Friday, March 28, 2008

Parshas Parah / Shemini 5646 First Ma'amar

Chazal established reading four special sections of the Torah during the Purim season. The first, Shekalim, is read on the Shabbos preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar. Zachor is read on the Shabbos preceding Purim. We read HaChodesh on the Shabbos preceding Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Parah is read on the Shabbos before Parshas HaChodesh.

Each of the parshiyos commemorates an activity which occurs during this time. Shekalim commemorates the proclamation on Rosh Chodesh Adar to bring shekalim (a denomination of coin) to the Beis HaMikdash. When we read Zachor we fulfill the mitzvah of remembering what Amalek did to us. Appropriately, we read this parsha on the Shabbos before Purim since Haman descended from Amalek. Parshas Parah which describes the mitzvah of the red heifer, is a reminder to become pure before Pesach so that we can bring the korban Pesach. Finally, HaChodesh describes the mitzvah of bringing the korban Pesach.

The Torah relates that the Mishkan was built and activated on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. The first red heifer was brought only after the Mishkan was built, after Rosh Chodesh Nissan. It could not have been brought earlier because it needed the Mishkan. Since the red heifer could not have been brought beforehand, it would make more sense to read parshas Parah during the month of Nissan, when the red heifer was actually brought. Why, then, do we read Parah before parshas HaChodesh rather than following it?

The Sfas Emes explains that two critical things happened between the first Rosh Chodesh Nissan at the time of the Exodus and the second one when the Mishkan was built. At the time of the Exodus, God chose us as His nation. This is described in parshas HaChodesh which relates the first mitzvah we were given as a nation. A year later, on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the Mishkan was activated. This second Rosh Chodesh Nissan was the eighth and final day of the initiation sacrifices of the Mishkan. With the building and activation of the Mishkan the sin of the golden calf was rectified, God’s presenced was revealed and we came close to Him, “וַֽיְהִי בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי ... וַֽיִּקְרְבוּ כָּל־הָעֵדָה וַיַּעַמְדוּ לִפְנֵי ה'׃/It was on the eighth day … the entire community came close and stood before God.” Being chosen and coming close to God are the two key things that differentiate us as we say in the prayers of Yom Tov, “אַתָּה בְחַרְתָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִים ... וְקֵרַבְתָּנוּ ... לַעַבוֹדָתֶךָ/You chose us from all the nations … and drew us near … to your service.”

At the time of the Exodus, God first chose us and then we drew near to Him. At that time we were immersed in slavery and the decadence of Egypt we needed an external catalyst to start the process which culminated in the redemption. Now, however, to reach a level of being chosen we need to first come close to God through repentance. When we show God that we desire to be close to Him, He reciprocates and chooses us. For this reason, parshas Parah, which represents what we do to purify ourselves, precedes parshas HaChodesh which, as we’ve said, represents God’s choosing us.

Chazal allude to this at the end of last week’s parsha following the description of the initiation services and sacrifices during the eight days culminating on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, “כַּֽאֲשֶּר עָשָׂה בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה צִוָּה ה' לַֽעֲשֹׂת לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם׃/As he (Moshe) had done on this day, so God commanded to do in order to atone for you.” Chazal teach us that לַעֲשֹׂת/to do, refers to the red heifer. Why do Chazal find a hint to the red heifer specifically here, before Rosh Chodesh and the activation of the Mishkan? The Sfas Emes explains that Chazal are teaching this very concept. To merit being chosen by God, we must first show him that we desire to be close to Him by purifying ourselves through repentance.

