Thursday, November 25, 2010

VaYeishev 5632 Third Ma'amar

In this week's parsha, Potiphar's wife attempts to entice Yosef HaTzadik.  He refused to be tempted, "וימאן ויאמר אל־אשת אדניו הן אדני לא־ידע אתי מה־בבית וכל אשר־יש־לו נתן בידי ... ואיך אעשה הרעה הגדלה הזאת .../He refused, and he said to his master's wife, 'Behold, my master is not concerned with anything in the house, and all that he has, he gave over into my charge … so how can I do this great evil …?" (Breishis 39:8-9)  Yosef HaTzadik's logic is that taking his master's wife would be a betrayal of the trust that his master put in him.  Yosef could not allow himself to betray that trust. 

The Sfas Emes advises us to use the same logic to thwart our own evil inclination.  God could have taken away our possibility of choosing.  He entrusts us with choice and expects us to act responsibly.  How can we betray God's trust?

It is also possible that Yosef's argument was for the benefit of Potiphar's wife more than it was for himself.  This can be inferred from the wording of the pasuk.  First, "וימאן/He refused."  Afterward he presents her with his argument.  The implication is that Yosef did not need the argument.  He refused because he was not tempted by her.  He overcame his evil inclination completely.  The argument, then, was for her sake.

Another way to understand the pasuk is that it is impossible to think logically while in the heat of passion.  We must first at least distance ourselves from the immediate danger of submitting to our evil inclination.  Only then can we argue logically.  Yosef first had to refuse her advances.  Only from a state in which there was no immediate danger of submitting to the evil inclination was he able to have the presence of mind to present a logical argument.

Friday, November 19, 2010

VaYishlach 5633 Second Ma'amar

The beginning of this week's parsha relates Ya'akov's preparations for his first encounter with Eisav in twenty-two years.  One of the ways Ya'akov prepares is by praying to God, begging Him to save him and his family.  
Why should God do this?  Ya'akov says, "ואתה אמרת היטב איטיב עמך ושמתי את זרעך כחול הים אשר לא יספר מרב/And you said, 'I will certainly do good for you; I will make your offspring like the sand of the sea, that cannot be counted because of its great number."  Ya'akov does not present God with logical arguments as to why he should be saved.  Rather, he appeals to God's will as God Himself revealed it to him.  This, after all, is the true good.
From Ya'akov we learn a fundamental lesson in the proper approach to prayer.  Whenever we pray to God for something we believe we need we should take Ya'akov's example.  Instead of presenting God with logical arguments to justify our supplication, we should align our request with God's will and ask that God fulfill His own will.
We find this approach in the wording of many of our prayers.  For example, in the prayer for livelihood that is printed in most prayer books in the blessing of shomei'a tefilla, we ask for livelihood in order to be able to, "... do Your will, to occupy myself with Your Torah and to fulfill Your mitzvos ..."  Clearly the purpose of this wording is to align the request for livelihood with a fulfillment of God's will.  There are many other examples as well.

Friday, November 12, 2010

VaYeitzei 5634 Second Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha the Torah relates the story of Ya’akov Avinu’s sojourn to the house of Lavan in Charan.  The Torah tells us, in seemingly unwarranted detail, Ya’akov’s experiences at the well when he first comes to Charan.  וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה בְאֵר בַּשָׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁם שְׁלֹשָׁה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן רֹבְצִים עָלֶיהָ כִּי מִן־הַבְּאֵר הַהִוא יַשְׁקוּ הָעֲדָרִים וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה עַל־פִּי הַבְּאֵר׃ וְנֶאֶסְפוּ־שָׁמָּה כָל־הָעֲדָרִים וְגָלְלוּ אֶת־הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר .../He looked and beheld a well in the field and there were three flocks of sheep lying about it, because from the well they watered the flocks but there was a great stone upon the well.  When all the flocks gathered there, they rolled the stone off the mouth of the well …” (Breishis 29:2,3)  What is the point of this story?  It seems to have little connection to the main story line of Ya’akov in the house of Lavan, his marriage to Leah and Rachel and the birth of the tribes.

The Sfas Emes understands this story homiletically.  From this story of the well outside Charan, we learn how we can experience God's revelation in this world.

The Field

According to the Arizal as quoted by the Chiddushei HaRim, a field is a metaphor for revelation particularly for the revelation of God that occurs through the Shabbos.  The maiden of Shir HaShirim beckoning her beloved, "לכה דודי נצא השדה .../Come my beloved, let us go out to the field …" (Shir HaShirim 7:12) is a metaphor for the nation of Israel asking God to reveal Himself.  This is because a field, as opposed to a desert, is fertile.  The world is considered a desert during the week.  On Shabbos it is considered a fertile field because just like things can grow in a fertile field, the underlying Godly force that imbues the world is revealed on Shabbos.

The Well

Wells are a metaphor for the source of life.  So, the well in the field represents the revelation of the source of life that happens on Shabbos.

The Flocks of Sheep

The flocks of sheep represent the nation of Israel.  The flocks of sheep gathering at the well represent the nation's subordination to the source of life.  We find elsewhere that assifa/gathering in means subordination, "אם ישים אליו לבו רוחו ונשמתו אליו יאסף/If He will put His heart to it, He would simply gather in his spirit and his soul to Himself." (Iyov 34:14)  The simple meaning of this pasuk is that God is in charge of a person's life.  If He so desires, He can simply end it.  However, the Sfas Emes understands this pasuk as referring to our relationship with God, "If he puts his heart to Him, he can gather in his spirit and soul to Him" – If a person so desires he can subordinate himself totally, spirit and soul to God.

