Friday, December 31, 2010

VaEira 5632 First Ma'amar

At the beginning of the parsha we learn that Moshe Rabbeinu prophesied on a higher level that Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov.  God revealed Himself to Moshe through His ineffable name whilst He revealed Himself to our forefathers through the name ש-ד-י/Almighty.  Yet, Rashi quoting Chazal tells us that God was more pleased with the forefathers than with Moshe Rabbeinu.  Referring to the forefathers God says, "חבל על דאבדין .../Alas, those who are gone …" If Moshe Rabbeinu was on a higher level than the forefathers, why was God more pleased with the forefathers?

A deeper understanding of the names through which God revealed Himself to the forefathers and Moshe Rabbeinu will shed light.  The name ש-ד-י/Almighty, represents God's life force which, although hidden, permeates the entire Creation.  This life force is the source from which the Creation manifests.  The mission of our forefathers was to spread this idea and awareness of God in the Creation.  Chazal teach us that Avraham Avinu was the first person to refer to God as אדון/Master.

Our mission as well, is to realize that God's presence is in every aspect of the Creation.  This is easy work in holy places.  The work becomes more difficult the less holy the venue.  The definition of exile is God's concealment just as the definition of redemption is God's revelation.  The purpose of exile is to come to believe and internalize the belief that God is with us even in the most unholy of places.  God reveals Himself to those who believe that He is there and in fact, this is the way to redemption.  The work and teachings of our forefathers prepared us for redemption.

In order for our forefathers to do their work of spreading an awareness of God in nature and the natural world, they had to experience the natural world, be a part of it.  This is the level of ש-ד-י/Almighty, God's life force within the natural world. 

God revealed Himself to Moshe Rabbeinu through the Tetragrammaton, representing God as eternal, above nature.  Moshe was charged with the mission of bringing an awareness of God to the nation of Israel within the exile of Egypt.  The nature of his own relationship with God, however, made this mission exceedingly difficult for him.  God was more pleased with our forefathers because they were able to do a better job of spreading awareness of God in the world.

Moshe Rabbeinu told the nation that the redemption – God's revelation – was at hand but they did not listen, "... ולא שמעו אל משה מקצר רוח .../… and they did not listen to Moshe from shortness of breath …"  The simple meaning is that they were too consumed by their oppressive work to even hear Moshe Rabbeinu.  The deeper meaning involves the concept we've been discussing – the idea that God's presence permeates the Creation but is hidden by it. 

Everything has a physical component and a spiritual component.  In man this idea is clearly stated in the Torah, "ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים .../He blew into his nostrils the soul of life …" If we act with a view for the spiritual, for the soul so to speak, then our actions are spiritually meaningful.  If we act only for the physical then our actions are cut off from the spiritual.  Exile is the ultimate being cut off from the spiritual because it is the ultimate concealment of God. 

"מקצר רוח/from shortness of breath" alludes to this idea.  רוח also refers to the soul.  קצר/short also means to cut.  Therefore, מקצר רוח can also be translated as, "because of being cut off from the soul."  Moshe Rabbeinu was trying to teach the nation that God was with them even in the exile.  Internalizing this belief would be instrumental in revealing God and bringing on the redemption.  In fact, this was a prerequisite for the redemption.  The nation could not hear the teaching because they were removed from the spiritual and involved only in the physical.

This concept explains the Zohar on the pasuk, "... הן בני ישראל לא שמעו אלי ואיך ישמעני פרעה .../… Behold the children of Israel did not listen to me so how will Pharaoh listen to me …"  The Zohar says that they did not listen because the דבור/speech was in exile.  What does this mean?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the world was created with ten sayings – עשרה מאמרות.  These ten sayings became ten עשרת הדברות/ten commandments through the ten plagues.  This seems even more enigmatic than the Zohar.  However according to what we've said earlier we can understand this.  The purpose of the Creation is to conceal God.  This concealment is represented by the ten sayings through which the Creation came about.

The word דבור/speech, means to lead in Aramaic.  We find, for example in Tehillim, "ידבר עמים תחתינו/He shall subdue nations under us …" Another example, the Zohar explains, "ודברת בם/You shall speak about them" as meaning that we should manage our lives according to the Torah.  In exile, God leadership is not apparent.  This is the reason the Zohar says that דיבור – meaning God's leadership – was in exile.  God's leadership was concealed.

