Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Succos 5634 Fifth Ma'amar

Each of the three holidays, Pesach, Shavuos and Succos relates to a different aspect of serving God.  Pesach is associated with serving God by controlling our physical desires.  Shavuos is related to the spiritual, uplifting our souls and Succos relates to serving God with things that are not inherently a part of ourselves such as our assets.

On Pesach, the holiday that commemorates our redemption from Egypt, we were also redeemed from our evil inclination.[1]  Shavuos, the day on which we received the Torah, our souls were uplifted.  Chazal[2] teach us that our souls were in fact so uplifted at the actual receiving of the Torah that when we heard God speak, our souls left our bodies.  Chazal learn this from the pasuk in Shir HaShirim (5:6), "... נַפְשִׁי יָצְאָה בְדַבְּרוֹ .../… my soul departed at His word …"  On Succos we leave our homes and live for seven days in a temporary structure[3] in order to teach us to rely upon God instead of our wealth.

The Sfas Emes sees a hint to these approaches to serving God in the pasuk, "וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶךָ/You shall love God, your Lord, with your entire heart, with your entire soul, with all your wealth." (Devarim 5:5)  Each of the three ways we are enjoined to love God, with our hearts, souls and wealth, parallels one of the holidays:

בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ/With your entire heart – The letter "ב" appears twice in the word for heart, an apparent redundancy.  Chazal learn from the extra letter that we are to serve God with both our good and our evil inclination, both of which reside in the heart.  This parallels Pesach, the holiday on which we were freed from our evil inclination.

בְכָל־נַפְשְךָ/With your entire soul – This parallels Shavuos, the day on which our souls were uplifted.

בְכָל־מְאֹדֶךָ/With all your wealth – This relates to Succos since it is on Succos that we leave the apparent security of our homes to dwell in a hut. 

In the same vein, the Sfas Emes notes another connection between the holiday of Succos and our wealth.  During the nation's forty year sojourn in the desert after leaving Egypt, Chazal teach us that we were protected from the elements by the "clouds of glory".  There is a school amongst Chazal[4] that holds that our succah commemorates these clouds of glory.  There is another school that holds that our succah commemorates actual huts that our forebears used in the desert.[5]  The clouds of glory and wealth have similar characteristics.  Both provide us with security.  Significantly, both are external to ourselves.[6]  Both are extraordinary displays of God's love for us.

The Chiddushei HaRim related the three holidays, Pesach, Shavuos and Succos to the three negative character attributes, envy, lust and desire for honor.  Envy relates to our physical bodies, lust to the spiritual and honor is external to us.  The Sfas Emes explains:

Envy - Pesach relates to overcoming the physical barrier that separates us from God.  When we envy what someone else has or has achieved we are strengthening that barrier.  Envy affects our physical bodies, "... וּרְקַב עֲצָמוֹת קִנְאָה/... and envy causes rotting bones." (Mishlei 14:30) 

Lust - Shavuos relates to uplifting the soul.  Lust, as well, relates to the soul.  When we overcome our lusts, our soul is positively affected is uplifted.[7] 

Honor - Finally, Succos is the holiday on which we display our trust in God rather than in our physical assets.  Honor, like our assets, is external to ourselves.  It is not an inherent part of us.

God gave us the holidays as tools to help us to come near to Him.  Each holiday has a unique motif in this regard.  The motif of Succos is serving God through those things that are not inherently part of us such as honor and our assets.  The first step is to realize that honor and our assets are not a part of us and do not define us.  The second step is to not allow respect or the lack of it, physical wealth or the lack of it affect us.  How?  By cultivating the belief that it is not respect from others or physical wealth that provides us with security, and happiness.  Rather it is God who provides us and everyone with all our needs.  

[1] Whenever there is a Divine revelation, the evil inclination is necessarily weakened.  See this ma'amar of the Sfas Emes on Pesach for more on this.
[2] Shabbos 88b
[3] Succah 2a
[4] Sifra 17:11
[5] Interestingly, it is the former school that is brought in the Halacha.  In fact, in order to perform the mitzvah of dwelling in the Succah properly, we are required to consciously intend to dwell in the Succah as a commemoration of the clouds of glory. (S.A. Orach Chayim 625:1 and Mishna Berurah ibid. 1)
[6] Regarding wealth being external to ourselves the Maharal writes a fascinating commentary on the Mishna in Avos which asks, "Who is wealthy?" and answers, "He who is happy with his portion."  Why is this the appropriate answer?  Why is the answer not some measure of physical wealth?  The Maharal answers that Chazal are teaching us characteristics of people that are inherent.  Physical wealth, however, is external to a person, here today, gone tomorrow, and can therefore not be the correct answer.  That physical wealth is external to us is exactly what the Sfas Emes is teaching us here.
[7] See Mishlei (13:19), "תַּאֲוָה נִהְיָה תֶעֱרַב לְנָפֶשׁ/Lust broken is sweet to the soul."  The Vilna Gaon explains that one who overcomes his lusts, even though he is in pain during the test, afterwards he is very satisfied.  It is "sweet to his soul."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

קַוֵּה אֶל־ה' חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל־ה׳/Hope to God; strengthen yourself and He will give your heart courage, and hope to God. (Tehillim 27:14)

Introductory Note:  The Sfas Emes wrote a commentary on Tehillim that was republished a few years ago.  The following was taken from that commentary.

