance. After such an enlightening experience, who would not want to forsake his sins in its favor. The end result of this sensitivity is that the enlightenment spills over to the following week making it easier for us to experience and serve God during the weekdays as well. May we merit it!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Tetzaveh 5632 First Ma'amar

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַֽעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִֽיד׃/You shall command the children of Israel and they shall bring to you pure, crushed olive oil for light, to raise up the lamp’s flame regularly.” What was the point of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah? God certainly did not need the light. The Midrash explains that just as God lit the way for us in the desert, He gave us the opportunity to make light for Him as well so that the nations would make the connection and recognize God. This Midrash itself needs explanation. Since God does not need the light, why would anyone think that by lighting the menorah we are making light for God?

The Sfas Emes explains that the Midrash is not speaking of the physical light of the menorah. Rather, the light of the menorah represents the spiritual light that is in every part of the Creation. In Tehillim we find, “... מָה רַֽב־טוּבְךָ אֲשֶׁר־צָפַנְתָּ לִּירֵאֶיךָ/How abundant is Your goodness that You have stored away for those who fear You …” The Sfas Emes explains that God “stored away” His goodness – His light – within the physical Creation. Making light for God, then, means revealing God’s light that is already here. This can be understood from the end of the first pasuk in the parsha, “... לְהַֽעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִֽיד/… to raise up the lamp’s flame always.” The word “always” can be seen as modifying the lamp’s flame, as well. The flame, representing God’s light is always within everything. It is our job to “raise it up.” The Chidushei HaRim, in fact, says that on Shabbos there is an automatic elevation of the entire Creation and, to an extent, the hidden Godly light is revealed.

What specific techniques can we use to elevate ourselves and by extension, the Creation towards God? What can we do to “make light for God?” The answer can be found in a Midrash Tanchuma on our parsha. The Midrash explains a pasuk in Shir HaShirim, “... רֹאשֵׁךְ עָלַיִךְ כַּכַּרְמֶל/Your head upon you is like Carmel …” The word רֹאשֵׁךְ/your head, has the same root as the word רָשׁ/poor. Based on this connection, the Midrash says that the poor of Israel are equal to Eliyahu who ascended the Carmel. Notwithstanding the play on words, what compelled Chazal to associate the head with the poor of Israel? The Sfas Emes explains that just as the poor are dependent on others for their needs, so too, we are dependent on God – the “head.” When we internalize our own “poorness,” – that everything that we are, do and own is from God – then we connect to the “head” which is the source of life, God Himself. The words in our first pasuk, “כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר/crushed for light” suggest this. By realizing that we are nothing in and of ourselves and submitting to God, we remove any ego barriers that prevent God’s light from shining into the world through us.

The continuation of this Midrash sheds light on what else we can do to reveal God’s light. The end of the pasuk in Shir HaShirim states, “... מֶלֶךְ אָסוּר בָּֽרְהָטִֽים/… the king is bound in the tresses.” The word רְהָט/tress also means to run. According to the Midrash, the king is God who is bound by an oath because of the two times that Avraham Avinu ran to serve Him when the angels came to visit. The Torah tells us that Avraham Avinu ran to greet them. Then, he ran to prepare food for them.

We learn from Avraham Avinu that we can connect to God by doing something to serve Him that we would not normally do and that we may even think is beyond us. This is clearly what Avraham Avinu did. He was ill when the angels came to visit him. It was the third day after his circumcision. Yet, he jumped at the opportunity to host guests and serve them – something which was surely out of the ordinary. The Sfas Emes calls this, “הִתְלַהַבוּת שֶׁלֹא בְּהַדְרָגָה/non-progressive enthusiasm” – like jumping, skipping steps to do something that we would ordinarily consider beyond our current level.

The Midrash Tanchuma explains further, “... מֶלֶךְ אָסוּר בָּֽרְהָטִֽים/… the king is bound in the tresses,” as referring to Moshe Rabbeinu who was bound and could not enter the land of Israel. Since Moshe Rabbeinu was considered a king, God told him that the nation of Israel will fulfill his decrees – the commandments – revealing God’s light. As we’ve learned from the mitzvah of lighting the menorah, the way to succeed at this is by removing our ego barriers so that we can submit to our Source. This is why out of all the mitzvos, only the mitzvah of lighting the menorah starts with the words, “וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה/And you shall command.”