The Chiddushei HaRim is teaching us that God's leadership was revealed through the ten plagues.  By the end of the plagues it was clear to all that God was controlling nature.  So, the ten sayings that created nature to conceal God turned into the ten דיברות/leadership revelations through the ten plagues.

However, when Moshe Rabbeinu spoke to the nation and they did not listen he told God that if the nation cannot accept that He is with them, then how would Pharaoh possibly accept it.  And in fact the prophet tells us that Pharaoh said, "לי יאורי ואני עשיתני/My river is mine and I have made myself"  This is the ultimate expression of God's leadership being in exile.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Shemos 5631 Third Ma'amar

... וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱ-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם/… and I will say to them, ‘The God of your forefathers sent me to you,’ and they will ask me, ‘What is His name,’ what shall I say to them?” (Shmos 3:13)  Why did Moshe Rabbeinu think they would ask God’s name?  Why would this be important?  What is the significance of knowing His name?

The Sfas Emes explains that God’s name symbolizes His revelation in this world.  During exile we say that the glory of His name is concealed.  Redemption means that the glory of His name is revealed.  His Providence is clearly apparent to all.  In a time of redemption everyone understands that exile is simply a shell preventing us from experiencing God’s presence.  The Zohar makes this point when it says that Shabbos is the name of God.[1]  Shabbos is that aspect of Creation that represents an uplifting of everything towards its spiritual source.  The ultimate spiritual source of everything is God Himself.  God is thus more “revealed,” – it is easier to be aware of His presence – on Shabbos.  Shabbos, then, is the name of God because His name represents His revelation.

God, of course, does not change.  There is a higher level of faith whereby one’s recognition and awareness of God are not affected by external circumstances.  Moshe Rabbeinu was on this level.  During the exile, the nation of Israel was not.  The significance of the question, “What is His name?” then, is, “Where do we see the revelation of God in the exile?”  God’s answer is that His name is, “אֶהְיֶה/I will be.” (Shmos 3:14)  God says that although now, in the exile, His presence is hidden, the exile, specifically because of its darkness, causes a greater revelation later.  Even the Egyptians will recognize that God is in charge.

After the redemption, the nation reached the higher level of faith.  We find in  Shiras HaYam, “ה' אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה ה' שְׁמוֹ/God is master of war, God is His name.” (Shmos 15:3)  At the time of redemption there is clear recognition that, “God is His name.”  They are one and the same.  Significantly the name of God used here is the Tetragrammaton, which means that God is beyond time – He does not change.  When He reveals Himself, it becomes clear that the God who is revealed – represented by His name – is the same as the God that was hidden before.

Certainly, before the redemption, the nation of Israel was not on this level of faith, hence the question, “What is His name?”  Moshe understands this when he says to God, “וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ .../They will not believe.” (Shmos 4:1)  Even though the pasuk relates subsequently that they did believe, Moshe Rabbeinu was not mistaken.  The nation believed the signs that Moshe showed them.  They believed that the redemption was at hand.  They were on a certain level of faith.  This, however, is not what Moshe Rabbeinu was referring to.

Moshe Rabbeinu was referring to the total and complete faith that God is present in the exile exactly as He is present in redemption.  Moshe Rabbeinu was saying that they were not on his level of faith, the faith of knowing that God is here the way we believe in what we actually see with our eyes.  Moshe Rabbeinu knew that he would not be able to make them understand that God is present in the exile the same way He is present in the redemption.  After the redemption, though, the pasuk testifies that the nation reached this level, “וַיַאֲמִינוּ בַה'/They believed in God.” (Shmos 14:31)

According to this we can understand the three signs that God sent Moshe Rabbeinu to show the nation.  After each of the first two signs, God says to Moshe that He is giving another sign in case the nation does not believe the previous one.  Isn’t this strange?  God obviously knows beforehand whether the nation will believe or not.  Why did He not simply send Moshe Rabbeinu the sign that He knew would be effective?  The explanation according to what we have said, is that there are levels of belief.  The highest level is the level of Moshe Rabbeinu, the level akin to seeing with our own eyes.  It is possible, though, to start at a lower level and work up to a higher level.  The three signs represented this process.  Each subsequent sign represented a higher level of faith than the previous sign.

At the level of faith that Moshe Rabbeinu reached, the surrounding exile and darkness is recognized for what it really is.  It is an illusion that God created.  It is not reality.  The Sfas Emes teaches us that built into Shabbos is a spiritual enlightenment which allows us to experience this, to some extent.  Significantly, the chapter in Tehillim that describes Shabbos states clearly that even though we see evildoers succeeding, this is not truth.[2]  This is not reality.  This is an external illusion.  That which gives life and existence to everything, even to the evildoers, is only God.  May we merit seeing God in everything both redemption and exile and may we merit redemption this year!  AMEN.

