Friday, October 29, 2010

Chayei Sarah 5631 Fifth Ma'amar

Avraham Avinu dispatches his servant Eliezer to Charan to find a match for his son Yitzchak.  Upon his arrival, Eliezer begins his speech to Besu'el and Lavan with the statement, "... עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם אָנֹכִי/… I am Avraham's servant." (Breishis 24:34)  The Zohar[1] says that this is the classic fulfillment of the pasuk, "בֵּן יְכַבֵּד אָב וְעֶבֶד אֲדֹנָיו .../A son will honor his father and a servant his master ..." (Mal'achi 1:4)  Why does the Zohar consider Eliezer's statement a display of honor towards Avraham?  After all, Eliezer simply put his remarks in context by prefacing them with a statement of who he was. 
The Zohar tells us that Eliezer was good looking.  He certainly did not look like a slave. Chazal teach us that he came from royalty[2]  The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Eliezer's statement showed Besu'el and Lavan that he considered it an honor to be Avraham Avinu's servant.  This was certainly a great display of honor towards Avraham.
The Sfas Emes gives another explanation as to why Eliezer's statement was a way of honoring Avraham.  Lavan knew that Eliezer was righteous.  He said to Eliezer, "... בּוֹא בְּרוּךְ ה' .../… Come, blessed one of God …" (Breishis 24:31)  But how could he be blessed?  Servitude is a curse and he was a servant.  Not only was he a servant, he came from the cursed family of Canaan.  The answer, Chazal[3] explain, is that Eliezer merited becoming blessed because he served Avraham Avinu faithfully.  Eliezer honored Avraham by attributing his blessed status to him.
This idea can help us understand a Midrash[4] on this pasuk.  The Midrash learns from Eliezer's first statement that a person should begin a speech with a self-deprecating statement.  But why was this statement self-deprecating?  As we noted earlier, Eliezer was simply putting his remarks in context.  According to the Sfas Emes's idea, though, it was self-deprecating because through this statement Eliezer was attributing his blessed state to Avraham instead of taking credit for it himself.

[1] Zohar 1:103a
[2] In fact Chazal (Yalkut Shimoni 24:109) teach us that Eliezer was the son of Nimrod.  He came from royalty and he looked it. 
[3] Breishis R. 60:7
[4] Breishis R. 60:9

Friday, October 22, 2010

VaYeira 5634 Third Ma'amar

Note: I did two ma'amarim this week.
"וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ .../He said, 'Please take your son, your only one …" (Breishis 22:2)  Thus begins Avraham Avinu's greatest test, Akeidas Yitzchak.  After God promised Avraham that Yitzchak alone would be considered his progeny, God instructs Avraham to offer him up as a sacrifice.  Interestingly, God does not command Avraham as we find in other places.  He rather makes a request, "Please take your son …"  God is telling Avraham what He wants without commanding him to do it.  What is the significance of this?
The Sfas Emes explains that the fact that God only requested and did not command Avraham Avinu makes this test all the more difficult.  God is not testing whether Avraham will follow His instructions.  Avraham would obviously do whatever God tells him to do as he had done for his entire life.  Rather, God is testing Avraham's desire to fulfill His will simply because he knows that it is God's will.  It is a test of his love for God.
This is why God makes a point of saying, "your only son".  If God had not said this then Avraham might have thought that he will sacrifice Yitzchak and God will provide him with another son from Sarah.  By asking Avraham to sacrifice his "only son", God is saying that He wants Avraham to sacrifice his progeny completely. 
So, the test was for Avraham to accept God's will even though there was no command.  This he did gladly.
Many times we rationalize saying that if only God appeared to us and told us exactly what to do we would follow God's command unquestioningly.  The Akeida buries this rationalization.  At the Akeida God revealed His desire to Avraham without commanding him to do it.  That Avraham did it and passed the test gives us, his progeny, the fortitude and desire to achieve God's will as well.

