Friday, December 30, 2011

VaYigash 5632 First Ma'amar

Many times we find ourselves in situations that appear bleak.  We search for a solution, a way out but fail to find one.  We are stuck.  What can we do?  Chazal[1] understand the story of Yehuda’s meeting with Yosef as just such a situation.  We can learn from Yehuda what to do.

Chazal base their understanding on a pasuk in Mishlei (6:1-3), “בני אם ערבת לרעך תקעת לזר כפיך: נוקשת באמרי פיך ... עשה זאת אפוא בני והנצל ... לך התרפס ורהב רעיך:/My son, if you have been a guarantor for your friend, if you have given your handshake to a stranger, you have been trapped by the words of your mouth … Do this, therefore, my son, and be rescued ... Go humble yourself before him, and placate your fellow.”

Chazal understand this pasuk metaphorically as referring to Yehuda.  He made himself a guarantor for Binyamin.  He promised his father that he would bring Binyamin back.  He was in a situation in which this looked like an impossible task.  The viceroy of the most powerful country in the world was about to take Binyamin for a slave.  What could he do?  The Midrash tells us, “Go humble yourself before Him …”  Humble yourself before God.

The Sfas Emes teaches that man was created in order to bring the entire Creation closer to God.  In the garden of Eden, this was obvious to Adam.  It was obvious that the purpose was to connect with God.  However, after his sin and banishment from Gan Eden, this fact became much less obvious.  It is not at all obvious to most of us.  In the words of the pasuk, “We have given our handshake to a stranger.”  This refers to the desire and lust to become involved in things that are not good, that distance us from God.  These desires color our perception.  We find this clearly in a pasuk in Iyov (34:11), “כי פועל אדם ישלם לו .../For He repays a man according to his deeds …”

A classic example of this was the sale of Yosef.  When the brothers sold Yosef, they distanced themselves from brotherly love.  As a result, when they met Yosef in Egypt, he seemed to them to be an enemy.  Yet, he was just Yosef, their brother.  They were living with a false perception resulting from their own actions.  There was no way they could see the truth – that Yosef was standing before them, not an enemy – until they fixed the underlying cause of this false perception.

The only thing to do, Chazal teach, is to acknowledge and accept God.  This is what Yehuda did.  The first pasuk of our parsha is, “ויגש אליו יהודה ויאמר בי אדוני .../Yehuda approached him and said, please my master …”  Chazal understand that this pasuk is referring not only to Yehuda approaching Yosef.  On a deeper level, it is referring to Yehuda approaching God.  Yehuda realized that the only way out of this terrible situation was to acknowledge God in it.  He did this to the extent that he was ready to sacrifice his own life to save Binyamin.

The result was, “ולא יכול יוסף להתאפק .../Yosef could not contain himself …”  The plain meaning is that Yosef was unable to continue the charade.  He was forced to reveal himself.  However, on a deeper level, Yosef represents the hidden spirituality within everything[2].  That spirituality is hidden in this world.  The physical that hides it seems to have a separate, autonomous existence, God forbid.  By acknowledging and accepting that this is not the case but rather that God is truly here with us and in every thing and every action, we merit a deeper perception of the truth.  “Yosef” is automatically revealed.

Yehuda had no idea from where salvation would come.  He just knew that he had to acknowledge God in the situation.  This is true for every single situation in which we find ourselves.  We give the physical world around us a reality that it does not deserve and then find ourselves in situations of our own making.  They are essentially self-created illusions. We no longer see the truth but rather a projection of what we think is the truth.

Chazal advise us to acknowledge God in everything and the truth will automatically be revealed to us.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis R. 93:1
[2] The Zohar teaches that Yosef is the “keeper of the covenant.”  He represents the bris which is hidden by the orlah.  He is the Tzadik Yesod Olam and the kabalists teach us that Yosef is represented by the sefira of Yesod which also represents the bris milah.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Chanukah 5632 First Night Second Ma'amar

In addition to our miraculous military victory over the Greeks, there was the miracle of the Menorah.  The Greeks had rendered all the oil in the Beis HaMikdash impure.  The Chashmona’im found one small container of oil that was sealed and pure.  It was enough for one night.  Miraculously, that one container lasted for eight nights.

The mitzvah of lighting the Menorah was not for the light it provided.  God does not need our light.  The Sfas Emes tells us that the mitzvah was simply the will of God.  There was no practical ulterior reason for this mitzvah.  When a situation arises in which it is impossible to perform the mitzvah, we are exempt.  What then was the purpose of this miracle?  