[1] Zohar 2:88b
[2] Tehillim 92

Friday, December 17, 2010

VaYechi 5631 First Ma'amar

 וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם .../Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt ...” (Breishis 47:28) The Sfas Emes addresses two difficulties.  Firstly, וַיְחִי/He lived, is a strange choice of words.  Usually when the Torah relates that someone lived in a specific place, it uses the word וַיֵשֶׁב/He dwelt or וַיָגָר/He lived[1].  The Chiddushei HaRim suggests that, וַיְהִי/He was, would have been more appropriate than וַיְחִי/He lived.

Secondly, in a sefer Torah, there is always a blank space between two parshas.  VaYechi is the only parsha in the entire Torah which begins directly following the last word of the previous parsha with no break whatsoever.  This is referred to as a closed parsha.  Why is this?

Ya’akov Avinu is associated with the attribute of אֱמֶת/truth.  The prophet Micha (7:20) tells us, “תִּתֵּן אֱמֶת לְיַעֲקֹב/Give truth to Ya’akov.”  A person who lives with truth realizes that the physical world is a façade which hides an awareness of God.  Because of this Ya’akov Avinu felt God’s presence everywhere even in decadent Egypt.  For Ya’akov Avinu, there was no exile.  Conventionally we think of exile as meaning an expulsion from one’s native land.  We lived in Egyptian exile because we were not in our homeland.  The deeper meaning of exile, though, is an exile from God’s presence.  It is easy to be acutely aware of God’s presence in the Land of Israel, much less so in decadent Egypt.  In truth, though, God is everywhere equally.  For one who can see past the external façade and realize this, there is no real exile.  

Egyptian society was pagan and immoral.  It was very difficult to see God in Egypt.  By using the word וַיְחִי/He lived, the Torah is telling us that even in decadent Egypt, Ya’akov “lived.”  Living means to attach to the Source of all life.  Chazal tell us that wicked people are considered dead even during their lives.  This is because they have separated from God, the Source of life.  For the wicked, God is hidden.  He is not a part of their lives.  They do not feel His presence.  Ya’akov “lived” even in Egypt.  On the level of אֱמֶת/truth, it did not matter that he was in Egypt.  God gives life to the immoral Egyptians, too.  For Ya’akov, He was revealed even in Egypt.  This is why the parsha starts with, “וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם .../Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt ...” instead of the more usual וַיֵשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב/Yaakov dwelt.

But why is the parsha closed?  Rashi quotes Chazal who tell us that Ya’akov wanted to reveal the end of days to his children.  The end of days is a time when all exile comes to an end and God is revealed.  The exile is a temporary screen behind which God hides Himself.  Behind the screen of the exile and giving life to it (and to everything else) is the eternal Source of life.  Ya’akov wanted to convey to his children that God is there even in Egypt.    He wanted it to be clear to them, as it was clear to him, that God is everywhere, even in the exile.  He wanted them to see, feel and experience God’s presence in Egypt just as he did.  If Ya’akov had taught this to his children, though, they would have reached Ya’akov’s level of אֱמֶת/truth.  God would have been revealed to them and there would have been no exile.  Chazal in fact tell us that the bondage in Egypt only began after Ya’akov passed on.  The exile, though, was a necessary part of the Divine plan.  So, although Ya’akov “lived,” the parsha was closed.  He was not permitted to pass it on to his children.

However, Chazal tell us that Ya’akov was permitted to teach them that even if they could not see past the external screen of immoral and corrupt Egyptian civilization and experience God, they could still believe that God was there[2].  Belief that God was there when the reality of their surroundings was the immoral and pagan Egyptian culture required a lot of hard work.  But, through אֱמוּנָה/belief, they would be able to see the אֱמֶת/truth – God is in the exile as well.

Believing that God is the source of all power in the world enables us to see Him in the world.  The stronger our belief, the more God is revealed.  Working to reach this high level of אֱמוּנָה/belief enables us to find Godly enlightenment even where God is concealed.

