Friday, January 28, 2011

Mishpatim 5632 Third Ma'amar

"ואנשי קודש תהיון לי ובשר בשדה טרפה לא תאכלו .../You shall be a holy people for me; do not eat flesh of an animal mauled to death in the field …" (Shmos 20:23)  The pasuk teaches that we become holy people when we follow the dietary laws.

According to the holy Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk z"l, this pasuk is teaching us something fundamental about being holy.  From this pasuk we learn that God gave us the ability to be holy and made retaining holiness dependent upon our actions.

The Sfas Emes elaborates.  God does not lack holy beings.  The spiritual realms are full of angels, seraphs and holy spiritual creatures.  Still, God specifically wants our holiness.  But we are physical beings living in a physical world.  How is it possible to be holy while living in the physical world?  The answer is that it would not be possible if God had not imbued us and the world around us with holiness, with spirituality, albeit in measured doses.  Everything in the world contains holiness commensurate with its task.  Our job is to align our physical selves and actions with the holiness that is within us.  We must make sure that our actions are appropriate for our holiness.

We can infer this from an interpretation that Chazal[1] give the second half of this pasuk.  Removing a sacrifice from the Beis HaMikdash invalidates it.  Chazal learn this halacha from our pasuk.  They interpret the pasuk, "Meat (a sacrifice) that is in the field (outside of its boundaries since a field is unbounded) is like an animal that has been mauled to death, do not eat it."  Being outside the Beis HaMikdash is inappropriate for the holiness inherent in the sacrifice.  The Sfas Emes understands this as a principle that applies to life in general.

We can also understand the beginning of the pasuk as promise.  God is telling us that ultimately He will become revealed and we will be dedicated to Him.  The word for holy in Hebrew also connotes dedicated.  Therefore we must watch ourselves now so that we will be prepared when that time comes.

A Midrash teaches the same idea through an allegory.  The Midrash relates of a man who is decorating a crown with gems and pearls.  A passerby encourages him since the crown will ultimately adorn the head of the king.  We too, will ultimately be totally dedicated to God so it is imperative that we prepare ourselves now.

According to this understanding, "ואנשי קודש תהיון לי .../And you will be a holy people to me …" fits well with a deeper understanding of קודש/holy as explained by the Rishonim.  ["ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש .../And you will be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy people." (Shmos 19:6)  According to the Ramban and Rabbeinu Bechaye[2], "גוי קדוש/a holy people, is better translated as "a people of the Holy One."  Here to, "אנשי קודש/holy people" could be translated as "people of the Holy One."[3]

God's promise to us is that we will ultimately be connected to Him in a way that we cannot even fathom now.  It is our responsibility to prepare ourselves now for that day, acting in ways that are in alignment with the holiness that is within us. 

[1] Zevachim 82b
[2] On Shmos 19:6
[3] The Sfas Emes does not clarify to which Rishonim and which sod he is referring.  I believe he is referring to this idea mentioned by the Ramban and Rabbeinu Bechaye and possibly others as well.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Yisro 5635 First Ma'amar

Chazal[1] teach us that the world will last for six thousand years.  The first two thousand was chaos.  The second two thousand was Torah.  The third two thousand are the days of the Moshiach.  From here we infer that the giving of the Torah is an integral part of the process leading to the culmination of history with God's ultimate revelation to humanity.  It is, in fact, a necessary rectification without which the Creation would be – to use the words of Chazal – chaos.

If the Torah is so integral to the ultimate purpose of the Creation, why was it not given at the outset of history?  Why did God sustain the world for two thousand years before the era of Torah began?  The Sfas Emes answers that until the nation of Israel left Egypt and stood at the foot of Mount Sinai there was no one to accept the Torah[2].  The nation of Israel subordinated themselves entirely to God and the Torah when we said, "נעשה ונשמע/We will do and we will listen" agreeing to act according to God's will even before knowing what that meant.

Since the Torah was a rectification for the entire world, not just for the nation of Israel, in order for the rectification to be complete all the nations had to subordinate themselves to the children of Israel.  In fact, this happened after the nation left Egypt, "שמעו עמים ירגזון .../Nations heard and trembled …"  The exception was the nation of Amalek.  The nation of Amalek was totally dedicated to the goal of fighting the children of Israel even though they understood the greatness of Israel and the rule of God.  This is why God will blot out their name.[3]

There was good reason to believe that Amalek's fight against Israel would be effective in preventing the subordination of the nations of the world to Israel, if not on the battlefield.[4]  The reasoning was that even though Amalek lost the battle, they fought it.  Maybe some other stronger nation would come along, fight and win. 

