Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mas'ei 5633 First Ma'amar

וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶם לְמַסְעֵיהֶם ... וְאֵלֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶם/Moshe wrote their departure points for their journeys … and these are their journeys according to their departure points.” (Bamidbar 33:2) The beginning of the pasuk stresses the departure points whereas the end of the pasuk stresses the journeys. Why?

The Sfas Emes teaches that the departure points in the pasuk allude to the original departure point, Egypt. In fact, the first pasuk states clearly, “אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אַשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם .../These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt …” (Bamidbar 33:1) The departure from Egypt was our point of reference throughout the sojourn through the desert culminating in our arrival in the land of Israel. Until we arrived in the land of Israel at the end of all the journeys mentioned, we were considered to be leaving Egypt. Each milestone further distanced us from Egypt and brought us a step closer to our destination. The Exodus was complete only upon our arrival in the land of Israel.

Leaving Egypt and arriving in Israel is a metaphor for separating from the physical in order to attach to and experience God. The physical world serves the purpose of helping us reach God. The metaphor teaches us that it is important to separate from the physical in as much as this helps us to come close to God. There is no requirement to be disgusted by the physical per se. In fact, God made the physical attractive to us specifically so that we would not hesitate to use it for the sake of Heaven. The pasuk therefore first stresses the departure points to show us that we need them for the journey.

The physical world is our point of reference in serving God. As we “travel” and come closer to God the departure point fades, we have left some part of the physical behind and the “leaving” is complete. The second part of the pasuk stresses the journeys because really, the journey is the key thing. The journey is our main focus of attention until we reach the next milestone in our life journey of coming close to God. The departure points – the physical world – give us a context, a reference point, for our journey to come close to God and the journey – our work to serve God – gives meaning to the departure points.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Matos 5632 First Ma'amar

The beginning of this week’s parsha relates the laws of vows. Why would one take an oath? A Midrash learns from a pasuk in Tehillim (119:106), “נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי וָאֲקַּיֵמָה לִשְׁמֹר מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ/I have sworn and I will fulfill, to keep Your righteous judgments”, that we can take an oath to help us fulfill mitzvos.

While Chazal make it clear than one may take an oath to encourage the fulfillment of the mitzvos, the question arises, how does such an oath help? Is there any oath greater than the one the entire nation took at the receiving of the Torah? What is the point of a second oath? The decision to use an oath to encourage fulfilling mitzvos or not depends on the level of a person's faith. There is no reason to swear that the sun is shining during the day. The shining sun is not in doubt. There is a reason to take an oath when the object of the oath is not seen clearly; when it is a matter of faith.

Rashi at the beginning of the parsha cites Chazal who teach that the difference between seeing and believing is the difference between the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu and that of all the other prophets. Moshe Rabbeinu and all the prophets commonly began their prophecies with the words, “כֹּה אָמַר ה׳/Thus said God.” Moshe Rabbeinu also began prophecies with the words, “זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה׳/This is the thing that God commanded.” The former has an intangible aspect. The prophet is relating what he heard God say. The latter has a tangible aspect. The word, “this”, is used when pointing to an object.

Certainly Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy was on a different level than all the other prophets. God Himself, told this to Aharon and Miryam.[1] Why then do Chazal tell us that Moshe Rabbeinu prophesied at the higher level in addition to the regular prophecy of all prophets? Prophecy is a revelation from God. If Moshe received revelation on the higher level, in what way could his prophecy be considered like the other prophets?

The Sfas Emes explains that the way a person experiences revelation depends upon his level of faith. Moshe Rabbeinu experienced God’s revelation in a tangible way because the physical world presented no barrier to him. He experienced God’s revelation directly from an other worldly stance. Everything in the physical world, though, alludes to a higher spiritual reality. Experiencing God’s revelation through the prism of the physical world of necessity is indirect and requires imagination, allusion and allegory.

For all the other prophets, indeed for everyone except Moshe Rabbeinu, this second way of receiving revelation is crucial since it is the only way we can experience God’s revelation while living in the physical world. We could therefore not experience Moshe Rabbeinu's prophecy the way Moshe Rabbeinu did. For us to experience God's revelation from Moshe necessitated a lower level. This is why Chazal teach us that Moshe Rabbeinu prophesied at the higher level represented by “זֶה הַדָּבָר/This is the thing” in addition to the lower level represented by, “כֹּה אָמַר ה'/Thus said God.” Although he experienced revelation on the higher level, he could convey his experience to us only on the lower level.