[1] In English the difference between וַיְחִי/He lived and וַיָגָר/He lived, is not felt.  However, in Hebrew, the former refers to the length of one’s life while the latter refers to the place in which he lived.  Clearly, when the Torah wants to tell us that Ya’akov lived in Egypt, וַיָגָר would be more appropriate than וַיְחִי, hence the question.
[2] Zohar 1:234b

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Chanukah 5632 Third Night

Chazal established Chanukah as a holiday by giving praise and thanks – "לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה/The next year they established and made [these days] holidays through praise and thanks." (Shabbos 21b)  The wording implies that the praise and thanks caused these days to be holidays rather than being instituted as a result of these days being established as holidays.  Why did Chazal establish Chanukah in this manner?

Our holidays are not merely a national memoriam of past events.  Each of our holidays is the result of a spiritual enlightenment special to that day.  The only way Chazal could establish a holiday would be to tap into the specific spiritual enlightenment for that day and draw it into the physical world.  Chanukah is a time of praise and thanks to God.  So, to draw the enlightenment specific to this time into the world they gave praise and thanks to God in recognition of His salvation.  As a result the holiday of Chanukah with its spiritual power as days of thanksgiving manifested.  

But this does not mean that we automatically experience Chanukah's spiritual enlightenment.  In order for us to experience the spiritual enlightenment of Chanukah we, too, must draw it into the world by singing praises of thanksgiving to God.

What is true on a national level is true on a personal level as well.  Any time we experience God's salvation – which is really a Godly revelation – we can cause that revelation to remain with us by recognizing it for what it really is – a revelation of God's great kindness towards us.  The effects of His kindness remain with us to the extent that we recognize it by praising and thanking Him.   In fact, the Sfas Emes teaches that we can cause the effects of God's revelation to remain with us even for the generations that follow us.

With this concept we can understand a Chiddushei HaRim.  Although Chanukah is a time of thanksgiving, there is no mitzvah to eat a special meal on Chanukah.  However, the Rema[1] writes that we can turn a meal on Chanukah into a "mitzvah meal" by singing praise to God during the meal.  The Magen Avraham[2] extrapolates to any situation in which there is a doubt as to whether the meal is a "mitzvah meal" or not.  By singing praises to God during the meal it becomes a mitzvah meal.  There are, for instance, certain marriages where the meal may not be considered a "mitzvah meal."  The Magen Avraham infers from Chanukah that singing at these meals turns them into "mitzvah meals".

The Chiddushei HaRim[3] however, notes that Chanukah meals cannot be compared with other situations where the mitzvah status of the meal is in doubt.  The reason that the Chanukah meal becomes a mitzvah through singing is because giving praise and thanks to God are inherent attributes of the holiday.  This is not the case in the meals that the Magen Avraham is referring to.  If the meal at a certain type of marriage is not a mitzvah, there is no special magic that occurs through singing that will turn it into a mitzvah.

The Sfas Emes explains that the Chiddushei HaRim is alluding to our concept.  By praising and thanking God on Chanukah, we reveal the latent enlightenment that exists at this time.  The holiday is a manifestation of this revelation.  When we sing at a meal we are drawing that enlightenment into the physical.  The meal automatically becomes a holiday meal – a mitzvah meal.

[1] S.A. O.Ch 670:2 Haga'a
[2] Ibid Magen Avraham 4
[3] Chiddushei HaRim Chanuka, s.v. Issa

Thursday, November 25, 2010

VaYeishev 5632 Third Ma'amar

In this week's parsha, Potiphar's wife attempts to entice Yosef HaTzadik.  He refused to be tempted, "וימאן ויאמר אל־אשת אדניו הן אדני לא־ידע אתי מה־בבית וכל אשר־יש־לו נתן בידי ... ואיך אעשה הרעה הגדלה הזאת .../He refused, and he said to his master's wife, 'Behold, my master is not concerned with anything in the house, and all that he has, he gave over into my charge … so how can I do this great evil …?" (Breishis 39:8-9)  Yosef HaTzadik's logic is that taking his master's wife would be a betrayal of the trust that his master put in him.  Yosef could not allow himself to betray that trust. 

The Sfas Emes advises us to use the same logic to thwart our own evil inclination.  God could have taken away our possibility of choosing.  He entrusts us with choice and expects us to act responsibly.  How can we betray God's trust?

It is also possible that Yosef's argument was for the benefit of Potiphar's wife more than it was for himself.  This can be inferred from the wording of the pasuk.  First, "וימאן/He refused."  Afterward he presents her with his argument.  The implication is that Yosef did not need the argument.  He refused because he was not tempted by her.  He overcame his evil inclination completely.  The argument, then, was for her sake.

