Friday, April 24, 2009

Tazria-Metzora 5631 Third Ma'amar

The Torah encourages us to be humble. In this week’s parsha we find that a leper, as part of his atonement, brings the branches of a cedar and a hyssop tree to the priest. The cedar tree is very tall representing haughtiness. The hyssop is low representing humility. Rashi explains that if a person transgressed because of haughtiness he should practice humility. The Sfas Emes asks that since this is a procedure for atonement, why bring the cedar branch which reminds us of the leper’s transgression?

The Sfas Emes explains that there is actually a close connection between arrogance and humbleness. To understand that connection we need to understand what it means to be humble. Does being humble mean denying one’s accomplishments? The Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu was more humble than any other person. Yet, Moshe Rabbeinu, the Arizal teaches, was the repository of knowledge for the entire nation of Israel. He certainly was aware of this! Wouldn’t denying it be akin to a lie? If we must acknowledge our accomplishments for the sake of truth, how then, do we practice humility?

Humility, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is not concerned with denying or acknowledging accomplishments. Rather, humility is concerned with to whom we attribute credit for those achievements. The arrogant claims credit. The humble credits God. Crediting God for our achievements is truth because everything, including our ability to act, comes from Him. In fact, God’s desire is for us to reach a level on which we know that everything comes from Him.

The parameter that we add to the equation is our desire to achieve, to accomplish, to do. But it is impossible for us to know how much of what we accomplish is due to our desire to reach a specific goal and how much is due to God’s hand. Therefore, it behooves us to attribute all of our accomplishments to Him for how can we possibly be proud of something that is not ours?

With this concept we can understand a difficult passage in the morning prayers, מַשְׁפִּיל גֵאִים וּמַגְבִּיהַּ שְׁפָלִים/He humbles the arrogant and lifts the lowly.” The Chiddushei HaRim cites the Rav of Parshischa who asks that this passage seems like a never ending cycle. Does God raise the lowly who now must be humbled and then once humbled lift him up again, etc? This cannot be.

Therefore the Rav of Parshisch explains, and the Sfas Emes elaborates, that a person who knows that everything in his world is from God, realizes his own lowliness but is also raised up by the knowledge that God is active in his life. It is like being connected to God. This person is truly on a high level. This is the meaning of, “מַגְבִּיהַּ שְׁפָלִים/He lifts the lowly.” The lowly person remains lowly in his eyes because he knows that he cannot take credit for his accomplishments. However, he is raised up because he also knows that God has helped him. We find this concept in a pasuk in Yirmiyahu, “... אַל־יִתְהַלֵּל חָכָם בְּחָכְמָתוֹ וְאַל־יִתְהַלֵּל הַגִּבּוֹר בִּגְבוּרָתוֹ אַל יִתְהַלֵּל עָשִׁיר בְּעָשְׁרוֹ כִּי אִם־בְּזֹאת יִתְהַלֵּל הַמִּתְהַלֵּל הַשְׂכֵּל וְיָדֹעַ אוֹתִי .../… The wise man should not boast of his wisdom, and the strong man should not boast of his strength; the rich man should not boast of his wealth. Rather he that boasts should boast of this, that he understands and knows Me …” It is the knowledge of God, which includes, of course, that everything we are is from Him, that raises us up.

The arrogant who takes credit for his achievements is, in absolute terms, very lowly. By denying God’s hand in his achievements he cuts himself off from God. There is no one lower than he who is cut off from God. This is the meaning of, “מַשְׁפִּיל גֵאִים/He lowers the arrogant.” Their very haughtiness is what causes their truthfully low status.

This concept is the explanation of an enigmatic Zohar as well. The Zohar states that one who is lowly is great. One who is great is lowly. The Sfas Emes explains that one who is lowly in his own eyes because he attributes his achievements to God, is great. One who is great in his own eyes because he takes credit for his achievements, is in fact lowly. Arrogance is a sign of a person’s lowly status.[1]

The leper does not bring a cedar branch representing arrogance to remind him of his transgression. Rather he brings both a cedar branch and a hyssop branch to show that one informs the other. The arrogant are truly lowly, whereas the humble are truly on a high level.

May we merit attributing all our achievements to God thus experiencing Him constantly in our daily lives.

[1] We find in the Zohar (3:193b) that the sign of someone who knows nothing is one who sings his own praises.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pesach 5632 Seventh Day of Pesach First Ma'amar

The children of Israel were miraculously saved from Egypt. Three days after leaving, God instructed us to return in order to goad Pharaoh into pursuit. We ended up trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea. God saved the nation once again through the miracle of the splitting of the sea. The question that jumps out at us when reviewing this is, what was the point of returning after the nation left Egypt? What was gained by this?

The Sfas Emes explains the difference between the salvation from Egypt and the salvation from the Egyptian army at the sea seven days later. He teaches that God saved us from Egypt initially in order to make good on His promise to our holy forefathers. We were not really ready to be saved and did not deserve to be saved at that time.

God, however, wanted us to deserve salvation because there is a fundamental difference between one who deserves what he receives and one who does not. Being saved and not deserving it does not make one free. Freedom must be earned. Otherwise, the slave remains a slave albeit without a master. In order to be truly free, we would need to earn our salvation.