That God suspended the laws of nature to enable us to light the Menorah indicates the great affection God had for our performance of this mitzvah.  He wanted the enlightenment that comes from the Menorah to come specifically from our lighting it so much so that he enacted a miracle so that we would be able to perform this mitzvah and do His will.

This concept continues even to this day.  During Chanukah God gives special assistance to do His will miraculously and wondrously.

Friday, December 16, 2011

VaYeishev 5633 First Ma'amar

The second pasuk of our parsha, "אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף בן שבע עשרה שנה היה רועה את אחיו בצאן .../These are the descendents of Ya'akov, Yosef was seventeen years old when he herded the sheep with his brothers …" (Breishis 37:2)  The words "אלה תולדות .../These are the descendents …", are usually followed by a list of descendents.  Here, however, these words are followed by the story of Yosef.  Why is this?

Chazal[1] teach us that Yaakov wondered how he would be able to persevere and conquer the generals of Eisav listed at the end of last week's parsha.  At the beginning of this week's parsha, the Torah hints at the answer.  Ya'akov would be able to cope with Eisav through Yosef.  This is alluded to in the pasuk, "והיה בית יעקב אש ובית יוסף להבה ובית עשו לקש ודלקו בהם ואכלום/The house of Ya'akov will be fire, the house of Yosef a flame, and the house of Eisav will be as straw; and they will ignite them and consume them …" (Ovadia 1:18)

Why does the pasuk compare Ya'akov to fire and Yosef to a flame?  Is there significance to this association beyond the simple metaphor?  The Sfas Emes teaches that there is.  Elsewhere, we find the Torah referred to as fire, "... כה דברי כאש נאום ה' .../… My word is like fire, declares God …" (Yirmiyahu 23:29

The pasuk in Ovadia is teaching us that Ya'akov Avinu is like the Torah.  He is the repository of Torah and has the spiritual power of Torah.  This is a very high level.  The Sfas Emes teaches us that Ya'akov Avinu was on a spiritual level that was beyond nature.  However, because he was on such a high level, he was not able to influence the physical world.  He was beyond the physical world.  The Torah too, is ephemeral.  It needs something to ground it in the physical world.  Just like fire needs to be fanned to spread, the Torah needs a flame as well.  This flame is represented by Yosef.  Yosef is the להבה/flame that will spread the Torah in the physical world.

What is this flame that will spread Torah?  The word להבה/flame has the same root as the word התלהבות/enthusiasm.  In order for us to internalize the fire of the Torah so that we can be influenced by it and use to influence others and the world around us, we need to approach it with enthusiasm.

Rashi[2] explains that the flame enables fire to control that which is far from its source.  The farther a person is from something the stronger his desire to come close to it.  When we are close to something, we do not have a strong desire to come close to it.  We are already there.  It is easy.  However, when we are far from something that we want, we have a strong desire to come close to it.  It is this strong enthusiasm, then, that enables the Torah to spread far and wide.  

This explains, "אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף .../These are the descendents of Ya'akov, Yosef …"  The word תולדות/descendents can be understood loosely to mean anything that comes from Ya'akov, not necessarily his progeny.  It can also mean Ya'akov's Torah.  We've already seen that Ya'akov himself represents the fire of Torah.  The pasuk can be understood then, to mean that Torah will spread only with the desire and enthusiasm represented by Yosef HaTzadik.

[1] Breishis R. 84:5
[2] Breishis 30:25, ד"ה כאשר

Friday, December 09, 2011

VaYishlach 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו .../Ya’akov sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Eisav …” (Breishis 32:4) The word מַלְאָכִים/messengers also means angels.  The Midrash tells us that the messengers Ya’akov Avinu sent to Eisav were actual angels.[1]  Why did Ya’akov send angels to meet Eisav?

To answer this question we must understand what angels signify.  Chazal teach us that we create an angel each time we do a mitzvah.[2]  The angels that Ya’akov sent to Eisav represented Ya’akov’s mitzvos.  Why did Ya’akov feel compelled to send his “mitzvah angels” to Eisav?  Angels are the vehicle through which God directs nature.[3]  Our mitzvos affect nature.  The means by which our mitzvos affect nature is through the angels that our mitzvos create.

Meeting Eisav and, for that matter, traveling to Lavan represent Ya’akov entering and interacting with the physical world.  Ya’akov himself was on a level above nature.  He connected to God without the need for mitzvos and their effects (i.e. the angels).  However, when he lowered himself into the physical world he needed the mitzvos and their power to affect the physical world around him and to bring him close to God even from within the natural world.  This idea is clear in a pasuk in Tehillim (91:11), “כִּי מַלְאָכָיו יְצַוֶּה-לָּךְ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בְּכָל-דְּרָכֶיךָ/For He will command His angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways.”  The angels/mitzvos will protect you as you move through the material world.

