Monday, December 29, 2008

Chanukah 5631 Eigth Night (Zos Chanuka)

The eighth day of Chanukah is called Zos Chanukah/This is Chanukah, after the Torah reading for this day which contains the words “zos chanukas hamizbei’ach …/this is the dedication of the altar ...” (Bamidbar 7:84) Aside from the nice play on words what is the significance of the name?

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

The word zos/this, is laden with symbolism. In the Zohar[1] we find the word zos alluding to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Heaven. The Midrash[2] says that the word zos/this in the pasuk, “... בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ/… in this I trust,” (Tehillim 27:1) is an allusion to God – in God I trust.

The early kabbalists[3] teach that zos alludes specifically to that point of spirituality through which God gives existence to the physical. David HaMelech as well, asked God to preserve this recognition of His presence within us, “... שָׁמְרָה־זֹּאת לְעוֹלָם לְיֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבוֹת לְבַב עַמֶּךָ .../… Preserve this forever – the product of the thoughts of Your people’s hearts …” (Divrei HaYamim 1 29:18)

, then, is a reference to the Godliness hidden within us and all of Creation. Knowing that everything, including God’s obscurity is powered by this point of God given spirituality, essentially, knowing that God is “in” everything and that everything is therefore “good” is a tremendous tool for strengthening one’s faith particularly in times of exile. This, in fact, is the fundamental meaning of the pasuk in Eicha (3:21), “זֹאת אָשִׁיב אֶל־לִבִּי עַל־כֵּן אוֹחִיל/This I will bear in mind; therefore I have hope.” The prophet is teaching us that when we bear in mind zos – that the exile as well is from God and that He is present even in the darkness of it – we have good reason for hope.

This concept is the lesson of Chanukah. The salvation came when the nation realized that God was with them in the darkness as well. We find this idea as well in the following pesukim from Tehillim (112:7-8), “מִשְּׁמוּעָה רָעָה לֹא יִירָא נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה': סָמוּךְ לִבּוֹ לֹא יִירָא עַד אֲשֶׁר־יִרְאֶה בְצָרָיו/He will have no fear of evil tidings; his heart is firm, confident in God. His heart is steadfast, he shall not fear, he will even [expect to] see [vengeance upon] his tormentors.” When a person trusts in God, he knows that salvation is at hand. The Chiddushei HaRim points out that, significantly, the last letters of the words, “נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה׳ סָמוּךְ/his heart is firm, confident in God, steadfast” spells out חֲנוּכָּה/Chanukah.

The chapter in Tehillim that we say on Chanukah bears out this idea. “הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה/You have transformed my lament into dancing for me; You undid my sackcloth and girded me with happiness.” (Tehillim 30:12) The word for transformed – הָפַכְתָּ – also means to overturn or to turn inside out. The difference between lament and dancing is whether God is hidden or revealed. Dancing is lament turned inside out, as it were. The important point is that God is present in both. The Midrash[4] on the curses in parshas BeChukosai makes this point when it says that the difference between the blessings and the curses is that the blessings are in the order of the Hebrew alphabet whereas the curses are backwards.

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

[1] Zohar 1:93b-94a

[2] VaYikra R. 21:4

[3] Sha’arei Ora 1:14a-b

[4] VaYikra R. 35:1

Thursday, December 18, 2008

VaYeishev 5631 Third Ma'amar

The mission of the children of Israel was to recognize and clarify that there is a spiritual component to everything physical. Every physical thing has spiritual roots. The physical world exists only because its spiritual roots provide it with existence sustenance much as a tree could not exist without its roots which provide it with life-giving sustenance. Even though the physical world contains many, many disparate and sundry things, the entire physical world has a common spiritual denominator. This means, of course, that the world is not abandoned. Rather, God runs things here.

The Sfas Emes sees an allusion to this concept in Yosef’s first dream, “וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים בְּתוֹך הַשָּׂדֶה .../And behold, we are binding sheaves in the middle of the field …” A field connotes an abandoned place. We find, for example, that the Torah calls Esav a, “אִישׁ שָׂדֶה/man of the field”. Chazal tell us that Esav lived with abandonment, killing and stealing other men’s wives. This world seems to be “abandoned”. Like the field, it appears as if the world has an autonomous existence and there is no one running the show.

A defining factor of nature and the material world is plurality. A defining factor of the spiritual is unity. Since the spiritual underlies the physical, the plurality of the physical is an illusion. In reality, there is unity in the physical as well. Binding the sheaves symbolizes this unity. This unity is the antithesis of abandonment. The unity underlying the physical world points to Divine Providence.

Recognizing that events are not happenstance, that the world is not “abandoned” but rather that there is Divine Providence, we can understand the Midrash on the next part of the dream, “... וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי .../… and behold my sheaf arose …”

The word for sheaf – אֲלֻמָּתִי – has the same root as the word for mute – אִלֵם. The Midrash says that this is an allusion to Yosef’s mother Rachel who refused to speak up when Ya’akov sent gifts for her and Lavan, her father, gave them to her sister Leah. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, “My entire life I was raised among the sages and I haven’t found a better thing for the body than silence.” Why was Rachel silent? Why did she not stand up for herself? Rachel was silent, the Sfas Emes explains, because she was aware of the limits of her intelligence and abilities in the face of Divine Providence. She was quiet because she knew that there was nothing she could possibly do to change the Providence that decreed that Leah be married to Ya’akov. One can only imagine how difficult a test this must have been for her, but she succeeded in subordinating her own desire to Divine Providence.