The Sfas Emes says that it’s very possible that Chazal are hinting to another important idea, as well. Apparently the period immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh Nissan was designated from the time of the initiation of the Mishkan for atonement and purification. In fact, the Sfas Emes says further, that for those of us who desire and anticipate purification, an aspect of purification enters our souls before Rosh Chodesh Nissan. For this reason Chazal established reading Parah specifically prior to Rosh Chodesh Nissan. This is the time when we are given the opportunity to merit purification and coming close to God.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Purim 5361Third Ma'amar

The Torah teaches us that the nation of Israel was given and accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai 50 days after the Exodus. Chazal teach us that during the days of Achashveirosh, the Jewish people accepted the Torah again. Chazal understand this from the pasuk in the book of Esther, “קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים .../The Jews fulfilled (confirmed) and accepted …” Chazal read the pasuk, “They fulfilled (confirmed) what they had previously accepted.” At Mount Sinai, Chazal relate, God forced us to accept the Torah. At the time of Achashveirosh, Rashi explains we accepted it willingly out of love because of the miracle that God wrought to save us. We “fulfilled” willingly what we “accepted” earlier.

Elsewhere Chazal teach us that the book of Esther was written with divine inspiration. This is understood from this same pasuk. Here the pasuk is read, “In heaven they fulfilled (confirmed) what the Jews accepted.” There is a well known principle that the same words can be used for only one drasha (homiletical interpretation.) Tosfos therefore ask, how can Chazal learn two drashos from the same pasuk?

The Sfas Emes explains that although Chazal learned two drashos from this pasuk, they both stem from the same difficulty in the pasuk and are both based on the same fundamental understanding. What is the difficulty in the pasuk? Reviewing the pasuk carefully, we realize that the first two words of the pasuk, “קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ/They fulfilled and accepted” are apparently in the wrong order. Do we fulfill before accepting? Shouldn’t we accept first and then fulfill?

Significantly, we find this out-of-order sequence at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, too. There, the nation said, “נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע/We will do and we will listen.” Yet another similarly ordered pasuk appears in Tehillim, “... גִבֹּרֵי כֹחַ עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְבָרוֹ/… strong warriors who do His bidding, to listen to the sound of His word.” Shouldn’t the warriors first listen in order to know what to do?

Why are these pesukim structured this way? The Sfas Emes explains that every action has two components. One component is the physical action itself. The other component is the will to act. The physical action is limited by nature. A physical action is bound by time and place. Will, on the other hand, is not so constrained. We can desire to fulfill God’s will even if it is beyond nature. We, of course, cannot fulfill it because we ourselves are bound by nature. Therefore, when a person acts to fulfill God’s will, his action associates with God’s command. The act of prayer, for example, fulfills a direct commandment to pray. However, the desire to fulfill God’s will is not limited to the physical act of the commandment. Our desire to fulfill God’s will associates with God’s desire to command us.

Based on this, the Zohar explains that the, “גִבֹּרֵי כֹחַ/strong warriors” in the pasuk refer to the righteous of the nation of Israel. By crying out to God like lions that they desire to fulfill His will, they actually stimulate His will and transform it into a command. This is the meaning of, “... עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ .../… doers of His bidding …” The word עֹשֶׂה/do also means “make.” The righteous, by expressing their desire to perform God’s will, actually cause His will to become a command. It is clear that the commandments listed in the Torah are God’s will. The Sfas Emes is teaching us, though, that even activities which are not apparent mitzvos listed in the Torah can also be mitzvos if we precede them with the desire to achieve God’s will through them.

With this understanding we can explain how the two drashos on the pasuk, “קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים .../The Jews fulfilled (confirmed) and accepted …” compliment each other. According to the first drasha, at the time of Achashveirosh we desired out of love to accept the Torah. קִיְּמוּ/They fulfilled” refers to our desire to fulfill God’s will, as we said, every action starts with a desire to do it. Our desire to fulfill God’s will stimulated, as it were, God’s will to command us. Thus, according to the second drasha, “קִיְּמוּ/They fulfilled” refers to God’s desire to command us. In the words of Chazal, “In heaven they fulfilled (confirmed)” our desire for His command thus turning His desire into actual commands to us which we then performed with physical actions.