We see this concept clearly in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week.  On Shabbos the physical world automatically becomes closer to its spiritual roots.  In fact, Shabbos as a concept represents this connectedness to the spiritual.  This is why Ya’akov who was on a level above nature in his connectedness to God, represents an aspect of Shabbos.  We have the ability to reach this spiritual level during the week as well but it requires work.  It requires a high level of mitzvah observance.  In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk “שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ/Six days shall you labor and accomplish all your work” (Shmos 20:9,10) refers specifically to the mitzvos.  Significantly the word מַלְאָךְ/angel has the same root as the word מְלָאכָה/work.  We spend the days of the week doing מְלָאכָה/work (i.e. mitzvos) to create מַלְאָכִים/angels.   

In order to interact with Eisav representing the physical world, Ya’akov Avinu had to send his מַלְאָכִים/messengers, his mitzvos, which affect the physical world, to afford him protection.  We learn from Ya’akov Avinu that each of us has the ability to immerse and act in the physical world, really to use the physical world, to come close to God.  We are intimately connected with the way the world works both spiritually and physically.  The Zohar says that our 613 limbs and tendons – 248 limbs and 365 tendons – parallel 613 specific spiritual forces in the world.[4]  There are also 613 mitzvos in the Torah – 248 positive mitzvos and 365 negative mitzvos.  Each time we do a mitzvah we rectify that part of the Creation associated with the specific limb and activate that spiritual force that conforms to that mitzvah.  We create an “angel.”  In this way we remove God’s concealment and come close to Him from within the physical world.

Spiritually, Ya’akov Avinu’s successful return from Lavan and Eisav represents an ascent from a level of weekday work to a level of Shabbos.  This is why the Midrash in this week’s parsha explains that Ya’akov Avinu entered the land of Israel and came to Shechem on Erev Shabbos.[5]  He prepared for Shabbos and kept it before it was given.  This is also the reason the pasuk says, “וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם .../Ya’akov came safely to the city of Shechem …” (Breishis 33:18)  שָׁלֵם/Safely also means “whole.”  His successful return from Eisav and Lavan represents a spiritual completeness.  It also suggests Shabbos as the Zohar says that Shabbos is שָׁלוֹם/peace[6] which has the same root as שָׁלֵם/complete.  As Ya’akov, may we merit connecting to God through the mitzvos even as we live and work within the physical world.

[1] Breishis R. 75:4
[2] Zohar Chadash 57a and 92a; also see Avos 4:13
[3] See Breishis R. 10:6 - There is no blade of grass that does not have a spiritual force causing it to grow. 
[4] Zohar 1:134b
[5] Breishis R. 79:6
[6] Zohar 3:176b

Friday, December 02, 2011

VaYeitzei 5634 Third Ma'amar

The beginning of this week’s parsha recounts Ya’akov Avinu’s journey to Charan and the prophetic dream he had along the way.  The Torah relates to us Ya'akov's reaction upon awaking, "ויירא ויאמר מה נורא המקום הזה אין זה כי אם בית א-להים וזה שער השמים/He feared and said, 'How awesome is this place!  This is none other that the house of God and this is the gate of the heavens." (Breishis 28:17)

The Torah relates the dream because of its great significance.  In this dream God communicated directly with Ya'akov promising to protect him, to make him into a great nation and to give him the land of Israel.  However, why does the Torah relate to us Ya'akov's reaction to having slept in this holy place?  Why is this significant?

The answer lies in an understanding of Ya'akov's fear.  Ya'akov was not afraid of divine retribution.  He was not afraid for himself.  The Sfas Emes explains that Ya'akov's fear was in fact fear of heaven or perhaps better translated as awe.  The Torah is praising Ya'akov.  Whereas another may have felt pride in having such a dream in which God spoke directly to him, Ya'akov was overcome by awe.  Ya'akov, a man of truth, did not allow his personal spiritual growth to cloud his thoughts and affect his reaction.  He had slept on holy ground.  He was in awe.

