Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lech Lecha 5634 First Ma'amar

The first Midrash[1] on this week’s parsha compares this world to a burning palace.  A wayfarer passes and wonders if someone owns the palace since it is burning and there seems to be no one around.  Just then the owner sticks his head out and says that he owns the palace.  The wayfarer represents Avraham Avinu and the owner of the palace is God.
What is the meaning of this parable?  What lesson is the Midrash teaching?
To understand this Midrash we need to answer a question that arises in the first pasuk of the parsha, “וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל־אַבְרָם לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ ... אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ/God said to Avram leave your country … for the land that I will show you.” (Breishis 12:1)  Why did God not tell Avraham Avinu the name of the land to which he was being sent?  What point the suspense?
The Sfas Emes answers that God gets more satisfaction, as it were, from our desire to come close to Him and to understand His Torah than in our actually reaching our goal.  The truth is that we can never reach the ultimate goal because God is infinite and we are finite.  We reach a certain level of closeness to God and of understanding and realize that there is so much more before us.
Therefore, our desire to come close to God is the main thing.  It is in the merit of this desire that we progress at all.  And when we reach a milestone, we need to ingrain the lesson deep into our essence so that we are spurred on to work towards the next milestone.  It is this desire that keeps us moving from goal to goal and from milestone to milestone in a cycle that lasts for our entire lives.  There is no rest in this world, “כִּי־אָדָם לְעָמָל יוּלָּד .../For man is born to toil …” (Iyov 5:7)  Rest only comes for the righteous in the next world.
Avraham Avinu looked around and instead of finding a world in which everything is in its place and at “rest” – a completed world – he found a world in which nothing is in its place; a world which needs a lot of work; a world that needs to be attended to.  He found, in the words of the parable, “a burning palace.”  Why is there no rest in this world, was Avraham Avinu’s question.  Why was the world created in an incomplete state?
God answered him that our mission is to work on coming close to God our entire lives.  There is no rest in this world.  The only possible setting for this is a world that is in an incomplete state; a world in which God is not apparent, in the words of the parable, the palace is burning and the owner is nowhere to be found.  God did not immediately tell Avraham Avinu to which land he was being to teach him this lesson.  You can never reach a state of completion in this world.  You can only desire and pine for it your entire life.
The Midrash applies this concept to explain a redundancy in the following pasuk, “שִׁמְעִי־בַת וּרְאִי וְהַטִּי אָזְנֵךְ וְשִׁכְחִי עַמֵּךְ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ/Listen daughter and see and incline your ear; forget your people and your fathers’ house.” (Tehillim 45:11)  Why does the pasuk tell the daughter to listen and then again to incline her ear?  The pasuk is referring to this.  Life is a never ending cycle of listening, working to come close to God, reaching milestones and then listening again to reach the next level.
The Chiddushei HaRim[2] sees a hint to this concept in the word the Midrash uses for “burning” – דוֹלֶקֶת. This word also means, “pursue” as we find, “... דָלַקְתָּ אַחֲרָי/… you pursued me.” (Breishis 31:36)  The Midrash is alluding to the concept that the world is structured around the theme that everything in it constantly pines for and pursues a state of completion, each creation in its unique role. 
Our job is to cultivate an intense desire to come close to God and to understand His Torah.  May we merit internalizing this lesson and applying it to our lives.  Amen.

