Friday, November 28, 2008

Toldos 5631 Third Ma'amar

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ הָאֱ-לֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֹשׁ/And God will give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine.” (Breishis 27:28) Thus begins Yitzchak Avinu’s blessing to Ya’akov. Is it not somewhat strange that the blessing begins with the word “and” as if this were a continuation? Rashi, addressing this question, cites the Midrash which says that the “and” implies a continuity of the blessing itself; in the words of the Midrash, “He will give and give again.” When we try to understand this answer, though, we find that it, too, needs an explanation? The Midrash implies that without the “and” at the beginning of the blessing, Yitzchak is giving a blessing meant to be fulfilled only once. This certainly cannot be. What then, is the Midrash really teaching us?

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

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

The following Midrash states this idea clearly.[1] In the Torah we find that sometimes God addresses Moshe Rabbeinu, “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה/God said to Moshe.” We also find that Moshe addresses God, “וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לה'/Moshe said to God.” The Midrash understands that speaking to someone is a form of influence. Certainly the very revelation of God to someone is a form of giving abundance to that person. After all, the greatest good, the greatest pleasure we can possibly experience is being close to God. The Midrash teaches us, that this idea applies in the opposite direction as well. When the Torah tells us that Moshe spoke to God, it is teaching us that Moshe can “influence” God, as it were. Of course, God is infinite and therefore never changes. He certainly is not influenced by anything. However, “God” here, is an inference to the spiritual realms which are at the root of the physical world. God structured the Creation so that material abundance begins with blessing in the spiritual realms – “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה/God said to Moshe” – but then the strength of the spiritual realms is dependent upon our actions here in the physical world – “וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לַה'/Moshe said to God.”

The Midrash presents this idea in the form of an analogy to a cave situated right near the sea. The water of the sea enters the cave and then flows back into the sea. The cave initially receives the water from the sea, but the cave also returns the water to the sea. The initial blessing and influence is spiritual and comes from God, as we find in Yitzchak’s blessing, “... מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם .../… from the dew of the heavens …” Only afterward does it descend to this material world in the form of material abundance.

Moshe Rabbeinu represents the entire nation of Israel. What is true for him is true for us as well. We have the ability, and the duty, to return to od, that which he gives us, by using the things He gives us to do His will, to perform mitzvos and acts of kindness. By doing this we point up the difference between the nation of Israel and the nations of the world. The nations of the world see the material abundance and do not relate it back God. They imbue power to the physical itself, the very basis of idol worship. We, on the other hand, revert everything physical back to its spiritual roots.

Strengthening the spiritual brings more blessing and renewal down to the physical world. This is the meaning of the pasuk in Koheles and Chazal’s explanation, “... אֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ/… There is nothing new under the sun.” (Koheles 1:9) Chazal understand this to be a metaphor for the physical world.[2] Under the sun, in the physical world, there is nothing new. However, above the sun, in the spiritual, there is novelty, renewal. Only through the spiritual, therefore, is it possible to bring renewal and novelty into the physical world.

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

[1] Shmos R. 45:3

[2] Shabbos 30b

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chayei Sarah 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים .../And Avraham was old, advanced in age (lit. - he came with his days) …” The Zohar explains that when a person passes on, he comes to the next world enclothed in his days. The Chiddushei HaRim explains that a person’s mitzvos create enlightenment. The enlightenment of no two days are the same. Being enclothed by his days means that the unique enlightenment from each day surrounded him.

The Sfas Emes says further that “בָּא בַּיָּמִים/he came with his days” means that all the enlightening experiences Avraham Avinu had on each day remained with him forever. Usually, an enlightening experience is exhilarating while we experience it. Then, when we get used to it, the exhilaration dies down. What was exhilarating becomes a little stale with time.

We may think that there is nothing wrong with this. After all, it’s only natural to forget. The Sfas Emes, though, teaches that we are required to remember the exhilaration we experience when God sends us an inspiration . According to the Sfas Emes, the Torah admonishes us not to forget this exhilaration in this pasuk, “רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְךָ מְאֹד פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ .../Only, take care and guard yourselves well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw …

What can we do to maintain the freshness of an inspiring experience long after the event? The Sfas Emes teaches us that Avraham Avinu reached an advanced age with all his enlightening experiences as if they all happened now. Nothing was lost in the passage of time. Nothing became stale and old in Avraham Avinu’s view of the world.

