Friday, May 28, 2010

BeHa'aloscha 5633 Second Ma'amar

The ultimate service of God is for all of our desires to be totally aligned with God’s desires.  The sole motive for every one of our actions should be to fulfill God’s will.  However, God created us with very strong personal desires.  It is extremely difficult to negate our desires.  [In fact, it may not even be the correct approach.  When Chazal tried to negate the inclination for intimate relations, hens stopped laying eggs.  The world is not able to function without base desires.  M.D.T.]  How then, can we reconcile our desires with being dedicated to serving God?

Addressing this issue, Chazal give us the following advice, “... עֲשֵׂה רְצוֹנוֹ כִּרְצוֹנְךָ .../… Do His will like you [do] your own will …” (Avos 2:4)  The Tanna is teaching us that our will and personal desires have a purpose in helping us to serve God properly.  From our strong cravings we learn how to crave to achieve God’s will as well.  In this sense, our personal desires are a good thing.  God created us with personal desires so that we may experience desire and infer from them and the experience how to relate to God’s desires as well.

By learning from our own desires how to serve God better, how to yearn to accomplish His will, our desires are elevated to the level of serving God as well.

The Sfas Emes teaches us that to the extent that we crave to do Mitzvos and good deeds, our desire is infused with God’s holiness that affords us a certain protection that prevents us from swerving away from accomplishing God’s will even though we have our own.  In fact, our own desires become subordinate to God’s.  The main thing, is the craving, the hankering to achieve God’s will.  When we are led to this craving for closeness to God by our experience with our own base desires, all of them become part of our service to God.

This may explain a pasuk in this week’s parsha, “... הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה .../… they craved strongly …” (Bamidbar 11:4)  Why does the Torah tell us that they had a strong desire instead of simply relating the transgression?  What is this coming to teach us? 

The Sfas Ems explains that the nation was on a very high spiritual level, far removed from the base desires with which we are familiar today.  They had just spent a full year basking in the spiritual starting with the revelation on Mount Sinai and then experiencing the Divine Presence  in the Mishkan, the miracles of the manna and the clouds of glory.  Their high level meant that they did not experience base craving with which we are familiar.  This had a deleterious effect on their ability to experience any kind of craving.  So, they forced themselves to crave meat. 

For that generation, this was the wrong approach.  God considered it a sin.  However, we do crave physical things.  It is part of our makeup.  By cultivating a strong belief that God created us this way in order to better serve Him, we create a harmony within us.  All our desires, even though they seem to pull us away from God, are actually vehicles for coming close to Him.  Thinking of them in this way and using them to strengthen our desire to accomplish God’s will creates a harmony of purpose within us.  May we merit it!

Practical Application

Many of us have big issues with our base desires.  How can we lead holy lives and serve God properly?  The important thing to always remember is that God Himself created us with these desires.  They play an important role, not least of which is the very issue the Sfas Emes discusses in the ma’amar. Thinking of ourselves as somehow to blame for our base desires is actually a form of k’fira because it is saying that they originate with us instead of coming from God.  And since they come from God, He gave them to us for our benefit, to help us come close to Him.  This very realization is already a complete mindset change for most of us.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Naso 5636 Third Ma'amar

We learn this week in Avos, “שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה .../Shammai says, ‘Make your Torah the main occupation; say little and do much …”  The second clause seems to contradict the first.  If Torah is our main occupation then we are saying a lot and doing little!

The Sfas Emes reconciles the seeming contradiction according to a later Mishna, “... כָּל שֶמַּעֲשָׂיו מְרֻבִּין מֵחָכְמָתוֹ חָכְמָתוֹ מִתְקַיֶּמֶת .../… Anyone whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure …”  By following the teaching of Shammai of saying little and doing much we are assured that our wisdom will endure. 