[1] Breishis R. 39:1
[2] Chiddushei HaRim on the Torah Lech Lecha s.v. divrei hamidrash

Thursday, October 22, 2009

No'ach 5631 Third Ma'amar (second half)

In the first half of this ma’amar, the Sfas Emes shows that the generation of the Flood was destroyed because the people of that generation benefited from the world without recognizing God in it.  The second half of the ma’amar contrasts this approach with the approach of the generation of the haflaga/dispersal – the generation that built the tower of Babel.
The generation that built the tower of Babel recognized God.  They clearly understood that everything that they had came from Him.  But this knowledge put them at His mercy.  They wanted freedom from God.  They also understood that God runs the world through a hierarchical system of spiritual “ministers”.  Every component of the physical universe has a spiritual “minister” or root through which that physical component is sustained.  The generation of the tower of Babel wanted to distance themselves from God and deal only with the components of the universe.  They felt this would give them the freedom to do as they pleased.
The recognition of the One God is a unifying force.  The generation of the haflaga was unified because of it.  Although the Torah calls the generation of the haflaga עַם אֶחָד/one nation (Breishis 11:6), the Chiddushei HaRim[1] says this is a reference to the nation of Israel.  How so?  The Sfas Emes explains that the nation of Israel is associated closely with worshipping the One God, the exact opposite of believing in many different forces that govern the world.  The belief in One God unifies us.  Idol worship separates people.
Chazal[2] teach us that a person who observes the Shabbos is forgiven even for idol worship.  The wording of Chazal implies that he worships idols even as he observes the Shabbos.  But how can this be?  They contradict each other.  Observing Shabbos is a testimony to a unifying force in the world.  Shabbos was the culmination of the Creation.  The Creation was seen as one unified system on Shabbos, created by One Creator.  Idol worship is the exact opposite.  It is a testimony to many forces and a disbelief in the unity of the Creation.  How, then, can Shabbos and idol worship exist in the same person at the same time?  The Sfas Emes answers that they cannot.  Since the two cannot exist simultaneously in the same person, it is obvious that he is not really an idol worshipper and he is accepted as one who believes in one God.  He is therefore “forgiven” for whatever infraction he transgressed.
Although the generation of the haflaga wanted their unity, they also wanted their freedom.  They wanted at the same time to be separated from God.  This is a contradiction and therefore their unity was taken from them.
We find this concept in the Zohar[3] on our parsha as well.  Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai explains the pasuk, “וְהַבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ אֶבֶן־שְׁלֵמָה מַסָּע נִבְנָה וּמַקָּבוֹת וְהַגַּרְזֶן כָּל־כְּלִי בַרְזֶל לֹא־נִשְׁמַע בַּבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ/When the Temple was being built, it was build of complete quarried stone; no hammers, chisels nor any iron utensils were heard in the Temple while it was being built.” 
Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches that the tools used to build the Temple represent the lower spiritual forces that directly influence the physical world.  Their not being heard refers to their subordinating themselves to the Shechina through which they receive sustenance from the upper spiritual realms.  When they are not heard, then, there is unity in the world.  There cannot be unity in the physical world without a corresponding subordination to its ultimate Root, God Himself.

[1] Chiddushei HaRim on the Torah No’ach s.v. hein am
[2] Shabbos 118b
[3] Zohar 1:74a-b s.v. umakavos vehagarzen

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Breishis 5631 Third Ma'amar

Note:  This week on Tuesday was the yartzeit of Rebbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev zt"l.  The following ma'amar is based on a question that Rebbi Levi Yitzchak asked in his sefer Kedushas Levi.  May it be a nachas ru'ach for him and l'ilui nishmaso hatehora.

