Friday, July 29, 2011

Mas'ei 5633 Second Ma'amar

Is it wise to commit totally to something even if you doubt that you'll be able to carry out that commitment?  The Chiddushei HaRim answers this question affirmatively.  He couches his teaching in terms of serving God.  The Chiddushei HaRim advises us to dedicate ourselves so completely to God that we will not forget Him for an instant.  We are encouraged to make this commitment even though many of us may know that we are not on this level.  Still, reaching beyond our capabilities helps us to reach higher levels than we would have reached otherwise.

The Chiddushei HaRim learns this from the commandment in this week's parsha to divide the entire land amongst the tribes.[1]  History bears out that this never happened.  The nation never totally conquered the land of Israel.  What then, was the point of this commandment?  Why did God command us to do something that He knew we would not be able to do?

The Chiddushei HaRim answers that this teaches us the importance of making a total commitment.  The Sfas Emes adds that God knew that we would leave Canaanites in the land.  Still, He wanted us to make the commitment to wipe them out completely.  Chazal[2] teach us that when the nation was standing on the dry riverbed of the Jordan, we were given the choice of making the commitment to totally conquer the land and pass safely on or of not making that commitment and being washed away; this, even though it was certainly clear to God that we would not totally destroy the inhabitants of the land.

The Sfas Emes teaches that even though we did not live up to the commitment completely, the very fact that we made the commitment enables us to achieve it in the future.  

[1] Bamidbar 34:2
[2] Sota 34a

Friday, July 22, 2011

Matos 5634 First Ma'amar

The beginning of this week's parsha relates the laws of vows.  The first Midrash[1] in the parsha teaches us that in order to take an oath one has to be very righteous.  The Midrash cites a pasuk, “וְנִשְׁבַּעְתָּ חַי־ה' בֶּאֱמֶת בְּמִשְׁפָּט וּבִצְדָקָה .../You will swear, “As God lives!” in truth, justice and righteousness …” (Yirmiyahu 4:2)  To invoke God's name in an oath requires a level of truth, justice and righteousness.  The Midrash cites another pasuk, "את ה' א-להיך תירא ואתו תעבוד ובשמו תשבע/Fear God, your Lord; worship Him and then you may swear by His name." (Devarim 6:13)
The Sfas Emes understands that swearing by God's name is actually part of the mitzvah because by doing so we honor God.  When we invoke His name in an oath we are saying that our statement is true just as God is the epitome of truth.  Still, the Midrash teaches that taking oaths is for the righteous who have reached the good qualities enumerated in these pesukim and elaborated upon in the Midrash.  Why is this?  An oath is simply a strong verbal statement of truth.  Why must one be totally righteous to take one?

To answer this question we need a deeper understand of what an oath is.  When we take an oath we are creating a Torah prohibition.  How can we, mere physical beings, create Torah prohibitions with all the spiritual power implied?  The Chiddushei HaRim notes that the word for oath – שבועה – in Hebrew has the same root as the Hebrew word for seven –שבעה .  An oath is a verbal commitment that has the agreement all seven of a person's primary character traits.  That is to say, an oath is a commitment of one's entire being.  Since we are not only physical beings but spiritual ones as well, such a total commitment invokes the Godliness that is within us as well.

This is clear from Chazal[2] who say that before we are born, we are asked to swear that we will be righteous.  What is the significance of an oath to a soul?  Can a soul take an object to swear upon as we would[3]?  Can a soul not tell the truth?  However, if we understand an oath as the Chiddushei HaRim explained, that it is a commitment of one's entire being, we will realize that an oath is indeed appropriate for a soul.  The soul certainly realizes that its existence is dependent solely upon God.  The soul that is about to enter the world will most certainly desire with all its power to be God's agent in the physical world, to effect its rectification and to do only God's will.  This total commitment is the essence of an oath.

The kabbalists[4] teach us that Shabbos is called an oath.  Since God is more revealed on Shabbos, it is easier for us to commit to serving Him.  This is why Chazal[5] teach us that the Torah was given specifically on Shabbos and we took an oath at the giving of the Torah to keep its laws[6].  At the giving of the Torah, when we heard, "אנכי ה' א-להיך .../I am God, your Lord …" (Shmos 20:2), it was absolutely clear to every one of the nation that his existence is from God.  Therefore to commit to keep the Torah, to do God's will, had the force of an oath.  We made that commit with our entire beings.

This concept of an oath sheds light on our original question.  A person can invoke the Godliness within him, making a total and complete commitment, through an oath only if he is connected with that Godliness.  This is why the Midrash teaches that only the righteous may take oaths.