We earned our salvation, Chazal teach us, by returning towards Egypt. This took an incredible amount of faith in God. It was because of this expression of faith that we ultimately deserved to be saved. This is why returned to a place called, “פִּי הַחִירֹת/the Mouth of Freedom”. It was at this time that our true freedom began.

God commanded us to return so that we could leave on our own merit. However, this really only begs the question. Why was the Exodus a two step process? Why redeem us with undeserved miracles first, then redeem us again because we earned it? Why not redeem us once on the basis of our own merits? According to the Sfas Emes, Shlomo HaMelech teaches us the answer to this question with the pasuk, מָשְׁכֵנִי אַחֲרֶיךָ נָּרוּצָה .../Draw me, then we will run after You …” Without the initial Godly revelation of the Exodus, we would not have been able to stand up to test of faith demanded of us by being required to return towards the Egyptian army. The miraculous Exodus taught us that God is with us. We used the miraculous Exodus from Egypt to strengthen our faith and trust in God. In the merit of our strong faith and trust in God, we were saved at the Red Sea.

This is why specifically at the splitting of the sea the Torah tells us, “וַיּוֹשַׁע ה' בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל .../On that day God saved Israel …” when in fact, God saved us seven days earlier and it is our miraculous rescue from Egypt that we are required to remember each day rather than the rescue at the sea. Still, the Torah calls the rescue at the sea the “salvation” because we deserved it. Since we deserved it, it was a true salvation, one with a lasting effect.

Also, because we were being saved on our own merits, Chazal teach us that at the time of the splitting of the sea we were being judged whether to be saved or destroyed with the Egyptians.[1] We were not judged at the time of the Exodus because the Exodus, as we’ve stated was in the merit of God’s promise to our forefathers rather than our own merits.

The Sfas Emes is teaching us that God wants us to earn closeness to Him. In order to help us, He first gives us an undeserved experience of closeness to Him. If we take advantage of this experience by using it as a stepping stone to become even closer to God, we are rewarded with God’s reciprocation.

[1] Mechilta Beshalach 4

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pesach 5631 First Day Fourth Ma'amar

Why do we read Shir HaShirim on Pesach? The Sfas Emes teaches that there is a close connection between Shir HaShirim and Pesach.

Shir HaShirim is a love song. Shir HaShirim uses the love between a man and a woman as a metaphor for how to love God. Essentially, Shir HaShirim teaches us that every aspect of this world is only an allegory to help us understand the love that we need to have for God.

This is a difficult level to attain. It is particularly difficult to view this world as a metaphor when it seems so real to us because we are so attached to it, to fulfill our physical desires and needs.

On Pesach, though, this task becomes easier. On Pesach God showed us that His divine will works through nature. God directly involved Himself in rescuing us from Egypt. The spiritual underpinnings of the physical world were revealed on Pesach through God’s direct involvement in the physical events that led to our salvation.

Pesach is therefore called זמן חירותנו/the time of our freedom. Time represents the natural world because time exists only in the physical world. On Pesach we can free ourselves from our attachment to the physical and learn God’s will from nature.

Therefore, the message of Shir HaShirim and that of Pesach complement each other. Shir HaShirim teaches us to view the world as a metaphor from which we can learn how best to serve God. Pesach is the best time to do this because Pesach is the “time of our freedom”. It is when God revealed to us His providence in the physical world.

This is why Shir HaShirim is read specifically on Pesach.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Pesach 5631 First Night First Ma'amar

בְּכָל דוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָיב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם ... לֹא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינּו בִּלְּבָד גָאַל הקב"ה אֶלָא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָאַל עִמָהֶם שֶׁנֶאֶמַר, 'וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָׁם'/In each and every generation a man must look upon himself as if he left Egypt… God did not only redeem our forefathers. He redeemed us with them as it says, ‘He took us from there. (Devarim 6:26)” (Pesach Haggadah)

The Torah says simply that God took us out of Egypt. Why does the Haggadah author instruct us to view ourselves individually as if we left Egypt? Also, why did he choose to preface his instruction with, “בְּכָל דוֹר וָדוֹר/In each and every generation”? What does this add to our understanding of this teaching?

The Sfas Emes explains that the Exodus contained the seeds of all future redemptions. In Hebrew the word “מִצְרַיִם/Egypt” has the same root as the word for distress – מֵצַר, and it connotes a constricted path. Each generation has its own particular issues, its own constricted path that prevents it from serving God to the hilt, that prevents it from experiencing God’s presence. Each generation has its own “Exodus” as well, its own redemption that is uniquely appropriate for the tribulations of the generation. Each generation’s unique redemption was included in the original Exodus. The original Exodus made possible all future redemptions just as a seed makes possible the subsequent tree that grows out of it. The author alludes to the uniqueness of each generation by prefacing the instruction to remember the Exodus with, “בְּכָל דוֹר וָדוֹר/In each and every generation.”