The exception was when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai.[2] At that time, the entire nation received prophecy on the same level as Moshe himself. Only after the sin of the golden calf did we lose this higher level. The loss of the special crowns we received at the giving of the Torah symbolized losing the higher level of prophecy. Significantly, the Arizal taught that on Shabbos, Moshe Rabbeinu returns the crowns to the nation. This is because on Shabbos there is an automatic higher level of revelation in the entire Creation. Shabbos, the Zohar says, is called “testimony” because the children of Israel, by keeping Shabbos, testify that God created everything and constantly gives life to everything.

The Sfas Emes says that Shabbos is therefore an aspect of the level of “זֶה הַדָּבָר/This is the thing” whereas the days of the week are an aspect of “כֹּה אָמַר ה'/Thus said God.” During the days of the week it is more difficult to recognize God in the Creation. Acting for the sake of Heaven during the week takes more faith than on Shabbos because the truth – the way the world really is – is more hidden during the week. However, although there is an automatic revelation of the truth on Shabbos, to experience it we need to sensitize ourselves during the week by cultivating our faith.

We can reach an aspect of the level of “זֶה הַדָּבָר/This is the thing” by desiring with our entire being to act only for God’s sake. This strong desire can be formalized and enhanced through the use of an oath. In fact, the Chidushei HaRim explains that the very definition of an oath is for a person to bring to bear all seven of his primary character traits upon a decision to act for the sake of God. Oath in Hebrew has the same root as the Hebrew word for seven.”

A person may feel inhibited to perform an act for the sake of Heaven as if he recognizes God when he actually does not. He may feel somewhat hypocritical. He may think that he is living a lie. The Sfas Emes explains that the opposite is the case. The truth is that every member of the nation of Israel has a true deep seated desire to act for God alone. Therefore, one who works hard to believe in that point of truth, that God is within everything, even if he does not experience it but merely imagines it, is being completely honest with himself and, in fact, is the way to reach the experience of it.

In this world, the way to reach the truth is to practice it even before experiencing it. Practicing the truth brings us to experience it. This is the meaning of the pasuk the Midrash above brought, “נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי וָאֲקַּיֵמָה .../I have sworn and I will fulfill …” As we’ve explained above, oaths are taken when the object of the oath is unclear and therefore requires faith. No one takes an oath that the sun is shining. It does not require faith. Taking the oath, in order to cultivate faith leads to fulfilling.

Nowadays, we do not take oaths. However, since an oath is simply a verbal expression of an inner desire, we can still fulfill this pasuk by desiring to fulfill God’s will in everything we do. The level of faith represented by, כֹּה אָמַר ה'/Thus says God,” leads inexorably to the level of experiencing represented by “זֶה הַדָּבָר/This is the thing.” May we merit it!

[1] Bamidbar 12:6-7

[2] See Meshech Chochma on Shmos 1:1 for an in depth discussion explaining why this had to be.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pinchas 5634 Third Ma'amar

... בְּכָל יוֹם בַּת קוֹל יוֹצֵאת מֵהַר חוֹרֵב וּמַכְרֶזֶת וְאוֹמֶרֶת אוֹי לָהֶם לַבְּרִיוֹת מֵעֶלְבּוֹנָה שֶׁל תּוֹרָה שֶׁכָּל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה נִקְרָא נָזוּף שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר נֶזֶם זָהָב בְּאַף חֲזִיר ... / Every day an echo – bas kol – resounds from Mount Horeb (Sinai) proclaiming and saying, ‘Woe is to those who insult the Torah.’ For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast, as is stated, ‘A golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine …’ (Mishlei 11:22) ” (Avos 6:2)

This mishna does not seem to flow easily. What is the connection between the pasuk in Mishlei and one who does not occupy himself with Torah? Furthermore, why is the Torah insulted by one who does not occupy himself with it. Firstly, a person who does not learn Torah is reflecting more upon himself than upon the Torah. Secondly, it seems strange to ascribe anthropomorphic qualities to the Torah.

The Sfas Emes explains that since the Torah was given to Israel, it remains with us even if we ignore it. We actually make this declaration when we say referring to the Torah, “חַיֵי עוֹלָם נָטַע בְּתוֹכֵנוּ/He planted within us and everlasting life.” The Torah remains with us because it is more than simply a physical scroll containing the five books. The Torah is a spiritual mechanism by which God brought the world into existence and keeps it in existence.