[1] Bamibar R. 22:1
[2] Nidah 30b
[3] Shavous 38b
[4] Sha'arei Orah, Sha'ar 2, 25a
[5] Shabbos 86b
[6] Nedarim 8a

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pinchas 5634 Fifth Ma'amar

The Shabbos Mincha Amida mentions menucha which is generally translated as "rest".  However if we look at the deep and great ideas that are expressed in the Amida  regarding menucha it seems that there is more to it than mere rest.  In the Amida we find, "יעקב ובניו ינוחו בו, מנוחת אהבה ונדבה, מנוחת אמת ואמונה, מנוחת שלום ושלוה והשקט ובטח, מנחה שלמה שאתה רוצה בה, יכירו בניך וידעו כי מאתך היא מנוחתם ועל מנוחתם יקדישו את שמך/Ya'akov and his sons will rest on (Shabbos), a rest of love and magnanimity, a rest of truth and faith, a rest of peace and serenity and tranquility and security, a complete rest that You desire; Your children will recognize and know that their rest is from You and through their rest, they will sanctify Your name."

This is high praise for something as mundane as taking the day off.  There is obviously more to it than meets the eye.  The first clue, the Sfas Emes points out, is that the rest is "complete".  The Sfas Emes explains that menucha is more than a cessation of activity.  It is a quality that is inherent in everything on Shabbos. God wants us to recognize this quality and therefore commanded us to refrain from work on Shabbos in order to free ourselves from external distractions.
What is the meaning of this quality of menucha that can be found within everything on Shabbos?  Elsewhere[1] the Sfas Emes elaborates on the concept of menucha.  When a system is working smoothly it can be said to be in a state of rest.  The system is at rest because every component is performing its function flawlessly.  There is no friction between the moving parts.  When every part of a system is doing its job, working towards the common goal that is the system's purpose, the intention of the system's creator becomes apparent.

On the first Shabbos the entire Creation was in this state of rest.  It is therefore on Shabbos that the will of the Creator became revealed.  The harmony of the system is a testimony to the Creator.  Conversely, when God's will, as the Creator, is revealed, each component of the system that we call the universe is seen for what it is, an important cog in the system.  The menucha inherent in each component of the universe is thus revealed.  Each part is recognized as God's creation, a necessary part of the Creation and God's will is revealed in everything.

This concept sheds light on the deeper meaning of, "מנוחה שלמה שאתה רוצה בה/… a complete rest that You desire."  The word רוצה/desire is associated with the word רצון/will.  When God's will is recognized in the Creation, the Creation is seen to be "at rest".

Our job is to recognize this, "יכירו וידעו כי מאתך היא מנוחתם/… they will recognize and know that their rest is from You."  According to the Sfas Emes, "their rest" refers to the menucha that is inherent in every part of the Creation.

How can we sensitize ourselves so that we recognize this quality of rest in the Creation on Shabbos?  The answer, the Sfas Emes explains, is by yearning for closeness to God during the week.  This yearning and yearning for Shabbos itself is fundamentally the same. 

The Chiddushei HaRim cites Chazal[2] who say that whoever enjoys the Shabbos is given all his heart's desires.  The Sfas Emes explains that this applies when a person's desire is for serving God and experiencing closeness to Him which, as we've said, is the same as yearning for Shabbos itself.  We can understand this from the pasuk, "ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת/The children of Israel will observe the Shabbos." (Shmos 31:16)  The word for observe can also be translated as "wait".[3]  The pasuk then can be translated as, "The children of Israel are waiting for the Shabbos."

When we yearn for closeness to God as we go through our week, we are sensitizing ourselves to experience that closeness on Shabbos when we shed the distractions of the week.  This is experiencing true rest on Shabbos.  In fact, the Zohar[4] understands this concept from a metaphorical interpretation of the pasuk, "אל יצא איש ממקומו ביום השבת/A man should not leave his place on the Shabbos day."  The Zohar associates this pasuk with, "ברוך כבוד ה' ממקומו/Blessed is the glory of God from His place."  The Zohar therefore understands the first pasuk as an admonition against distancing oneself from God on Shabbos.