Chazal understand "hope" in this pasuk as referring to prayer.  They learn from the repetition, "If a person sees that he prayed and was not answered he should pray again …" (Brachos 32b)  Why does David HaMelech assume that a person will be answered if he prays for the same thing a second time when he was not answered the first time?  What has changed?

The Sfas Emes learns the answer from the seemingly extra word that Chazal use.  They say, "If a person sees that he prayed …"  Why not say simply, "If a person's prayer was not answered …"?  Many times "seeing" means "understanding".  Someone whose prayer is not answered is forced to take a step back and consider what it is that God wants of him.  Thinking about prayer, we come to the conclusion that we pray to God because we are unable to answer our prayers ourselves.  Praying is a declaration of our inadequacies.  It forces us to humility. 

The Sfas Emes explains that a person's prayers are not answered because he has not internalized this humility.  God has not answered his prayers to help him realize his own lowliness, inadequacy and dependence.  When a person sees and understands this, the nature of his prayers change.

The answer to the question then, affords us a fundamental understanding of the purpose of prayer.  God obviously has no need for our prayers.  The purpose of prayer is for us to realize that we are not in charge.  Turning to God and asking for that which we lack is a clear declaration that we do not have the answer to our prayer and can only get it from Him.

The pasuk teaches us this process.  First, we ask God to fulfill our needs.  If we "see" that we are not answered, this is a sure sign that we are not sufficiently humble.  We need to strengthen ourselves from "courage of the heart" which the Sfas Emes understands as referring to arrogance and realize that our hearts are not independent rather they are dependent upon prayer.  Once we've internalized this concept, we return to pray again.

The holy Rav Dov Ber, the Mezzeritcher Maggid said a similar idea.[1]  Sometimes stray thoughts enter our minds while we are praying.  We have not invited these thoughts.  They seem to have come on their own and they have pushed us away from God, as it were.  When a person realizes that he is no longer "with God", he needs to turn back to God and pray more fervently and with more humility.  God promises that He will be with this person (allow the person to experience closeness to Him.)

[1] Likutei Amarim 69 (Kehot 5764)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yom Kippur 5645 Second Ma'amar

The Torah states that Yom Kippur is an everlasting statute to atone for our sins, "כִּי־בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם .../For on this day He shall atone for you to purify you from all your sins …" (VaYikra 16:30)  Chazal[1] teach us that the three synonyms the Torah uses for sin refer to different types of transgressions.  פֶּשַׁע refers to sins whose motivation is rebellion against God.  עָוֹן refers to sins committed with intent and חַטָאת refers to sins committed in error.  Why does this pasuk that explains the very reason for Yom Kippur refer only to those sins that are committed unwittingly?  Surely Yom Kippur atones for all types of sins.  In fact, the high priest mentions all three types of transgressions in his confessions.

We can come to an answer to this question from two ma'amarim of Reish Lakish that appear to contradict each other.[2]  Reish Lakish said that repentance is so great that it causes sins that were committed with intent to be treated as sins committed in error.  Reish Lakish also said that repentance is so great that it causes sins that were committed with intent to be treated as good deeds!  Are sins for which we repented treated as errors or as good deeds?  The Gemara answers that it depends upon how the sinner repented.  If he repented because of love of God, then even his transgressions are treated as good deeds.  If, however, he repented out of fear, then his transgressions are treated as sins that were committed in error.

The Sfas Emes explains that since the pasuk explaining the reason for Yom Kippur refers only to sins committed unwittingly, it must be that Yom Kippur atones only if we repent as well.[3]  Even the lower level of repentance causes sins to be treated as no worse than errors.  So, after repentance we are left only with sins committed in error.  The pasuk tells us that Yom Kippur atones for these.

This also explains why we say the following pasuk on Yom Kippur, "וְנִסְלַח לְכָל־עַדת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם כִּי לְכָל־הָעָם בִּשְׁגָגָה/The entire community of the children of Israel and the alien residing among them shall be forgiven because the entire nation was in error." (BaMidbar 15:26)  This pasuk is referring to a korban chattas.  This type of sacrifice is brought only for transgressions committed in error.  Why then, do we mention it on Yom Kippur, seemingly out of context?