If events constantly occur that are opposed to our desires. If our desires are constantly being thwarted, then it’s time to entertain the possibility that God is sending us a message. Since our intelligence and desires are of no value against Providence, and if they are aligned with Divine Providence, we cannot help but succeed, it is in our best interest to align our will with God’s.

Friday, December 12, 2008

VaYishlach 5631 Third Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha the Torah relates the dramatic meeting between Esav and Ya’akov after thirty-four years. Ya’akov implores Esav to accept his gift saying, “... כִּי־חַנַּנִי אֱ־לֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹל .../… for God has favored me and I have everything …” Ya’akov Avinu is telling Esav not to be concerned. Ya’akov will not lose anything by giving the gift to Esav. The Or HaChayim explains that even after Ya’akov gives Esav the gift he will be left with everything he originally had. The simple understanding is that since Esav declined Ya’akov’s gift saying that he has a lot and does not need it, Ya’akov responded that he has everything, meaning more than Esav.

This needs to be explained, though. Even if Ya’akov wanted to mollify Esav, how can he say that he has everything? Obviously, when a person gives up something, he has less than before. There are also plenty of things that Ya’akov does not have.

The Sfas Emes therefore explains that Ya’akov Avinu’s response was not a reference to the quantity of his assets. The difference between Esav’s “a lot” and Ya’akov’s “everything” is a fundamental difference between the physical and the spiritual. The physical world is exemplified by quantity and disparateness. The spiritual is exemplified by unity. The more spiritual the less disparate and the more unified. The ultimate unity, of course, is God. Unity means inclusiveness. Because God is the ultimate unity, everything is included in Him.

Ya’akov Avinu said, “I have everything,” because he was aware of the Godliness that is inherent in everything physical. The quantity of his assets was immaterial to the truth of his declaration. Whether he had a lot or a little, he had everything because God’s life force within his assets includes everything.

This concept explains how it is that Hagar, Avraham’s concubine, did not see the well in the desert until God opened her eyes. The Midrash says that we are all considered blind until God enlightens us. Hagar was desperately in need of water. She was in the middle of a desert and had no idea how or where to find it. Hagar’s salvation came when God gave her the understanding that He is in everything. As a result of this realization she was connected to everything including the means to get the water she needed.

Many times we find ourselves in less that optimal situations. We need a solution but do not know how or where to attain it. Chazal are teaching us how we can recognize the solution and attain it. Realizing that God’s force is in everything, we connect with everything. As a result we become aware of the solution which also contains God’s life force. May we merit it!

Friday, December 05, 2008

VaYeitzei 5632 Third Ma'amar

The physical world is a mechanism for concealing God. God is not at all apparent in the natural world. Were He, we would be completely overwhelmed. We would have little choice but to fulfill His will. There would be no “space” within which we could work to come close to Him. As it is, the world that God created hides Him thus providing us the opportunity to reveal Him. We reveal Him by believing that He is the force that gives life to every thing.

The Sfas Emes understands this from a homiletical interpretation of the pesukim in this week’s parsha that describe Ya’akov Avinu at the well when he first comes to Charan. וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה בְאֵר בַּשָׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁם שְׁלֹשָׁה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן רֹבְצִים עָלֶיהָ כִּי מִן־הַבְּאֵר הַהִוא יַשְׁקוּ הָעֲדָרִים וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה עַל־פִּי הַבְּאֵר׃ וְנֶאֶסְפוּ־שָׁמָּה כָל־הָעֲדָרִים וְגָלְלוּ אֶת־הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר .../He looked and beheld a well in the field and there were three flocks of sheep lying about it, because from the well they watered the flocks but there was a great stone upon the well. When all the flocks gathered there, they rolled the stone off the mouth of the well …”

The field represents this world with its apparent independent existence. It seems to be ownerless, abandoned. The well represents the spiritual underlying life-giving force that is within the natural world. A thinking person has the ability to use intelligence to discern the underlying force. If a person thinks about it, he will come to the conclusion that the world cannot have an independent existence. There must be some force that created it and keeps it in existence. Existence requires energy. Nothing can exist without a motive force within it. This intelligence is represented by the three flocks of sheep which symbolize chochma/wisdom, bina/understanding and da’as/knowledge – the sum total of man’s intelligence.

However, if a person does not use his intelligence, does not constantly think about this, then God is concealed. This concealment is represented by the great stone which is upon the well hiding the water within. What can we do to prevent this concealment? We can gather all our desires and abilities and devote them to God. Prior to commencing any activity, we can intend that this activity be a fulfillment of God’s will. This is represented by all the flocks gathering together resulting in the stone being rolled off the well thus revealing the water underneath.

Another possible understanding of, “וְנֶאֶסְפוּ־שָׁמָּה/and they gathered together there” is to identify with the nation of Israel. In the future, the entire Creation will be unified in a recognition of God. The result of such a universal recognition will be a revelation the likes of which we cannot even imagine.

Nowadays, this power to reveal is inherent in the nation of Israel. We, as a nation, were given the power, by recognizing that God is within the Creation, to reveal Him. Because of this, an individual Jew can also remove God’s concealment by identifying with the nation. By recognizing our role as a part of the nation, we understand that our actions are not for ourselves alone. Rather they affect the entire nation.

It is this power that enabled Ya’akov Avinu to remove the stone from the well even as the individual shepherds could not. Ya’akov, representing the entire nation of Israel had within him the power to remove God’s concealment as we have today. May we merit it!