The Chiddushei HaRim uses this concept to give a novel interpretation to a Mishna in Avos, “הַלּוֹמֵד יֶלֶד לְמַה הוּא דּוֹמֶה לִדְיוֹ כְּתוּבָה עַל נְיָר חָדָשׁ וְהַלּוֹמֵד זָקֵן לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה לִדְיוֹ כְּתוּבָה עַל נְיָר מָחוּק/To what can a child who learns be compared? To ink written on new paper. To what can an old person who learns be compared? To ink written on used paper that has been erased.” The Chiddushei HaRim learns that the Tanna is not necessarily speaking of a young person vs. and old person. Rather the Mishna is referring to one who has a child’s outlook vs. an old person’s outlook. To a child, everything is new and exciting whereas an old person rarely gets excited. He’s seen it all before.

Avraham Avinu, even though he was at an advanced age, had a child’s view. He was exhilarated by all the enlightening experiences that he ever experienced as if they were new to him and had just occurred.

How did he cultivate this incredible world view and how can we? The answer to this question is based on an understanding of what an inspirational experience really is. From where do our flashes of inspiration come? One moment I am in quandary. The next moment the answer is clear in my mind. A new, original thought exists that did not exist before. Where did it come from?

The Sfas Emes teaches that from within the physical world, no novelty is possible. All novelty comes from outside the physical world. Koheles says this clearly, “... וְאֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ/… and there is nothing new under the sun,” implying that only “under the sun” – within the physical world – nothing is new. All originality comes from “above the sun” – outside of the natural world. The reason for this is that the physical universe has no autonomous existence. God brought it into existence and it remains in existence only so long as He wills it. Therefore, each moment of existence is actually a new creation. In the blessings before Kri’as Shema each morning, we say that God, “... מְחַדֵשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשׂה בְרֵאשִׁית/… in His goodness, renews the workings of the Creation constantly each day.” “Constantly” means every moment.

Our senses, though, tell us that the world around us exists autonomously, independent of any outside force. How then can we cultivate a sense of excitement by the newness that is reality? The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches, is to internalize the belief that there is a hidden spiritual power behind everything in the physical world that constantly renews it. It was this belief that enabled Avraham Avinu to be exhilarated by the inspirational moments that he had years before. Nothing ever became stale because getting old is a physical quality not a spiritual one.

We too, can cultivate a sense of awe and wonder, a child’s excitement at the world around us, by attributing all actions and all things to their spiritual underpinnings. A true and complete internalization of this concept leads inexorably to constant praise of God stemming from the feeling deep inside that at this very moment we, along with everything else, are newly created.

Friday, November 14, 2008

VaYeira 5633 First Ma'amar

Iyov said, “וְאַחַר עוֹרִי נִקְּפוּ זֹאת וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/After my skin was stricken they pierced this, and from my flesh I perceive God.” (Iyov 19:26) The Midrash in this week’s parsha attributes these words to Avraham Avinu as well. Avraham Avinu continues, “If I had not circumcised myself how would God have been revealed to me?” (Breishis R. 48:2)

Why is God’s revelation to Avraham Avinu dependent upon his circumcision? Furthermore, God spoke to Avraham several times before he was circumcised. What, then, is the meaning of Avraham Avinu’s statement that he received revelation only after the circumcision?

The Sfas Emes explains. The basis of Avraham Avinu’s statement is the understanding that the Creation was not a one time act. The act of creation is constant and continuing. There is a spiritual force emanating from God which gives continued existence to every facet of the Creation. Revealing this point of spirituality – by believing it is there – is in essence revealing God’s presence in the world.

Avraham Avinu first realized this when he was commanded to circumcise himself. The removal of the foreskin represents the removal of the outer physical shell hiding God’s presence. When it is removed, God’s presence is automatically revealed. This realization prompted him to declare, “... וּמִבְּשָׂרִי אֶחֱזֶה אֱ-לוֹהַּ/… from my flesh I perceive God.” Avraham Avinu is not referring only to God’s revelation in his immediate prophecy. He is rather referring to his perception of God’s revelation in the entire Creation.

This is why the first pasuk of the parsha states, “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו .../He appeared to him …” (Breishis 18:1) instead of “וַיֵּרָא ה' אֶל־אַבְרָם .../God appeared to Avrum” (Breishis 12:7) as the pasuk states when God spoke to him earlier before the circumcision. “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו .../He appeared to him …” is more general. The pasuk is telling us that God’s presence concealed in every part of Creation, giving life to every part of Creation, was now revealed to him.

