Friday, July 30, 2010

Eikev 5632 Second Ma'amar

כִּי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבְךָ רַבִּים הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִמֶּנִּי אֵיכָה אוּכָל לְהוֹרִישָׁם׃ לֹא תִירָא מֵהֶם זָכֹר תִּזְכֹּר אֵת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה ה׳ אֱ־לֹהֶיךָ לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל־מִצְרָיִם׃/If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are more numerous than I, so how can I dispossess them?’  Do not fear them!  You shall certainly remember what God your Lord did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt.” (Devarim 7:17)

It was obvious to the nation of Israel and probably to any impartial observer that the indigenous nations of the land of Canaan were stronger more populous and better prepared that the nation of Israel.  We had good reason to wonder how we would be able to oust the nations from the land.  In answer to this question, God reminds us of the situation before we left Egypt.  Chazal tell us that until the nation of Israel left Egypt, no slave had ever escaped Egypt.  There was very little chance of Israel leaving Egypt.  And yet, not only did the nation leave Egypt, we left amidst divine signs and wonders.  We saw God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm.  The inevitable conclusion is that just as God destroyed Egypt, He could destroy the nation of Canaan.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that this lesson applies to each of us on a personal level as well.  In every bleak looking circumstance that we may find ourselves, in which we do not see any possibility of resolution, and we are fearful of what the future holds, we can find our way out by strengthening our trust in God and realizing that God can certainly bring about a resolution.

The Sfas Emes elaborates on these pesukim.  כִּי תֹאמַר ...” can be translated as, “When you say …”  Relying on our own strength we should fear.  Left to our own devices we must know that we do not have the necessary merit to overcome adversaries and issues that are more powerful than we are.  Realizing this leads us to realize further that we should not fear because we can turn to God for His help.

The source of the question “How can we dispossess them?” is reliance on ourselves.  Instead, we need to remember what God did to the Egyptians and turn to Him to help us as well.  Once we’ve done this and have utter faith in Him we need not and should not fear.

Friday, July 23, 2010

VaEschanan 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

 The Midrash[1] in this week's parsha teaches us fundamental differences between prayer and repentance.  The Midrash compares prayer to a mikveh.  Just like a mikveh is sometimes opened and sometimes closed, so too, the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed.  Prayer is not always accepted.  This is why David HaMelech asks of God, "וַאֲנִי תְפִלָתִי־לְךָ ה׳ עֵת רָצוֹן ...//An as for me, may my prayer to You God be at a fitting time ..." (Tehillim 69:14)  Repentance is like the sea.  Just as the sea is always open, so too, the gates of repentance are always open.

Why do Chazal compare prayer to a mikveh and repentance to the sea?  There must be some relationship between prayer and mikveh on the one hand and between repentance and the sea on the other.  In order to understand this relationship the Sfas Emes first explains a basic difference between prayer and repentance.

Prayer is preceded by a realization that what we need comes from God.  Asking for our needs is simply a way of acknowledging that realization.  In order to receive from God, though, we need a connection with Him.  This connection takes the form of a spirituality that is within each of us.  Paradoxically, it is when we subordinate our desires to that connection to God that is within us, we are able to receive from Him.  Subordinating our desires is not an easy task and it is the reason that Chazal refer to prayer as "עֲבוֹדָה שֶׁבַּלֵב/labor of the heart."  Prayer is compared to a mikveh because true prayer starts with the realization that there is a spiritual component that is contained within our bodies just as the mikveh is a gathering of water - representing the spiritual - within a physical container.

Prayer then, first involves introspection.  It starts from the lowest part of our soul, the part that is connected to the physical.  It is from this spirituality that is within us that we can connect to God.  Our requests to God are the results of a proper stimulation of the spiritual within us.  Just as the mikveh is sometimes opened and sometimes closed so too, the gates of prayer.  If we have transgressed there is a barrier that prevents us from stimulating the God-force that is within us.[2]  The gates of prayer are then closed before us.