The Midrash therefore gives us two ways in which we can reveal God’s light, as it were, in ourselves and by extension in His creations; first, by nullifying our own ego before God and secondly, through a willingness to go beyond ourselves to serve Him. May we merit it!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tetzaveh 5631 First Ma'amar

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל .../And you will command the children of Israel…” (Shmos 27:20) In the first pasuk of this week’s parsha, God instructs Moshe Rabbeinu to command the children of Israel regarding the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. Usually when God instructs Moshe to tell the people a commandment, He says, “... דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל/… speak to the children of Israel.” Why does God say here, “וְאַתּה תְּצַוֶּה .../And you will command …” when instructing Moshe about this particular mitzvah?

The Sfas Emes teaches us that the lamps of the menorah allude to the mitzvos. In Mishlei (6:23) we find, “... נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר .../… a commandment is a lamp and Torah is light …” Just as light needs a lamp to hold it, so too, the light of the Torah needs a vessel to contain it. As physical light, so too, the light of the Torah is ephemeral. It needs a mechanism for being drawn into and influencing the physical world. That mechanism is the mitzvos. The vessel that holds the light of the Torah in this world is the mitzvos.

When we perform mitzvos we bring the light of the Torah into the world. In fact, the Zohar says that our 248 limbs parallel the 248 positive commandments.[1] Our very limbs become the conduits through which the light of the Torah is drawn down into this world. When we understand that we are merely conduits, that there is nothing inherent in our actions or in us that brings spiritual light into the world, that it is the will of God that the specific actions of the mitzvos have this effect, we accomplish the will of God. That is why this specific mitzvah of preparing the menorah starts with, “וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה .../And you will command …” It is only because God commanded us to do the mitzvos that they have this quality of drawing the Torah’s light into the physical world.

The Midrash, explaining the first few words of this week’s parsha says that the poor of Israel are equal to Eliyahu HaNavi and Daniel.[2] How does the Midrash arrive at this conclusion from, “וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה .../And you will command…”? According to the Sfas Emes, however, it is clear. A Jew, regardless of his spiritual level, who performs a mitzvah with the understanding that the light of that mitzvah comes through him from God, is on the level of our greatest prophets. This is because when a person does a mitzvah he connects to God. In fact, the root of the word mitzvah is the same as that of the Aramaic “צַוְותָּא/connection”. It is encouraging to know that regardless of our backgrounds and spiritual state, each of us can do the will of God and bring the Torah’s light into this world by being aware of this when performing the mitzvos.

The Chidushei HaRim understands this concept from the brachah we make before doing a mitzvah. We say “... אֲשֶּׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ .../… that He made us holy with His mitzvos and commanded us …” We are able to do the will of God and bring the light of the Torah into the world through the mitzvos, only because this is the way God structured the world. He commanded us to do the mitzvos. Therefore, we are able to be His conduits to bring His light into the world.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that this is the intent of Chazal when they said that a person who wants to protect his assets should plant an adar tree as we find in Tehillim (93:4), “אַדִּיר בַּמָרוֹם ה'/God is strong on high.”[3] Planting an adar tree is a metaphor for knowing that our assets and strength, everything really, comes from God. Chazal are teaching us that the awareness itself is protective and strengthening. This concept and metaphor applies to the month of Adar as well. The month of Adar, then, is an especially appropriate time to work on our awareness that when we perform the mitzvos we are conduits for drawing God’s light, the light of the Torah into the physical world.

[1] Zohar 1:170b

[2] Tanchuma Tetzaveh 6

[3] Beitzah 15b

Friday, February 08, 2008

Terumah 5631 Third Ma'amar

Two pesukim in Tehillim apparently contradict each other. The first pasuk states, “לַה' הָאָרֶץ וּמְלֹואָה תֵּבֵל וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ׃ .../The earth and its contents are God’s, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it.” Everything obviously belongs to God. That David HaMelech makes a point of mentioning it implies that we cannot use the world for our own benefit without permission. Another pasuk however states, “הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם לַה' וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵיֽ־אָדָֽם׃/As for the heavens, the heavens are God’s, but He has given the earth to mankind.” This pasuk seems to be teaching us that God gave us the earth to use as we see fit, a clear contradiction to the first pasuk.

Chazal learn from this contradiction that before incurring material benefit from this world, we must say a blessing. Before we say a blessing, the earth belongs to God and we may not benefit from it. It is not ours. When we say a blessing, God gives it to us. It becomes ours and we may benefit from it. What is the significance of the blessing? By what mechanism does saying a blessing transfer ownership, as it were, from God to us?