Ya'akov Avinu's awe was significant for another reason as well.  The Sfas Emes explains that due to Ya'akov's awe, we – his progeny – merited the Beis HaMikdash on this site.  The Sfas Emes learns this from a Midrash.  The Midrash[1] teaches us that God showed Ya'akov a prophecy of the Beis HaMikdash when it was standing, destroyed, and after it will be rebuilt in the future.  The Midrash infers this from the pasuk above.  The Midrash associates the beginning of our pasuk, "ויירא ויאמר מה נורא המקום הזה/He feared and said, 'How awesome is this place!" with a pasuk in Tehillim (68:36), "נורא א-להים ממקדשיך .../You are awesome, O God, from Your sanctuaries …"  From this association the Midrash understands that Ya'akov saw the Beis HaMikdash when it was standing.  

The Midrash is teaching us that when we relate to God as awesome, as Ya'akov did, we merit the Beis HaMikdash.  The Midrash considers fear of God to be the key factor in the existence of the Beis HaMikdash.  When Ya'akov said, "אין זה כי אם בית א-להים/This is none other than the house of God," he is stating the result of fear of heaven.

In fact, awe and fear of God is not only the main reason for the existence of the Beis HaMikdash.  It is the main cause for the existence of everything as we find, "יראת ה' טהורה עומדת לעד/Fear of God is pure; it stands forever." (Tehillim 19:10) 

Furthermore, fear of heaven causes an opening through which our prayers can be received as we find at the end of our pasuk, "וזה שער השמים/and this is the gate of the heavens."  The gate of the heavens opened because of Ya'akov Avinu's fear of God.  As well, they open for us when we have fear of God. 

[1] Breishis R. 69:7

Friday, October 28, 2011

Noach 5633 Second Ma'amar

At the end of this week's parsha the Torah relates the story of the tower of Bavel.  The generation that built the tower sinned and was punished by being scattered across the face of the earth.  It's not clear from the pesukim, though, exactly what their transgression was.
The Sfas Emes explains that the sin of the dor hapalaga/generation that was split, as Chazal call it, is closely connected with the very purpose of our existence.  We can learn about that purpose from the special Mussaf tefilla of Rosh Chodesh that falls on Shabbos as it does this week.  The middle bracha of the special Mussaf begins, "אתה יצרת עולמך מקדם/You have formed Your world in ancient times." The word מקדם comes from the root קודם/before.  So, this tefilla can also be translated as, "You have formed Your world beforehand."  God formed the world before what?  The Sfas Emes explains that the physical world that we live in has a spiritual counterpart that was formed first.  The tefilla is actually referring to the spiritual world that God formed before the physical one in which we live. 

The Sfas Emes teaches that the physical world is like a garment and a hint to the spiritual world much like clothes say something about the person who is wearing them.  On the first Shabbos, when the Creation was completed, the physical world became a vehicle for the revelation of God's will.  At the very least, the harmony of the physical world is a lasting testimony to the Creator. 

In fact, every Shabbos has this quality.  It is easier to connect with and experience the physical world's underlying spirituality on Shabbos.  We learn this from a pasuk in Yechezkel (46:1) referring to the third Beis HaMikdash, “... שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית הַפֹּנֶה קָדִים יִהְיֶה סָגוּר שֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה וּבְיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת יִפָּתֵחַ וּבְיוֹם הַחֹדֶשׁ יִפָּתֵחַ׃/The inner courtyard gate that faces east will be closed during the six workdays but on Shabbos it will be opened and on Rosh Chodesh it will be opened.”  The gates of the temple opening and closing connote spiritual gates opening and closing.  On Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh there is a spiritual revelation that we don’t find naturally during the week.

קדים/east also has the same root as קודם/before and therefore alludes to the spiritual that underlies the physical world.  Our job is to acknowledge the spiritual underpinnings of the physical world and to internalize the understanding that the spiritual is the main thing.  

How can we do this?  The Sfas Emes's advice is to identify strongly with the nation of Israel.  The Sfas Emes learns this from a Zohar that sheds light on the story of the tower of Bavel.  The Zohar infers from pesukim in the story that the generation that built the tower were rebelling against God.  The Sfas Emes understands this to mean that they only wanted to recognize and associate with the physical world.  They wanted to exclude the spiritual from their lives.  The Torah says, "בנסעם מקדם/as they travelled from the east."  As we've said, "מקדם/from the east" can also mean "from the spiritual that was created beforehand."  The Zohar tells us it means that they were trying to flee from God who existed before the Creation.  Either way, it's clear that they wanted nothing to do with the spiritual.

The Torah relates that they would have succeeded if God had not intervened.  Amazingly, they would have succeeded even though their goal was at odds with the purpose of the Creation.  Why is this?  Why would they have succeeded?  They would have succeeded because they were united in a singular purpose.  They spoke the same language – the holy language – and all struggled toward the same goal.  The Zohar concludes that the nation of Israel when united in serving God can certainly succeed and will receive God's help as well. 

