Thursday, December 31, 2009

VeYechi 5631 First Ma'amar - Practical Application

Thank you all for your comments.  I appreciate them.  I've decided to move forward with my idea of bringing the teachings of the Sfas Emes to practical application.  As LBC pointed out in a comment, this was the point of Polish Chassidus in the first place, to apply esoteric concepts to our daily lives.

For those of you who like the blog as is, I point out again that the archive contains nearly 300 ma'amarim, enough to fill a medium size book of 600+ pages.  So, there is certainly a lot of material.

Before each post I will put a link to the ma'amar that the post discusses.

I want to stress that the new format will be successful with your input.  The purpose is to really try to live the teachings.  The Sfas Emes did not write his Toros for there "nice vort" qualities although they certainly do have that.  He wrote them, and primarily spoke them on Shabbos and Yomim Tovim to convey teachings that he wanted his Chassidim to follow.

The postings will therefore include suggestions for action and techniques for inculcating the teachings into our lives.  Here, you and I will have an opportunity to share our results with others. My suggestions are simply that.  They're not halacha l'moshe misinai and if something else works better, then please let us all know!

Click here for the Ma'amar:VaYechi 5631 First Ma'amar (opens in new window)

A common theme throughout the Sfas Emes’s writings is that the world as we see it hides God.  To experience God, it is crucial to strengthen our faith in the truth of this idea.  God is here with us.  The world conceals Him.  The world itself as we live our daily lives is a test of faith.

The Sfas Emes explains the meaning of “ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים/Ya’akov lived in Egypt” (In every other instance in the Torah the word ויחי is used to signify the length of someone’s life, not where he dwelled.) as Ya’akov Avinu was on such a high spiritual level that he knew this, not believed it strongly, but knew it, the way that we know that the sun is shining.  He lived in the sense of being connected with God, the ultimate “living”.

Being in decadent Egypt did not phase him because he “saw” God clearly even there.  For his children, though, Egypt presented a powerful test of faith.  Although Ya’akov Avinu was prevented from teaching his children to reach his level, he did teach them about strengthening their belief that God is with them always.

Although we cannot reach Ya’akov’s level of knowing that God is here with us the way that we know the sun is shining, we can still experience God by strengthening our belief that he is here with us. 

What has this to do with our daily lives?  Just this.  The Sfas Emes teaches that exile means God’s concealment.  For example, in Maseches Yoma 38b we find that Chazal understood that when God said, "אשכח בניך גם אני .../... I will forget your children as well" (Hoshe'a 4:6), it refers to the Jewish people being exiled.  By extension, the Sfas Emes teaches elsewhere, any challenging situation we find ourselves in, also means God has concealed Himself from us.  Redemption and by extension the resolution of problems that we face means a Godly revelation.

The situations that we face, whether they be issues with raising children, financial, health or any other issue that causes unpleasantness in our lives, do not have a life of their own.  They are no more and no less than a screen that hides God.  Because if God is revealed, there is no unpleasantness.  It is a contradiction in terms. 

So, by revealing God, we can find the solution to the problems we face.   How can we reveal God?  The Sfas Emes teaches that we can reveal God by strengthening our belief that there is absolutely no power in the world besides Him.  This is easier said that done, of course.  Our surroundings blind us at every step.  We must believe something that we cannot see and that our surroundings belie.

But since the results of strong faith in God are solutions to our problems and bliss in this life, I am strongly motivated to find a way.  How?

This is where the Sfas Emes ends and I tell you what I think.  The Sfas Emes, does not tell us here how to strengthen our faith.  No techniques are given.

I submit that we can strengthen our faith that there is no power in the world beside God and in fact the world is only a screen that blocks us from experiencing Him by viewing the world for what it is.  The world is a test of faith.  Everything that happens to us, from stubbing a toe to going bankrupt, is a test of faith.

It is not terribly difficult to internalize the belief that that the world is a test of faith when you are not being tested directly.  However, what do you do when you’ve been looking for a parking spot for 15 minutes, and are late for an important business meeting.  You finally find a spot, set yourself up to parallel park and just then someone enters the spot nose first!

If your like me, your first reaction is to jump out of the car and wring the guy’s neck!  But, really, this situation was set up by God.  The other guy has his own issues.  He exercised his free choice and decided that the spot was for him, or maybe he did not notice you were about to back in to it, or maybe his wife is about to give birth in the back seat.  But you had no choice here.  So, God brought this situation about specially for you and if you really believe it, then you would not be angry at the other driver.  So, you see, it’s a set up to test your faith. 