There are specifically three flocks of sheep as this represents total subordination.  How so?  When God commands us to love Him with our entire beings He mentions three things.  He says to love Him, "... בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך/… with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength." (Devarim 6:5) 

The three flocks are also an allusion to the three parts of the soul, nefesh, ru'ach, neshama.[1]  Here too, the meaning is to subordinate our entire beings to God.

The Stone Covering the Well

If the well in the field represents God's revelation on Shabbos, the stone covering the well represents God's concealment.  The Sfas Emes teaches that concealment exists wherever there is the possibility for revelation.  Chazal[2] allude to this when they say that the mouth of the well was created on Erev Shabbos.  Although they are referring to a different well, the well of Miriam, still the metaphor of a well relating to revelation applies.  

What is the significance of this well having been created on Erev Shabbos?  The word ערב/evening, connotes a lack of clarity.  It is closely associated with, עירוב/mixture.  When things are mixed together we do not see each item clearly.  The well, representing God's revelation, was created specifically on Erev Shabbos to teach us that with the possibility for revelation comes concealment. 

We remove the concealment by subordinating ourselves to God as the flocks of sheep gathered in to the well.  Keeping Shabbos is an ultimate form of subordination because we refrain from doing any creative work on Shabbos.  We thus subordinate all our creative activities to God.  By intentionally refraining from creative work on Shabbos, we are able to experience spiritual enlightenment.  In the words of the metaphor, we roll the stone off the well.

The Torah relates that even though the stone on the well was heavy and the shepherds could not easily roll it off, Ya'akov Avinu alone did so.  How does this fit into the metaphor?  It is no easy task to experience God's revelation while living immersed in the physical world.  Keeping Shabbos as a form of subordination is not always easy depending upon one's circumstances and the society in which he lives.  Even if it is relatively easy for us to refrain from creative activity on Shabbos, it is far from easy to remain unaffected and uninfluenced by the physical world of which we are so much a part.  We, for the most part, attribute an unwarranted reality to the physical world.  In truth, the physical world is an illusion, a screen that God created for the specific purpose of concealing Himself.  It is no easy task to internalize this understanding of reality.

Ya'akov Avinu, though, was able to remove the stone from the well by himself easily.  Chazal[3] say that he flipped it off the well as one flips a cap off a jar.  In terms of the metaphor, he was easily able to remove that which concealed God and experience revelation.  The reason Ya'akov was able to do this was because the attribute of truth is associated with him as we find, "תתן אמת ליעקב .../Give truth to Ya'akov …"  When Ya'akov looked at the physical world, he saw it for what it really is, a screen that God created in order to conceal Himself.  Since Ya'akov had the attribute of truth, he saw through this and was able to do simply what for others require much work.

[1] See Zohar 1:205a
[2] Avos 5:6
[3] Breishis R. 70:12

Friday, November 05, 2010

Toldos 5632 Third Ma'amar

In this week's parsha we find the story of Yitzchak's blessings to his children Ya'akov and Eisav.  Yitzchak wanted to give Eisav the blessing of the first born son, but through an intrigue ended up blessing Ya'akov instead.  Why did God allow events to unfold in such a way that Ya'akov received the blessing of the first born through a subterfuge?  Why did God not plant in Yitzchak's thoughts the idea the Ya'akov should receive the blessing?  After all, these blessings define the relationship between Ya'akov's progeny, the nation of Israel and Eisav for all time.  Why did Ya'akov receive this blessing in such an unlikely manner?
A Midrash[1] in this week's parsha sheds light on this question.  The Midrash states that there are three organs which are not in our control and three which are under our control.  The eyes, ears and nose are not under our control.  We see things that we may not want to see, we hear what we may not want to hear and we smell that that we may not care to smell.  The mouth, hands and feet, however, are under our control.  We choose what we say, what we do and where we go.
When a person merits it, though, God takes over even those organs which are ordinarily under his control.  He is thus protected from using his mouth, hands and feet in a way that is against God's will.  The Midrash gives as an example Yitzchak's blessing Ya'akov instead of Eisav whom he wanted to bless.  When Yitzchak realized that God took the decision as to who will receive the blessing away from him, he understood that God was protecting him from error and so responds with, "... גם ברוך יהיה/… may he also be blessed," (Breishis 27:33) referring to Ya'akov. 
Why did Yitzchak merit God's direct intervention to prevent him from making a tragic mistake?  The Sfas Emes explains that when a person subordinates his entire being to God's will, he is showing that he wants to give up control to God.  Someone who wants to be under God's dominion merits it because, "רצון יראיו יעשה .../… He does the will of those who fear Him." (Tehillim 145:19)  Yitzchak did exactly this at the Akeida.
From Yitzchak we learn that to the extent we accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven each day, every morning to subordinate our desires totally to God's, we merit not leaving God's dominion at all. Practically, this means that by wanting to do only God's will we are protected from unwittingly doing that which is against God's will just as Yitzchak was protected from blessing the wrong son.
This concept also provides the answer to our original question.  God wanted Yitzchak's blessing to Ya'akov to be completely without personal motives.  This is difficult if not impossible for a father blessing his son.  Therefore, God made it happen in such a way that Yitzchak did not want to bless Ya'akov.  The blessing that Yitzchak gave to Ya'akov was as if it came straight from God without any interference from Yitzchak's personal motives.  This was only possible, though, because Yitzchak completely subordinated his own desires to God's.  Therefore, Yitzchak's actions were under God's direct control.  Yitzchak thought he was blessing Eisav.  God saw to it that his blessing fell upon Ya'akov.  In fact, according to the Zohar[2], Ya'akov's blessing came from God alone.

[1] Breishis R. 67:3
[2] See Zohar 1:143b