The Sfas Emes understands the first clause of Shammai according to this later Mishna, as well.  Shammai is teaching us that if we “do” our Torah, by translating our Torah into action, instead of just studying it, it will become established and endure.  Along these lines we find a similar Mishna in Avos, “... כָּל שֶּׁמַעֲשָׂיו מְרֻבִּין מֵחָכְמָתוֹ לְמַה הוּא דּוֹמֶה לְאִילָן שֶׁעֲנָפָיו מוּעָטִין וְשָׁרָשָׁיו מְרֻבִּין שֶׁאֲפִילוּ כָּל הָרוּחוֹת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם בָּאוֹת וְנוֹשְׁבוֹת בּוֹ אֵין מְזִיזוֹת אוֹתוֹ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ .../Anyone whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, to what can he be compared?  To a tree with whose branches are few and whose roots are many; even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they do not budge it from its place …”

When a person translates Torah into action, it becomes “his” Torah.  This is why Shammai says, “Do your Torah, and it will be established.”  Turn the Torah that you learn into actions and it becomes yours.  Rashi, in fact, understands this as well in his commentary on the second pasuk in Tehillim, כִּי אִם בְּתוֹרַת ה' חֶפְצוֹ ובְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה/But his desire is in God’s Torah and in his Torah he meditates day and night.”  Rashi explains that at first it is called God’s Torah but after he works at it, it is called his Torah.

The nation as well said, “... כָּל אֲשֶר־דִבֵּר ה' נַעֲשֶׂה .../… All that God said, we will do …,” a clear reference to turning the word of God into action.

The word for action – מַעֲשֶׂה, also connotes subordination as in גֶט מְעוּשֶׂה/a coerced get.  When we subordinate our physical being to the laws of the Torah we are translating the Torah into מַעֲשֶׂה. 

Subordinating ourselves to the laws of the Torah is not simple.  It requires a lot of work.  But by doing so, we rectify this world and it is because of the difficulty that it is especially precious to God.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Shavuos 5633 First and Second Ma'amarim

First Ma’amar
Every morning we begin Pesukei DeZimra with Baruch SheAmar that includes, “בָּרוּךְ אוֹמֵר וְעוֹשֶׂה בָּרוּךְ גוֹזֵר וּמְקַיֵים/Blessed is He who says and does, blessed is He who decrees and establishes.”  The Sfas Emes explains that the first clause is a reference to the Creation – מַעֲשֵׂה בְּרֵאשִׁית – because God created the world with ten sayings – בְּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת.  The second clause refers to the ten commandments because they are God’s decrees and Chazal teach us that the world’s continued existence was dependent upon the nation accepting them.

Accordingly, the bracha above can be translated as, “Blessed is He who says (the עֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת/ten sayings) and created (the world.).  Blessed is He who decreed (the עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת/ten commandments) and established (the world.)”

Second Ma’amar
On Shavuos we read, “וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶה אֶל הָעָם אַל־תִּירָאוּ כִּי לְבַעֲבוּר נַסּוֹת אֶתְכֶם בָּא הָאֱ-לֹהִים וּבַעֲבוּר תִּהְיֶה יִרְאָתוֹ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶם לְבִלְתִּי תֶחֱטָאוּ/Moshe said to the nation, ‘Do not fear for God has come in order to raise you up and so that His fear be upon you so that you will not sin.”  The end of the pasuk appears to contradict the beginning.  Moshe tells the nation not to fear then proceeds to tell them that God revealed Himself so that they should fear!  How can this pasuk be reconciled?

The Sfas Emes explains that the two parts of the pasuk are referring to a person’s situation before he sins and after he sins.  Before he sins, it is important to cultivate fear, concern and awe of God in order to keep away from sin.  After the sin though, when a person realizes how very far away from God he truly is, fear and concern can prevent him from returning to God.

After the sin, it is important to determine to serve God through love.  Serving God through love is, in a sense, a way of skipping levels.  When we serve God through love, our strong desire to come close to Him overcomes our logic that tells us that we are not on the proper level.  God then reciprocates and welcomes us.

The Midrash alludes to this explaining the pasuk, “... וְדִגְלוֹ עָלַי אַהֲבָה/… and his attraction to me (was symbolic of his) love.”  In a play on the word דִגְלוֹ, the Midrash uses instead דִילוּגוֹ/his skipping.  According to the Sfas Emes, the Midrash is teaching us that even if a person comes close to God in a non-sequential fashion; he skips levels, still God welcomes him.