Our acceptance of the Torah of our own free will is actually an aspect of Torah sheBe’al Peh/The Oral Law. A key aspect of Torah sheBe’al Peh, the Sfas Emes explains elsewhere, is the ability God gave us to create novelty (חִידוּשׁ) in the physical world. Thus, anything we do of ourselves is an aspect of Torah sheBe’al Peh. The Maharal therefore cites a Midrash which teaches that the Torah we accepted a second time on Purim was Torah sheBe’al Peh.

May HaShem help us strive to do His will. By desiring to achieve God’s will, He will make His will clear to us. May we merit emulating the Jews of Shushan by fulfilling and confirming our acceptance of the Torah this Purim just as they did so many years ago.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tzav 5631 First Ma'amar

אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה/A perpetual fire shall burn on the altar, it may not be extinguished.” Chazal address the difficult language of this pasuk. If the intent is to teach us that a fire shall burn continuously, then the wording should be “אֵשׁ תּוּקַד תָּמִיד/A fire shall burn continuously” The wording “אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד/A perpetual fire shall burn,” seems to be teaching us something about the fire itself.

The Zohar explains that the perpetual fire in this pasuk alludes to the Torah since the Torah is compared to fire and we are required to learn it perpetually. The pasuk is telling us that sins cannot extinguish the fire of Torah – the spiritual gains that a person attained from learning Torah. This implies that sins can extinguish the spiritual gains attained from doing mitzvos. Here’s why. Mitzvos connect us to God. When a person sins he severs that connection.[1] In the words of the Zohar, the sin extinguishes the mitzvah. However, when one learns Torah, he accepts the Torah; it enters him and becomes a part of him. Even if such a person sins, his Torah cannot be extinguished since it is a part of him.

The Sfas Emes explains that we can raise our performance of mitzvos to a level on which sins cannot extinguish them either. The Zohar teaches that not only Torah but also a Talmid Chacham’s mitzvos cannot be extinguished. How is the Talmid Chacham’s mitzvos on the level of his Torah learning?

Rashi explains that “אֵשׁ תָּמִיד/A perpetual fire” alludes to the menorah whose light is described as “נֵר תָּמִיד/a perpetual lamp.” The Torah is teaching us that the lamps of the menorah must be lit from the altar’s fire. The lamps of the menorah suggest mitzvos as in the pasuk in Mishlei, “... נֵר מִצְוָה וְתּוֹרָה אוֹר/… mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light…” The Sfas Emes explains that this pasuk teaches us the relationship between the Torah and mitzvos. The Torah is light. Light needs a vessel to contain it, otherwise it dissipates. Mitzvos are the vessels that hold the light of the Torah in the physical world. Just like the fire of the altar lights the lamps of the menorah, the Torah lights up the mitzvah, as it were.

When a Talmid Chacham performs a mitzvah, he understands that the light in his mitzvah is the light of the Torah. When he does the mitzvah, he accepts this light into him. The effect of the mitzvah is more than connecting him to God. It becomes part of him just like the Torah that he learns. This is exemplified not in the way the Talmid Chacham performs the mitzvah. The act of the mitzvah is the same regardless of who does it. It is exemplified rather by how he makes the brachah preceding the mitzvah. The brachah is where we relate the mitzvah to its source, the Torah. When the Talmid Chacham says, “וְצִוָנוּ/and He commanded us,” he is acknowledging that the Torah is the source of the mitzvah. He is acknowledging that the light of the Torah fills the mitzvah. He is accepting that spiritual light into him and is becoming one with it. A mitzvah performed with these thoughts in mind cannot be extinguished by sin.

The Sfas Emes teaches us that we can all raise our mitzvah performance to the level of the Talmid Chacham’s. How? How do we overcome the temptation to perform mitzvos in a ritualistic manner? Many times a person does a mitzvah for ulterior motives. Sometimes a person may perform a mitzvah without really wanting to. These mitzvos connect us to God to be sure, however, sins will sever that connection. How, then, can we overcome these thoughts so that our mitzvos afford us eternal spiritual achievements that sins cannot extinguish?