Thus, Amalek's purpose was to prevent the giving of the Torah.   For if the nations would not submit to the children of Israel, the Torah would not rectify the world and there would be no point to giving it.

Yisro understood this.  This is why he came after hearing about the war with Amalek[5] and before we accepted the Torah[6].  A giant among the nations such as Yisro, by subordinating himself to God, would cause the nations to follow him instead of Amalek thus repairing the damage Amalek caused.  In essence, Yisro rectified Amalek's corruption. 

This is clearly the message of the Midrash on the pasuk, "לץ תכה ופתי יערים/Strike the scoffer and the simpleton becomes clever." (Mishlei 19:25)  Chazal[7] explain that the scoffer is Amalek.  The simpleton is Yisro.  When Israel struck Amalek, Yisro understood the ramifications and came to subordinate himself to God and the nation of Israel so that the nations of the world would follow him instead of Amalek.  In the words of the pasuk, he "became clever."  He thus rectified the damage caused by Amalek and set the stage for the giving of the Torah.

[1] Tanna d'vai Eliyahu 2
[2] Certainly there were righteous people who were on a level to accept the Torah.  However, the Torah needed to be accepted and practiced by a nation.  Until the nation of Israel left Egypt, there was no nation that could have accepted it.
[3] Based on the Zohar 2:65a
[4] See
[5] Chazal teach us that he heard about the war with Amalek and the splitting of the Red Sea.  The commentaries ask, why specifically these two.  After all, there were many miracles that God performed for the nation including the ten plagues, the manna, the well and others.  According to the Sfas Emes the answer is clear.  After the splitting of the Red Sea the nations subordinated themselves to the children of Israel.  The war with Amalek put this subordination at risk.  Yisro understood and therefore came.
[6] According to R. Yehoshua in Zevachim 116a
[7] Tanchuma Yisro 3

Friday, January 14, 2011

BeShalach 5631 Fifth Ma'amar

In this week's parsha we find Shiras HaYam/the song of the sea that the nation of Israel sang after being saved from the Egyptian army with the parting of the sea.  "אז ישיר משה ובני ישראל את השירה הזאת .../Then Moshe and the children of Israel sang this song …" (Shmos 15:1)  The Hebrew for "ישיר/sang" is in the future tense.  Why?  Rashi explains that the future tense signifies premeditation.  Moshe Rabbeinu first desired to sing and then sang.  This explains the future tense but why does the Torah tell us this?  Obviously all actions are premeditated.  We first think to perform an action and then act.  Even if the Torah had written שר/sang in past tense we would not have assumed otherwise.  What, then, is the Torah teaching us by using the future tense here?

Understanding the significance of song and by extension of all our actions will shed light on this question.  Singing the Shiras HaYam was more than just a message of thanksgiving to God.  Each letter of the Torah contains deep mysteries that we cannot even fathom.  Singing the Shira, or for that matter, learning any part of the Torah should have great ramifications in the spiritual realms and in this world.  However, is anyone of us on a level to effect such ramifications?  And yet the Torah tells us that the nation of Israel sang the Shira.  

The answer is that even though no one is on the level to influence the spiritual realms through his action and words in this world, God structured the world such that the spiritual is affected by our actions and words anyway.  A Jew has the power to "activate" the power latent in the letters of the Torah so that they enlighten spiritual realms not because he is on a high spiritual level.  Rather, we have this power because God gave it to us.

The Torah tells us that the nation sang the Shira, meaning that the spiritual power inherent in their words was activated and lit up, as it were, the spiritual realms.  Chazal teach us the same concept when they said that if one person starts a mitzvah and another completes it, the mitzvah is considered to "belong" to the one who completed it.  Whatever spiritual effect the mitzvah has is activated only when the second person completed it.  So, the mitzvah is considered to "belong" to him.

We see this concept as well in a Zohar[1] that says that our prayers split the heavens.  Certainly no one has the spiritual power to do this and yet the Zohar tells us that the prayers of every one of us split the heavens.  How is this?  The answer is that God made it so.  Our prayers split the heavens even though we have no knowledge of this and are not on a level to do it.

Even though left to our own devices, we do not have the power to affect the spiritual through our actions we do have the ability to desire this.  Our job is to cultivate a strong desire to achieve God's will.  God does the rest. 

The Torah uses the future tense ישיר/he will sing, which according to Rashi indicates premeditation, in order to teach us this.  Rashi says that Moshe Rabbeinu first cultivated a desire to sing – with all the implied spiritual ramifications.  Once he cultivated this desire, he was able to do it because God made it so.  