The Torah is primarily a book of instruction to teach us the mitzvos.  The Midrash[1] asks, why then, does the Torah not begin with the first mitzvah?  The first mitzvah that God gave us as a nation was the mitzvah of keeping the calendar, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים .../This month shall be for you the beginning of the months …” (Shmos 12:2)  Why is this not the beginning of the Torah?
Before we get to the answer the Midrash gives, Rebbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev[2] asks that Chazal[3] taught us the Torah has to start with the letter ב/beis.  How then can the Midrash ask that is should have started from the first mitzvah?
The reasons that Chazal give explaining why the Torah must start with the letter ב/beis gives us a clue to the answer.  Chazal teach us that the Torah had to start with the letter beis because it is the first letter of the word בְּרָכָה/blessing.  Beis is also the second letter of the alphabet.  It is a hint that God created two worlds, this physical world and the next spiritual world.  The Zohar[4], as well, explains that each letter came to God to ask that the world be created starting with it.  God’s answer to each was specific to that letter but the general idea was that it would have been inappropriate for the physical world to be created with that letter.  The only letter that is appropriate is the beis because of its association with blessing.
While this is certainly a beautiful Midrash, why are these reasons compelling enough for the Torah to begin with beis rather than from the first mitzvah?  After all, as we noted, the Torah’s primary purpose is to teach us the mitzvos.  
The Sfas Emes explains.  God created the physical world as a screen that hides Him.  The physical world works according to natural laws that hide God’s presence.  Looking around us we do not see God.  We see nature.  Because God’s presence is not apparent, the world needs special blessing from Him to continue to exist. 
The ultimate goal of Creation is to be close to and experience God.  Since this world is physical and therefore conceals God, it cannot be the end goal of the Creation.  This goal is alluded to in the very first letter describing the Creation.  The beis hints at another world, spiritual in nature, in which God is revealed.
With these ideas, we can understand the question posed by the Midrash.  Since the purpose of the Creation is being close to and experiencing God, what need is there for a world in which He is concealed?  Why is there not a world in which He is much more revealed and in which everything and everyone in it are drawn naturally towards Torah and mitzvos, the only path for coming close to Him?
In a world like this, there would be no need for the Torah to start with the letter beis.   Since God would be revealed, the world would need no special blessing and there would be one not two worlds.  In this type of world, the Torah could start from the first mitzvah.
The Midrash answers this question by citing a pasuk in Tehillim (111:6), כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ .../He told His nation the strength of His works …”  The purpose of Creation is not simply to be close to and experience God.  The purpose is for us to struggle to come close to God.  This struggle is only possible in a world in which He is concealed for if He is revealed there is no struggle.  His presence is obvious.  In this pasuk God is telling us that His works – the physical universe – contain His strength.  Even though this is not apparent, we can reveal His strength that inheres in the world by fulfilling His will – keeping the Torah and the mitzvos.  
In our world, we need special blessing and its structure as well is hinted at in the first letter.  We need a Torah that starts from beis and not from the first mitzvah.  May we merit fulfilling God’s will, bringing the Creation towards its ultimate goal of God’s revelation.  Amen!

[1] Yalkut Shimoni Bo 187, cited by Rashi on Breishis 1:1
[2] Kedushas Levi Breishis s.v. Breishis bara
[3] Breishis R. 1:10
[4] Zohar 1:2b-3b

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Succos 5632 First Ma'amar

On Rosh HaShanah God gives life for the coming year.  Succos and Shemini Atzeres are the mechanism through which that life spreads out to the Creation.  This is the reason for the special water libation (nisuch hamayim) that is poured in the Beis HaMikdash only on Succos.  Water symbolizes life.

The seven days of Succos represent the physical life of this world.  The nations of the world are also an intrinsic part of the natural order.  Because of this the nations of the world have a part in Succos as well. The seventy cows that are sacrificed during Succos represent the seventy nations.[1]   

The physical world owes its continued existence to the spiritual life-force that is hidden within it.  This spirituality is embodied by the Torah.  The very nature of the physical world is fraught with pitfalls and obstacles that prevent us from discovering the spiritual and leading spiritual lives.  In order to avoid the pitfalls and to overcome the obstacles we need protection.  The Succah symbolizes the protection that God affords us in the physical world.  It is God’s testimony that our primary existence is not the physical but rather the spiritual – the Torah and the spiritual life of the next world.  That we need protection at all is an indication that physical existence is not the main thing.  The Zohar[2] calls the Succah “tzila demehemnusa/shade of faith.”  It is a shade which protects us from the physical world allowing us to cultivate and nurture our spirit.