How do we cultivate this belief so that it becomes second nature.  Here’s my proposal.  Let’s do an exercise.  During the next three days from the time you read this, commit that no matter what happens to you, good or bad, you will immediately, say out loud, “I choose to recognize that God set this situation up to test my faith in Him.  There is no power in the world that can benefit me or harm me outside of God.”[1]  I say, “good or bad” because it is easy to have a success and give yourself all the credit.
Let’s do this for the next three days and then report back here to share our experiences.  Hatzlacha to us all!

Remember that this is simply my suggestion.  If you try it and find that something else works better, or that the suggestion can be refined, please let us all know.  Thanks!

[1] This is based partially on the Nefesh HaChayim in Sha’ar 3 Perek 12.  It’s very encouraging.  Read it if you can.  In short, he writes that it’s a segulah to remove yourself from challenging situations to say and establish clearly in your heart that there is no power in the world besides God and therefore nothing besides God can have any effect on you.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Question to Readers of the Sfas Emes Blog

For some time, I have been thinking of changing the format of this blog.  I want to take the Sfas Emes's teaching's to a more practical level.  The current format of translating and elucidating the ma'amarim is restrictive in that I need to stick to whatever is in the ma'amar. 

I envision taking existing ma'amarim on the blog, noting the practical lesson in the ma'amar and giving down to earth suggestions as to how to apply the lesson to our daily lives giving examples either from my own experiences or from that of others. 

The format would be much more interactive.  You, the reader, would have an opportunity to share your experiences relating to the lesson of the ma'amar as well as comment and offer additional suggestions about how the lesson of the ma'amar could be applied practically.  I envision ensuing lateral and lively discussion at a practical level.  For example, if the Sfas Emes is discussing how to overcome the negative impact of tragedy on our lives, there is room for input from professionals, counselors and the like who deal with these issues.

For those of you who would miss the weekly new ma'amarim, I point out that this blog currently contains close to 300 ma'amarim.  There are ma'amarim on every parsha in the Torah as well as on all the holidays on which the Sfas Emes wrote.  That's enough material to fill more than 600 pages of a medium sized book.  Each week I'd list the links to the ma'amarim for that week's parsha at the beginning of the practical application post.

My motivation is to see us apply the Sfas Emes's teachings to our everyday lives.  I think it would make a sea change in our lives and have a ripple effect on the rest of our environment.  Taking it seriously could mamash change the world.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this, whether yea or nay, and I am open to additional suggestions as to how this could be done.

I await your input!  Thanks.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

VaYigash 5631 Fifth Ma'amar

Ya’akov Avinu’s purpose was to spread holiness in the world.  He was a conduit for holiness.  However, he lived such a spiritual existence, was so removed from the physical world that he was unable, on his own, to do so.  Yosef, on the other hand, was more connected to the physical world.  Elsewhere[1] the Sfas Emes cites the Zohar[2] that refers to Yosef as the שומר הברית/keeper of the covenant.  Conventionally, this refers to his overcoming the temptations presented to him by the wife of his master Potiphar. 

The covenant that he kept was the covenant of the circumcision.  The Sfas Emes teaches though that Yosef, as the keeper of the covenant, represents the holiness that is within the physical world.  How so?  In this world holiness is hidden by gross physicality.  The removal of the foreskin symbolizes unveiling the holiness that lies within the physical world.[3]
It was through Yosef and his ability to live in the physical world and yet unveil the holiness therein that Ya’akov was able to act as a conduit for holiness in the natural world.[4]

Descending to Egypt represented a difficult challenge for Ya’akov Avinu.  He would only be able to fulfill his purpose there by descending in levels of holiness.  However, because of Yosef this would not be necessary.

Yosef understood this.  So he sent wagons to his father Ya’akov to ameliorate his concerns.  The Hebrew word for wagon – עַגָלָה – has the same root as the word for circle – עִיגוּל.  The wagons were an allusion that everything physical circles back to its spiritual roots.  Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev writes a similar idea in Kedushas Levi. 

Yosef’s brothers as well represented different ways of spreading Ya’akov’s spirituality in the physical world.  The pasuk tells us, “וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם .../The children of Israel carried their father Ya’akov …”  The Sfas Emes explains that they acted as a chariot to Ya’akov.  A chariot carries its rider from place to place.  Through the chariot, the rider’s influence spreads.  In this sense the tribes were a chariot to Ya’akov.  Through them, his influence would spread throughout the world.