We find this concept in the event of God’s revelation to the nation at Mount Sinai.  After the nation heard the first two commandments directly from God, they told Moshe that they wanted to hear the rest from him.  The nation was afraid.  God acquiesced and, in fact, we were far from the level of Moshe Rabbeinu.  Still, God was ready to continue His revelation to the nation even though we were not ready for it if only we truly wanted to come close and receive.  

God welcomes our efforts and true desire to come close to Him.  God will reveal Himself to us based solely on our sincere desire to come close to and experience Him regardless even if our level of piety does not warrant such a revelation.

Friday, May 14, 2010

BaMidbar 5632 Second Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha a census is conducted that counts the entire nation of Israel. God tells Moshe Rabeinu to count the Levites separately for, “... וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִים/… the Levites shall be Mine.” Why did God single out the Levites? Why did He make them His? The Midrash, addressing this question, says that whoever brings God close, God, in turn, brings that person close to Him. After the sin of the golden calf, the Levites brought God close to them. In response to Moshe Rabbeinu’s call, “Whoever is for God, come to me!” “All the children of Levi gathered around him.” God, in turn, brought the Levites close to Him.

The Chiddushei HaRim points out, though, that the Levites were not the only ones who resisted the temptation to sin. In fact, most of the nation did not participate in the idol worship. Why, then, did God bring particularly the Levites close to Him?

The Chiddushei HaRim, based on a Midrash, answers that there is a significant difference between passively refraining from sin and actively declaring that you are for God.  A person can refrain from sin for any number of reasons.  In fact, it is common to have a plethora of motivations that influence us.  The Levites showed that they did not worship the golden calf only because they were for God and for no other reason.  They declared that they refrained from worshipping the golden calf in order to be close to God.

The Chiddushei HaRim notes that each one of us has an underlying desire to accomplish God’s will.  This underlying desire, the Maharal teaches, is a part of our very essence.  Actualizing it from its latent state within us is the reason we were created. 

Usually, though, this underlying desire to accomplish God’s will and experience Him, is covered over by other desires that are external to our essence.  Our work is to remove all our ulterior motives, to search deep within ourselves and find the holiness that is there.  This is the deeper meaning of the Chazal which teaches us that if we work hard at it, we will find success – יָגַעְתִּי וּמָצָאתִי תַּאֲמִין/(If a person claims,) “I worked hard and found (success),” believe it.

A related Midrash in the parsha states that by increasing God’s honor, we increase our own as well.  When one decreases God’s honor, the result is a decrease of his own honor whereas God’s honor remains unchanged.

What is the meaning of this Midrash?  What does decreasing God’s honor mean?  And if we decrease God’s honor, in what way does it remain unchanged?

The Sfas Emes explains that the Midrash is teaching us a lesson about attributing credit for our accomplishments.  When we decrease our own honor by crediting God for our accomplishments, we are essentially saying that our honor is really God’s.  We thus increase God’s honor in the world.

When a person credits himself for his accomplishments, he is attributing God’s honor to himself.  In the words of the Midrash, by not attributing his own accomplishments to God, he is belittling the honor of God.  However God’s honor was hidden to begin with so in absolute terms, nothing has changed.  God’s honor was hidden before and is still hidden.  The Midrash therefore says that God’s honor remains unchanged.

Practical Application

The Sfas Emes is teaching us two lessons.  First, we should emulate the Levites.  It is not enough to refrain from sinning.  Achieving the purpose of our existence requires that we remove all the ulterior motives that surround our innermost desire.  The innermost desire of every one of us is to do the will of God.  

By the way, the Rambam uses this logic to explain a halachah according to which a person who pledged a sacrifice to the Beis HaMikdash and subsequently refuses to make good on his pledge, Beis Din is beats that person until he says that he wants to bring the sacrifice.  The reason for this is that the sacrifice must be brought willingly and if a person says he wants to bring the sacrifice as a result of being beaten, that’s called, “willingly”.  The Rambam explains that our innermost desire is to do God’s will.  So, even though it appears as if the person is acquiescing in order to stop the pain, the fundamental truth is that his acquiescence is in total alignment with his innermost desire.