The Sfas Emes teaches that, like Avraham Avinu before us, our mission in this world is to testify that God gives life to all. This is the reason we were created. In this, we are stronger than angels. According to halachah, testimony of family member is invalid because the close relationship is likely to skew the testimony. A close family member cannot be expected to be impartial. Angels, because they see the truth, know that fulfilling God’s will is always to their benefit. When an angel fulfills God’s will, his own will is completely aligned with God’s. For an angel to testify that it behooves us to fulfill God’s will because He is the source of all life is like a father’s testimony on behalf of his son. Neither testimony can be considered impartial.

We, though, live in the physical world where God is not apparent. Our senses tell us that we and the things around us have an autonomous existence. We have a will of our own. To us, fulfilling God’s will does not always appear to benefit us. Many times we need to suppress our own desires to do so. When we accept God’s rule thus sacrificing our own desires, we are offering a complete and valid testimony. We cannot be accused of partiality. The concept that we testify about God is found in a Midrash as well. The Midrash states that the children of Israel, God and Shabbos testify about each other. We testify that God is One.[1]

Chazal allude to the concept of our testimony regarding Shabbos. They said, “כָּל הַמְּעַנֵג אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת נוֹתְנִין לוֹ נַחֲלָה בְּלִי מָצִרים/Whosoever gives enjoyment to the Shabbos is given an unbounded inheritance.” (Shabbos 118a) The Chiddushei HaRim points out that Chazal do not say, “Whosoever enjoys himself on Shabbos …”, rather, “Whosoever gives enjoyment to the Shabbos …” a strange concept. How can we give enjoyment to the Shabbos? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that whoever is happy when Shabbos comes because on that day God rested from His work and that happiness causes him to forget his troubles has given enjoyment to the Shabbos. In this way, the children of Israel testify that Shabbos is a day of rest.

May we merit that, like Avraham Avinu, our lives be a living testimony to God in this world thus justifying our existence. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Tosfos Chagigah 3b starting, “U’Mi

Friday, November 07, 2008

Lech Lecha 5632 Second Ma'amar

The Midrash in this week’s parsha compares Avraham Avinu to a traveler who comes upon a burning mansion. Seeing no one, he assumes that the mansion has no owner. Just then, the owner comes out, looks at him and says, “I am the mansion’s owner!” The burning mansion represents the world and the owner represents God. Why does Avraham think that the world has no master? What is this Midrash teaching us?

We can get an idea from the Zohar in this week’s parsha. According to the Zohar, God gave Avraham Avinu the ability to “see” the spiritual guardians of each of the nations of the world. But Avraham was unable to “see” the spiritual guardian of Israel. Seeing the various spiritual forces governing the various nations of the world, it seemed that there was no unifying force, no “owner”. It seemed very chaotic. Then he became aware that the creation of the world started from Israel and derives its power to exist from Israel. He then understood that God was the power behind the Creation and Israel and from there to the rest of the world. He understood that Israel was the force unifying all the disparate elements of the Creation.

Because Israel is the power source of the Creation, the entire Creation is connected and gravitates back to the source. The Chidushei HaRim sees a hint to this concept in the above Midrash. The word for burning in the Midrash – דוֹלֶקֶת – also means pursue as in – דָלַקְתָּ אַחֲרַי – you pursued me. The Midrash is hinting at this idea that the Zohar states clearly.

Although Avraham Avinu understood that everything is connected spiritually, this was not at all obvious when looking at the physical world around him. Avraham wanted to understand how the physical Creation in which nothing seems connected is really all connected and is ultimately unified. How does God relate to the physical world?

In order to understand, it was imperative that he disregard any preconceptions he may have had. All his current knowledge and understanding would have to be risked in order to become open to new understanding. This disregard of the old and familiar is symbolized by God’s command that he leave all with which he is familiar behind in order to travel to a new land. Only by doing this would he merit receiving new understanding.

This concept applies to all of us today as well. The Sfas Emes sees it in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week. When we keep Shabbos, we throw off and disregard our weekday existence and accept the yoke of heaven. This symbolizes a readiness to not be bound by preconceptions and a willingness to accept and receive from God. The result is a revelation of God to us as the pasuk states, וּרְאוּ ... כִּי שֵׁם ה' נִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ .../They will see … that you are called by the name of God …”