According to what the Sfas Emes has taught us though, it is clear.  We say this pasuk to express our conviction that everyone repents at least out of fear if not out of love.  Therefore, the entire nation is left only with transgressions committed in error.  For these, Yom Kippur atones.  May we merit it!

[1] Yoma 36b
[2] Yoma 86b
[3] Yoma 85a, The Mishna there states explicitly that Yom Kippur needs our repentance to atone.  However, Rebbi Yehuda HaNassi holds that Yom Kippur alone atones for our sins even if we do not repent.  Interestingly, the conclusion of the Yerushalmi on this Mishna (8:7) is that Rebbi, too, holds that Yom Kippur only atones with our repentance.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Rosh HaShanah 5632 First Ma'amar

There is an ancient custom to eat specific fruits and vegetables on the night of Rosh HaShanah.[1]  Each  food represents some specific thing that we want for the coming year.[2]  When contemplating this custom one is struck by the difference between the custom and the actual prayers of Rosh HaShanah.  Whereas the foods that we customarily eat represent the requests that we would ask of God, the actual prayers do not even contain a hint of these requests.  Why not simply insert the requests into the prayers?

The reason we do not find requests in the Rosh HaShanah prayers is because the Zohar says that we do not ask for material things on Rosh HaShanah.[3]  The thrust of the Rosh HaShanah prayers is to attain a closer relationship with God.  We ask that God should place His awe upon all His works.  We ask that He rule over us directly instead of through intermediaries.  We want to come close to Him.  On Rosh HaShanah we proclaim His kingship over all.  This, rather than personal requests is the theme of the Rosh HaShanah prayers.

Since requests for material things are purposely omitted from the Rosh HaShanah prayers, why is it permitted to ask in the form of a symbol?  The Sfas Emes explains.  The reason God created things with symbolic meaning is in order to use them in our service to Him.  The Zohar calls this "remiza dechachmesa/hint of wisdom."[4]  We can look at every thing and find in it a hint, a symbol, that points to serving God.  In fact, the symbolic meaning could well be the main reason for their existence.  Using symbols to ask for material things points to this concept.  To the extent we want the material things to help us to better serve God, we are permitted to ask for our material needs through the symbolism of the foods.  After all, the very existence of these foods is intertwined with what they symbolize.

On Rosh HaShanah, God gives the Creation new life for another year.  How can we partake of the blessing that God bestows upon the Creation?  The key lies in our intention when we accept the life (and all the things) that God gives us.  We receive according to our intention to use what we are given to serve Him.  May we merit intending to use everything God gives us to better serve Him!

[1] Horiyos 12a
[2]  For example, we eat leek because in Hebrew the word for leek is karti which has the same root as the word for cutting down.  We say that this should be a sign that God will cut down our enemies.  The Amora Abayei is the source of this custom.  It is based on the principle that symbols have significance (simana milsa hi). 
[3] Tikunei Zohar 6:22a
[4] Zohar 1:219b; 3:158b

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Elul 5632 First Ma'amar

Every morning we say the following pasuk, "דְעוּ כִּי־ה׳ הוּא אֱ־לֹהִים הוּא־עָשָׂנוּ וְלֹא כתיב (וְלוֹ קרי) אֲנַחְנוּ עַמּוֹ וְצֹאן מַרְעִיתוֹ/Know that God is the Lord; He made us and we are His, His people and sheep of His pasture." (Tehillim 100:3)  The word לֹא/no in the pasuk is read as if it were written לוֹ/His.  The Chiddushei HaRim points out that לֹא and לוֹ when placed together spell אֶלוּל.  The Sfas Emes explains the significance of this.

לֹא אֲנַחְנוּ/We are not for ourselves, and לוֹ אֲנַחְנוּ/We are His, is essentially saying the same thing.  To the extent that we are not for ourselves, that we are not egocentric we are able to be for God.  Conversely, the more self centered we are, the less we can be devoted to God.  Chazal said clearly as a metaphor that God, referring to the arrogant, says, "He and I cannot live in the same world." (Sotah 5a)

The end of the pasuk also alludes to this concept.  The pasuk refers to us as "sheep of His pasture."  Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote that our souls have an animalistic component that draws us to the gross physical pleasures of this world.[1]  Significantly Chazal[2] established Rosh HaShanah as the new year for tithing animals.  Every tenth animal must be given to a priest but animals need to be grouped and counted according to the year within which they were born.  The cutoff date is the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh HaShanah.

To the extent that we realize the futility of satisfying our physical lusts and instead desire to become close to God, God reveals Himself to us and we become close to Him much like a mirror as we find, "כְּמַּיִם הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים כֵּן לֵב־הָאָדָם לָאָדָם/As water reflects a face back to a face, so one's heart is reflected back to him by another. 