Still, even Ya’akov Avinu’s connection to the tribes, was made possible by Yosef.  Yosef was the flame of Ya’akov’s fire, so to speak. 

It is for this reason that the Torah tells us that Ya’akov Avinu did not believe the brothers when they returned from Egypt with the good news that Yosef was alive.  Belief implies connection and attraction.  When we believe something we are attracted to that belief and feel a connection with it.  When the Torah tells us that Ya’akov Avinu did not believe the brothers, it is hinting to us this very idea.  Ya’akov was able to relate to the tribes only through Yosef. 

When he saw the wagons and realized that Yosef had sent them as a hint that Ya’akov would be able to remain on his high spiritual level and still influence the world through Yosef, he realized as well, that he would be able to influence the world through the tribes, by way of Yosef.  The tribes were thus able to “carry him”.  Through Yosef they, too, were able to be Ya’akov’s chariot, spreading his influence.

[1] Mikeitz 5631 Second Ma’amar and VaYigash 5631 Second Ma’amar
[2] Zohar 1:59a
[3]  See VaYeira 5632 First Ma’amar for a detailed discussion of this concept.
[4] See also VaYeishev 5631 First Ma’amar and VaYeishiv 5632 First Ma’amar for more detail on the spiritual relationship between Ya’akov and Yosef.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mikeitz 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

Note:  There are six ma'amarim on Chanukah in the archives.  Use the search feature on the right to find them.

At the end of this week’s parsha Binyamin is framed.  Yosef has his goblet placed in Binyamin’s sack and then sends a party to apprehend the culprit.  When the goblet is found and the brothers are brought before Yosef, Yehuda says, “... מַה־נֹּאמַר לַאדֹנִי ... וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּק הָאֱ־לֹהִים מָצָא אֶת־עֲוֹן עֲבָדֶיךָ .../… What can we say to my master … and how can we be justified?  God has found the iniquity of your servants …” (Breishis 44:16)  Yehudah knew that Binyamin was innocent yet he does not argue for his innocence.  Instead he says that God has found their iniquity?  Strange indeed.  What iniquity?

The Midrash addresses this question and, in a play on the word מָצָא/He found, says that God squeezed – מִצָה – the barrel until nothing was left inside beside the dregs.  Although Yosef’s brothers were innocent of stealing the goblet, God found some offense on which to pin this calamity.  This is why Yehudah does not argue their case.  He knows that everything that happens is from God and this would not be happening if they had no sins even if he cannot find them.

The Sfas Emes teaches that everything is revealed before God.  Ordinary people can introspect and fail to find any wrong doing in themselves.  Yet, God knows that they are full of sins!  We have a well developed ability to rationalize our behavior. 

Yosef’s brothers though, were really not full of sin.  God had to "squeeze the barrel" to find an offense.  Still, Yehudah, in an incredible show of humility, says, “How can we be justified?”  We must be guilty of something otherwise this would not be happening.

If this is Yehudah’s reaction, how much more so must we be humbled before God for our own less than ideal actions.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

VaYeishev 5632 First Ma'amar

The first pasuk of the parsha seems to be extraneous.  We know where Ya’akov lived.  Last week’s parsha recounts his return to his father’s house in Hebron.  This week’s parsha recounts Yosef’s descent to Egypt.  Why did the parsha not start from the second pasuk, אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף .../These are the generations of Ya’akov, Yosef …”, the beginning of the story?

A clear understanding of a Midrash that Rashi cites will give us the answer to this question.  The well known Midrash at the beginning of this week’s parsha begins, “בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהַצַדִיקִים יוֹשְׁבִים בְּשַׁלְוָה וּמְבַקְשִׁים לֵישֵׁב בְּשַׁלְוָה בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶה .../When the righteous are dwelling serenely, they ask to dwell in serenity in this world as well …”  There seems to be redundancy in the wording of the Midrash.  Would it not have been simpler to say, “The righteous ask to dwell in serenity in this world”?  Why does the Midrash first say that the righteous are dwelling serenely and then afterward say that they ask to dwell in serenity in this world?