Shemini Atzeres, on the other hand, represents the spiritual life of the next world.  For this reason the nations of the world, who are part of the physical natural order, have no part in Shemini Atzeres.  In a sense, Shemini Atzeres is similar to the Succah itself.  Shemini Atzeres represents the Torah and the spiritual life of the next world and the Succah is a spiritual place that protects us from the physical.  This is why the mitzvah of Succah does not extend to Shemini Azteres.   There is no need for protection on Shemini Atzeres since the day itself is like the Succah.  If Succos is the culmination of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeres is the culmination of Succos.  It is a day dedicated to the special relationship between the nation of Israel and God.

[1] Succah 55b
[2] Zohar 3:103a

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Succos 5634 Third Ma'amar

... תָּמִיד עֵינֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ מֵרֵשִית הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה/… God your Lord’s eyes are always upon it, from the beginning of the year until the year’s end.” (Devarim 11:12)  Although the plain meaning of this pasuk refers to God’s constant Providence over the land of Israel, Chazal[1] understand from this pasuk that at the beginning of the year, God blesses all our activities for the entire coming year.

While we are assured of God’s blessing for the entire year, whether we actually receive the blessing depends a great deal on our state of nearness to Him.  At the beginning of the year, having been through the process of repentance that begins on Rosh Chodesh Elul and ends forty days later on Yom Kippur, we are in a purified state.  The Torah tells us clearly, “כִּי־בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם .../For on this day He will atone for you to purify you …” (VaYikra 16:30)  Everyone of us should believe that by the end of Yom Kippur we are purified.

In a purified state we are able to receive God’s blessing.  However, with the higher spiritual level comes a higher level of kitrug as well.  How can we thwart the kitrug and retain this purified state through the coming year so that we can receive God’s blessing for the entire year?

The Sfas Emes teaches us that God gave us the holiday of Succos after Yom Kippur specifically to help us receive God’s blessing for the entire year.  A primary theme of Succos is the togetherness of the nation of Israel.  Chazal tell us that although each of us needs his own lulav on the first day of Succos, Chazal learn from a pasuk that the entire nation can fulfill the mitzvah of succah in a single succah.  Owning the succah is not a prerequisite for fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling in it.

Furthermore, the Torah calls the holiday, חַג הָאָסִיף/the holiday of gathering.  The plain meaning of this name refers to gathering the grain left in the field to dry during the summer.  However, it is also an allusion to the gathering of the nation together.

The Sfas Emes teaches that the way to receive God’s blessing for the entire year is to identify strongly with and be subsumed within the nation of Israel.  Chazal[2] say this clearly regarding the mitzvah of the four species.  Each one of the four species represents a different type of Jew.  The aravah/willow branch which has neither taste nor smell represents those who have neither Torah nor good deeds.  Just as the aravah becomes a part of the mitzvah by being tied to the other species, those Jews represented by the aravah are protected when they connect with the nation.

The Torah calls the willow branch עַרְבֵי נָחַל/willows of the brook.  Halachically, it makes no difference where the willow grows.  Nevertheless the Torah associates the willow with a stream.  In the Zohar[3] we find that a stream represents the spiritual mechanism by which abundance is brought into this world.  The Torah mentions the stream specifically with the willow branch to show that even the Jew who does not have Torah nor good deeds can merit the stream of abundance because of his inclusion within the nation.

This is a powerful lesson to take into the holiday.  The days of the holiday, days during which we gather together unencumbered by our usual activities, are particularly conducive to identifying with and feeling a part of the nation.  This feeling of identification and inclusiveness has the additional advantage of propagating peace and harmony amongst our people.  As part of the nation we can merit God’s blessing for the entire year.  And the entire nation can merit receiving blessing as Chazal[4] teach us that peace is the vessel that can hold blessing.

[1] Sifri Eikev 40 s.v. davar achier meireishis hashana
[2] VaYikra R. 30:12
[3] Zohar 3:150a
[4] Uktzin 3:12