When we received the Torah, we received the power to affect the world through our actions and learning. This is the meaning of the pasuk, “כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ .../He told His nation the power of His works …” (Tehillim 111:6) Telling us means giving us the ability to draw the Torah’s holiness into the physical world or, God forbid, to prevent its holiness from affecting the physical world. In this sense, through our actions we strengthen the Torah or weaken its power in the is world. The Tanna makes a point of telling us that the bas kol originates on Mount Horeb, the place we received the Torah, in order to stress that it is because we received the Torah that it is affected by our actions.

The pasuk from Mishlei that the Mishna cites likens the Torah to a gold ring in the snout of a swine. The ring remains in the swine’s snout even as the swine wallows in filth. It becomes dirty with the swine. When we leave Torah for a life devoid of spirituality, we remain connected to the Torah. However, it becomes dirtied, so to speak, because of us. The spiritual power of the Torah in the physical world is affected.

We find this same idea in a pasuk regarding the daily burnt offering in this week’s parsha, “עוֹלַת תָּמִיד הָעֲשֻׂיָה בְּהַר סִינַי לְרֵיחַ נִיחַח אִשֶׁה לַה'/A continual burnt offering, as the one offered up at Mount Sinai, for a spirit of satisfaction, a fire offering to God.” (Bamidbar 28:6) Why does the pasuk refer to the burnt offering that was brought on Mount Sinai at the time of the giving of the Torah? There is no apparent connection between this and the daily sacrifice.

The sacrifices that were brought in the Beis HaMikdash elevated the entire Creation bringing it closer to God.[1] How were we able, through the sacrifices, to bring the Creation closer to God? The Sfas Emes explains that by comparing the daily burnt offering to the one that was brought at the giving of the Torah, the pasuk is teaching us that we received the supernatural ability to affect the world through our actions at the giving of the Torah.[2]

The Sfas Emes gives another answer explaining why the Tanna brought the pasuk from Mishlei. The Sfas Emes explains that the gold ring represents the tools, more precious than gold, God gave us to serve Him and occupy ourselves with His Torah. These are our senses, wisdom and intelligence. Not taking advantage of these precious tools is like placing a beautiful gold ring in the snout of a swine.

Finally, the end of the Mishna states, “... וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱ-לֹהִים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתָּב אֱ-לֹהִים הוּא חָרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת אַל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּא חֵרוּת שֶׁאֵין לָךְ בֶּן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה ... /… ‘And the tablets are the work of God, and the writing is God's writing, engraved on the tablets’ (Shmos 32:16); read not ‘engraved’ (charus) but ‘liberty’ (cheirus)---for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah …”

Most people lead very busy lives and cannot seem to find the time to study the Torah. How is it possible to fit it in? How is it possible to maintain the calmness of mind necessary to study properly? The Tanna is teaching us that this is the attitude of one who has not yet occupied himself with the study of Torah. The act of occupying ourselves with the study of Torah frees us to study Torah by removing all of life’s troubles and bothers. The decision to become free is ours.

[1] Zohar 3:5a

[2] See Nefesh HaChaim 1:4 for detailed discussion and sources in Chazal for this.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Balak 5648 Second Ma'amar

Note: Click here for a fascinating story concerning this ma'amar told over by the Tolna Rebbe and brought to my attention by anonymous.

... וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם מֶה־עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי זֶה שָׁלֹש רְגָלִים/(The donkey) said to Bil’am, ‘What did I do to you that you hit me these three times?” (Bamidbar 22:28) The word “time” is found many times in the Torah as “פַּעַם.” This is the only place in Tanach where the word regel is used to mean “time.” Why? The Midrash answers that the Torah is alluding to the shalosh regalim, the three holidays that the nation celebrates. God is berating Bil’am for wanting to destroy a nation that celebrates the three holidays, Pesach, Shavuos and Succos.

The nation keeps many mitzvos. Why did God hint specifically at the shalosh regalim? The Sfas Emes explains that from the three holidays we learn the special connection between the nation of Israel and the land of Israel. The allusion to the three holidays specifically, is a response to Balak’s complaint. Balak’s stated purpose was to prevent the nation from entering the land of Israel, “... אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה־בּוֹ וַאֲגֳרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן־הָאָרֶץ .../… Perhaps I will be able to strike them and banish them from the land …” (Bamidbar 22:6) God is telling Bil’am that there is a special relationship between the nation of Israel and this particular land. No other land will do.