In order to understand this Midrash we need to understand what dwelling serenely means?  The Sfas Emes explains that the righteous consider it their purpose, their reason for being, to draw holiness into this world.  They want to be the conduit through which holiness descends from the spiritual into the physical.  In order to do this, they must first work on themselves to minimize their own connection to the physical world.  The righteous person who is not drawn by the desires of the natural world, is an appropriate conduit to relay holiness into the world, otherwise, his own pull to the physical world acts as a block. 

Dwelling serenely, then, means reaching a state of minimal connection with the physical world.  It is very serene indeed.  On this level, the physical presents no barrier between the righteous person and God.  On this level, he can be a perfect conduit.  This is the goal of the righteous and this is what the Midrash means by, “they ask to dwell in serenity in the world as well.”

The parsha starts from, “וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב/Ya’akov dwelled” to teach us that Ya’akov was totally connected to his spiritual roots.      וַיֵּשֶׁב/He dwelled, has the same root as repentance – תְּשׁוּבָה – and Shabbos – שַׁבָּת.  The literal translation of תְּשׁוּבָה is return.  When we repent we return to God, the highest spiritual level.  The Sfas Emes explains elsewhere that Shabbos as well, means a state of Divine revelation.  וַיֵּשֶׁב therefore implies that Ya’akov Avinu connected to his spiritual roots.  In fact, Ya’akov Avinu was so successful at separating himself from the physical that he was completely beyond the natural world.  Because of this, on his own, he was unable to act as a conduit to bring holiness into nature.  He needed Yosef.

For this reason when the Torah begins to describe the generations of Ya’akov, it starts from Yosef, “אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף .../These are the generations of Ya’akov, Yosef …”  The word תֹּלְדוֹת/generations, can be understood more loosely to mean any influence a person has on the world, not just offspring.  The Sfas Emes understands it here to mean the holiness that Ya’akov wanted to bring into the natural world. 

The Torah begins describing Ya’akov’s influence on the world by mentioning Yosef to teach us that the holiness of Ya’akov influenced the world through Yosef.  Rashi notes this relationship between Ya’akov and Yosef.  He writes that Yosef was the flame of Ya’akov’s fire.  Fire without flame has little effect.  However fire with a roaring flame can affect areas far from the original source of the fire.  Ya’akov’s “fire” was able to spread far and wide only because of Yosef’s “flame”.

This is the reason, too, that, “... אֹתוֹ אָהַב ... מִכָּל־אֶחָיו ... [Ya’akov] loved [Yosef] more than all his brothers …”  Only through Yosef did Ya’akov have a connection with the brothers and the world.  Although the pasuk tells us that Yosef brought evil tales about his brothers to his father, he brought their good deeds to him as well.  He was the conduit, the go between that enabled Ya’akov’s holiness to descend into and influence the material world.  By the same token, he brings the positive actions of the nation of Israel to Ya’akov who represents the highest level in a spiritual hierarchy[*] that affects the world.

[*] See Kedoshim 5631 First Ma’amar for more on this concept

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

VaYishlach 5632

The first place Ya’akov Avinu came to upon his return to the land of Israel was Shechem, “וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם ... וַיִּחַן אֶת־פְּנֵי הָעִיר/Ya’akov arrived safely in the city of Shechem … he camped opposite the city.”  According to an enigmatic Midrash, Ya’akov arrived on Erev Shabbos and established eiruvei techumin.  He kept Shabbos before it was given.  What compelled the Midrash to give this interpretation to Ya’akov Avinu’s arrival in the land of Israel

Although the Divine Presence is concealed in the physical world, indeed the very purpose of the physical world is to conceal God’s Presence, still in certain places the Divine Presence is more revealed than in others.  God, to be sure, does not change.  From His perspective, as it were, there is no difference between one place and the next.  From our perspective, though,  it is easier for us to experience God in some places than in others. 

The place in the world where it is easiest to experience God, the place were the Divine Presence is most revealed, is in the land of Israel.  Outside the land of Israel, the Divine Presence is more hidden and it is more difficult to experience It.

This concept is paralleled by the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week.  On Shabbos, God’s Presence is more easily experienced since it is more revealed.  The entire world is more spiritually elevated on Shabbos.  During the days of the week, on the other hand, it is difficult to experience God’s Presence.  It is a struggle that requires a strong faith that regardless of appearances, God is here with us. 

Working on strengthening our belief that God is with us during the week as well, helps us to experience God during the week.  This is why the weekdays are called, “days of work.”  Experiencing Divine revelation during the week requires work.  Through the struggle, we can experience an aspect of Shabbos during the weekdays.  In fact, Shabbos can be defined as a state of God’s revelation.

