Friday, June 24, 2011

Korach 5631 First Ma'amar

Why did Korach challenge Moshe Rabbeinu’s authority?  Korach himself explains, “The entire community is holy and God is among them so why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?” (Bamidbar 16:3)  It would seem that Korach has a point.  The entire nation is holy and God is among them.  What was his mistake?

Korach believed that each person can come close to God on the basis of his own merit.  While individual merit is important, it is a mistake to think that it is adequate.  The nation of Israel is one organism.  Each part of the organism – each Jew – can only reach his potential within the context of the entire organism.  We learn this from a Zohar which describes God’s revelation on Shabbos.[1]  The Zohar teaches us that God only sits on the throne of glory on Shabbos, a time when the entire Creation is elevated towards its singular source.  That singular source is, of course, God Himself.  God’s sitting on the throne of glory represents His revelation.  So, God’s revelation is dependent on each part of the Creation striving towards Him.

When we say that each part of the Creation strives towards God we mean that each part is doing its unique function.  A creation brings honor to its Creator by doing that for which it was created.  When every part of the Creation is accomplishing its unique task, the entire Creation is complete and can be said to be at peace.  This happened for the first time on the first Shabbos, Shabbos Breishis.  This is why the Zohar (3:176b) in this week’s parsha says, “… the Creation could not exist until God came and brought peace to it.  What is peace?  Shabbos.”  With the advent of Shabbos, each facet of the Creation automatically was elevated towards the Source.  God, in response, sat on the throne of glory.

The Sfas Emes explains that if this is the case regarding the relationship between God and the Creation, that each creation only comes close to God (and God to it) as it performs its unique task within the context of the Creation as a whole, then surely each individual Jew can only come close to God within the context of the nation of Israel. 

The Midrash (Bamidbar R. 18:8) makes this very point when citing the difference between the nation of Israel and the other nations of the world, “The other nations of the world have many priests and many different ways of worship.  We have one God, one Torah, one law, one altar, one high priest and you 250 men all want the high priesthood?”  The Midrash is telling us that we need only one high priest.  His contribution is for all of us.  The nation’s job is to connect to him and through him to achieve closeness to God.  An organism has many parts, each of which has its own unique function for the benefit of the entire organism.  Each individual’s service benefits the whole and the whole, in turn benefits the individual.  Korach, though, believed that each individual could approach God on his own merit.  This is why the Zohar says that Korach contested peace and Shabbos.[2]

Just as God chooses each of us for a unique task, He chose Aharon HaCohen for a unique task.  Aharon HaCohen was chosen for holiness.  The pasuk in Divrei HaYamim (1:23:13) states this clearly, “... וַיִּבָּדֵל אַהֲרֹן לְהַקְדִּישׁוֹ קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא־וּבָנָיו עַד־עוֹלָם .../… Aharon was set apart, to sanctify him as holy-of-holies, he and his sons forever …”  Korach was right.  The entire nation is holy.  However, he missed the point.  The nation receives holiness through Aharon and his sons.

Korach was jealous of Aharon because he thought that Aharon received his position on the merit of his service to God.  Korach thought that others were just as worthy if not more worthy than Aharon.  He did not understand that God assigned Aharon a unique mission that only Aharon could accomplish.  This assignment was not a reward.  It was not based on anything Aharon did to deserve this mission.  Aharon was simply an agent just as we are all agents to accomplish our own unique missions.  This is what Moshe Rabbeinu meant when he told Korach, “לָכֵן אַתָּה וְכָל־עֲדָתְךָ הַנֹּעָדִים עַל־ה' וְאַהֲרֹן מַה־הוּא כִּי תַלִּינוּ עָלָיו/Therefore, you and your entire community assemble against God, for what is Aharon that you complain against him?”(BaMidbar 16:11)  Korach’s jealousy of Aharon indicates that he entirely missed the point.  Aharon’s greatness manifested in that he completely subordinated himself to his assigned mission.  Chazal praise Aharon specifically in that he did not change anything that he was asked to do.[3]  He considered himself a tool ready to do God’s will. 