To view Shabbos solely as a day off is to miss the point.  God gave us Shabbos so that we may recognize Him in the Creation and come close to Him.  When we prepare for Shabbos properly during the week by pining for closeness to God, He grants us enlightenment on Shabbos.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis 5631 First Ma'amar
[2] Shabbos 118b
[3] We find this meaning of the word in Breishis 37:11, "ואביו שמר את הדבר/And his father waited for it to happen."  This is according to Rashi's commentary on that pasuk.
[4] Zohar 2:63b-64a

Friday, July 08, 2011

Balak 5632 Fifth Ma'amar

"וירא בלק ... את כל אשר עשה ישראל לאמורי: ויגר מואב מפני העם מאד כי רב הוא .../Balak … saw everything that Israel did to the Emorites.  Moav was very afraid of the people for they were many …" (Bamidbar 22:2,3)  Why was Moav afraid?  The nation of Israel had no designs on Moav's land.  Israel even acquiesced to Moav's request that the people not traverse Moav in order to enter Cana'an.[1]

Balak and Moav were not concerned that Israel would conquer their land.  They were concerned about something far deeper.  We can learn what was bothering Balak from the Zohar's[2] explanation of a pasuk in Tehillim (31:20), "מה רב טובך אשר צפנת ליראיך .../How great is the good that You have hidden for those who are in awe of You …" 

What is the "good" that God has hidden for the righteous and where did He hide it?  The Zohar teaches that the good is the first light that God created, "וירא א-להים את האור כי טוב/God saw that the light was good." (Breishis 1:4)  The Zohar says that this first light was not the physical light that we see today.  The physical light of today comes from the celestial bodies and from fire in all its forms.  The first light must have been something else since it was created before the celestial bodies and before fire.  Rather, the first light may be better understood as enlightenment.  It was the enlightenment that came from the Torah which God used to create the world[3] and which is hidden within the works of the Creation.

Chazal[4] teach us that the pasuk, "וירא א-להים את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאד/God saw everything that He did and behold it was very good," (Breishis 1:31) refers to the angel of death and the evil inclination.  How so?  The angel of death and evil inclination represent God's concealment in the physical world.  They represent the concealment of the hidden light of the Torah.  God saw that everything He made was very good because the light of the Torah, which was referred to before as "good" was hidden in everything that God had made.

While there will come a time when God, according to His Divine plan will reveal the hidden light, our mission is to find that hidden light now.  The result is a revelation of the undeniable truth.  In this way we can influence our surroundings to become subordinate to God.  The children of Israel as they sojourned in the desert experienced the hidden light all the time.  They lived with daily miracles.  The effect on their surroundings was dramatic.

Balak was unavoidably affected as well.  "וירא בלק .../Balak saw" that God's glory was revealed, "ואמרו אל יושב הארץ הזאת ... אשר עין בעין נראה אתה .../They will say about the inhabitants of this land … that God appears to them eye to eye …" (Bamidbar 14:14)  This revelation of holiness totally contradicted Balak's view of reality.  In fact, Balak refers to this when he says, "... עם יצא ממצרים הנה כסה את עין הארץ .../… a nation left Egypt; behold it covered the face (lit. eye) of the land …" (Bamidbar 22:5)  ארץ/Land represents nature.  It represents Balak's view of reality.  He considered the holiness to which he was exposed as covering up his own eyes so that he could not see reality clearly.  This is the exact opposite of the truth.

Balak saw this and was afraid.  He was afraid of the aspect of "hidden light" represented by מאד/very in the pasuk, a reference to the hidden light which is described in the story of the Creation as "very good".  The nation of Israel caused him to be exposed to the hidden light.  The words, "כי רב הוא/for they (the people of Israel) are many," is a reference to, "מה רב טובך/How great is your good (i.e. the hidden light)."

According to the Sfas Emes, Balak saw the revelation of God's glory.  He was unable to assimilate the holiness and was therefore afraid.  It totally contradicted his view of reality.

The nation's sojourn in the desert, then, was an important preparatory period for the nation before entering the land of Israel.  It was during this period that the notion of the hidden light became totally ingrained and internalized in the national psyche.  

The land of Israel, according to the Zohar[5] is the center point of the entire world.  The very force that causes the entire Creation to exist comes first from this center point and sustains all.  Experiencing and being exposed to the hidden light was thus crucial to being able to benefit fully from life in the land of Israel.

[1] Viz. Shoftim 11:17
[2] Zohar 3:88a
[3] Zohar 1:5a Introduction
[4] Breishis R. 9:7,10
[5] Zohar 1:108b

Friday, July 01, 2011

Chukas 5631 First Ma'amar

זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה .../This is the law of the Torah …” (Bamidbar 19:2)  The Zohar[1] at the beginning of this week’s parsha cites a similar pasuk, “וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה .../And this is the Torah …” (Devarim 4:44)  What is the difference between these p’sukim?  Why does the first add the word “חֻקַּת/law of”?  Based on the Zohar the Sfas Emes explains that “וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה .../And this is the Torah …” alludes to the essence of the Torah whereas “חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה/the law of the Torah” is a reference to Torah shebe’al peh/the oral law. 