The Maharal[1] explains that as part of the nation of Israel we were included in the Exodus. In order to experience our own personal redemption, though, we must view ourselves individually as if we left Egypt. When a person sees himself as part of the nation – by seeing himself as if he left Egypt – and believes that the seeds of his generation’s redemption hark back to the Exodus, his personal redemption will be revealed to him. Then he will be able to break out of those bonds holding him back from serving God to the utmost. He will be able to break free of his own constraints and experience a personal “Exodus.”

This same concept appears regarding the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus. We find in the Hagaddah, “... וְאֲפִילוּ כּוּלָנוּ חַכָמִים ... מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם .../… and even if we are all scholars … we are required to tell the story of the Exodus...” Why is it incumbent even upon scholars, who certainly know the story of the Exodus well, to repeat it? God is more manifest to a Torah scholar than to others. God’s revelation is simply another way of saying redemption. Saying that God is revealed to a Torah scholar, is the same as saying that there is a redemption in his generation. This redemption is possible only because of the redemption from Egypt. It has its roots in the redemption from Egypt. However the scholar will only experience this redemption personally by believing that its source is the redemption from Egypt. He tells over the story of the Exodus to demonstrate his belief that the original Exodus contained the seeds of every future redemption. By relating the story of the Exodus he attests that it is relevant today and to his own personal situation.

According to the level of our faith that each of us were part of the original Exodus, our own redemption will be revealed to us and we will be able to overcome our own personal constraints and experience a personal redemption.

[1] Gevuros HaShem 61

Friday, April 03, 2009

Shabbos HaGadol (Tzav) 5631 First Ma'amar

Why do we call the Shabbos before Pesach, Shabbos HaGadol – The Great Shabbos? Various reasons are brought. The Chiddushei HaRim[1] gives two answers. The first one follows.

The Chiddushei HaRim associates this question with a similar question we find in a Gemara[2] regarding the name of the assembly of Torah greats that functioned during the Babylonian exile and at the beginning of the second Beis HaMikdash.

R’ Yehoshua ben Levi asks, “Why are they called Anshei K’nesses HaGedola – Men of the Great Assembly? Because they returned the crown to its former glory. Moshe said, ‘God, the great, the strong and the awesome.’ Yirmiyahu said, ‘Gentiles are cackling in His sanctuary. Where is the awe?’ (Therefore), he did not say, ‘the awesome.’ Daniel said, ‘Gentiles are enslaving His children. Where is His strength?’ (Therefore), he did not say, ‘the strong.’ They came and said, ‘Just the opposite. His strength is because He overcomes His anger and displays patience to the wicked. His awesomeness is because if it weren’t for the fear of God, one nation (Israel) would not be able to exist amidst all the others.”

Yirmiyahu and Daniel never removed the appellation “great” and it therefore never had to be returned. It is true that the Anshei K’nesses HaGedola returned, “the strong” and, “the awesome” but why is this a reason to call their assembly, “great?” The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the Anshei K’nesses HaGedola did more than give a novel definition to God’s awesomeness and strength during the exile. They realized that God’s patience towards our enemies and the trying circumstances in which we survived the exile were the very key to making the subsequent redemption complete. After the redemption from our enemies in Persia and the miracle of Purim, it became clear that everything that we endured, that His “awesomeness” and “strength,” were indications of God’s great love for us. This realization was understandably missing during the tribulations of the exile. For this reason they were called the “great” assembly. They really returned the understanding of God’s greatness.

The Chiddushei HaRim applies this same concept to the Creation. The Creation is an expression of God’s glory. However, this only became apparent when the Creation was completed, on Shabbos. Then it became clear that the entire Creation is really one tool, each part of which works toward the common goal of revealing God’s glory. When we say that it became clear, the meaning is that it became clear to man. God created the world for man to recognize Him through it. Before the nation of Israel accepted the Torah, only individuals recognized God in the Creation. The first time that an entire nation did a collective act recognizing God as the Creator was on the Shabbos before the Exodus when we performed the mitzvah of taking the lamb in preparation for the Korban Pesach. In terms of recognizing God in the Creation, this Shabbos was the culmination of Shabbos Breishis. On this Shabbos, it finally became clear to an entire people that everything that happened until this point in history including the Creation itself was the hand of the Creator. God’s greatness was finally revealed in the Creation. We commemorate the revelation of God’s greatness on this Shabbos by calling it Shabbos HaGadol – the great Shabbos.

The Sfas Emes adds to this. The Rambam[3] says that Avraham Avinu yearned for an entire nation to affirm God’s rule. God then promised him, “I will make you into a great nation.”[4] The pasuk tells us, though, that the nation of Israel is the smallest of the nations. In what way, then, is Israel considered a great nation? The Zohar[5] answers that the nation is considered great because of the mitzvos that we were commanded to fulfill, “וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים .../And who is a great nation who has statutes and laws …” (Devarim 4:8) This Shabbos which commemorates the first time the nation performed a mitzvah is appropriately called Shabbos HaGadol – the Great Shabbos.

[1] Chidushei HaRim Shabbos HaGadol

[2] Sotah 69b

[3] Moreh Nevuchim 3:51

[4] Breishis 12:2

[5] Zohar 2:164a (Cited in 5652)