We can glean an understanding of the significance of blessings from the continuation of this ma’amar Chazal. Chazal say that deriving benefit from this world without saying a blessing is like receiving personal benefit from sacred items of the Beis HaMikdash. We can clearly understand that we must ask permission to use something that is not ours. Why, though, do Chazal compare deriving unauthorized benefit from the physical world to deriving unauthorized benefit from sanctified items of the Beis HaMikdash? Chazal are teaching us that there is holiness in the entire world. Every creation is imbued with holiness. When we think about it, we realize that it must be this way because God is everywhere giving life to everything. How, then, can we derive personal pleasure from anything? The answer, the Sfas Emes explains, is by acknowledging the holiness, the Godliness, in everything. When we acknowledge that the apple we are about to eat is imbued with holiness, we are connect with that holiness when we eat it even as we derive physical pleasure from it. Chazal established this acknowledgment in the form of the blessings we say before benefiting from the material world.

God wants us to use the physical world do His will. By acknowledging the holiness in the physical, God gives us the physical to use. The Sfas Emes explained this in the first ma’amar on this week’s parsha. There he explained the pasuk in our parsha, “וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָֽם׃/You shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” The Sfas Emes explains that this pasuk is not just a command to make a physical sanctuary, a building, for God. It is a command to recognize that God is in everything, every creation and every action. By recognizing this, we are making everything in the world a sanctuary for God. When we do this, God reveals Himself as the end of the pasuk implies, “וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָֽם/I will dwell among them.” God is here whether we recognize Him or not. Dwelling among them, though, means that we will feel His presence.

The point is that in order to benefit from the world in a way that connects us to God, it must be given to us. We cannot take it. This is why the pasuk states, “וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵיֽ־אָדָם/and He gave the earth to mankind.” We find this concept in an interesting law regarding divorce. If a man tells his wife, “Take your get (divorce certificate),” the divorce is invalid. He must give her the get. The pasuk says clearly, “וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ/he shall give it into her hand.” Freedom cannot be taken. It must be given. May we merit using the world that God has given us to fulfill His will thereby basking in His presence in this world.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Terumah 5631 First Ma'amar

A recurring theme throughout the Torah is that God reveals Himself to us according to our level of belief in Him. A person, who believes that God gives existence every moment to every thing and every action, will experience God’s presence in every thing and every action.

We see this idea regarding learning and understanding Torah, particularly תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה/the Oral Law. The Torah can be understood on many levels. Each person understands it according to the intensity of his desire to understand it.

The reason this idea applies to learning Torah is because the Torah itself is a revelation of God. Explaining this, the first Midrash in the parsha , expounding on the pasuk, “ ... וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה .../… take for Me a contribution …” (Shmos 25:2), says that after a sale, the seller no longer has any ties to the object he sold. The Torah is different. God, as it were, sold us the Torah and Himself with it. So, the more a person wants to understand, the more God reveals Himself to that person through the Torah.

The same motif clearly applies to serving God. The pasuk in Tehillim (37:3) states, “בְּטַח בַּֽה' וַֽעֲשֵׂה־טוֹב שְׁכָן־אֶרֶץ וּרְעֵה אֱמוּנָה׃/Trust in God and do good so that you may dwell in the land and nourish yourself with belief.” Chazal tell us that according to the strength of our belief, God reveals Himself to us by helping us to be successful in serving Him. Trusting in God means being sure that He will help us succeed in our service towards Him. Many times, a person thinks regarding giving tzedakah, “If I give now, what will I have tomorrow?” Chazal tell us that believers give knowing that God will give them more. It is specifically because they give today, that they are blessed with more.

The Chidushei HaRim explains the pasuk, “בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּֽה' וְהָיָה ה' מִבְטַחֽוֹ׃/Blessed is the man who trusts in God, then God will be his security” (Yirmiyah 17:7) along the same lines. According to the level of man’s trust in God, God will be his security.

We find this same idea in this week’s parsha. “וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָֽם/Make me a sanctuary so that I may dwell amongst them.” (Shmos 25:8) The Hebrew root of the word מִקְדָּשׁ/sanctuary, is the same as the Hebrew word for holy – קָדוֹשׁ. קָדוֹשׁ/Holy also connotes separated. When we say that God is holy, we are saying that he is separate, hidden. According to the level of our belief that He is hidden in every thing and every action, He will dwell amongst us. We will merit an awareness of God in every thing and every action. In this sense, God’s revelation is dependent on us.

Chazal hint at this when they say, “בְּמִידָה שֶׁאָדָם מוֹדֵד מוֹדְדִין לוֹ/A man is measured according to his own measurement.” God is infinite and everywhere. But He is hidden. He is revealed in this world in measured doses. According to the measure of a person belief in God’s providence, he is granted an equal measure of awareness of God’s presence. God’s revelation is Truth. Truth becomes revealed based on our belief. Then the revealed Truth nourishes and helps our belief in a cycle.