What can we do when this happens?  Before we can hope to be effective at prayer we need to remove the barrier but how?  The answer, the Sfas Emes explains, is through repentance.  Repentance does not start from the spiritual spark that is within us.  Repentance bypasses the lowest part of the soul, the part that is within, and addresses the very roots of the soul.  Repentance, as the Hebrew word תְּשׁוּבָה implies, means to return.  Both repentance and prayer address God.  Prayer starts from the lowest point that is within us and proceeds up through all the spiritual realms until it reaches the source.[3]  Repentance bypasses all this and returns us directly to the source.
This idea that there is a place that we can turn to that is beyond the barrier of our sin is exemplified in a pasuk in this week's parsha, כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱ־לֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה׳ אֱ־לֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/For who is the great nation who has God so close to them, as God our Lord is whenever we call to Him." (Devarim 4:7)  The Sfas Emes explains that this pasuk is referring to returning to God.  We can always do this and it always works.  The only stipulation is that we subordinate ourselves totally to Him.  This is the meaning of, "בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/whenever we call to Him" - to Him excluding all else.

It follows that Chazal compare repentance to the sea which is always open and accessible.  Once we have "reconnected" with the source through repentance, our prayers can once more be effective.

[1] Devarim R. 2:12

[2] The Zohar (3:28b – Raya Mehimna) expounds on the concept of connection through mitzvos and severance because of sins.  A person’s soul comprises three primary components which differ in their level of spirituality.  The Nefesh HaChaim uses the metaphor of a string which stretches from the physical body, the lowest spiritual level, to the soul’s source, the highest level of spirituality.  When a person performs a mitzvah, he strengthens the connection between the components and between the soul and it’s source which ultimately is God Himself.  When a person sins, the connection is weakened and in some cases actually broken.

[3] See Nefesh HaChaim 2:17 in Hagaha all the sources in Chazal.  We usually think of the soul as being in the body.  However, according to Chazal only a small part of the soul is in the body.  Most of a person’s soul extends from the body up through many spiritual realms to its source.  It is at the source that we are all connected in “יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּנֶסֶת/the congregation of Israel.”

Friday, July 16, 2010

Devarim 5633 First Ma'amar

Our parsha begins, “אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל .../These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel …” (Devarim 1:1)  It seems that Moshe Rabbeinu had no problem speaking to the entire nation.  However when God first asks Moshe to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the nation, he says, “... לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי .../… I am not a man of words …” (Shmos 4:10)

The first Midrash on our parsha resolves this apparent contradiction with a pasuk in Mishlei (15:4), “מַרְפֵּא לָשׁוֹן עֵץ חַיִּים .../A soothing tongue is a tree of life …”  The Midrash explains that “עֵץ חַיִּים/a tree of life” refers to the Torah.  Thus, the pasuk can be read as, “The Torah heals the tongue.”  Although before the giving of the Torah Moshe Rabbeinu was unable to speak, afterwards his tongue was healed and he spoke to the entire nation.

Although the Midrash resolves the apparent contradiction in pesukim, the simple meaning of this Midrash is difficult.  Why does the pasuk make a point of teaching us that the Torah heals the tongue specifically?  Does it not heal anything else?  What is the significance of the tongue?  The Sfas Emes therefore teaches a deeper understanding of this Midrash.  The word לָשׁוֹן/tongue also means language. 

While forming words is purely technical, language gives words meaning.  It is because of language that words convey thoughts and intent.  Therefore it is language that is so very powerful.  Language is so powerful that Chazal[1] compare it to an arrow which kills from afar.  In fact, Chazal say that it is stronger than an arrow.  An arrow has a limited range whereas language can influence throughout the entire world.  If evil words are so powerful, certainly good words are even more powerful according to Chazal’s principle that good is stronger than evil.[2]

Accordingly, the pasuk in Mishlei can be understood as, “The Torah heals (empowers) language.”  Moshe Rabbeinu understood the power of speech.  He also understood that the true power of language comes through the Torah.  The Arizal[3] teaches us that Moshe Rabbeinu was the repository of knowledge for the entire nation.  He therefore did not want to speak to the nation until the strength of his words were such that they would be able to reach and influence every single member of the nation of Israel.  This became possible with the giving of the Torah.

