Friday, February 26, 2010

Tetzaveh 5631 First Ma'amar - Practical Application

This essay is based on Tetzaveh 5631 First Ma’amar.  Clicking on the previous words will bring you to the ma’amar on the blog.  (Opens in a new window.)
The Midrash in this week’s parsha teaches us that the Menorah was not needed for its light.  God, after all, does not need our light.  It is a symbol that God gave us the ability to light up the world by performing His mitzvos.
The Sfas Emes explains that the mitzvos contain the spiritual light of the Torah.  When we perform a mitzvah, we are a conduit to draw out the spiritual light of the Torah which lies latent within the mitzvah.  To the extent that we internalize the understanding that this spiritual power is not inherent in us but rather that we are simply the mechanism through which the light comes into the world, we can reach great heights. 
Not only does this enable us to reach great spiritual heights, the Sfas Emes explains that this concept applies to material success as well.  He bases this on Chazal who teach us that whosoever wishes to protect his assets should plant a maple – אֶדֶּר – tree as we find in the pasuk, “אֲדִיר בַּמָרוֹם ה'/God is great on high.”  Material strength comes from the realization that everything comes from God because the true vitality of everything flows from its spiritual source.
The Chiddushei HaRim teaches that the month of Adar –אָדָר  – as well, is particularly suited for working on internalizing this concept.
Remembering Amalek is also firmly connected with this idea.  Chazal teach us that the reason Amalek was able to fight us was because we had become weak in Torah and mitzvos.  The name of the place in which the battle took place was רְפִידִים – which hints to רִפְיוֹן יָדַיִם/weakness.  We “gave” Amalek strength by severing of our connection with God.
We see that success in both spiritual and material endeavors is a function of our connection with God.  Connecting with God is not necessarily an esoteric concept.  The Sfas Emes teaches us a down to earth method for connecting with God.  We can connect to God by internalizing the understanding that we are simply conduits or tools for manifesting His light in this world.  To the extent we believe this, we experience it.  The very belief affects the results of our actions and what happens to us.
How can we cultivate this belief?  More importantly, how can we make sure that we apply it?  How can we remain consciously aware of the fact that we are conduits of spiritual light?  We need to contemplate it before every action.  Since God powers everything, every activity has within it the potential for drawing spiritual light into the world.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Terumah 5361 First and Second Ma'amarim - Practical Application

This essay is based on Terumah 5631 First Ma’amar.  Clicking on the previous words will bring you to the ma’amar on the blog. (Opens in a new window.)

When it comes to serving God, many times we find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the task that lies before us.  The truth is that fulfilling God’s will is an even greater task that we can imagine.  It is actually beyond our capabilities.  God, after all, is infinite and we are finite.  How can we possibly satisfy the infinite?  How can we even begin to understand it?

In this ma’amar the Sfas Emes teaches us that to the extent that we desire to accomplish God’s will and trust in Him, He will help us.  Our desire is the key to success.  The Midrash says that after a sale, the seller no longer has any connection with the object that was sold.  However, God “sold” us the Torah and Himself with it.  The idea, the Sfas Emes explains is that since God is “in” the Torah, the more we desire to understand it, the more God reveals Himself to us through the Torah.

This applies to everything that we do to serve God.  However, often we do not even know what to do.  What path should be take?  Even if we do not know what path to take, what decision to make, we can always be absolutely clear and eager in our desire to achieve God’s will.  Our will is the only thing over which we have complete control.  It is this that God requires of us.  If we have a true desire to succeed in serving God, not only will He help us, He will guide us.

The second ma’amar delivers (click here to read the ma’amar, opens in a new window) a very similar message.  Chazal tell us that it was difficult for Moshe Rabbeinu to make the Menorah so first God showed it to him.  It was still difficult for Moshe, so God told him to simply throw the gold into the fire and God Himself would fashion it.

The Sfas Emes asks that since God certainly knew beforehand that making the Menorah was beyond Moshe Rabbeinu’s capabilities why did He ask Him to make it?  Why did He not simply tell Moshe from the outset to throw the gold in the fire?  The Sfas Emes explains that it was crucial for Moshe Rabbeinu to desire to make the Menorah, even if he could not. God showed Moshe Rabbeinu a virtual Menorah so that he would know what he must desire.  Moshe Rabbeinu then did whatever he could to the best of his ability.  Because of Moshe Rabbeinu’s desire to see the completed Menorah, God helped and finished the job.   

We can learn an invaluable lesson from this Sfas Emes that will help us succeed in serving God.  The clearer our vision of what we want and the stronger our desire to get it, the more apt God is to help us get it.  Even if the goal is beyond our capabilities, if we have a clear vision of it and a strong desire to attain it, God will help us to reach it.

But this assumes that you have a goal that you want to reach.  Many people have no specific goals at all!  A person who only has general goals will find it very difficult to reach them.  Let’s say, for example that you have a goal of becoming a better person.  This is way, way, too general.  The goal has to be specific enough so that action items present themselves to attain the goal.  Becoming a better person is so general that the action items that may present themselves are overwhelming.  Where do you start?