God assigns each of us a unique task within the context of the entire nation of Israel.  There is a symbiotic relationship between each individual and the nation of Israel as a whole.  Each individual, by performing his unique task, contributes to the entire nation and is elevated, too.  Each of us benefits as well, from the unique contributions of every other individual.  

[1] Zohar 2:135a
[2] Zohar 3:176a
[3] Sifri BeHa’aloscha 60

Friday, June 17, 2011

Shelach 5633 First Ma'amar

The Midrash[1] in this week's parsha cites a halacha that one may embark on an ocean voyage within three days of Shabbos only if its purpose is a mitzvah.  If it is not a mitzvah then one may embark on such a voyage only during the first half of the week.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the three days preceding Shabbos should be dedicated to preparations for Shabbos.  The beginning of an ocean voyage is anathema to preparing for Shabbos since it takes a while to become oriented on a ship.  However, if the purpose of the journey is the performance of a mitzvah one may travel even on Friday because troubling oneself with a mitzvah is also a way of preparing for Shabbos.

How so?  How is being occupied with the performance of a mitzvah preparation for Shabbos?  The Sfas Emes answers that the Chiddushei HaRim can be understood if we explain this halacha allegorically.  A person embarking on an ocean voyage represents our sojourn in this world.

Chazal[2] teach us that everything that God created in this world and everything that occurs are for the purpose of eventually bringing attention to His glory as part of a Divine plan.  At some point in the future there will be a fulfillment of the prophesy, "ביום ההוא יהיה ה' אחד ושמו אחד/On that day God will be one and His name will be one." (Zecharya 14:9)  This means that at that time God will be revealed through every part of the Creation.  Nothing will hide Him.

We are here in order to prepare ourselves and the world for that great day.  We prepare by sensitizing ourselves to recognize God in the world now even though He is hidden.  To the extent that we recognize God in the world, God is revealed.  As such we are agents of God.

The relationship between this world and the next parallels the relationship between the days of the week and Shabbos.  To the extent that we sensitize ourselves to spirituality during the week, we will experience it on Shabbos.  This is the way God created the world.  The entire rectification leading to revelation comes about through our preparations.

How do we sensitize ourselves during the week so that we can experience the spiritual on Shabbos?  The Chiddushei HaRim answers that when we do mitzvos during the week we prepare ourselves for Shabbos.  This applies both to Shabbos at the end of the week and to the great Shabbos that is the next world.  

A person whose entire life is spent occupied with Torah like the generation that sojourned in the desert for forty years is preparing in the best way possible for the spirituality of the next world.  He is completely occupied with the spiritual even as he lives in this physical world.

What of the vast majority for whom a good portion of their lives is taken up with matters of this world?  How can we, the majority, prepare for the next world?  We are like the ocean voyager who may not embark on a pleasure trip within three days of Shabbos.  However for a mitzvah we can begin a trip even on erev Shabbos because the mitzvah itself is a preparation for Shabbos.  We need to prepare by doing mitzvos as the Chiddushei HaRim explained.

The Sfas Emes explains that we have the power to turn all our activities into mitzvos that will protect us in the sea of the physical world.  We do this by recognizing that everything is created to bring glory to God.  This includes all a person's deeds since nothing at all can happen without God's implicit consent.  To the extent that we remember this and act only so that God's will manifests, to the extent that we subordinate our own desires and will to God's, we become messengers sent to perform mitzvos and are protected.  In this way we can live spiritual and holy lives even as we are immersed in the physical world.

This concept explains an enigma in the beginning of our parsha.  The parsha begins with an account of the twelve spies who Moshe sent to bring back information about the land of Israel.  God tells Moshe, "שלח לך אנשים ויתורו את ארץ כנען .../Send for yourself men who will spy out the land of Canaan …" (Bamidbar 13:2)  Yet at the end of the nation's forty year sojourn in the desert when Moshe relates this story to the generation that will be entering the land of Israel, he says that the nation came to him with the request to send spies.[3]  Which was it?  Did the initiative come from the nation or from God?