This concept explains a difficult Rashi on the words in the first pasuk of the parsha, “אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל/to all of Israel”.  Rashi is bothered by the word “all”.  Why does the Torah tell us that Moshe spoke to all of Israel?  If the pasuk had simply said that Moshe spoke to the children of Israel, as it says in many places, would we have assumed that he did not speak to the entire nation?

Rashi quotes Chazal who explain that since Moshe Rabbeinu is castigating the nation for the transgressions they committed since leaving Egypt, the Torah makes a point of telling us that he spoke to the entire nation at the same time.  If he had spoken to part of the nation, those not present may have been tempted to believe that the Moshe’s words did not apply.  They may have rationalized that had they been present, they would have been able to provide answers and reasons as to why they acted as they did.  In order to prevent this from happening Moshe insisted on speaking to everyone at once.

However, the Sfas Emes is unsatisfied with this reasoning because there is still no reason to assume that Moshe Rabbeinu would not have spoken to the entire nation at once.  However, according to our understanding of the Midrash above, it is clear.  There was a period during which Moshe Rabbeinu was unable to speak with the entire nation because his words did not yet have the power to reach and influence everyone.  Therefore there is a reason to assume that he spoke with only a part of the nation.  Chazal are therefore teaching us, that Moshe Rabbeinu waited until he was able to speak with the entire nation and influence every single person.

Because language conveys thought, meaning and intent, the same words can be used for diametrically opposed purposes, for good and for evil, to heal and to destroy.  The Sfas Emes teaches that we have the ability to rectify words by using them for good.

Moshe Rabbeinu used the word אֵיכָה/how, to convey the greatness of the nation.  He said, “אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא לְבַדִּי/How can I bear alone” (Devarim 1:12).  The nation was too great for one man to carry.  With this use of the word אֵיכָה/how, he essentially rectified the word since it was used by Yirmiya as a lament, “אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד/How she sits in solitude.” (Eicha 1:1)  The Midrash[4], in fact, addresses the issue of the vastly different contexts in which this word is used.

Shlomo HaMelech alludes to this as well when he wrote, “טוֹב לִשְׁמֹעַ גַעֲרַת חָכָם מֵאִישׁ שֹׁמֵעַ שִׁיר כְּסִילִים/It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise man that to the listen to the song of fools.” (Koheles 7:5)  Obviously, the intent behind the words are important rather than the words themselves and a person can rectify his own poor choice of language by using the same words for good.

[1] Arachin 15b
[2] Tosefta Sota 4:1
[3] [3] Eitz Chaim 32:1, Sha’ar HaPesukim Shmos from “ve’ata neva’eir inyan ge’ulasam”.
[4] Eicha R. 1:1

Friday, July 09, 2010

Matos 5633 Second Ma'amar

The Midrash[1] teaches that there are two ways a person can have wealth.  He can receive a gift from heaven or he can grab it for himself.  A gift from heaven lasts.  When he grabs it for himself it is likely to be taken from him.  The Midrash gives examples.  Korach and Haman were wealthy yet, not only did their wealth not last, they too, were destroyed.

The Sfas Emes has difficulty with this Midrash.  Does not everything come from God?  What then is the difference between a gift from heaven and a gift that one grabs for himself?

The answer is alluded to this very same Midrash.  The Midrash says that when the gift comes as a result of the strength of the Torah, it survives.  The strength of the Torah permeates the entire world.  The Zohar[2] teaches that God created the world with the Torah.  Therefore, of course, a person’s wealth exists through the power of the Torah that inheres in it.  Everything exists due to the power of the Torah within.

