Thursday, March 25, 2010

Shabbos HaGadol 5634 First Ma'amar + Practical Applications

Much has been written about the name of the Shabbos preceding Pesach – Shabbos HaGadol, the great Shabbos.  Why is it called the great Shabbos?

In order to answer this question, we need to understand what significance keeping Shabbos has for us.  Of course, keeping Shabbos is our testimony that God created the world.  However, in addition to this, keeping Shabbos has significance for each of us personally.  It is, after all, a day of rest.  At the very least, on Shabbos we do not “go to work”.  We stay home with our families.

A day of rest signifies that whoever is controlling our lives during the week, is not in control on Shabbos.  Shabbos, then, sets us free from the rule of flesh and blood.  At least for one day a week, we can subordinate ourselves to God.  On this level of keeping Shabbos, Chazal[1] tell us that even in Egypt, Moshe Rabbeinu requested and received permission from Pharaoh to grant the nation one day of rest per week from their backbreaking physical labor.  In addition to the welcome physical rest, for one day a week the nation was free from the rule of Pharaoh and was able to accept the rule of God.

The Zohar[2], however, mentions two levels of keeping Shabbos.  There is the level of those who are enslaved and the level of those who are not enslaved and are able to subordinate themselves to God during the week as well.  The significance of Shabbos for these people is that on Shabbos it takes less effort to experience God.  To these people, Shabbos signifies a day on which they are free from the distractions of weekday activities.  Spiritually as well, it is a day on which it is easier to experience God.  This is a much higher level of keeping Shabbos.

We first experienced this higher level of Shabbos as a nation on the Shabbos preceding the redemption.  Prior to this Shabbos Moshe Rabbeinu promised us that after the coming plague we would be leaving Egypt for good.  We finally left the servitude of Pharaoh and became subordinate to God alone.  We were thus able to experience the higher level of Shabbos.  In commemoration of the first time we experienced the higher level of Shabbos, we refer to the Shabbos before Pesach as the great Shabbos.

Practical Application

Although we are not slaves today in the literal sense, unfortunately, many of us are essentially slaves.  We accept being subordinate to our work, our employers, our … etc.  We thus experience only the first level of keeping Shabbos.  We are not free during the week.  We are free only on Shabbos.  Shabbos for us is simply a day of rest, albeit, a mental and emotional rest.  I’m not belittling Shabbos as a day of rest.  A day of rest is very important.  There were times, not long ago, when even this was difficult attain.

However, nowadays, very few are struggling because their employers require them to work on Shabbos.  Our struggle these days is to accept the yoke of Heaven during the week as well.  It is to realize that the one who pays us a check is really the One who is paying us the check. 

Many pay lip service to the concept that our parnassah comes from God, not from our employer, customers, etc.  However, truly internalizing the concept changes the way we approach our employer, business, customers, etc.  There is a certain confidence that comes from knowing that my employer is no more than God’s messenger with no autonomous power.  This mindset switch is key to experiencing the ol malchus shamayim during the week and even more so on Shabbos.  May we merit it!

And a chag kasher vesame’ach to all.

שנזכה לאכול מן הפסחים ומן הזבחים!

[1] Shmos R. 1:28
[2] Zohar Raya Mehimna 3:29b

Friday, March 19, 2010

VaYikra 5631 Fourth Ma'amar + Practical Application

This week’s parsha begins with a description of the various sacrifices that we can bring.  The Torah describes three types of sacrifices, animal, bird and flour.  Generally people would bring what they could afford.  The wealthy would bring a cow or goat.  The poor who could afford nothing but flour, would bring that.

How do we know that in God’s eyes, the less expensive sacrifices are equal to the expensive sacrifices?  The pesukim state in the description of each type of sacrifice, “... אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לַה'/… a fire-offering of pleasing aroma to God.” (VaYikra 1: 9,13,17 2:2)  From here Chazal[1] understand that whether one brings a lot or a little, the proper intent is what counts.  It’s better to bring a little intending to glorify the name of God than a lot without the proper intent.