God split the generation that tried to build the tower of Bavel.  However, to us He gave the Torah so that we would remain together with the singular purpose of internalizing the spirituality that underlies the physical world.  This is the meaning of the pasuk, "זכור ימות עולם ... בהפרידו בני אדם יצב גבולות עמים למספר בני ישראל כי חלק ה' עמו .../Remember the days of old ... when He separated the children of Adam.  He fixed the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the children of Israel.  For God's portion is His people …" (Devarim 32:7-9)  This pasuk is referring to the generation that was split.  God's portion is His people so He gave us the Torah and one language – the holy language – as vehicles for unification.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Yom Kippur 5640 First Ma'amar

It is a mitzvah to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur in preparation for the fast.  Chazal teach us that whoever eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishrei is considered to have fasted on both the ninth and tenth of Tishrei.[1]  It is certainly a good idea to eat before a fast.  But why is this not simply good advice?  Why is it actually a mitzvah, a biblical requirement?  A mitzvah implies that the activity has value in and of itself.  What value does the activity of eating on Erev Yom Kippur have aside from preparing for the fast?

Chassidic masters[2] write that eating on Erev Yom Kippur rectifies all the eating of the entire year.  The masters are not referring to eating non-kosher food.  Rather they are referring to eating kosher food.  Why does our eating need rectification?  Chazal tell us that this world is likened to a hallway leading to a hall.[3]  Chazal teach us that we need to prepare ourselves in the hallway of this world in order to merit entering the hall of the next world.  We need to use this world to prepare for entering the next world.  Eating and drinking are essentially neutral activities.  Our intent imbues the activity with meaning.  If we partake of the pleasures of this world represented by eating and drinking, for the sole purpose of preparing ourselves for the next world, we’ve performed a mitzvah.  If we partake of this world’s pleasures merely to satisfy our desires and lusts, we are using this world in an inappropriate way and we have sinned.

The Sfas Emes explains that this physical world enclothes the next world, which is spiritual, similar to the way our physical bodies enclothe our souls.  Just as our actions affect our souls, physical activity in this world has spiritual ramifications in the next.  We find, for example, a pasuk in Iyov (27:17), “יָכִין וְצַדִּיק יִלְבָּשׁ .../(The wicked) will prepare and the righteous will wear it …”  This refers to the gross physicality that enclothes the spirituality of the righteous.  Our sinful actions therefore require rectification.  They have caused damage that needs to be and can be fixed. 

Eating and drinking with improper intent require rectification.  In order to help our repentance on Yom Kippur we need to reenact the deed by eating and drinking on Erev Yom Kippur.  Why?  Chazal teach us that repentance is denied the one who sins rationalizing that he will eventually repent.[4]  The Sfas Emes explains that this is because the repentance is flawed.  The sin is in the repentance itself.  During the act of the sin, the sinner is thinking about the eventual repentance.  From this we learn that the opposite is the case as well.  Thinking about the act of the sin during the repentance rectifies that act.  We reenact the activity of the sin with proper intentions in order to remind us of the sinful act during repentance.   

Yom Kippur represents the next world.[5]  Just as in the next world so too on Yom Kippur there is no eating or drinking.[6]  Eating and drinking on Erev Yom Kippur in preparation for Yom Kippur reminds us that we are supposed to partake of this world’s pleasures to prepare for the next world.

The act of eating and drinking in preparation for the fast reminds us of the correct approach to eating and drinking during the entire year and in fact rectifies the eating and drinking that we did during the year merely to satisfy our desires.  Experiencing the proper approach to eating and drinking on Erev Yom Kippur is a powerful tool to ensure a complete repentance on Yom Kippur.  May we merit it!

[1] Yoma 81b
[2] Tiferes Shlomo 43a
[3] Avos 4:16
[4] Yoma Mishna 8:9
[5] Shelah Pesachim 110 in addendum
[6] Brachos 17a

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rosh HaShana 5632 Fifth Ma'amar

The ten days beginning on Rosh HaShana and culminating with Yom Kippur are called the ten days of repentance.  Of course, we can repent at any time.  However, these days are more conducive to repentance than any other period of the year.  Why is this? 

Chazal[1], addressing this question, teach us that these days are associated with the ten commands with which God created the world and with the ten commandments that we received at Mount Sinai. 