The difference between a gift of heaven and a gift that one grabs can only be in a person’s own attitude towards it.  As long as we understand and internalize the knowledge that what is ours is a result of the power of the Torah, it survives.  When we forget this and begin to believe in the effectiveness of our own actions, we are on dangerous ground.

The tribes of Gad and Reuven were involved with their cattle and flocks to the extent that they were unwilling to enter the land of Israel.  They believed in the effectiveness of their own actions.  Had they entered the land they would have merited their portion in the land and the portion that they received on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.  Instead, they lost everything.  Reuven and Gad were the first tribes to be exiled.[3]

Practical Application

We understand intellectually that everything comes from God.  Applying this understanding to our daily lives is difficult.  The Sfas Emes implies, though, that the difficulty is because we do not internalize this idea.  It remains outside of us.  Because we do not internalize it, when we are under pressure we tend to forget and then we act, like the children of Gad and Reuven, as if our actions can be effective while leaving God out of the picture.

So, our work is to internalize the fact that everything we have is from God and will survive specifically because of our undying faith that this is true.  When this understanding informs our approach to situations and decisions, we know that we need not fear loss.

[1] Bamidbar R. 22:7
[2] Zohar 1:5a Introduction
[3] Divrei Hayamim A 5:26

Friday, July 02, 2010

Pinchas 5634 Fourth Ma'amar

In this week’s Perek we read, “יוֹתֵר מִלִּמּוּדָךְ עֲשֵׂה/Do more than you have learned.” (Avos 6:4)  Similarly we find earlier, “כָּל שֶׁמַּעֲשָׂיו מְרֻבִּין מֵחָכְמָתוֹ חָכְמָתוֹ מִתְקַיֶּמֶת/Anyone whose deeds are more than his knowledge, his knowledge survives.” (Avos 3:9)  How is it possible for one to do more than he has learned?[1]

The Sfas Emes explains  that Chazal are not speaking of doing more than we know.  They are speaking of someone who knows what to do but does not understand the meanings behind his actions, the mitzvos..  When Chazal exhort us to do more than we have learned, they telling us to do even though we do not understand.

We know that our actions have spiritual ramifications.  Our mitzvos rectify spiritual realms as well as this world.  In fact, the Zohar[2] teaches us that the main thing about the mitzvos is the intentions for the rectification of our own souls and the rectification of the spiritual realms.

However, the Zohar[3] also teaches that since not everyone is able to have all these intentions, David HaMelech prayed that God accept even the mitzvos of those who are unable to have all the proper intentions, “וִיהִי נֹעַם ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ/May the pleasantness of God, our Lord be upon us, and the work of our hands establish for us; and the work of our hands establish it.” (Tehillim 90:17)  David HaMelech is asking that our deeds alone should work rectification for us in the spiritual realms even if we are unable to have all the proper intentions about these rectifications.

This works, the Sfas Emes teaches, only when we have a strong overriding desire to fulfill God’s will regardless of our understanding of the mitzvos or even our ability to perform them.  Desire to accomplish is crucial.

The Sfas Emes takes this idea further.  Our desire to achieve God’s will even though it may be beyond our understanding and abilities also causes us to receive opportunities and help to do things that are normally beyond our abilities.  Chazal teach us, “A person is led upon the path that he wants to travel.” (Makkos 10b)

[1] Rabbeinu Yona asks this question in Sha’arei Teshuva 2:10.  He answers that Chazal consider a person’s commitment to do God’s will tantamount to doing it.  Therefore, it’s possible to “do” more than one knows how to do.  In Avos D’Rebbi Nosson, this ma’amar of Chazal is backed up by the pasuk “נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע/We will do and we will listen.” (Shmos 24:7)  The proof from this pasuk makes sense only in light of Rabbeinu Yona’s explanation, otherwise, how is it possible to do before listening?  Just like the pasuk, the ma’amar too, is referring to making a commitment.  The Sfas Emes has a different original approach to understanding the ma’amar.
[2] Zohar 2:93b
[3] Ibid.