Ya’akov Avinu’s sojourn outside of the land of Israel was a descent from a place in which God’s Presence is most revealed to a place where it is most hidden.  It parallels the decent from Shabbos to the days of the week.  Ya’akov Avinu’s return to the land of Israel after spending twenty-two years abroad represents an elevation from the spiritual level of the days of the week, from struggle to experience God, to that of Shabbos during which God is more revealed.

Significantly, the Midrash says that Ya’akov Avinu arrived on Erev Shabbos.  The word erev/evening, also means “mixed together”.  Erev Shabbos alludes to the idea that we can mix aspects of Shabbos into the weekdays.  Ya’akov Avinu’s return to the land of Israel on Erev Shabbos represents his struggle to elevate his weekdays to a level of Shabbos in order to experience revelation during the week as well. 

We learn from Ya’akov Avinu that regardless of outward appearances, we, too, through hard work, can experience an aspect of Shabbos – Divine revelation – during the weekdays.  May we merit it!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

VaYeitzei 5634 First Ma'amar

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶך חָרָנָה/Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva; he went towards Charan.” (Breishis 28:10)  Rashi, quoting a Midrash asks the obvious question.  The beginning of this pasuk seems extraneous.[1]  We know where Ya’akov Avinu lived.  Unless there is an indication otherwise, we can assume that his point of departure was Be’er Sheva, his hometown.  Why does the Torah tell us this?

The Sfas Emes explains that, “וַיֵּצֵא/He left”, implies an orderly, prearranged journey.  The pasuk makes a point of telling us that he left to teach us that although Ya’akov Avinu fled, he prepared for his journey.  Usually when someone flees, he is happy to escape with his life.  There is usually not much time to prepare.  There is little forethought and one’s actions are anything but orderly.  We know that Ya’akov Avinu fled.  Rivka told him, “בְּרַח־לְךָ/flee for yourself,” and the prophet said, “וַיִּבְרַח יַעֲקֹב/Yaakov fled.”  Yet, even though he was forced to run, he prepared.

He was leaving the holy environment of his father’s home.  In Charan, he would be surrounded by idolatry and decadence.  Ya’akov knew that he would need to prepare in order to survive the difficult spiritual assault on his very being.  For this reason the first Midrash on the parsha applies the following pasuk to Ya’akov, “אָז תֵּלֵךְ לָבֶטַח דַּרְכֶּךָ .../Then you shall go securely on your way …” (Mishlei 3:23)  And a few pesukim later in Mishlei we find, “... אִם־תָּרוּץ לֹא תִכָּשֵׁל/… if you run, you will not stumble.”  The Midrash is teaching us that Ya’akov’s preparation would protect him.

What did Ya’akov Avinu do to prepare for his journey?  The kabbalists say that he connected to a higher spiritual level.  Be’er Sheva represents the high spiritual level he was on.  Ya’akov Avinu left this high level to connect to an even higher level.[2]

Furthermore, according to the principle of מַעֲשֶׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים/The deeds of the forefathers is a sign for the descendents, everything that Ya’akov did when he fled to Charan, was also to prepare us, his descendents, for our own exile.

The definition of exile is concealment of God just as the definition of redemption is God’s revelation.  Ya’akov Avinu knew that our exile would lead us to places where God is most hidden.  Ya’akov Avinu wanted to prepare us for this terrible exile.  This is why he put himself in all the places in which it would be very difficult to experience God, indeed, to even believe that His Presence is there.

The Torah therefore tells us, “וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם/He chanced upon the place.”  Ya’akov Avinu was brought to a place that was so “far” from God, so to speak, that even he, who was unimaginably sensitive to God’s presence, was able to declare, “אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה׳ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעתִּי/Indeed, God is in this place and I did not know!’  God brought Ya’akov to the lowest spiritual place, where it is difficult to believe that God’s Presence resides, and showed him that, “... מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ/… the entire world is filled with His glory.”

With this concept we can understand the significance of the fact that it was specifically Ya’akov Avinu who instituted the evening prayers.  Evening represents exile and God’s concealment just as morning represents redemption and God’s revelation.  By instituting the evening prayers, Ya’akov Avinu taught us that we are able to approach God and experience Him even in exile, even where He is concealed. 