The Sfas Emes explains that both the ten commands of the Creation and the ten commandments have spiritual power.  It is this spiritual power that actually created the world initially and kept the world in existence at Mount Sinai.  And it is this spiritual power that enlightens the ten days of repentance, one command and one commandment for each day.

Why, though, is spiritual enlightenment needed on these days in order to save us and the world, to see us through this period of judgment?  Why is the spiritual enlightenment that created the world and keeps it in existence not enough?  Chazal teach us that the world is actually deserving of destruction were it not for the renewal.  Why is there a need for renewal?

The Sfas Emes explains that the enlightenment that comes from the renewal of the world on Rosh HaShana is actually stronger than the original enlightenment at the time of the Creation and Mount Sinai.  This is in line with the famous principle of Chazal[2] that even the completely righteous cannot stand where ba'alei teshuva stand.  In a certain sense, ba'alei teshuva are on a higher level than those who have never sinned.

It takes more spiritual power to move oneself away from sin and return to God than it takes to maintain a pre-existing relationship.  The spiritual power needed for renewal on Rosh HaShana is actually more powerful than that of the original Creation.  It is this spiritual power that floods the world during this ten day period that makes it so conducive to repentance.  Let us take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to return to God and experience a personal renewal as well.  Amen!

[1] Pesikta Rabasi 40
[2] Brachos 34b

Friday, September 23, 2011

Elul 5640 First Ma'amar

אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי/I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” (Shir HaShirim 6:3)  The first letters of each word of this pasuk spells out “Elul.”  What is the connection between the month of Elul and this pasuk?

The Sfas Emes explains.  First, we need to know and understand that there is a special relationship between the nation of Israel and God which the nations of the world do not have.  Shabbos, for example, was given solely to us as God declares, “בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִיא .../It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel …” (Shmos 31:17)  Yeshayahu prophesied, “I have formed this nation for Me,”[1] and, “you are My witnesses.”[2]  The nation of Israel, therefore, can live a life of holiness dedicated to God without associating with the nations of the world. 

Our kindness, though, dictates that we help the nations as well.  In fact, Israel’s collective mission is to elevate and rectify the Creation.  In order to do this, many times we need to come into contact with elements of society and situations that are less than ideal spiritually. 

This applies to the entire year.  However, during the month of Elul we need to draw inwards, to connect with our roots.  During the entire year we risk sinning because we integrate with the world and are exposed to the evil in it.  During the month of Elul, the principle of “your own life comes first”[3] applies.

Chazal hinted at this concept when they established Rosh Chodesh Elul as the start of a new year for Ma’aseir Beheimah.[4]  This is a mitzvah to tithe domestic animals that we own.  Every tenth animal is tithed.  The law though requires that only animals born in the same year be counted for the tithing.  The cutoff date is Rosh Chodesh Elul.  An animal born before Rosh Chodesh Elul cannot be counted with an animal born after Rosh Chodesh Elul.  Homelitically, Ma’aseir Beheima alludes to removing the animalistic – the mundane – from the holy.

By establishing the new year for Ma’aseir Beheimah on Rosh Chodesh Elul, Chazal are teaching us that this is the time to separate from the mundane and concentrate on the holy.  Even though during the entire year the holy and mundane are naturally integrated, during the month of Elul, we separate and concentrate on the holy alone.  We introspect and remember that ultimately we were created to serve God.  We thus fulfill, “אֲנִי לְדוֹדִ/I am for my beloved.

If we succeed in fulfilling, “אֲנִי לְדוֹדִ/I am for my beloved” during Elul then God fulfills “וְדוֹדִי לִי/and my beloved is for me” during Tishrei showering life and holiness upon the entire coming year.

[1] Yeshayah 43:21
[2] Yeshayah 43:10
[3] Bava Metzi’ah 62a
[4] Rosh HaShanah Mishnah 1:1

Friday, September 16, 2011

Elul 5641 First Ma'amar

"אני לדודי ודודי לי/I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me" (Shir HaShirim 6:3)  Commentaries on this pasuk note that the first letters of each word spell out the word אלול/Elul.  What is the significance of this?  What is the connection between the words of the pasuk and the month of Elul?