I’m not saying, by the way, that general goals should be avoided.  Far from it.  General goals are important.  But, you also need specific goals otherwise you’ll never reach the general ones.

Here’s a simple example that comes to mind.  Since “I want to become a better person” is much too general to easily translate into actionable items, I set a secondary goal, “I want to not speak Lashon Hara.”  This is a little better.  I can convert this into some actionable items: 1)  Learn the laws of lashon hara for 10 minutes each day during my lunch break, 2) Commit to being aware not to speak lashon hara for 3 hours each day from 6 PM – 9 PM, 3)  Don’t speak in shul during davening (lots of opportunity for speaking lashon hara!).

So to summarize, set specific goals, visualize them, cultivate a strong desire to attain them.  Hatzlacha Rabba!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mishpatim 5631 First Ma'amar - Practical Application

This essay is based on Mishpatim 5631 First Ma’amar.  Clicking on the previous words will bring you to the ma’amar on the blog. (Opens in new window.)
Many people find reviewing what they’ve already learned tedious.  It seems that it’s easier and more exciting to learn something new than review what we’ve already learned.  However, the Sfas Emes teaches that the words of the Torah have layers of meaning. 
The Sfas Emes teaches that with the proper approach, we can gain new insights and even new knowledge each time we learn the same thing.  This applies even to seemingly “non-spiritual” laws and sugyos.  For this reason Chazal tell us specifically that the משפטים/civil laws were also given at Sinai in order to stress that even these seemingly rational laws have deep spiritual meaning.  Even sugyos that deal with civil law that are reviewed in a certain way take on new and deeper meanings that  what was originally understood. 
When we understand and internalize this, review takes on a completely different meaning and becomes a completely different process.  Usually, review is quick and for the purpose of remembering the material better.  Review of Torah is completely different.  Of course, reviewing Torah also helps to remember.  The primary purpose of review, though, becomes to gain new insight.
In addition to understanding that God wants to uncover the hidden meaning s of the Torah, there are techniques for helping us review properly.  I learned one such technique from the sefer Kerem Yehoshua written by Harav Yehoshua Cohen.  It’s a short but powerful sefer that I strongly recommend.  It may not be available in stores, however, anyone who wants to get a copy, please send me a note and I’ll get it for you from the author.
In short, the technique for reviewing properly is straightforward:
  1. The first time you learn a sugya, learn several lines of the Gemara well enough to repeat the dialog without having to look at the Gemara.  (Do not attempt to memorize the words of the Gemara.  The key here is understanding the dialog well enough to repeat it, not memorization of words which is something else entirely.)
  2. Learn the next several lines in the same way.  Learn until the end of the sugya in the same way however do not go beyond one daf.
  3. Repeat the entire sugya without looking into the Gemara.  If you get stuck, look in to remind yourself and then continue.  Do it until you can repeat the entire sugya without looking into the Gemara. If you find that a daf is too long, stop at an amud.
  4. Now repeat the entire process.  Learn from the beginning of the sugya slowly the same way you learned it the first time through.  Learn it as if you were looking at the sugya for the first time.
  5. Repeat the process again.  Learn from the beginning of the sugya without hurrying.
As you go through this process, particularly when you are saying the dialog without looking into the Gemara, pay attention to debates and places where more than one answer is brought for the same question.  Try to understand each side of the debate, why they hold the way they do.  When more than one answer is brought to answer the same question, try to understand if there are halachic ramifications for the different answers. 
If done properly, your understanding of the sugya will be radically different after the third time than it was after the first.  Even though you haven’t looked at any commentaries besides Rashi.
You may say that of course, after reviewing the sugya well a few times, you will have a better understanding.  It’s not just a better understanding.  It’s a deeper understanding.  You will find that you are asking questions on the sugya that may be found in the meforshim or even novel questions.
Learning an entire Masechta this way gives a completely different understanding of the Masechta.  People who learn this way, start asking many questions from different sugyos, questions that are often found in Tosefos.
This is truly an amazing way to learn.  It seems to me that it is possible only because of the idea that the Torah itself has layers of meaning, a concept that is not found elsewhere, certainly not to the extent that it is found in Torah.
I remember a course I took in English literature.  The professor was interested in the deeper meanings, the symbolism that the authors intended.  Lehavdil, the Torah has many many layers of meaning. 
Here we see this applied even to the relatively straightforward process of understanding a sugya.  We have not touched upon the spiritual underpinnings of the sugyos.
Rav Nosson, a talmid muvhak of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, wrote a sefer called Likutei Halachos.  The sefer follows the Shulchan Aruch and shows the deeper non-pshat meanings of the Halachos.  It’s fascinating and possible only because of the concept expounded upon in this ma’amar of the Sfas Emes that the Torah contains layers of meaning and that even the “non-spiritual” Halachos have deep spiritual meaning.  
Hatzlacha and please try the technique above and drop a line to let me know how it went.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Yisro 5632 First Ma'amar

Note: Did not have a chance to write a new practical applications article for this ma'amar so I'm reposting the ma'amar. It's great stuff anyway!

... וַיָּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל־כֵּן בֵּרַךְ ה' אֶת־יום הַשַּׁבָּת .../… He rested on the seventh day, therefore God blessed the Shabbos day ...”  (Shmos 20:10)  One would think that the opposite is the case.  God rested on the seventh day because it is special.  Why does the pasuk say that God blessed the day – making it special – because he rested on it? 

To understand this pasuk we need to understand what it means when we say that God rested and what it means when we say that He blessed the seventh day.  In order to understand this, we have to first understand the relationship between Shabbos and the rest of the Torah.

Chazal tell us that Shabbos includes the entire Torah and that keeping the Shabbos is akin to keeping the entire Torah.[1]  One who denies the Shabbos is a denier of the entire Torah.[2]  Why is this?

At the end of the paragraph describing the sixth day of creation we find, “... וַיְהִי־עֶרֶב וַיְהִי־בֹקֶר יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי/… There was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Breishis 1:31)  Why does the pasuk say, “יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי/the sixth day” instead of “יוֹם שִּׁשִּׁי/a sixth day” as it says on every other day of creation?  Reish Lakish explains that the extra letter ה/the, having a numeric value of five, alludes to the Torah which contains five books.[3] 

Reish Lakish is teaching us that God created the world on condition that the nation of Israel accept the Torah.  The Creation continues to exist because we accepted the Torah and the ten commandments. 

This is why the Chiddushei HaRim says that the ten commandments were a rectification for the ten commands with which God created the world.  The revelation on Mount Sinai made it clear that the world exists only because God wills it through the power of the Torah.  The revelation rectified the ten commands that created the natural word by showing that God runs it. 

The Torah is the conduit through which God gives life and existence to the Creation.  This is what Chazal meant when they said that the world was created for the sake of the Torah.[4]

Once the Torah was revealed in this world it became available to us to use as a tool for coming close to God even as we live within the physical world.  We see this from the Midrash which states that when the nation of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and witnessed the revelation of God, our souls left us.[5]  We did not have the strength to cope with the intense experience.  The Torah itself asked God for mercy.  Immediately our souls returned.  This is the meaning of the pasuk, “תּוֹרַת ה' תְּמִימִה מְשִׁיבַת נֶפֶשׁ/God’s Torah is complete; it restores the Nefesh-soul.” (Tehillim 19:8)  

The Zohar explains that the soul comprises three parts, Nefesh, Ruach and Neshamah in ascending spiritual order.[6]  The lowest part of the soul, the Nefesh, is the part that resides within the body.  It is the part most closely associated with the physical world. 

The Midrash is teaching us that the Torah is the tool that enables man to experience God in this world.  This is the deeper meaning of “תּוֹרַת ה' ... מְשִׁיבַת נֶפֶשׁ/God’s Torah … restores the Nefesh-soul.”   

The power to connect us and the rest of the Creation to God is inherent in Shabbos as well.  The pasuk states, “... וּבַיוֹם הַשְׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִנָפַשׁ/… and on the seventh day He ceased work and rested.” (Shmos 31:17)  The words “וַיִנָפַשׁ/rested” and נֶפֶשׁ/soul have the same Hebrew root.  The pasuk is telling us that on the seventh day, all souls become connected to God. 

On Shabbos we are able to more easily have a spiritual experience.  Not only souls, but the entire Creation comes closer to God on Shabbos, meaning that on Shabbos, God is more revealed.  Being connected, they re-energize from the Godly life-giving force. 

Shabbos is the channel through which the Godly life force comes into the Creation.  This is why the Zohar says that Shabbos is the vehicle through which the Godly life force is drawn down to the other days of the week.[7]  The days of the week (and everything else in the Creation) are connected to Godliness through Shabbos. 

While the Torah is the vehicle through which God gives life and existence to the Creation, Shabbos is the conduit through which the life giving power of the Torah is drawn into the world.  This is why keeping Shabbos is like keeping the entire Torah.

The concept that the Godly life force is drawn down to the Creation and re-energizes it is the essence of בְּרָכָה/blessing.  The inner meaning of all blessing is closeness to God.  We can now understand why the pasuk says that God blessed the seventh day because He rested on it.  

Earlier we said that God’s resting suggests that all souls come closer to God.  God rested on the seventh day so that all souls could come close to Him and experience blessing.  When He rested on the seventh day all of Creation came closer to Him and experienced blessing.

When we turn to God on Shabbos, opening ourselves up to Him, subjugating our own will to His and connecting to Him, we create channels along which the Godly life force is drawn down to us and the Creation.  Shabbos, thus, becomes the source of בְּרָכָה/blessing for us and the entire Creation.

[1] Zohar 2:92a
[2] Eiruvin 69b
[3] Tanchuma Breishis 1
[4] Breishis R. 1:1
[5] Shmos R. 29:4
[6] Zohar 1:205a
[7] Zohar 2:88a