The Sfas Emes answers that ideally there was no need for spies.  The nation could have entered the land upon God's instructions and would have succeeded in conquering it.  However, the nation was not up to this.  We needed spies and thus Moshe, who realized this, was forced to agree.  But here was a quandary.  Agreeing to the demand for spies opened up the possibility that the spies may come back with demoralizing news.  After all, the land was not an easy one to conquer.  Moshe Rabbeinu himself said as much to the generation that finally entered the land.  What if the spies themselves were affected badly by what they saw?

The beginning of our parsha teaches us that in order to provide protection for the spies God turned this natural preparation for war into a mitzvah.  All the spies had to do was to approach their mission as a mitzvah, subordinate themselves to God's will and strive to succeed in performing the mitzvah.  If they had done this, as in fact Yehoshua and Calev did, they would have succeeded and the nation would have entered the land forthwith.

This concept applies to the full range of our activities in the physical world, from the daily mundane to the extraordinary.  God has no integral desire for our physical acts in and of themselves.  He agrees to them so that all our actions can become mitzvos, vehicles to accomplish His will.  Then by subordinating our desires and acting only to achieve His will we are protected from our physical surroundings and can succeed in living the holy life even in the midst of the physical world.

[1] Tanchuma Shelach 1
[2] Avos 6:14
[3] Devarim 1:22

Friday, June 10, 2011

BeHa'aloscha 5636 First Ma'amar

"דבר אל אהרן ואמרת אליו בהעלותך את הנרות את מול פני המנורה יאירו שבעת הנרות: ויעש כן אהרן .../Speak to Aharon and say to him, 'When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the Menorah.  Aharon did so …" (Bamdibar 8:2,3)

·         How do the lamps cast their light toward the face of the Menorah?  If the Menorah is the central stem and the wicks of the protruding arms are placed so that they are facing the center of the Menorah in order to "cast their light towards the Menorah", then only six lamps are casting their light towards the center.  The seventh lamp is in the center.

·         Chazal[1] teach us that the Torah makes a point of telling us that Aharon did as instructed in order to praise him?  What sort of praise is this?  Would we have assumed otherwise?

In order to explain this pasuk the Midrash[2] relates an allegory of a king who asks his friend to prepare for him a meal.  The friend prepares the meal and lodging for the king using his own plain vessels.  When the king comes in all his majesty, the friend is embarrassed and hides his vessels.  The king, realizing his friend's plight, tells his entourage to hide his own kingly accoutrements and insists on being served with his friends simple vessels.

From the Midrash it is clear that ideally, the king's friend should not have been embarrassed and should not have put away what he had prepared.  Because of the friend's actions the king felt forced to play down his majesty to accommodate his friend.  Why should the king diminish his own honor because his friend is uncomfortable?

The Midrash is teaching us that God conceal Himself because if he were revealed, we would be embarrassed by the puniness of our efforts to do His will, to please Him.  However, the righteous understand that we cannot compete with God and that God wants our efforts however puny.  God reveals Himself to the righteous because He knows that this will not have a negative effect on their service to Him.

When Aharon lit the Menorah in the Mishkan, its seven lamps cast light upon the parallel spiritual Menorah which was revealed to Aharon in all its glory.  Aharon experienced a Godly revelation but in his righteousness was not deterred by the inadequacy of his own deed.  This truly is worthy of praise.  In fact, Chazal[3] explain the pasuk, "והתהלכתי בתוככם .../I will walk among you …" (VaYikra 26:12) as referring to the righteous walking with God in Gan Eden and not trembling.  The do not tremble not because the do not fear God.  Rather, they do not tremble because they understand that there is no need to be embarrassed and distance oneself from God.