The answer comes from a Zohar at the beginning of this week’s parsha. The Zohar explains the pasuk from the beginning of the parsha, “... הִוא הָעֹלָה עַל מוֹקְדָה עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ .../… it is the burnt offering on the flame of the altar …” The literal translation of “עֹלָה/burnt offering” is, “rise up.” The Zohar explains that this refers to evil thoughts that arise in one’s mind confusing him and steering him off the true path. The way to rid oneself of these thoughts is made clear by the words which follow, “עַל מוֹקְדָה/… on the flame.” They must be burnt out.

How do we burn away those thoughts which prevent us from performing mitzvos with the proper intent and focus? The Sfas Emes explains that when we contemplate the kindness that God does for each and every Jew every moment, a burning desire to serve Him arises in our hearts. This burning desire pushes the confusion out of our minds. This is what the Zohar means when it says that we must burn out the evil thoughts.

This idea is hinted at a few p’sukim later, “וּבִעֵר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹהֵן ... בַּבֹּקֶר בַּבֹּקֶר/the priest shall kindle on (the altar) … every morning.” The Zohar explains that priests, whose work in the Beis HaMikdash brings us closer to God, represent kindness. We also find that the morning is associated with kindness (e.g. “לְהַגִיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶךָ/to tell your kindnesses in the morning.”) So, the priest, representing God’s kindness, burns away evil on the altar each morning, a time especially associated with kindness. By emulating the priests, concentrating on God’s kindness, we burn away the evil.

Our job, then, entails cultivating a healthy recognition of God’s kindness. Being constantly aware of God’s kindnesses in our lives creates in us a burning desire to serve Him. The awareness itself will affect the way in which we perform mitzvos and lead our lives.

[1] The Zohar expounds on the concept of connection through mitzvos and severance because of sins. A person’s soul comprises three primary components which vary in their level of spirituality. The Nefesh HaChaim uses the metaphor of a string which stretches from the physical body, the lowest spiritual level, to the soul’s source, the highest level of spirituality. When a person performs a mitzvah, he strengthens the connection between the components and between the soul and it’s source which ultimately is God Himself. When a person sins, the connection is weakened and in some cases actually broken.

Friday, March 14, 2008

VaYikra 5631 Third Ma'amar

This week’s parsha, the first of the book of VaYikra, describes the sacrifices that an individual may bring. Thus, the parsha begins with, “... אָדָם כִּֽי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַֽה׳ .../… When a man from among you brings a sacrifice to God …” Sacrifices represent giving of oneself. As an analogy, the sacrificial animal takes our place on the altar. The Sfas Emes explains that although the animal takes the person’s place, the point of the sacrifice is for the person who is bringing it to intend, through the sacrifice, to give to God of his own inner strength and desires. Chazal teach us this in Maseches Avos, “בַּטֵל רְצוֹנְךָ מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנוֹ/Nullify your own desire before His desire.” This is a key aspect of sacrifice. It is a vehicle for us to bring our activities closer to God. In fact, the word for sacrifice – קָרְבָּן – comes from the word לְקַרֵב/to draw near.

Another important point that we can learn from this pasuk can be gleaned from the seemingly extra word, “מִכֶּם/from among you.” Why is this word necessary? The pasuk is quite clear without it, “… When a man brings a sacrifice to God …” What does the word “מִכֶּם/from among you” add?

We can learn an answer to this question from the Chiddushei HaRim’s explanation of another mishnah in Maseches Avos. The mishnah states, “אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי מִי לִי וְּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי מָה אֲנִי/If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am only for myself, what am I? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that each and every Jew came into this world in order to rectify something that only he can rectify. Each one of us has a unique mission that no one else can accomplish. This, the Chiddushei HaRim teaches, is the meaning of the first half of the sentence, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” If I do not fulfill my unique task, who will fulfill it for me. No one else can.