This is also the meaning of the pasuk in Tehillim (23:1), “ה' רֹעִי לֹא אֶחְסָֽר/God is my shepherd I shall not lack.” Proportionate to my belief that God is my shepherd, I will merit an awareness of His providence and I shall not lack. Similarly, according to the Rav of Neschiz, David HaMelech is praying that he not lack saying that God is his shepherd. The Sfas elaborates that if a person forgets that God is his shepherd, God will not be his shepherd. God will hide from him and he will not experience God’s providence.

We find the same concept regarding Shabbos. God is more revealed on Shabbos and more hidden during the week. According to how much we work on our belief during the week, the workdays, we will experience God’s presence on Shabbos. Shabbos then nourishes and supports our belief. That’s why the Zohar calls the Shabbos meals, “סְעוּדְתָא דִמְהֶימְנוּתָא/meals of belief. The Chidushei HaRim explains that the Shabbos experience affects how we believe during the coming week.

In the Midrash we find that God says, “…make me a room that I can dwell among you.” The word for “I will dwell” in Hebrew is “אַדוּר.” The Chidushei HaRim notes that אַדוּר/I will dwell, has the same root as the word for strength as in, “'אַדִּיר בַּמָרוֹם ה/God is strong on high” (Tehillim 93:4). It is encouraging and strengthening to know that everything in a person’s life comes from God. This is the key behind the month of Adar which also has the same root as the Hebrew word for “strength” and “dwell.” It is appropriate during this month to submit ourselves to God’s will, understand and work on our belief that everything that happens to us comes from Him and that He is the power behind everything including our own actions. The Sfas Emes is teaching us that we can be secure in the knowledge that when we “do good” by serving Him, by giving tzedakah and by putting ourselves out for Him, He is there for us and will help us succeed.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Mishpatime 5632 First Ma'amar

The first pasuk of this week’s parsha states, “וְאֵלֶּה֨ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃/And these are the laws that you will place before them.” That the first sentence of the parsha starts with the word “and” implies a connection to the end of last week’s parsha. Last week’s parsha ends with laws concerning the altar of the Beis HaMikdash. The very last pasuk states, “וְלֹא־תַעֲלֶ֥ה בְמַעֲלֹ֖ת עַל־מִזְבְּחִ֑י אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־תִגָּלֶ֥ה עֶרְוָתְךָ֖ עָלָיו׃/And do not ascend by steps upon My altar so that your nakedness will not be revealed on it.” What is the connection between these two apparently unconnected pesukim?

Chazal, addressing this question, say that just as a priest may not ascend the altar with large steps so as not to reveal himself (even if only to the stones on which he walks), so too, judges may not take “large steps” – jumping to conclusions without proper investigation – when judging. This explanation itself needs an explanation. The large steps of the priest are literal. The large steps of the judge symbolize hasty judgment. They are obviously not the same at all. The Sfas Emes, therefore, understands this Midrash homiletically.

The word used in the pasuk for steps is מַעֲלֹת which also means virtue. Ascending upon the altar is a metaphor for serving God. Accordingly, this pasuk can be translated as, “Do not attribute virtue to yourself for activities which you perform in God’s service. Doing this reveals your own weakness.” If a person thinks that he succeeds in serving God because of his own strength, he is only revealing a weakness in himself. The Sfas Emes says, in fact, that by adding his own strength to the equation of serving God, he is actually weakening himself. In a subtle way, he is showing that his service to God has ulterior motives. Rather, perform those activities for the sole purpose of fulfilling God’s will.

Another indication for this metaphor is the expression Chazal use for “large steps – פְּסִיעָה גַסָה.” In other contexts גַסָה/large, is used in connection with haughtiness. Taking large steps, then, is a metaphor for haughtiness. There is a certain amount of conceitedness in attributed success in serving God to one’s own strength.

The first pasuk of our parsha, too, teaches us to serve God humbly. How so? Studying the first pasuk of our parsha, we notice that the end of the pasuk needs an explanation. Why does God tell Moshe to place the laws before them? Why not command him simply to teach the laws to the nation? What is the significance of placing the laws before them? The Sfas Emes explains that “before them” is significant. Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to teach the nation that the Torah should be before them in everything they do. Before any activity we need to ask ourselves, “Is this activity the will of God?” When we ask ourselves this question, in affect, we are our own judges. Judging our actions beforehand means that we are not taking “large steps.” By asking this question before each action we show a desire to serve God through all our activities. We show that we want to be motivated solely by the desire to serve God.

Chazal hint at this when they teach us in Maseches Avos, “הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִין/Be measured in judgment.” The word מְתוּנִים/measured suggests נְתוּנִים/given. Chazal are clearly giving good advice to judges. However, Chazal are also hinting at what we’ve said. We should give ourselves over to our own judgment before each activity to determine if we will be fulfilling God’s will. May we merit it!