VaYeira 5634 Second Ma'amar

"וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה' בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא .../God appeared to him in the plains of Mamre …" (Breishis 18:1)  Why does the Torah make a point of telling us where God appeared to Avraham Avinu?  Chazal[1] teach us that Mamre encouraged Avraham to carry out God's command whereas Aner an Eshkol discouraged him.  As a reward, God revealed Himself on Mamre's land.
This answer needs an explanation.  Why did Mamre care whether Avraham Avinu circumcised himself or not and why do Chazal praise Mamre for advising Avraham to circumcise himself?
The Sfas Emes explains that Aner, Eshkol and Mamre understood that the purpose of the circumcision was to bind Avraham Avinu and his progeny to God in a covenant that would distance him from them.  Avraham Avinu and his descendents were being chosen to have a special relationship with God, a relationship that perforce excluded others.  
Aner and Eshkol did not agree with this and so discouraged Avraham Avinu.  Mamre, though, understood that this is the way things were supposed to be and that it would be of no use to delude himself into thinking otherwise.  He therefore encouraged Avraham Avinu to go through with the circumcision and covenant even though he knew that their relationship would change because of it.
Paradoxically, specifically because Mamre subordinated himself to this truth, he merited coming closer to God and Avraham Avinu.  God revealed Himself on Mamre's land.
We learn from Mamre that in order to come close to God it is imperative that we understand our place and not delude ourselves into thinking that we are what we are not.  This is a simple task.  It requires a lot of work to reduce arrogance to the point at which we can subordinate ourselves and accept our place within the nation even when we may perceive that place as commanding less respect than others within the nation of Israel. 
It is specifically when we accept our place, as Mamre did his, putting God's honor before our own, that we merit coming close to God.  Chazal[2] alluded to this when they said that one who increases God's honor at the expense of his own will merit as increase in his own honor as well.

[1] Breishis R. 42:8
[2] Bamidbar R. 4:20

Friday, October 15, 2010

Lech Lecha 5634 Second Ma'amar

Many times during the course of our lives we are inspired.  We reach a new level of awareness.  We have Aha! moments at which time doubt and uncertainty are replaced by clarity and a sense of meaningfulness.  As a matter of course, the inspiration is forgotten over time, the clear vision may not last and we slide from our new level of awareness.  These inspirations are crucial in our quest to come close to God and accomplish our life missions.  What can we do to retain them and live by them?

The Sfas Emes learns an answer from the first Rashi of this week's parsha.  At the beginning of the parsha God tells Avraham Avinu to leave his homeland and family, and all the comforts implied by that for an unknown place.  Could God be telling him to begin living a monastic life, separated from the materialism of this world?  The answer is found in the words at the beginning of the parsha, "... לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ .../… Go for yourself from your land …" (Breishis 12:1)  The word "לְךָ/for yourself" seems to be extraneous.  Why is it there?  Rashi explains that "for yourself" implies "for your own benefit".  God is telling Avraham that even though he is to leave his homeland and family for the unknown, it is not because God wants him to lead a monastic life.  He is to leave for his own benefit.

How can leaving comfort for discomfort be for his own benefit?  The answer depends on how we define "his own benefit".  The ultimate benefit a person can attain is experiencing closeness with God.  God is teaching Avraham how to live in this world and constantly experience that closeness.  How?  

Leaving everything that is familiar for the unknown requires a remarkable level of trust in God.  God tells Avraham, though, that the point of this test is not only to have the faith to listen, but to internalize that faith.  "לֶךְ/Go" requires faith.  "לְךָ/for yourself" implies internalizing that achievement and applying it to all the activities of everyday life.  He thus lives with the inspiration, essentially the closeness to God.

This is the meaning of the pasuk, "וְהַחַיּוֹת רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב .../And the living creatures (a type of angel) ran forth and returned …" (Yechezkeil 1:14)  Running forth represents reaching a new height in serving God.  Returning means internalizing that new level by bringing it back to everyday life so that it affects all of one's activities. 

A one time inspired act is an achievement.  Internalizing the inspiration and applying it on a daily basis causes it to last.