Our intent and desire is the key.  God knows that we do not have the spiritual power on our own.  In Tikunei Zohar[2] Chazal teach us that the Torah that a person learns without love and awe of God does not rise up to the spiritual realms.  Here too, we see that what is happening in our minds is the primary mover.

[1] Zohar 2:201a
[2] Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 10, 25b

Friday, January 07, 2011

Bo 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים .../This month shall be for you the beginning of the months …” (Shmos 12:2)  Establishing and maintaining a calendar is the first mitzvah that God commanded us as a nation.  God told this mitzvah to Moshe Rabbeinu as part of the preparation for the redemption.  Immediately following this mitzvah, God commanded us regarding the mitzvos of Pesach – the korban pesach, matzah and chametz.  Why, the Sfas Emes asks, is the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon given here?  What is the connection between this mitzvah and the redemption?

The word חֹדֶשׁ/month, the Sfas Emes teaches, comes from the root חָדָשׁ/new.  The physical association with a moon that disappears and reappears once a month is obvious.  However, the Sfas Emes explains that there is a spiritual significance as well.  The new moon symbolizes renewal.  Renewal and novelty, originality and creativity are all spiritual attributes.  Indeed, Shlomo HaMelech taught us in Koheles (1:9), “... וְאֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָׁמֶשׁ׃/… and there is nothing new under the sun,” implying that “above the sun” – in the spiritual realms novelty does exist. 

Change in the physical world is simply a manifestation of the spiritual.  God, of course, is the ultimate source.  God is the source of renewal as we say each morning in the first bracha before kri’as Shma, “הַמְחַדֵשׁ בְּטוּבֹו בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית/Who, in His goodness, renews each day continuously the works of the Creation.”  The way to tap in to novelty, creativity and originality, then, is by connecting to the spiritual from whence they originate.  When we recognize that everything is from God, we open ourselves to receiving novelty and renewal. 

The first time this happened was at the redemption from Egypt.  At that time it was clear to all that God is in control.  Our situation changed drastically due to His direct intervention.  Appropriately, at the time of the redemption God gave us the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon which symbolizes renewal. 

On Shabbos, as well, there is renewal and novelty since on Shabbos there is a revelation of Godliness in the Creation.  The difference between Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh, though, is that God established Shabbos whereas He gave us the power to determine the beginning of each month.  In terms of renewal and novelty in the world, the aspect of revelation associated with the new month is dependent upon our faith.  Our belief that there is God-given life force in everything draws revelation and renewal into the world.  Chazal hint at this connection as well.[1]  God tells the angels that He and the angels will follow whatever the nation of Israel decides regarding establishing the new month, as the pasuk in Tehillim (57:3) says, “אֶקְרָא לֵא-לֹהִים עֶלְיוֹן לָאֵ-ל גֹּמֵר עָלָי/I will call to God Most High, to God who fulfills things for me.”  Just as the establishment of the new month is dependent upon us, so too, is the invoking of renewal and creativity in this world.

The aspect of revelation associated with Shabbos is independent of our faith.  It is God-given.[2]  When God gave us the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon, He said, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם .../This month shall be for you …”  or according to what we’ve said, “This renewal is yours …”  Regarding the mitzvah of Shabbos, on the other hand, we find, “שַׁבָּת לה'/Shabbos is to God.”

We find this difference between Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh in the way that God related to Moshe Rabbeinu differently from the rest of the nation.  Rashi cites Chazal who teach us that God showed Moshe Rabbeinu the new moon.[3]  The significance for us is that Moshe Rabbeinu was on a level of recognition of God that went beyond faith.  Moshe Rabbeinu’s level of faith was akin to seeing.  We do not need to have faith that the sun is shining.  We see it shining.  This was Moshe Rabbeinu’s level of belief and this is what Chazal mean when they tell us that God showed Moshe Rabbeinu the new moon.  This level is given by God.  It is like Shabbos in this respect.  This is the reason that we mention Moshe Rabbeinu in the morning prayer on Shabbos, “יִשְׂמַח מֹשֶׁה בְּמַתְּנַת חֶלְקו/Moshe will be happy with the gift of his portion.” 

Moshe’s level of belief was like Shabbos, it was given to him just like Shabbos was given.  The nation’s level of belief was like the new moon.  It is in our power just like establishing the beginning of the month is in our power.  May we merit recognizing God in everything thus opening ourselves up to renewal, novelty, originality and creativity, attributes that can come only from Him.

[1] Shmos R. 15:2
[2] Pesachim 117b – שַׁבָּת קְבִיעָא וְקַיָימָא
[3] Rashi on Shmos 12:2