It would seem though, that bringing a lot with the proper intent would be better than bringing a little with the proper intent.  Why do Chazal completely discount the quantity?[2]

The Chiddushei HaRim answers this question in the name of the Rav of Parshischa by way of a parable.  Two merchants had to travel to the same place.  One merchant left immediately and arrived soon thereafter.  The other’s trip was delayed by various things and he arrived much later.  When the people who expected both merchants asked him why it took him so long, he answered, “What’s the difference?  I’m also here now!”

The parable is teaching us a profound lesson.  The result is what counts.  It matters little what happened along the way.  The late merchant also arrived in the end, even though it took him longer to get there and his journey was more difficult.

Our goal is to direct our actions towards God, to fulfill His will.  It matters not whether our actions involve a lot or a little amount of work.  If we act with the proper intent – to fulfill God’s will – we’ve achieved our goal.

The same idea applies to the sacrifices.  The quantity is not important in attaining the goal of giving something that belongs to us to God.  The poor individual who brings a flour offering attains the same goal as the wealthy individual who brings a cow.  Both have brought something that belongs to them to God.

Practical Application

The ultimate purpose of our actions is to reveal that God is the motive force within them.  We do this by intending to fulfill God’s will through them.

There those among us who are unhappy with their station in life.  “If only I were wealthy, I’d be able to do so much more.”  People are not happy with how smart they are.  “If only I had more brains and zitsfleisch, I’d be able to learn more and be a big Torah scholar.”

Chazal and the Sfas Emes are telling us that in order to fulfill God’s will and our purpose in this world, the amount of money and brains we have is totally irrelevant.  Only one thing matters – intending to fulfill God’s will with what we have and through our actions.

There is a wonderful story written by Rebbi Nachman of Breslev about a Chacham and a Tam.  The simpleton is a shoemaker and because he is limited, he makes poor quality shoes and it is difficult for him to make a decent living.  Nevertheless, every time he makes a shoe, he’s happy, shows it to his wife, etc. 

Why is he so happy?  He may be simple but he’s not stupid.  He knows that others make better quality shoes.  He knows that because of his limitations making a living is difficult for him.

He’s happy because he knows that God made him the way he is and obviously wants him to make poor quality shoes with the resulting ramifications regarding his livelihood.  He’s happy because with his poor quality shoes, he is fulfilling God’s will and thus achieving the highest goal a person can aspire to in this world.  

[1] Menachos 110a
[2] Taz Orach Chaim 1:4:3

Friday, March 12, 2010

Parshas HaChodesh 5631 Second Ma'amar + Practical Application

Chazal[1] relate a story about the Tanna, Rebbi Elazar ben Arach.  After the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, Rebbi Elazar ben Arach went to a a certain city expecting his students to follow him. They didn’t. Alone in a city known for its decadence, he forgot his Torah learning. When he had the opportunity to read from a Torah, instead of reading, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you,”[2] he transposed the letters and read, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf”, a seemingly innocuous mistake.  The Chiddushei HaRim[3], however, understands that this was not an innocuous mistake.  The mistake was actually a hint to Rebbi Elazar to leave the city.

The Chiddushei HaRim understands this from a Midrash[4] which implies that the leaders of Israel either have the power to lead the people and steer them onto the right path or are led by them and fall.  Rebbi Elazar understood the words that he mistakenly said as applying to the inhabitants of the city of his exile.  He understood that he would not be able to improve them, would be drawn after their evil ways and should therefore leave. 

The Sfas Emes gives another interpretation to this story.  The new moon/month symbolizes renewal.  The words for month and new are the same, חֹדֶשׁ and  חָדָשׁ, respectively.  In order to experience the light of renewal, the Sfas Emes explains, we first must experience the darkness of deafness.

We could only experience God’s revelation at the redemption from Egypt, after having first experienced the darkness of His concealment in the exile.  In fact, we define exile and redemption as God’s concealment and revelation respectively.  The redemption is simply a removal of the screen that conceals God.  We merited this renewal of our relationship with God by first living through and bearing His concealment.

This idea underlies the need for the four kingdoms – Babylon, Medes, Greece, Rome – before the final redemption.  Each one the four kingdoms is a rectification of some aspect or aspects of God’s concealment.  A complete rectification will manifest at the ultimate redemption as, “מַלְכוּתְךָ מַלְכוּת כָּל־עֹלָמִים .../Your kingdom is a kingdom spanning all worlds …”[5], the culmination of the historical process.