In this way the righteous will be similar to the angels as we find, "... ונתתי לך מהלכים בין העומדים האלה/… then I will grant that you make strides among the angels who stand here." (Zecharia 3:7)  The angels are able to stand and serve God even though their service relating to God, from God's infinite perspective, is just as inadequate as ours and even though they have a much deeper understanding of God's greatness than we do.  May we merit it!

[1] Sifri Beha'aloscha 9
[2] Bamidbar R. 15:8
[3] Sifra Bechukosai 1:3

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Shavuos 5631 First Night

The proper performance of mitzvos requires preparation.  This is such an important concept that God built it right into the Creation.  In Tehillim we find, “מִשָּׁמַיִם הִשְׁמַעְתָּ דִּין אֶרֶץ יָרְאָה וְשָׁקָטָה/From Heaven You made judgment heard; the earth feared and subsided.”  This pasuk contains an apparent contradiction.  How can the earth be both fearful and calm at the same time?  Chazal[1] tell us that first the earth was fearful.  Afterwards it was calm.  Rashi[2] explains that it was fearful before we accepted the Torah.  After we accepted the Torah it was calm.  Why did the earth care whether we accepted the Torah or not?  Reish Lakish explains that God created the world on the condition that the nation of Israel accept the Torah.  If we had not accepted the Torah, the Creation would have lost it raison d’être and would have ceased to exist.  So, before we accepted the Torah, the earth was understandably fearful. 

The Sfas Emes points out that Chazal are teaching us that fear before and calm after go hand in hand.  The fear is a prerequisite which leads to the calm. The universe was apprehensive because its very existence depended upon Israel accepting the Torah.  By making the existence of the world dependent upon our accepting the Torah, God had built into nature, at the time of Creation, a tension that naturally produced conditions which were conducive to accepting the Torah.  This tension can be seen as a preparation for accepting the Torah.

The Sfas Emes teaches us that what was true for nature at the giving of the Torah is true for us with regard to each and every mitzvah.  Ideally, mitzvos are performed with love.  In order to reach the ideal, we need to be concerned about doing them.  We need to care.  One who is concerned about performing a mitzvah makes sure that he is in a state of readiness for when the opportunity presents itself. 

This can be understood from the pasuk, “וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם .../You will keep and you will do …” (Devarim 4:6)  Chazal tell us that “וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם/You will keep” refers to negative commandments.  Negative commandments are generally associated with fear or awe whereas positive commands are associated with love.  The feeling of fear or awe which prevents us from transgressing negative commandments corresponds to the concern which keeps us in a state of preparedness for performing mitzvos with love.  Through this state of preparedness we merit “וַעֲשִׂיתֶם/and you will do”, referring to the positive commandments.  We find this concept in a pasuk in Tehillim as well, “סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה־טוֹב/Turn from evil and do good.” (Tehilim 34:15)  Turning from evil prepares us to do good.
The pasuk in Tehillim mentioned earlier uses an earth metaphor to teach us that by being concerned about performing mitzvos and then performing them with love, following the dictum we learn from “... אֶרֶץ יָרְאָה וְשָׁקָטָה/… the earth feared and subsided,” we elevate the physical world as well.

This is the concept of “זָכוֹר וְשָׁמוֹר/Remember and keep.”  The first time the Ten Commandments are mentioned in the Torah at the giving of the Torah, we find, “זָכוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת .../Remember the Shabbos day …” (Shmos 20:7)  Forty years later, when Moshe repeats the story of the acceptance of the Torah he says, “שָׁמוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת .../Keep the Shabbos day …” (Devarim 5:12)  Why the change from זָכוֹר/Remember to שָׁמוֹר/Keep? 

Moshe Rabbeinu certainly did not change what God said.  Chazal tell us that God said, and we heard, both זָכוֹר/Remember and שָׁמוֹר/Keep simultaneously.  The mitzvah of keeping Shabbos actually comprises both a positive and negative commandment.  זָכוֹר/Remember, refers to observing the positive commandment of Shabbos.  שָׁמוֹר/Keep, refers to the negative commandment of Shabbos. 