How do we learn of this relationship from the shalosh regalim? One of the main components of the shalosh regalim celebrations is the aliya laregel, the requirement for every male to go up to the Beis HaMikdash on the holiday. The Sfas Emes explains that aliya laregel is a testimony that land of Israel was set aside specifically for the nation of Israel as David HaMelech wrote in Tehillim (122:4), “שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים ... עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל .../For there the tribes ascended … a testimony for Israel …” Bil’am himself prophesied this, “כִּי־מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ .../For I will see him from the top of mountain peaks and will view him from hills.” (Bamidbar 23:9) The plain meaning of this prophecy is that every mountain peak and hilltop was designated for the nation of Israel. He saw the nation from everywhere in the land.

Chazal also mention this relationship. Chazal teach us that God acquired, as it were, five things in this world. Three of the five are the heavens and the earth, the nation of Israel and the Beis HaMikdash. That these are mentioned together in this mishna indicates that there is a strong relationship between them.

What is the nature of this relationship? The Sfas Emes explains that the children of Israel have qualities which exactly match the qualities inherent in the land of Israel. Just as, according to Chazal,[1] the land of Israel and the Beis Hamikdash are the foundation from which the entire Creation sprung, so too, the Sfas Emes teaches, the children of Israel are the foundation for all the souls in the Creation.[2]

The land of Israel needs the nation for its rectification. Chazal teach us that the blessing, “מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב .../Who can count the dirt of Ya’akov …” (Bamidbar 23:10) is referring to the many mitzvos which are fulfilled only in the dirt of the land of Israel. The mitzvos of tithing, shmitta and many other mitzvos can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel. These mitzvos are needed to rectify the land and only the children of Israel are able to perform these mitzvos. This is why God blessed Ya’akov by comparing his descendents to the dirt of the land, “וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ .../Your progeny shall be like the dirt of the land.” (Breishis 28:14) The Creator prepared the dirt of the land of Israel specifically for the descendents of Ya’akov. Only we can rectify it.

Just has He measured the land, “מִי־מָדַד ... וְכָל בַּשָּׁלִשׁ עֲפַר הָאָרֶץ .../Who measured with a shalish the dirt of the land …,” (Yeshaya 40:12) he also measured the dirt of Ya’akov, “מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב .../Who can count the dirt of Ya’akov …” The Sfas Emes teaches us that that a Jewish soul is designated for each grain of dirt in the land of Israel. May we merit appreciating the integral connection between us and our land and to fulfilling the mitzvos needed to rectify it!

[1] Zohar 2:222a-b

[2] The Creation is structured as a hierarchy leading from most to least spiritual. Life giving energy flows from the Creator through the spiritual realms and finally to the physical world, giving existence to all. The souls of the nation of Israel are an integral part of this hierarchy. (see Nefesh HaChaim 1:17 and 2:17)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Balak 5632 Third Ma'amar

The Midrash in this week’s parsha brings a dialog between Bil’am and God. Bil’am asked God why He preferred to be worshipped by one nation Israel rather than by seventy the nations of the world. God replied with a pasuk in Mishlei (17:1), “טוֹב פַּת חֲרֵיבָה וְשַׁלְוָה־בָהּ מִבַּיִת מָלֵא זִבְחֵי־רִיב/Better dry bread with peace in it than a house full of contentious celebrations.” Dry bread is a reference to the mincha sacrifice that we bring. A house full of contentious celebrations is a reference to the nations of the world because they want to cause strife between Israel and God.
Our service has no ulterior motives whereas the nations of the world served God in order to cause strife between Israel and God. God would rather have our service because it has no ulterior motives. In fact Chazal state explicitly that even when the nations of the world served God, they did it for personal benefit.

Bil’am himself had a personal agenda even as he submitted to God’s will. This is why Chazal understand Bil’am’s fault from the very pasuk that shows his subordination, “... אִם־יִתֶּן־לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲבֹר אֶת־פִּי ה׳ אֱ־לֹהָי .../Even if Balak would give me a house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to transgress the word of God, my Lord.” (Bamidbar 22:18) He sounds like a tzaddik, yet because Chazal knew that Bil’am was self serving, they understand from here that Bil’am was a glutton for money.

Evil wants to come close to God, too. The Sfas Emes explains the difference between the approach of evil and our approach regarding serving God. Bil’am submitted to God in order to reach higher levels, to show how important he was. We – the children of Israel – ask God to help us reach higher levels in order to submit to Him.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Balak 5632 Second Ma'amar

Part of Bil’am’s blessing to the nation of Israel was, “יִזַּל־מַיִם מִדָּלְיָו .../Water will flow from his dipper …” (Bamidbar 24:7) Chazal translate this pasuk homiletically as, “Torah will come from the children of poor families.”[1] They understand this because water is a metaphor for Torah and דְלִי/dipper has the same root as דַל/poor. Why, though, will Torah come from the children of poor families?