Rebbi Elazar ben Arach went to the city knowing that the inhabitants were on a low spiritual level.  He did so in order to be able to find renewal after living in an atmosphere of God’s concealment.

The Zohar[6] as well teaches us that purity implies a preceding period of impurity.  Attaining purity from a state of impurity means that the mask hiding God is removed.  We find this in the following pasuk, “מִי־יִתֵּן טָהוֹר מִטָּמֵא לֹא אֶחָד/Who can produce purity from impurity?  No one!”[7]  The Midrash[8] translates this pasuk as, “Who produces purity from impurity?  Is it not the One?”  God produces purity from impurity by removing the screen that hides Himself.

Revelation of God means that we subordinate ourselves to Him.  This is also symbolized by the ashes of the red heifer.  We only attain purity when we are sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer.  When we subordinate ourselves and our own desires for God’s, we “connect” to Him and attain a state of purity.

When purity is reached we are open to a renewed relationship with God.  This is the meaning of the pasuk, “לֵב טָהוֹר בְּרָא־לִי אֱ־לֹהִים וְרוַּח נָכוֹן חַדֵּשׁ בְּקִרְבִּי/Create pure heart for me, Lord, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”  First David HaMelech asks God for purity - revelation.  This naturally leads to a desire for renewal.

Parshas Parah representing attainment of purity from within an impure state therefore precedes Parshas HaChodesh representing spiritual renewal.  May we merit it! 

Practical Application

The cycles of God’s concealment and revelation are a part of the natural order of the world.  We see it everywhere.  No one can keep going constantly upward.  We need to sleep and rest to become rejuvenated.  Economic cycles show periods of decline and renewal.  A seed must first rot for the tree to grow from it.
If we find ourselves in a situation that is not to our liking, if chas vesholom, we are having parnassah challenges, health challenges or any other situation in which we are in pain, we should know that we living through a process at the end of which is God’s revelation and spiritual renewal.  Internalizing this idea is very helpful for not getting into a panic.  Hatzlacha!

[1] Shabbos 147b
[2] Shmos 12:2
[3] Sefer HaZchus Shlach s.f. Slach lecha
[4] Shmos R. 27:9
[5] Tehillim 145:13
[6] Zohar 2:69b
[7] Iyov 14:4
[8] Bamidbar R. 19:1

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Tisa 5631 First Ma'amar + Practical Application

Note:  I've decided to change the format a bit.  I am going to be posting ma'amarim with practical application at the end.  I believe one of the readers suggested a similar format.  This week, I'm posting a ma'amar which I previously did.  This is a revised version.  Following is a "Practical Application" section.  Enjoy!
In the beginning of this week’s parsha, Bezalel is appointed to build the Mishkan and its vessels.  This is followed by an admonition to keep the Shabbos, “אַךְ אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְמֹרוּ .../Only keep my Sabbaths …” (Shmos 31:13)  The word אַךְ/only, is used in the Torah to exclude.  Rashi explains that it comes here to exclude Shabbos from the work of the Mishkan.[1]  Bezalel and his team were not permitted to build the Mishkan on Shabbos.

The Ramban has difficulty with this.[2]  The Ramban explains that when the word אַךְ/only precedes a mitzvah, it restricts the application of the mitzvah.  (e.g. אַךְ/Only restricts the mitzvah of Shabbos with regard to circumcision.  We may perform circumcisions on Shabbos.)  Applying this logic to the Mishkan, if the word אַךְ/only were coming to restrict Shabbos with regard to work on the Mishkan, it should mean that work on the Mishkan is permitted on Shabbos.  Why, then, does Rashi say that from אַךְ/only we learn that work on the Mishkan is prohibited on Shabbos?

In order to answer the Ramban’s question, we need to understand the relationship between Shabbos and the work of the Mishkan.

On Shabbos we can more easily be aware of and experience God’s presence.  God, of course, is everywhere always.  However, during the week it is more difficult to experience His presence.  His presence is hidden, in a manner of speaking.  There are people, though, who experience God’s presence during the week as well.  Torah scholars, for example, through their Torah learning, are aware of and experience God’s presence even during the week.  This is why the Zohar calls Torah scholars Shabbos.[3]  In fact, Shabbos can be defined as a state of being connected to God, the source of life.