Many times we find ourselves in situations that belie God’s Presence.  We can learn from Ya’akov Avinu that appearances are deceiving.  The truth is that God’s Presence is ubiquitous and we have the ability to experience Him regardless of external appearances.  It is a matter of cultivating a belief in the truth even if our surroundings are sending us a different message.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis R. 68:6, Rashi ad loc.
[2] Magid Meisharim VaYeitzei Mahadura Kama – Be’er Sheva represents Knesses Yisrael and the seven lower Sefiros.  VaYeilech and Charanah represent connecting with the three higher Sefiros.  See source for more detail.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Toldos 5632 First Ma'amar

This week’s parsha relates the story of the three wells that Yitzchak’s servants dug. (Breishis 26:19-22)    Yitzchak called the first two wells Eisek and Sitnah respectively.  He called the third well Rechovos.  These names relate to the argument that Yitzchak’s shepherds had with Avimelech’s shepherds regarding ownership of the wells.  However, the Sfas Emes elaborates on the deeper significance behind these names.

The Chidushei HaRim teaches that digging a well in search of water is a metaphor for the search to uncover the Godliness hidden in the physical world. 

The first two wells Eisek and Sitnah represent this search during the days of the week.  Eisek means to work at and Sitnah comes from the word hate as in hating the evil inclination.  During the week, through sincere effort and by totally disdaining the evil inclination, we are able to find the spiritual Godly light that is hidden in the Creation.    
Rechovos represents Shabbos.  The word Rechovos has the same root as the Hebrew word for expansion.  This is in fact the source of the name, “... כִּ־עַתָּה הִרְחִיב ה׳ לָנוּ .../For now, God has expanded for us …” (Breishis 26:22)  On Shabbos there is an expansion of the hidden spark of holiness that is within every part of the physical world.  It is this spiritual spark of holiness that is the source of physical existence, of life itself in the material world, and on Shabbos it is more revealed.

Our forefathers’ entire service to God was an exercise in uncovering the Godliness in the Creation.  Their singular purpose was for our benefit.  They did not need to do this for themselves.  To them, the holiness inherent in the world was already evident.  They worked to reveal God’s glory in the physical world so that we would be able to emulate them and also uncover the holiness that is hidden within the world.

Another well, mentioned in last week’s parsha, was called, “בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי/Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.” (Breishis 16:14)  What is the significance of this name?  Why is it important to note that God sees me?  The Sfas Emes teaches the significance of God’s observation.  In the description of the Creation at the beginning of parshas Breishis, as each stage of Creation comes to a close we find the declaration, “וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב/God saw that it was good.” (Breishis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25)  The Sfas Emes explains that God’s observation and His Providence are one and the same.  God bestows good upon His Creation by observing it.  The good that God bestows is the Divine which manifests as the physical existence and life that is this world.  It is God’s observation/Providence which gives life to the Creation.

The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me refers to this idea.  God seeing me is the same as saying that God’s Providence is with me.  It is the good that is within me that God “sees” thus giving me life, just as He saw the good in every aspect of the Creation thus causing its existence.  We are enjoined to emulate God, connect with the hidden spirituality and see the good that is inherent in everyone and everything.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chayei Sarah 5631 First Ma'amar (second half) and Second Ma'amar