Chazal teach us that the 120 day period starting with Shavuos and culminating with receiving the second luchos on Yom Kippur was a very significant one in our history.  We received the Torah on Shavuos and Moshe Rabbeinu spent the next forty days on Mount Sinai.  On 17 Tamuz, the nation sinned with the golden calf.  Moshe Rabbeinu broke the luchos habris and spent the next forty days supplicating God on behalf of the nation.
Chazal teach us that the first and last forty day periods were exemplified by God's good will towards us.  They were days of ratzon.  The middle period were days of anger.  However, there was a difference between the ratzon of the first period and that of the last.  The good will that God showed towards us during the first period was an undeserved gift.  The Sfas Emes teaches that God's good will towards the nation during the last forty day period was not gratis.  It was not an undeserved gift.  Rather, it was the direct result of the nation's move to repent during this period.  The nation deserved God's grace during this last period.
The high spiritual level that we reached after the Exodus culminating in the receiving of the Torah on Shavuos was an undeserved gift from God.  This did not, could not last.  A new awakening that came from within us was necessary.  This happened during the forty period beginning on Rosh Chodesh Elul and ending on Yom Kippur. 

"אני לדודי/I am for my beloved" represents our longing to make amends and experience God.  This is the necessary prerequisite for, "ודודי לי/and my beloved is for me."  We turned to God so God turned, as it were, to us.  This is a relationship that will last forever.  This is the reason that these are days of good will, of razton, even now thousands of years later.
God sits in judgment specifically during this season because it is a time of good will forever.

Receiving a gift is a joyous occasion but the joy is incomplete. Because a gift is undeserved, there is always an element of shame involved.  There is no greater joy than receiving what is deserved.  It was through our merit that Moshe Rabbeinu returned on Yom Kippur with the second luchos.  The joy of receiving the Torah on Yom Kippur was a complete joy.  

May we take advantage of this period to come close to God and may we and the entire nation of Israel merit a kesiva vachasima tova.  AMEN!   

Friday, September 09, 2011

Teitzei 5632 Second Ma'amar

In this week's parsha we find the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird – shilu'ach hakein.[1]  Chazal tell us that this is the easiest of mitzvos.[2]  It involves no outlay of money and it is easy to do.  Unlike most other mitzvos, the Torah specifies the reward for this mitzvah – long life.  Another mitzvah for which the Torah tells us the reward is the mitzvah of honoring our parents; the reward – long life.  Chazal[3] teach us that the mitzvah of honoring our parents is among the most difficult mitzvos.  Many times it requires outlays of money and is also difficult to do.  Why does the Torah reveal the reward for these two mitzvos but for no others?

The Midrash[4] in this week's parsha answers this question.  God does not want people to choose which mitzvos to perform based upon their relative benefits.  Rather He wants us to perform all the mitzvos with equal enthusiasm.  He therefore did not reveal their rewards.  The only mitzvos for which he revealed the rewards are the easiest and the hardest mitzvos and for those the rewards are equal.

The Sfas Emes asks why it is that the most difficult of mitzvos and the easiest have the same reward.  Could it be that the rewards for mitzvos are purely to provide us with incentive?  Is there no connection between a mitzvah's reward and the difficulty of performing it?  The Sfas Emes answers that each mitzvah's reward is in fact, appropriate for the mitzvah.

We tend to be drawn after great mitzvos that are difficult to perform.  Intuitively, we understand the importance of a difficult mitzvah.  When do it, we feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Easy mitzvos, though, are treated lightly.  It is not easy to relate to a mitzvah that is easy to do and costs nothing to perform with the proper respect and gravity.  For this very reason, they are actually more difficult to perform properly that the "difficult" mitzvos.  And so, their reward is equal to that of the difficult mitzvos.  

[1] Devarim 22:6,7 – If there chances before you … a bird's nest … with chicks or eggs, do not take the mother with the chicks.  Send away the mother and then take the chicks for yourself …
[2] Devarim R. 6:2
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Shoftim 5631 Third Ma'amar

Before going into battle, a priest addresses the army.  He begins, "שמע ישראל אתם קרבים היום למלחמה על איביכם .../Listen Israel.  You are coming forward today for war against your enemies …" (Devarim 20:3)  Why must the priest preface his speech with the words, "שמע ישראל/Listen Israel"?  This seems extraneous.  The previous pasuk states that the priest comes to address the army.  They are standing before him.  There is no need for him to get their attention.

According to Rashi these words are in fact extra.  They are not needed to get the attention of the army.  However, the Torah wants the priest to allude to the mitzvah of kri'as shma.  The priest is telling the soldiers that they will persevere over their enemies even if the only merit they have is that of saying kri'as shma.

This needs clarification.  There are many important mitzvos.  Kri'as shma is certainly one of them.  Still, why does the Torah single out this mitzvah over all others?  What is unique and about the mitzvah of kri'as shma?

The Sfas Emes explains.  The mitzvah of kri'as shma is essentially a declaration that God is One.  Since we believe that He is the Creator, saying that He is one means that He is not just a creator.  Saying that He is one means that He is the only Creator.  All components of the world come from Him.