Another way to understand the pasuk is that it is impossible to think logically while in the heat of passion.  We must first at least distance ourselves from the immediate danger of submitting to our evil inclination.  Only then can we argue logically.  Yosef first had to refuse her advances.  Only from a state in which there was no immediate danger of submitting to the evil inclination was he able to have the presence of mind to present a logical argument.

Friday, November 19, 2010

VaYishlach 5633 Second Ma'amar

The beginning of this week's parsha relates Ya'akov's preparations for his first encounter with Eisav in twenty-two years.  One of the ways Ya'akov prepares is by praying to God, begging Him to save him and his family.  
Why should God do this?  Ya'akov says, "ואתה אמרת היטב איטיב עמך ושמתי את זרעך כחול הים אשר לא יספר מרב/And you said, 'I will certainly do good for you; I will make your offspring like the sand of the sea, that cannot be counted because of its great number."  Ya'akov does not present God with logical arguments as to why he should be saved.  Rather, he appeals to God's will as God Himself revealed it to him.  This, after all, is the true good.
From Ya'akov we learn a fundamental lesson in the proper approach to prayer.  Whenever we pray to God for something we believe we need we should take Ya'akov's example.  Instead of presenting God with logical arguments to justify our supplication, we should align our request with God's will and ask that God fulfill His own will.
We find this approach in the wording of many of our prayers.  For example, in the prayer for livelihood that is printed in most prayer books in the blessing of shomei'a tefilla, we ask for livelihood in order to be able to, "... do Your will, to occupy myself with Your Torah and to fulfill Your mitzvos ..."  Clearly the purpose of this wording is to align the request for livelihood with a fulfillment of God's will.  There are many other examples as well.

Friday, November 12, 2010

VaYeitzei 5634 Second Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha the Torah relates the story of Ya’akov Avinu’s sojourn to the house of Lavan in Charan.  The Torah tells us, in seemingly unwarranted detail, Ya’akov’s experiences 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 …” (Breishis 29:2,3)  What is the point of this story?  It seems to have little connection to the main story line of Ya’akov in the house of Lavan, his marriage to Leah and Rachel and the birth of the tribes.

The Sfas Emes understands this story homiletically.  From this story of the well outside Charan, we learn how we can experience God's revelation in this world.

The Field

According to the Arizal as quoted by the Chiddushei HaRim, a field is a metaphor for revelation particularly for the revelation of God that occurs through the Shabbos.  The maiden of Shir HaShirim beckoning her beloved, "לכה דודי נצא השדה .../Come my beloved, let us go out to the field …" (Shir HaShirim 7:12) is a metaphor for the nation of Israel asking God to reveal Himself.  This is because a field, as opposed to a desert, is fertile.  The world is considered a desert during the week.  On Shabbos it is considered a fertile field because just like things can grow in a fertile field, the underlying Godly force that imbues the world is revealed on Shabbos.

The Well

Wells are a metaphor for the source of life.  So, the well in the field represents the revelation of the source of life that happens on Shabbos.

The Flocks of Sheep

The flocks of sheep represent the nation of Israel.  The flocks of sheep gathering at the well represent the nation's subordination to the source of life.  We find elsewhere that assifa/gathering in means subordination, "אם ישים אליו לבו רוחו ונשמתו אליו יאסף/If He will put His heart to it, He would simply gather in his spirit and his soul to Himself." (Iyov 34:14)  The simple meaning of this pasuk is that God is in charge of a person's life.  If He so desires, He can simply end it.  However, the Sfas Emes understands this pasuk as referring to our relationship with God, "If he puts his heart to Him, he can gather in his spirit and soul to Him" – If a person so desires he can subordinate himself totally, spirit and soul to God.

There are specifically three flocks of sheep as this represents total subordination.  How so?  When God commands us to love Him with our entire beings He mentions three things.  He says to love Him, "... בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך/… with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength." (Devarim 6:5) 

The three flocks are also an allusion to the three parts of the soul, nefesh, ru'ach, neshama.[1]  Here too, the meaning is to subordinate our entire beings to God.

The Stone Covering the Well

If the well in the field represents God's revelation on Shabbos, the stone covering the well represents God's concealment.  The Sfas Emes teaches that concealment exists wherever there is the possibility for revelation.  Chazal[2] allude to this when they say that the mouth of the well was created on Erev Shabbos.  Although they are referring to a different well, the well of Miriam, still the metaphor of a well relating to revelation applies.  