In the first half the ma’amar, the Sfas Emes teaches that the actions of  Sarah Imeinu, and all righteous people, cause the Creation to be more elevated toward its spiritual roots.  God’s glory, which is hidden but present in the physical Creation, thus becomes revealed through the actions of the righteous.  (Click here to read the first half of the ma’amar.)
With this concept we can understand the deep teaching of a seemingly mundane Midrash in this week’s parsha.  The Midrash[1] relates that during the course of a lecture, Rebbi Akiva noticed that some people were dozing.  In order to regain their attention he asked, “Why did Esther merit ruling over 127 provinces?”  He answered, “Esther as the granddaughter of Sarah who lived for 127 years, ruled over 127 provinces.”
What is the connection between the years of Sarah’s life and the number of provinces over which Esther ruled?  The Sfas Emes explains that since time was created and therefore exists only in the physical world, it represents nature.  Nature conceals God. 
Each year has its own unique form of concealment and needs its own unique rectification.  No two years are the same.  Therefore, what works to reveal God in one period, will not work in a different period.  Each period is different.  We have the ability to reveal God’s glory that is hidden within nature, within time.  In fact, this is the purpose of the Creation and of our very lives.  Indeed, Sarah Imeinu succeeded in revealing God during each of the years of her life.
Achashveirosh’s rule over 127 provinces was a tremendous concealment of God.  Esther was able to reveal God through her rule over these provinces in spite of Achashveirosh, in the merit of her grandmother Sarah who revealed God during the 127 years of her life.
The ones who were dozing during Rebbi Akiva’s lecture represent the concealment the evil inclination causes that lulls us to sleep.  Rebbi Akiva used the same merit of Sarah Imeinu to awaken the dozers from their state of concealment.  In the process he taught that the goal of life is to reveal God in the natural world.
We find this same concept in a Tanchuma on this week’s parsha which quotes this pasuk, “לֹא־תִירָא לְבֵיתָהּ מִשָּׁלֶג כִּי כָל־בֵּיתָהּ לָבֻשׁ שָׁנִים/She is not afraid of snow for her household, for her entire household is clothed in scarlet wool.”  The Midrash explains that this pasuk is a metaphor.  Snow represents gehinnomשָׁנִים/scarlet wool, which can also be read שְׁנַיִם/two, represents two mitzvos, Shabbos and circumcision.  The Midrash translates the pasuk as, “She need not fear gehinnom because in her house there are two fundamental mitzvos, Shabbos and circumcision.”
What compelled the Midrash to choose specifically the mitzvos of Shabbos and circumcision instead of any other pair of mitzvos.?  The Sfas Emes explains that this Midrash is addressing the issue of God’s concealment and revelation. 
Gehinnom is the ultimate concealment of  God.  The Sfas Emes notes that scarlet wool as well represents God’s concealment as we find, “.. חֲטָאֵיכֶם כַּשָׁנִים .../... your transgressions are like scarlet wool.” (Yeshaya 1:18)  Transgressions create a barrier between us and God and the prophet compares transgressions to scarlet wool.  The Midrash is giving us a solution, a tool for a situation in which God is concealed. 
The solution, the Midrash teaches is observing Shabbos and circumcision.  Why these two mitzvos specifically? The Sfas Emes explains that, whereas fulfilling any mitzvah elevates the physical and reveals God, the nature of both Shabbos and circumcision are especially associated with the revelation of God.  
Elsewhere[2], the Sfas Emes teaches that Shabbos can be defined as a state of God’s revelation.  We experience an aspect of Shabbos during the week, as well.  By recognizing the spiritual within our mundane activities during the week, we reveal the spiritual.  When we work to fulfill God’s will during the week, we also experience more spiritual elevation on Shabbos.
Circumcision, as well, represents revelation.  The removal of the foreskin represents the removal of the outer physical shell hiding God’s presence.[3]
A situation in which God is concealed lends itself to fear.  The Midrash is teaching us that we have in our power to change the situation and remove the barrier that conceals God by carefully observing Shabbos and circumcision.  Shabbos is a revelation of God and circumcision teaches us that we can effect God’s revelation in the physical world.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis R. 58:3
[2] Sfas Emes Tetzei 5631 First Ma’amar
[3] See Sfas Emes VaYeira 5632 First Ma’mar and 5633 First Ma’amar for more detail on this idea.