This idea provides the answer to another question.  The Torah tells us that Avraham Avinu took his wife and entire household with him.  But God said nothing of taking his wife and household.  How did he know to take them with him?  The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is that Avraham Avinu understood from "לְךָ/for yourself", that this was more than a test of faith.  It was also a test to see if he would be able to apply the high level to his everyday actions dealing with his wife and household.  He knew therefore, that he was supposed to take his entire household with him so that he could apply the inspiration to his daily life.

May we merit internalizing our inspirations and applying them to our daily lives.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Noach 5632 First Ma'amar

"אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק ... /These are the offspring of Noach, Noach was a righteous man …" (Breishis 6:9)  We would expect "These are the offspring" to be followed by a list of the offspring.  Here, it is followed by a description of Noach's righteousness.  The Midrash[1], quoted by Rashi on this pasuk, addresses this and explains that the primary "offspring" of the righteous are their good deeds.  This, too, needs an explanation.  Why are the good deeds of the righteous called their "offspring"?

To answer this question we must first gain a deeper understanding of good deeds and how they affect the world.  Each morning we say, "הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל יּוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית/In His goodness, He renews each and every day the workings of the Creation."  The Chiddushei HaRim (in the name of the Rav of P'shischa) explains that the word "בְּטוּבוֹ/in His goodness", is a reference to the Torah which is called "good" as Chazal learn from the pasuk, "כִּי לֶקַח טוֹב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם .../For I have given you a good teaching …" (Mishlei 4:2)  Accordingly, we can translate the morning prayer as, "With His Torah, He renews each and every day the workings of Creation."

What is the connection between the Creation and the Torah?  The Zohar[2] teaches that God created the world with the Torah.  The Sfas Emes explains that when God said the ten utterances of the first chapter of Breishis, the spiritual power of those words effected the Creation.  Furthermore, it is that spiritual power that continues to permeate the Creation and keep it in existence.  So, with His goodness – the spiritual power of the Torah – God continuously renews the Creation.

Chazal[3] teach us that the righteous sustain the world that was created with the ten utterances."  How do they do this?  Just as the physical world exists because it has spiritual underpinnings, our physical actions as well are only possible because of the spiritual power that underlies them.  When a tzadik acts, his intent is totally on the spiritual component of his action, the source of which is the same ten utterances Breishis that keep the world in existence.  His intent is to reveal the spiritual inherent in his physical actions.  This is why his actions are called "good".  Their source is the spiritual power of the Torah.  
When the tzadik reveals the spiritual through his "good" deeds, he influences the world around him so that the wonders of God can be recognized in it.  This is the meaning of the pasuk, "מָה רַב־טוּבְךָ אֲשֶׁר־צָפַנְתָּ לִּירֵאֶיךָ .../ How great is Your goodness that You have laid away for those who fear You." (Tehillim 31:20)  Through the tzadik's actions, a revelation of God's "goodness", the spiritual power that underlies everything including our actions expands to include the tzadik's surroundings.

Revealing the Godliness that is inherent in the physical world around us affects the physical world in a very positive way, releasing shefa/abundance and renewal into the world.  The righteous actually strengthen the spiritual that is the source of abundance.  This is what Chazal are referring to when they say that the "offspring" of the righteous are his good deeds.  It is the renewal and abundance, the positive affect the tzadik's good deeds have on the world that are his offspring.

Chazal[4] teach us that the wicked destroy the world that was created with the ten utterances.  As opposed to the righteous, their deeds weaken the spiritual that is the source of existence.  For the ten generations between Adam and Noach, this ability to reveal the spiritual source of the physical world was all but forgotten.  The spiritual was weakened to the point at which the world could not continue to exist.  It was exactly at this point that God said, "... קֵץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי .../… The end of all flesh has come before Me …" (Breishis 6:13)  The spiritual power that underlies the Creation was no longer powerful enough to sustain life.

Noach the righteous was able to return the life-force and renew the world.  It is this entire new world, then, that is his offspring.

[1] Tanchuma Noach 2
[2] Zohar 1:5a Introduction
[3] Avos 5:1
[4] Avos 5:1