The Chiddushei HaRim points out that like Shabbos, the purpose of the Mishkan is the revelation of God’s presence.  (The book of Shmos ends with the building of the Mishkan and the revelation of God.  The Ramban explains that the revelation of God at the end of Shmos was the culmination of the redemption from Egypt.[4])

Chazal tell us that after the revelation at Mount Sinai and before the sin of the golden calf, we were on such a high spiritual level, God was so revealed to us, that we were free of the evil inclination and death.[5]  Chazal teach us that when we said, “נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע/we will do and we will listen” at Mount Sinai, we were each given two crowns, one for “נַעֲשֶׂה/we will do” and one for “נִשְׁמָע/we will listen.”[6]  These two crowns symbolized the high spiritual level we were on.  Before the sin, we experienced closeness to God without the Mishkan.

After the sin of the golden calf, being on a lower spiritual level, the two crowns were taken away from us.  God was hidden from us.  We needed the Mishkan to be able to experience closeness to God.  The Arizal taught that on Shabbos, though, Moshe Rabbeinu returned the crowns to us.[7]  The Arizal is teaching us that on Shabbos, God reveals Himself.  On Shabbos, God makes it easier for us to be aware of Him.  On Shabbos we can feel close to God without the Mishkan.  This is the meaning of the pasuk in this week’s parsha referring to keeping Shabbos, “... לָדַעַת כִּי אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם/… to know that I am God who sanctifies you.” (Shmos 31:13)

This explains the relationship between the Mishkan and Shabbos.  The purpose of both is to allow us to experience closeness with God. 

We find another example of the word אַךְ/only regarding purifying vessels that we receive from non-Jews, “אַךְ אֶת־הַזָּהָב וְאֶת־הַכָּסֶף .../only the gold and silver …” (Bamidbar 31:22)  In this case, as well, אַךְ/only qualifies that which follows it.  When purifying the gold, it must not have any rust on it.  אַךְ/Only tells us that only unsoiled gold can be purified. 

The Sfas Emes explains that in this sense אַךְ/only qualifies the day of Shabbos, as well.  On Shabbos, there is no barrier between us and God.  Because there is no barrier, God’s presence is manifest even without the Mishkan.  This is why Bezalel was not permitted to do the work of the Mishkan on Shabbos.  The Torah is commanding us to experience God’s presence on Shabbos, through Shabbos alone, without the Mishkan.

For this reason, as well, Chazal learn that only the thirty nine types of work found in the Mishkan are prohibited on Shabbos.[8]  God is the life giving force behind every action that we do.  It appears, though, as if we are autonomous, that we are running on our own power.  The thirty nine different types of work that we do during the week, therefore, actually hide God.  They act as a barrier.  In reality, though, we only act because God gives us strength to do so. 

Our mission during the week is to realize that our actions and activities are being powered by God.  Paradoxically, the thirty nine categories of work are also the tool for revealing God’s presence.  Realizing this enables us to feel God’s presence during the week as well.  Since Shabbos was given to us so that we can more easily experience closeness to God, the thirty nine types of work that hide His presence are prohibited.  On Shabbos, they are superfluous.

Practical Application

Contemplating this during the week as we go about our daily activities is a kind of keeping the Shabbos even during the week.  Chazal hint at this when they advise us that we can keep the mitzvah of remembering the Shabbos during the week as well.  If we find something good during the week we should set it aside for Shabbos.[9]  We’ve explained that Shabbos can be defined as a state of connectedness to God.  Accordingly, we can keep an aspect of Shabbos during the week by thinking and realizing before every activity and action that God’s force is within it and powering it.  Our job during the week, is to subordinate our own intentions for our actions to God’s.  Even if we do not know what they are, the Sfas Emes teaches else that the act of subordinating our own desires in favor of God’s helps us to merit understanding and success.

[1] Ad loc.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Raya Mehimna – Zohar 3:21a-b
[4] Ramban, Shmos, Introduction
[5] Shmos R. 32:1
[6] Shabbos 88a
[7] Sha’ar HaKavanos pg. 49
[8] Shabbos 49b
[9] Mechilta Yisro BaChodesh 7, Zachor veshamor