What is the significance of this well having been created on Erev Shabbos?  The word ערב/evening, connotes a lack of clarity.  It is closely associated with, עירוב/mixture.  When things are mixed together we do not see each item clearly.  The well, representing God's revelation, was created specifically on Erev Shabbos to teach us that with the possibility for revelation comes concealment. 

We remove the concealment by subordinating ourselves to God as the flocks of sheep gathered in to the well.  Keeping Shabbos is an ultimate form of subordination because we refrain from doing any creative work on Shabbos.  We thus subordinate all our creative activities to God.  By intentionally refraining from creative work on Shabbos, we are able to experience spiritual enlightenment.  In the words of the metaphor, we roll the stone off the well.

The Torah relates that even though the stone on the well was heavy and the shepherds could not easily roll it off, Ya'akov Avinu alone did so.  How does this fit into the metaphor?  It is no easy task to experience God's revelation while living immersed in the physical world.  Keeping Shabbos as a form of subordination is not always easy depending upon one's circumstances and the society in which he lives.  Even if it is relatively easy for us to refrain from creative activity on Shabbos, it is far from easy to remain unaffected and uninfluenced by the physical world of which we are so much a part.  We, for the most part, attribute an unwarranted reality to the physical world.  In truth, the physical world is an illusion, a screen that God created for the specific purpose of concealing Himself.  It is no easy task to internalize this understanding of reality.

Ya'akov Avinu, though, was able to remove the stone from the well by himself easily.  Chazal[3] say that he flipped it off the well as one flips a cap off a jar.  In terms of the metaphor, he was easily able to remove that which concealed God and experience revelation.  The reason Ya'akov was able to do this was because the attribute of truth is associated with him as we find, "תתן אמת ליעקב .../Give truth to Ya'akov …"  When Ya'akov looked at the physical world, he saw it for what it really is, a screen that God created in order to conceal Himself.  Since Ya'akov had the attribute of truth, he saw through this and was able to do simply what for others require much work.

[1] See Zohar 1:205a
[2] Avos 5:6
[3] Breishis R. 70:12

Friday, November 05, 2010

Toldos 5632 Third Ma'amar

In this week's parsha we find the story of Yitzchak's blessings to his children Ya'akov and Eisav.  Yitzchak wanted to give Eisav the blessing of the first born son, but through an intrigue ended up blessing Ya'akov instead.  Why did God allow events to unfold in such a way that Ya'akov received the blessing of the first born through a subterfuge?  Why did God not plant in Yitzchak's thoughts the idea the Ya'akov should receive the blessing?  After all, these blessings define the relationship between Ya'akov's progeny, the nation of Israel and Eisav for all time.  Why did Ya'akov receive this blessing in such an unlikely manner?
A Midrash[1] in this week's parsha sheds light on this question.  The Midrash states that there are three organs which are not in our control and three which are under our control.  The eyes, ears and nose are not under our control.  We see things that we may not want to see, we hear what we may not want to hear and we smell that that we may not care to smell.  The mouth, hands and feet, however, are under our control.  We choose what we say, what we do and where we go.
When a person merits it, though, God takes over even those organs which are ordinarily under his control.  He is thus protected from using his mouth, hands and feet in a way that is against God's will.  The Midrash gives as an example Yitzchak's blessing Ya'akov instead of Eisav whom he wanted to bless.  When Yitzchak realized that God took the decision as to who will receive the blessing away from him, he understood that God was protecting him from error and so responds with, "... גם ברוך יהיה/… may he also be blessed," (Breishis 27:33) referring to Ya'akov. 
Why did Yitzchak merit God's direct intervention to prevent him from making a tragic mistake?  The Sfas Emes explains that when a person subordinates his entire being to God's will, he is showing that he wants to give up control to God.  Someone who wants to be under God's dominion merits it because, "רצון יראיו יעשה .../… He does the will of those who fear Him." (Tehillim 145:19)  Yitzchak did exactly this at the Akeida.
From Yitzchak we learn that to the extent we accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven each day, every morning to subordinate our desires totally to God's, we merit not leaving God's dominion at all. Practically, this means that by wanting to do only God's will we are protected from unwittingly doing that which is against God's will just as Yitzchak was protected from blessing the wrong son.
This concept also provides the answer to our original question.  God wanted Yitzchak's blessing to Ya'akov to be completely without personal motives.  This is difficult if not impossible for a father blessing his son.  Therefore, God made it happen in such a way that Yitzchak did not want to bless Ya'akov.  The blessing that Yitzchak gave to Ya'akov was as if it came straight from God without any interference from Yitzchak's personal motives.  This was only possible, though, because Yitzchak completely subordinated his own desires to God's.  Therefore, Yitzchak's actions were under God's direct control.  Yitzchak thought he was blessing Eisav.  God saw to it that his blessing fell upon Ya'akov.  In fact, according to the Zohar[2], Ya'akov's blessing came from God alone.