On a deeper level זָכוֹר/Remember on its highest level is not really remembering at all.  Rather it is a connection to something at such a deep level that it becomes a part of us to the extent that there is no possibility of forgetting.  This is a very high level that not everyone merits reaching.  However, Chazal are teaching us that a person who is careful about שָׁמוֹר/Keep – a person who keeps himself in a constant state of preparedness, whose primary concern is to do mitzvos – God’s will – is included in זָכוֹר/Remember on its highest level as well.   That person will merit achieving God’s will.

This is the deeper meaning of the principle Chazal[3] learn with regard to keeping Shabbos, “מִי שֶׁיֶשְׁנוֹ בִּשְׁמִירָה יֶשְׁנוֹ בִּזְכִירָה/Whoever is in the category of keeping, is also in the category of remembering.”  Chazal use this principal to explain why women are required to keep the positive commandment of Shabbos even though ordinarily they are exempt from those positive commandments that we are obligated to perform only at specific times.  The Sfas Emes explains that there is a deeper meaning as well to this principle.  To reach the highest level of remembering, a level at which one identifies completely with the mitzvos, one needs to nurture a sense of care and concern keeping himself in a state of readiness for those very mitzvos.

[1] Shabbos 88a
[2] Ad loc.
[3] Brachos 20a

Friday, June 03, 2011

Naso 5634 First Ma'amar

The Midrash[1] explains a pasuk from Shir HaShirim (5:15), “שׁוֹקָיו עֲמוּדֵי שֵׁשׁ .../His thighs are pillars of marble …”  שׁוֹקָיו/His thighsrefer to this world.  This is because שׁוֹקָיו/His thighshas the same root asתְּשׁוּקָה/desireand God yearned to create the world as we find in another pasuk in Shir HaShirim (7:11), “... וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ/… his desire is upon me,” referring to God yearning for the Creation. 

How do we know that this pasuk refers to the Creation?  The Midrash answers with a pasuk describing the completion of the Creation, the Shabbos, “וַיְכֻלוּ הַשָׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ .../The heavens and the earth were completed …” (Breishis 2:1)  וַיְכֻלוּ/They were completed” has the same root as the Hebrew word for yearning as we find, "כלתה נפשי .../My soul yearns …" (Tehillim 84:3)

"עמודי שש/Pillars of marble" refer to the six days of creation because the word שש/marble is a homonym for "שש/six".   According to the Midrash, the pasuk is referring to the six days of Creation during which God erected the world as one erects pillars.

The proof that ... וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ/… his desire is upon me,” refers to God's desire to create the world needs explanation.  "ויכולו/He completed them" refers to Shabbos, not the entire Creation.  It seems to imply that God yearned for Shabbos, the day on which He rested, as it were.

The answer depends upon a fundamental understanding of the purpose of the Creation.  The Creation is the mechanism through which God's will is revealed.  (Paradoxically, it is also the mechanism by which His will is hidden.)  His will can be revealed both on Shabbos and during the days of the week but in different ways.  The Sfas Emes explains that during the week, God's will manifests through our creative activity.  The days of the week are the pillars, in the language of the metaphor, that connect action with God's will with action.  Creative activity is the mechanism by which God's will is revealed.

On Shabbos, the Sfas Emes teaches, God's will is revealed without action.  On Shabbos the Creation is elevated so that sensitive people can experience God's revelation by dint of it being Shabbos.  This is the reason that we do not do creative activity on Shabbos.  It is not necessary for revealing God's will in the world.  In fact, we reveal God's will specifically by refraining from creative activity on Shabbos.  To the extent that we refrain from performing creative activity in order to subordinate ourselves to God, His will is revealed and renewed for the coming week as well.

Accordingly, God's desire for the Creation and His desire for Shabbos is essentially the same thing.  Both imply a desire that He be revealed albeit in different ways.

[1] Bamidbar R. 10:1