The second lesson the Sfas Emes teaches is to credit God for our accomplishments.  For some, this is a big test.  We take credit for all kinds of things in our daily lives, from how smart we are to how kind we are!  The truth is that it’s always God.  He gave us smarts, he gave us the strength and the wherewithal to be kind.  He gives us everything we need every moment of our lives.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Behar 5632 Second Ma'amar

The preceding ma’amar establishes that we have the ability to reveal or hide the spiritual component that inheres in the physical world that we live in.  In this ma’amar the Sfas Emes teaches us that the very purpose of our existence is to reveal the spiritual.  The purpose of the Creation is for the spiritual to become revealed.

This is clear from the laws of Shmitta at the beginning of this week’s parsha.  There are hints in the parsha and Chazal say explicitly that the consequence of not observing the sabbatical year is exile.  Although we can contemplate a connection between allowing the land to rest and the privilege of living on the land, it seems like a rather harsh punishment.

In order to truly understand how the punishment fits the transgression, we must gain a deeper insight into the sabbatical year.  Is it simply good crop production practice to allow the land to lie fallow for a year in every seven or is there something more to it? 

The Torah compares the sabbatical year to Shabbos, “... כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַה׳/… When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest as a Shabbos for God.”  The Sfas Emes teaches us elsewhere that rest implies no resistance.  When a system is at rest, all its parts are working smoothly.  There is no resistance within the system.  Rest on Shabbos implies that our physical bodies offer no resistance to the spiritual within us.  It is thus possible to “connect” to our spiritual roots on Shabbos, something that is much more difficult to do during the days of the week.

Just as we can more easily experience the spiritual in ourselves on Shabbos, the Torah is teaching us that through the sabbatical year we can reveal the spiritual in the physical that surrounds us.  There is nothing more physical than land.  Transgressing the laws of Shmittah is denying the spiritual roots of the physical world.  This is the reason for the harsh punishment of exile.  If we do not work to reveal the spirituality inherent in the land, it is taken from us.

The Torah makes a point of telling us that God told Moshe the laws of Shmitta on Mount Sinai.  God gave Moshe the entire Torah on Mount Sinai.  Why then does the Torah single out the mitzvah of Shmitta?  Shmitta, having to do with the very land itself, is the ultimate symbol of the physical world.  Saying that this mitzvah was given at Mount Sinai, the Torah is telling us that its strength, the strength of the spiritual, is in the physical world.  This represents the Written Torah.  The Written Law is engraved in stone, so to speak.  It is given and unchanging. 
The spiritual is here with us but hidden.  Our job to reveal it is represented by the Oral Law.  The Oral Law is dynamic.  The more we delve into the deeper meanings of the Torah, the more we reveal and expand the Oral Law, the Torah shebe’al peh.  The Sfas Emes broadens this concept and teaches that changing and influencing our environment is also an aspect of the Oral Law.  Therefore, revealing the spiritual is an aspect of our part in the Oral Law.

This concept is clearly indicated by the pasuk in Mishlei cited in the first ma’amar, “מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁוֹן .../The tongue (i.e. speech) has the power of death and life …”  “Life”, a connection to the spiritual and ultimately to God, is always with us.  Life is not lacking in this world.  It is simply hidden.  The pasuk in Mishlei is teaching us that we have the ability to reveal “life” or to keep it hidden, represented by “death” in the pasuk.

The pasuk uses the tongue as the instrument for doing this because the tongue converts undifferentiated sound coming from the throat into unique and different sounds.  In the same way, we convert the undifferentiated spirituality that inheres in this world into different manifestations depending upon our ability to receive the spiritual.  Although the pasuk seems like it is an either/or proposition – life or death, in reality it is continuum from complete concealment of God to total revelation.  How we receive this spirituality, how much we reveal of it, how it affects us and how it manifests in the physical and in our lives, is totally dependent upon our spiritual level and ability to receive it.