Taking this concept to its logical conclusion we realize that there is absolutely nothing in the world that can oppose this truth.  Even if we see things that are obviously forces of evil, not recognizing God in them is only a reflection of our own lack of faith.  The truth is that God is the source of everything and this must necessarily include the darkest places. 

God first taught us this idea at the Exodus.  God's bringing us out of Egypt was proof positive that He was the force behind the dark exile.  At the time of His choosing, He revealed Himself, ending the exile and bringing the redemption.  This is clearly the meaning of the following pasuk according to the Targum, "... כחצות הלילה אני יוצא בתוך מצרים/… At midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt."  The Targum of "אני יוצא/I am going out," is "אנא מתגלי/I am revealing myself."  Since He was able to end the exile, He must have been the force behind it.

This, then, is the significance of kri'as shma for the army about to enter into battle with our enemies.  Kri'as shma is our declaration that God is the source of everything including our enemies and including the very situation that requires us to fight our enemies.

This is also the meaning of the pasuk, "... אם תקום עלי מלחמה בזאת אני בוטח/… though war would rise against me, in this I trust." (Tehillim 27:3)  The word זאת/this, means that everything in the world exists only because God gives it existence.[1]  The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the spiritual point through which God manages the world is called zos.[2] 

Clearly, David HaMelech teaches that the army, when entering battle, should have faith that God is the source of everything.  This matches exactly the priest's allusion to the mitzvah of kri'as shma and clarifies its significance.

[1] The Midrash (VaYikra R. 21:4) says that the word zos/this in this pasuk is an allusion to God – in God I trust. 
[2] The early kabbalists (Sha’arei Ora 1:14a-b) teach that zos alludes specifically to that point of spirituality through which God gives existence to the physical.  See the Sfas Emes 5631 on Zos Chanuka for more on this.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Re'ei 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

כִּי יַרְחִיב ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ ... וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר ... בְּכָל-אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר/When God, your Lord, expands your boundaries … and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ … you will eat meat with all your soul’s desire.”  This pasuk, which promises that our boundaries will be expanded, directly follows the admonition not to abandon the Levites.  The Midrash teaches us that this pasuk is the reward as we find in Mishlei, “מַתָּן אָדָם יַרְחִיב לוֹ .../A man’s gift expands for him …” and, “... ה' מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים/… God releases the bound.”  In the case of our pasuk this is referring to removing the prohibition against eating meat that was not brought as a sacrifice.  This meat is referred to by Chazal as bassar ta’ava/meat of desire.

The Sfas Emes explains.  Expansion is the opposite of restriction.  Expansion implies openness to God whereas restriction implies a blockage that prevents a person from experiencing closeness to God.  The Sfas Emes teaches that blockage is a test.  The way to overcome the blockage and pass the test is by overcoming our own desires in favor of God’s.  When we give to the poor overcoming the natural desire to keep things for ourselves, we are leaving our own desires in favor of God’s will.  Doing this automatically eliminates the blockage.  We experience closeness to God.  This is the meaning of the pasuk in Mishlei.  Giving a gift opens the giver to God.

The second part of the pasuk seems to include a redundancy.  “I will eat meat” means that a person desires to eat meat.  The pasuk continues, “with the complete desire of your soul you will eat meat.”  Why is this?  The Alshich points out that the pasuk does not say that the motivation for eating the meat is the body’s desire.  Rather the pasuk says the motivation is the soul’s desire.  A person’s soul would desire to eat meat for holy reasons.  A person’s soul is interested in coming close to God.  The Alshich says that the soul would desire to eat meat in order to elevate the meat.  Based on this, the Alshich understands the last part of the pasuk as a command.  If you eat meat, your motivation must be only and completely the desire of your soul to the exclusion of the desire of your body.

The Sfas Emes points out that the pasuk does not state that we should not desire to eat meat.  Rather, the pasuk says that we should channel our desire for meat in order to attach ourselves to and experience God.  Only thus does bassar ta’ava become permitted.  To bring out this point the Midrash continues and cites a pasuk from Tehillim, “... ה' מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים/… God releases the bound” which can also be translated as, “God permits the prohibited.”

The point of Godliness within even the lowliest physical thing is hidden by gross physicality.  Our mission is to realize this thus expanding that point of Godliness by expand the same point of Godliness within ourselves.  In the case of eating meat, we do this by desiring to eat meat in order to elevate it.  Then the Godliness expands within us and affects the meat and our actions.