Although only I can fulfill my unique task, when I succeed I affect the entire nation and really, the entire Creation. Each unique mission is one part of a fabric which comprises all the unique missions together. This is the meaning of the second half of the sentence, “… If I am only for myself, what am I?” My deeds, my mission is meaningful and effective only because it is part of the nation.

This concept answers our question. The word “מִכֶּם/from among you” is the primary point of the pasuk. The sacrifice is effective because the individual bringing it is acting as part of the entire nation. This applies, the Sfas Emes says, not only to the actual animal sacrifice described in the pasuk. The animal sacrifice represents, as we’ve noted, giving God one’s own inner strength and desires, subjugating our own desires for God’s.

Each of us fulfilling our unique purpose, becomes meaningful and effective to the extent that we consider ourselves a part of the nation of Israel.

Monday, March 10, 2008

VaYikra 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה .../God called Moshe …” This first pasuk of parshas VaYikra relates the first time that God spoke to Moshe from the Mishkan. It teaches us, according to Chazal, that each time God spoke to Moshe, he first called him. What is the significance of this?

The first Midrash on this week’s parsha cites a pasuk in Tehillim, “בָּֽרְכוּ ה' מַלְאָכָיו גִּבּ­ֹרֵי כֹחַ עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרֽוֹ׃/Bless God, His angels, strong warriors doing His bidding to hear His word.” The word “מַלְאָךְ/angel” also means messenger. In fact, the word mal’ach refers to a human messenger in various places in Tanach. The Midrash explains that “מַלְאָכָיו/His angels” in this pasuk does not refer to angels but rather to human messengers. How are we God’s messengers? The Sfas Emes explains that every Jew is sent into this world to do the will of God. Essentially, we are God’s agents in this world. Angels are messengers because they, too, are sent to this world to do the will of God. The difference between angels and us is that we are able to choose whereas an angel has no choice but to do God’s will.

When we choose to fulfill God’s will with our actions we become, “עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרֽו׃ֹ/doers of His bidding to hear His word.” This is a strange construct. Shouldn’t the pasuk state that we will listen to His word in order to do His bidding? How can we do His bidding before understanding what is required? The Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk is teaching us a deep concept. We don’t always know what God’s will is. In any given situation, what is it that God wants us to do? It is not always clear. The pasuk is teaching us the way to know God’s will. First we need to do His bidding. We do this by first resolving to satisfy His will with our action. Before acting we can think that we want our action to achieve God’s will. If we do this, we will merit understanding God’s will in those very activities.

This concept explains “גִּבּ­ֹרֵי כֹחַ/strong warriors” as well. In addition to strength, the word ko’ach means potential. God’s will is the potential of every action. We learn from this pasuk that a person who is determined to fulfill God’s will with his every action, who wants to be God’s emissary in this world, accomplishing that for which he was sent here, is someone who transforms the potential of God’s will into reality.

Moshe Rabbeinu was the archetypal emissary. Like an angel, he was so tuned in, as it were, that he was always ready to hear God and do His will. One who is looking to carry out God’s will with his every action, always hears God. The Torah emphasizes this the very first time God spoke to Moshe Rabbeinu after the construction of the Mishkan with the words, “וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה .../God called Moshe.” This, then, is the significance of the first pasuk of this week’s parsha.

God is constantly calling us. The difference between us and Moshe Rabbeinu is that he always heard it because he was prepared to hear it, prepared to always achieve God’s will through his actions. Like Moshe, God sent all of us to this world to be His agents. He gave each of us the tools we need to do it. Moshe Rabbeinu was the quintessential agent of God but the Midrash is speaking to each and every Jew. May we each merit transforming God’s will into reality in all of our daily activities.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Pekudei 5632 First Ma'mar

The beginning of this week’s parsha is an accounting of all the materials that were brought to build the Mishkan. Ideally, Chazal teach us, it is better not to count material possessions because blessing rests only upon those things which are hidden from the eye – not counted. Why, then, were the materials of the Mishkan counted? The Zohar answers that since the counting was done by Moshe Rabbeinu, blessing nevertheless rested on the materials and the work. What is the meaning of this enigmatic Zohar?