The Sfas Emes explains that in order to receive the Torah, one must subordinate himself to God. The dipper represents subordination because it is lowered into a well. Only by lowering ourselves like the dipper, can we access the Torah, the water of life. In fact, elsewhere Chazal explicitly compare the Torah to water because just as water flows to the lowest place, Torah can only be sustained in someone who is humble. Chazal are teaching us that the poor are more apt to be worthy of receiving the Torah because they are generally more humble than the wealthy.

[1] Nedarim 81a

Friday, July 04, 2008

Chukas 5632 First Ma'amar

This week’s parsha begins with the laws of the red heifer. The ashes of a red heifer are required as part of the procedure to purify one who has had contact with a corpse. Impurity is an actual spiritual state. How do the ashes of the red heifer wipe it away? Chazal were bothered by this question in the first Midrash of our parsha, “מִי־יִתֵּן טָהוֹר מִטָּמֵא לֹא אֶחָד/Who produces purity from impurity? No one!” The Midrash answers that it is a God-given decree and translates the pasuk, “Who produces purity from pure? Is it not the One?!” The Midrash Tanchuma quotes Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who says explicitly that the red heifer does not purify. Rather God decreed that the corpse should produce impurity and that the red heifer should purify.

What is the nature of this decree? Another pasuk the Midrash quotes from Tehillim gives us a clue, “אִמְרוֹת ה' אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת .../God’s sayings are pure sayings…” What is this pasuk teaching us? It obviously cannot be taken literally because “God is pure and His servants are pure.” (Nidah 31a)

The Sfas Emes explains that “אִמְרָה/Saying” in this pasuk alludes to the ten מַאֲמָרוֹת/sayings with which God created the world. The Sfas Emes explains that the saying is more than just the words God used to create. The saying itself is a spiritual power that gives existence to the Creation. The creating power of God, through the saying, is hidden within every part of the Creation. Thus, the source of purity is hidden within every part of the Creation. Every part of the physical world, then, has at least the potential for purity because of the spiritual force inherent in it. This is the meaning of the pasuk in Tehillim. God’s sayings – His presence within the Creation – are pure and therefore purify.

How can we actualize the potential for purity that is hidden within ourselves and the physical world? The Sfas Emes explains that the purity is revealed and affects us and our surroundings when we contemplate and acknowledge that it is there. Chazal tell us that Avraham Avinu first recognized that God must be in the world. God then revealed Himself to Avraham Avinu.

Regarding producing purity from impurity the Midrash says, “Who commanded thus? Who decreed thus? Is it not the One?!” The Sfas Emes explains the redundancy. The existence of the physical world contains two wonders. As we’ve said, God’s creative power is constantly working and is hidden within the Creation. Without it, the world would cease to exist. The first wonder is that God gives existence and strength to evil to resist the very “sayings” that are the source of its existence. Relative to this the Midrash says, “Who decreed thus?”

The second wonder is that God gave us the ability to draw His “sayings” into the physical world, to reveal spirituality and ultimately to experience God Himself even as we live in the physical world. Through the commandments we elevate ourselves and our surroundings to God. Regarding this the Midrash says, “Who commanded thus?” When we perform the mitzvos, the Sfas Emes explains, and contemplate that the physical has a spiritual source, we “connect” the physical to that source. The physical is affected by its spiritual source. The physical becomes pure.

Purity and impurity, and in fact, the entire Creation works according to the laws that are familiar to us because God decreed that it should be so. The same way that God decreed that the ashes of the red heifer change a person’s spiritual status, He decreed every aspect of the Creation.

We find this in the pasuk in Tehillim regarding the Creation, “... חָק־נָתַן וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר/… He issued a decree that will not change.” The word חוֹק/decree has the same root as the word for engrave – חָקַק. This decree is engraved, as it were, within the Creation. It is the underlying force that is the source of the Creation’s existence.

In the same vein Chazal tell us that חָק suggests sustenance as we find in the pasuk, “... וְאָכְלוּ אֶת־חֻקָּם .../… they ate their allowance …” The underlying spiritual force sustains the entire Creation. It is constantly imbuing the Creation with life and abundance. The Sfas Emes teaches that the reason we were created is to reveal this spiritual life force in everything by contemplating that it exists within everything. May we merit it!