Friday, November 06, 2009

VaYeira 5634 First Ma'amar

The first Tanchuma[1] on the parsha discusses at length how many brachos are in our prayers for different significant days during the year.  Specifically, the Sfas Emes addresses the difference between our weekday and Shabbos prayers.  Why do we pray for material things during the week and on Shabbos we only pray for rest? 
To answer this question, we need to understand what prayer is, why we pray and what prayer accomplishes.  Prayer as we are wont to think of it, is difficult to understand for two reasons.  First, why inform God of our needs since He is omniscient and obviously knows our needs better than we do.  Secondly, asking for our needs implies that God changes His mind, so to speak.  Prayer implies that we can convince God of the legitimacy of our request.  Infinity belies change.  The infinite God does not change His mind.  For prayer to the infinite God to make sense, we need a different understanding of what it is, why we do it and what it accomplishes.
We can gain a deeper understanding of prayer by studying Avraham Avinu’s relationship with God before and after his circumcision. 
The Midrash[2] on the parsha cites a pasuk in Iyov.  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 attributes these words to Avraham Avinu as well.  Avraham Avinu continues, “If I had not circumcised myself how could God have been revealed to me?”  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 Chiddushei HaRim points out that the word, “zos/this” in the pasuk is a reference to the innermost point of spirituality within every aspect of the physical Creation.  Indeed, the Zohar[3] states that the zos is a hint to the kingdom of heaven.  Certainly God gives life and existence to everything always, “... וְאַתָּה מְחַיֶּה אֶת כֻּלָּם ... /... and you give life to everything …” (Nechemia 9:6).  However, we do not always recognize this.  God is sometimes more revealed than at other times.  He always permeates the entire Creation, though, and if we could see through the screen that we call the physical Creation, He would be revealed to us. 
This, the Midrash[4] tells us, is exactly what happened to Avraham Avinu as a result of the circumcision.  The Midrash, referring to the circumcision, cites this pasuk, “סוֹד ה' לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ לְהוֹדִיעָם/God’s secret is for those who fear Him and His covenant is made known to them.” (Tehillim 25:14
Certainly God spoke with Avraham before, but after the circumcision Avraham Avinu was able to recognize the spiritual roots of every aspect of the Creation.  This is the reason that the first words of this week’s parsha are the more general, “וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה' .../And God appeared to him …” (Breishis 18:1) rather than the more specific, “וַיֵּרָא ה' אֶל־אַבְרָם/And God appeared to Avram” (Breishis 17:1) as the pasuk states in the previous parsha.  After the circumcision, Avram experienced a general revelation.  He saw God everywhere and in everything. 
The first pasuk of the parsha continues, “... וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח־הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם/… and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.”  This, the Sfas Emes says, can be understood homiletically.  The tent represents closeness to God.  Certainly Avraham had a burning desire, like the heat of the day, to enter the tent, to be close to God.  Still, he felt unworthy of gazing upon God’s Presence that he was able to see in everything.  He did not enter the tent but stayed outside.
Avraham Avinu, because he was on such a high spiritual level and recognized God everywhere felt unworthy of coming closer to God, of gazing upon the Divine Presence.  Chazal[5] tell us that, instead, God came to Avraham to “visit the ill.”  However, those of us who are not on such a high level, who do not see God in everything must strive to strengthen ourselves and come closer to God.
Conventionally, we think of coming close to God in spiritual terms.  However, when we understand that everything we receive is from God, receiving material blessing from Him is also a revelation.  When we ask God for our physical needs, we are actually acknowledging this and requesting that God bring our physical bodies, that benefit from the material blessing, closer to Him, to holiness.  Although couched in the language of requests, the prayers are really affirmations that we use to affirm and strengthen our belief that everything that comes to us, comes from God.  This belief brings us closer to God through the physical.
However, someone like Avraham Avinu, who actually experiences God in every aspect of the physical world around him, and recognizes his own lowliness in relationship to God, is ashamed to ask God for his material needs and in fact has no need to ask.  He already knows that everything is from God.  Regarding his physical being and needs Avraham Avinu says, “אָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר/I am dust and ash.” (Breishis 18:27)  Instead he sits at the entrance to the tent and yearns to simply fulfill God’s will.
We actually mimic this approach on Shabbos, “אִם־תָּשִׁיב מִשַׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶךָ בּיֹום קָדְשִׁי ... אָז תִּתְעַנַּג עַל-ה' .../If you restrain your foot because it is the Shabbos and refrain from attending to your own needs on My holy day … then you will delight in God …” (Yeshaya 48:13-14)  We do not ask for our physical needs on Shabbos because more spiritual enlightenment is revealed and there is therefore no need to ask for these things.  Rather, Chazal established that we request מְנוּחָה/rest and purity in our service to God on Shabbos. 
And God remembers the righteous as well, “... אֵין מַחְסוֹר לִירֵאָיו/Those who fear Him do not lack.” (Tehillim 34:10)  Therefore, a person who is ill, will be healed through the Shabbos prayers even though there is no request for this.  This is why the Midrash says that when Avraham Avinu sat in pain from the circumcision, God came to visit him even though Avraham did not pray for this.  Life and healing are drawn from the innermost spark of Divine Presence that inheres in Avraham Avinu. 
The potential for life, healing and plenty is right here with us all the time.  For Avraham Avinu and for us on Shabbos this understanding is experienced and there is therefore no need to strengthen our faith by affirming that they are from God through prayer.  During the week when it is concealed from us, we ask for the revelation.  May we merit it.  Amen!

[1] Tanchuma VaYeira 1
[2] Breishis R. 48:2
[3] Zohar 1:93b-94a
[4] Tanchuma Lech Lecha 19
[5] Sotah 14a