To understand the Zohar we need to understand why blessing does not rest on things that are counted. The Sfas Emes explains. Everything in this world is connected to the spiritual and, in fact, derives its physical existence from the spiritual. The spiritual power that underlies the physical can be viewed as the root of the physical just as a tree’s branches derive their existence from the tree’s roots. Just as there is one root to a tree with many branches, so too, the more spiritual the less plurality there is. At the top of the hierarchy whose bottom is all the disparate components of the physical world is God Himself, the ultimate Unity and Root of everything. Things that are uncounted, are viewed from the perspective of the whole rather than the individual parts. The whole, because it represents less plurality, is closer to “oneness,” – to the spiritual – than its separate components. Accordingly, blessing rests on them.

This same concept applies whenever we recognize and acknowledge that the physical has spiritual roots. Moshe Rabbeinu understood this as he was the ultimate believer. Chazal teach us that the pasuk in Mishlei, “אִישׁ אֱמוּנֽוֹת רַב־בְּרָכוֹת .../A man of faith will increase blessings …” refers to Moshe Rabbeinu. Even though Moshe Rabbeinu was very involved with the physical world, since he internalized that God is in everything, that everything physical stems from spiritual roots, all his deeds were blessed.

The second part of this pasuk from Mishlei, “...וְאָץ לְהַֽעֲשִׁיר לֹא יִנָּקֶֽה/… but one impatient to become wealthy will not be exonerated,” is the exact opposite. Chazal teach us that this part of the pasuk refers to Korach who wanted the priesthood for himself even though it was not his. He did not recognize God in everything for if he did, he would have recognized the blessing in what was his and not have been tempted by what belonged to others.

This concept explains the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos, “אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר הַשָׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ/Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot.” According to the Sfas Emes, the Mishnah is teaching us that a person’s desire for his wealth needs to be because that is the portion that God granted him. He needs to know and recognize that no one can take away that which is his and he cannot take from another that which is not his. He is not “impatient to become wealthy” like Korach jealously regarding what others have because he desires only that which God designated for him. He recognizes God in his assets. As a result, there is blessing in them.

Chazal teach us this concept elsewhere as well. Chazal say that a person who wishes to protect his assets should plant a maple – אֶדֶר – tree as it says, “אַדִּיר בַּמָרוֹם ה'/God is strong on high.” What is the meaning of this enigmatic Chazal? Chazal relate planting a maple – אֶדֶר – tree to God being strong on high. The Chiddushei HaRim explains that by recognizing that God is the source of our assets, it is as if we are planting His strength in our assets.

We learn this same idea from the word for assets – נְכָסִים which, according to Chazal, imply being covered from others and revealed only to their owner (נְכָסִים/Assets has the same root as covered – כִּסוּי.) The Chiddushei HaRim explains the significance of this. A person’s assets are his – no one can take them from him – specifically because they are hidden from others. As we noted earlier, blessing rests on assets that are hidden from the eye – uncounted. And as the Sfas Emes explained, uncounted assets represents metaphorically closeness to “oneness” – to the spiritual – and ultimately, closeness to God.

With these concepts we can understand the difficult Zohar. Even though Moshe Rabbeinu counted the materials of the Mishkan, blessing rested on them because he recognized in the deepest way their spiritual roots.

For this same reason blessing rests in Shabbos. Shabbos is the day when the Creation became a single complete system, every disparate component performing its unique task but with the singular goal that the entire system “works.” Because of this, the entire Creation as a whole became “connected” to its spiritual root. Shabbos thus became a vessel to receive blessing.

We can ensure that blessing rests on our assets as well, by recognizing that they are our God-given portion and that they have spiritual roots. The very recognition affects the things we do with our assets. May we merit using them to fulfill the will of God. Amen.