[1] Breishis R. 67:3
[2] See Zohar 1:143b

Friday, October 29, 2010

Chayei Sarah 5631 Fifth Ma'amar

Avraham Avinu dispatches his servant Eliezer to Charan to find a match for his son Yitzchak.  Upon his arrival, Eliezer begins his speech to Besu'el and Lavan with the statement, "... עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם אָנֹכִי/… I am Avraham's servant." (Breishis 24:34)  The Zohar[1] says that this is the classic fulfillment of the pasuk, "בֵּן יְכַבֵּד אָב וְעֶבֶד אֲדֹנָיו .../A son will honor his father and a servant his master ..." (Mal'achi 1:4)  Why does the Zohar consider Eliezer's statement a display of honor towards Avraham?  After all, Eliezer simply put his remarks in context by prefacing them with a statement of who he was. 
The Zohar tells us that Eliezer was good looking.  He certainly did not look like a slave. Chazal teach us that he came from royalty[2]  The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Eliezer's statement showed Besu'el and Lavan that he considered it an honor to be Avraham Avinu's servant.  This was certainly a great display of honor towards Avraham.
The Sfas Emes gives another explanation as to why Eliezer's statement was a way of honoring Avraham.  Lavan knew that Eliezer was righteous.  He said to Eliezer, "... בּוֹא בְּרוּךְ ה' .../… Come, blessed one of God …" (Breishis 24:31)  But how could he be blessed?  Servitude is a curse and he was a servant.  Not only was he a servant, he came from the cursed family of Canaan.  The answer, Chazal[3] explain, is that Eliezer merited becoming blessed because he served Avraham Avinu faithfully.  Eliezer honored Avraham by attributing his blessed status to him.
This idea can help us understand a Midrash[4] on this pasuk.  The Midrash learns from Eliezer's first statement that a person should begin a speech with a self-deprecating statement.  But why was this statement self-deprecating?  As we noted earlier, Eliezer was simply putting his remarks in context.  According to the Sfas Emes's idea, though, it was self-deprecating because through this statement Eliezer was attributing his blessed state to Avraham instead of taking credit for it himself.

[1] Zohar 1:103a
[2] In fact Chazal (Yalkut Shimoni 24:109) teach us that Eliezer was the son of Nimrod.  He came from royalty and he looked it. 
[3] Breishis R. 60:7
[4] Breishis R. 60:9

Friday, October 22, 2010

VaYeira 5634 Third Ma'amar

Note: I did two ma'amarim this week.
"וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ .../He said, 'Please take your son, your only one …" (Breishis 22:2)  Thus begins Avraham Avinu's greatest test, Akeidas Yitzchak.  After God promised Avraham that Yitzchak alone would be considered his progeny, God instructs Avraham to offer him up as a sacrifice.  Interestingly, God does not command Avraham as we find in other places.  He rather makes a request, "Please take your son …"  God is telling Avraham what He wants without commanding him to do it.  What is the significance of this?
The Sfas Emes explains that the fact that God only requested and did not command Avraham Avinu makes this test all the more difficult.  God is not testing whether Avraham will follow His instructions.  Avraham would obviously do whatever God tells him to do as he had done for his entire life.  Rather, God is testing Avraham's desire to fulfill His will simply because he knows that it is God's will.  It is a test of his love for God.
This is why God makes a point of saying, "your only son".  If God had not said this then Avraham might have thought that he will sacrifice Yitzchak and God will provide him with another son from Sarah.  By asking Avraham to sacrifice his "only son", God is saying that He wants Avraham to sacrifice his progeny completely. 
So, the test was for Avraham to accept God's will even though there was no command.  This he did gladly.
Many times we rationalize saying that if only God appeared to us and told us exactly what to do we would follow God's command unquestioningly.  The Akeida buries this rationalization.  At the Akeida God revealed His desire to Avraham without commanding him to do it.  That Avraham did it and passed the test gives us, his progeny, the fortitude and desire to achieve God's will as well.