The Sfas Emes teaches that by refraining from indulging our physical desires, we serve God with our physical nature as well, thus raising up our physical nature to a holy level.  Chazal actually learn this from the pasuk, "וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה׳ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ .../Love God, your Lord, with all your heart …" (Devarim 6:5)  The word for heart is spelled with two letters "ב" when it could have been spelled with one.  Chazal[3] teach us that this alludes to the two inclinations in a person's heart, the inclination towards good and the inclination towards evil and teach that we should love God with both our inclinations.  How can we love God with our evil inclination?  The answer is the Sfas Emes's teaching.  When we control our physical nature in favor of a desire to come close to God, we are loving God with our inclination towards the physical as well.

The allusion of the word Elul to becoming close to God by negating our lust for physical pleasure indicates that Elul is the perfect time to work on this.

[1] Tanya, 7th and 9th chapters
[2] Rosh HaShana 1:1
[3] Brachos 9:5

Friday, September 03, 2010

VaYeilech 5634 First Ma'amar

In this week's parsha we find the mitzvah of Hakhel.  On the Succos following a shmitta year, the entire nation, men, women, children and alien residents gather in the Beis HaMikdash to hear the king read from the Torah.  The men come to learn.  The women come to listen.  Why are we required to bring the children?  The children are not required to perform mitzvos.  What purpose is served by bringing them?  Chazal teach us that we bring the children so that we may be rewarded.  A strange answer to be sure!  The Sfas Emes asks that if there is no point to their coming, then why are the parents rewarded for bringing them?

Before we can understand the answer we really need to understand the question better.  After all, every Jew even a child has a soul and can receive enlightenment through exposure to Torah.  This is why at the beginning of this week's first parsha Nitzavim we find, "אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם ... כָּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם וְגֵרְךָ .../Today all of you are standing before God your Lord … every man of Israel.  Your children, your women, and the alien resident …"  Here, Chazal do not ask why the children are there.  The children obviously benefit from experiencing the covenant which God made with the nation.  Why, then, do Chazal question the requirement to bring our children to participate in the mitzvah of Hakheil?

To answer this question, there are two things we need to understand about serving God and  receiving enlightenment.  First, all our accomplishments are possible only because God helps us.  There is nothing about serving God and experiencing Him that is not from Him.  As David HaMelech said, "כִּי־מִמְּךָ הַכֹּל וּמִיָּדְךָ נָתַנּו לָךְ/… for everything is from You and from Your hand we gave to You." (Divrei HaYamim 1 29:14) 

If everything that we do and accomplish is really from God, what is our role?  This leads us to the second thing we need to understand about serving God.  Our job, the Sfas Emes teaches, is to cultivate and strengthen our will and desire to come close to God, to experience Him and to do His will.  We awaken the desire to experience God and be enlightened by Him through Torah and prayer.  This is the meaning of God's promise, "כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי זַרְעוֹ/It will not be forgotten from the mouth of his descendents"  The word "mouth" is an allusion to the power of our Torah and prayer and our ability to find enlightenment through them.

So, we need to have the desire to serve God and then God helps us to do it.  This is the meaning of, "שְׂכַר מִצְוָה מִצְוָה/The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah."  The reward for wanting to perform mitzvos is the opportunity, the wherewithal and the ability to do so.

Accordingly, Chazal ask, why bring the children to Hakheil.  Children may have a desire to serve God.  It's certainly not easy for children to come to Hakheil, stand and listen while the king reads from the Torah.  But what is the result of this effort?  The reward for coming to Hakheil – the ability to perform mitzvos – does not apply to children. 

The answer, Chazal teach us, is that the focus of bringing our children is us, not the children.  It is our mitzvah to bring our children to hear the king read from the Torah.  It is our desire that they grow into learned and God fearing Jews.  Our reward is seeing this happen.  Our children benefit through our efforts and positive desires for them.

This concept applies to everyone, not only to children.  Anyone who does not have a strong desire to devote himself to God, can submit to Tzadikim who do.  The strong desire of the tzadikim that each and every member of the nation serve God properly affects all those who submit to them just as the parents' desire to bring their children to Hakhel affects the children.

From the perspective of the tzadik, anyone who has a strong desire for anything related to serving God, is best off involving others instead of doing it alone.  If, for example, someone wants to improve and fulfill the mitzvah of not speaking lashon hara properly, the best thing to do is to work at influencing others as well.  As a reward for his efforts and desire, people who submit to him will be affected positively and will be inspired to fulfill this mitzvah properly according to the principle of, "שְׂכַר מִצְוָה מִצְוָה/the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah," as the Sfas Emes explained earlier.

When we see our positive desires having a positive influence on others, we are strongly motivated and our own desire for serving God becomes even stronger, much stronger than it would have been had we focused only on ourselves.  God accepts our desire to serve Him not as a private individuals, but rather as part of the nation.  This is certainly much more effective.