VaYeira 5634 Second Ma'amar

"וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה' בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא .../God appeared to him in the plains of Mamre …" (Breishis 18:1)  Why does the Torah make a point of telling us where God appeared to Avraham Avinu?  Chazal[1] teach us that Mamre encouraged Avraham to carry out God's command whereas Aner an Eshkol discouraged him.  As a reward, God revealed Himself on Mamre's land.
This answer needs an explanation.  Why did Mamre care whether Avraham Avinu circumcised himself or not and why do Chazal praise Mamre for advising Avraham to circumcise himself?
The Sfas Emes explains that Aner, Eshkol and Mamre understood that the purpose of the circumcision was to bind Avraham Avinu and his progeny to God in a covenant that would distance him from them.  Avraham Avinu and his descendents were being chosen to have a special relationship with God, a relationship that perforce excluded others.  
Aner and Eshkol did not agree with this and so discouraged Avraham Avinu.  Mamre, though, understood that this is the way things were supposed to be and that it would be of no use to delude himself into thinking otherwise.  He therefore encouraged Avraham Avinu to go through with the circumcision and covenant even though he knew that their relationship would change because of it.
Paradoxically, specifically because Mamre subordinated himself to this truth, he merited coming closer to God and Avraham Avinu.  God revealed Himself on Mamre's land.
We learn from Mamre that in order to come close to God it is imperative that we understand our place and not delude ourselves into thinking that we are what we are not.  This is a simple task.  It requires a lot of work to reduce arrogance to the point at which we can subordinate ourselves and accept our place within the nation even when we may perceive that place as commanding less respect than others within the nation of Israel. 
It is specifically when we accept our place, as Mamre did his, putting God's honor before our own, that we merit coming close to God.  Chazal[2] alluded to this when they said that one who increases God's honor at the expense of his own will merit as increase in his own honor as well.

[1] Breishis R. 42:8
[2] Bamidbar R. 4:20

Friday, October 15, 2010

Lech Lecha 5634 Second Ma'amar

Many times during the course of our lives we are inspired.  We reach a new level of awareness.  We have Aha! moments at which time doubt and uncertainty are replaced by clarity and a sense of meaningfulness.  As a matter of course, the inspiration is forgotten over time, the clear vision may not last and we slide from our new level of awareness.  These inspirations are crucial in our quest to come close to God and accomplish our life missions.  What can we do to retain them and live by them?

The Sfas Emes learns an answer from the first Rashi of this week's parsha.  At the beginning of the parsha God tells Avraham Avinu to leave his homeland and family, and all the comforts implied by that for an unknown place.  Could God be telling him to begin living a monastic life, separated from the materialism of this world?  The answer is found in the words at the beginning of the parsha, "... לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ .../… Go for yourself from your land …" (Breishis 12:1)  The word "לְךָ/for yourself" seems to be extraneous.  Why is it there?  Rashi explains that "for yourself" implies "for your own benefit".  God is telling Avraham that even though he is to leave his homeland and family for the unknown, it is not because God wants him to lead a monastic life.  He is to leave for his own benefit.

How can leaving comfort for discomfort be for his own benefit?  The answer depends on how we define "his own benefit".  The ultimate benefit a person can attain is experiencing closeness with God.  God is teaching Avraham how to live in this world and constantly experience that closeness.  How?  

Leaving everything that is familiar for the unknown requires a remarkable level of trust in God.  God tells Avraham, though, that the point of this test is not only to have the faith to listen, but to internalize that faith.  "לֶךְ/Go" requires faith.  "לְךָ/for yourself" implies internalizing that achievement and applying it to all the activities of everyday life.  He thus lives with the inspiration, essentially the closeness to God.

This is the meaning of the pasuk, "וְהַחַיּוֹת רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב .../And the living creatures (a type of angel) ran forth and returned …" (Yechezkeil 1:14)  Running forth represents reaching a new height in serving God.  Returning means internalizing that new level by bringing it back to everyday life so that it affects all of one's activities. 

A one time inspired act is an achievement.  Internalizing the inspiration and applying it on a daily basis causes it to last.

This idea provides the answer to another question.  The Torah tells us that Avraham Avinu took his wife and entire household with him.  But God said nothing of taking his wife and household.  How did he know to take them with him?  The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is that Avraham Avinu understood from "לְךָ/for yourself", that this was more than a test of faith.  It was also a test to see if he would be able to apply the high level to his everyday actions dealing with his wife and household.  He knew therefore, that he was supposed to take his entire household with him so that he could apply the inspiration to his daily life.

May we merit internalizing our inspirations and applying them to our daily lives.