Chazal tell us that God created the world with the Torah.[2]  The essence of the Torah is inherent in the world.  It is that force which radiates out of the Torah and into every part of the Creation.  It is through the Torah that the Creation continues to exist. 

Even though the light of the Torah inheres in every part of the Creation, it is not apparent.  It is hidden.  Our mission is to draw out the Torah’s light, to make it apparent.  This task, the Sfas Emes explains, is represented by Torah shebe’al peh/oral law.  The Torah shebe’al peh/oral law is much more than an explanation of the written Torah.  It represents our work.  It is the avenue through which we can add chidush/novelty whether in deeper understanding of the Torah or by acting according to God’s will. 

As opposed to the Torah shebe’al peh/oral law, the essence of the Torah is beyond our comprehension.  This is why, “וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה .../And this is the Torah …”, representing the essence of the Torah, is followed by, “... אֲשֶׁר־שָׂם מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל/… that Moshe placed before the children of Israel.” (Devarim 4:44)  When the Torah was given, we were all connected to the essence of the Torah through Moshe Rabbeinu.  This is not a level we could attain on our own, through our own labors.

The Torah shebe’al peh/oral law, on the other hand, represents the Torah we attain and reveal through our labor in this world.  This Torah becomes a part of us.  In the words of the Chiddushei HaRim it becomes engraved in us.  חֻקַּת/The law of” in fact, has the same root as the Hebrew word for engrave - חַקָק.  Later in the parsha the Torah refers to Moshe Rabbeinu as מְחוֹקֵק/lawgiver.  Here too, it suggests the Torah being engraved in us.   

What must we do for the Torah to become engraved in us, to become a part of us?  How do we draw out the light of the Torah inherent in everything?  The Sfas Emes explains according to the following Chazal.  Chazal tell us that we must make our Torah our primary occupation.[3]  Chazal say that earlier generations made their Torah their main occupation and their labor transient.[4]  They saw success in both.  What do Chazal mean when they say that the Torah should be our primary occupation?  We’ve said that the light of the Torah is hidden in everything.  Making the Torah our primary occupation means, in addition to studying it, looking for the light of the Torah in everything that we do.  The spiritual aspect of our actions becomes our primary occupation.  The physical activity is only a means to reveal the light of the Torah.  In this sense our labor, our physical activity, is transient whereas Torah becomes our main occupation.  In order to succeed, though, it is crucial that we take a thoughtful approach to every activity.  A person who does everything for the sake of God will realize God’s will in everything he does.  God’s will is already in everything.  Lack of recognition conceals it.  Recognizing this fact, reveals it.

When we do this, the Torah that we reveal becomes a part of us.  It becomes engraved in us.  This is why Chazal call it “their Torah.”  It became theirs when they made it their primary occupation.  We find this idea clearly in Rashi’s explanation of the second pasuk in Tehillim (1:2), “... בְּתוֹרַת ה' חֶפְצוֹ וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה/… He wants God’s Torah and in his Torah he will meditate day and night …”  Why is the Torah first referred to as God’s and then referred to as belonging to the one who studies it?  Rashi explains that by working at it he makes it his.  It becomes a part of him.

We find this concept in the pasuk in Koheles (2:14), “הֶחָכָם עֵינָיו בְּרֹאשׁוֹ .../The wise person’s eyes are in his head …”  The word for head has the same Hebrew root as the word for first - רִאשׁוֹן.  The wise person always connects to the root, the source, the beginning of every action and thing.  The source is of course the life force of God.  By attempting to do God’s will in all of our daily activities, we are connecting to the source of our actions.

We find this idea also in Yeshaya (40:26), “שְׂאוּ־מָרוֹם עֵינֵיכֶם וּרְאוּ מִי־בָרָא אֵלֶּה .../Lift up your eyes and see Who created these …”  The life force of God is not apparent in the physical world.  In fact a lot of what happens in the physical world is antithetical to Godliness, to holiness.  Yeshaya points out that this is only a concealment of God.  In reality God is in everything. 

This is the meaning of the first Midrash[5] in this week’s parsha explaining a pasuk in Iyov, “מִי־יִתֵּן טָהוֹר מִטָּמֵא לֹא אֶחָד/Who produces purity from impurity?  No one!”  The Midrash translates this pasuk, “Who produces purity from impurity?  Is it not the One?”  Producing purity from impurity seems impossible.  

However, it is only impossible if we believe that impurity has an autonomous existence.  Actually, impurity is simply God’s concealment.  Producing purity from impurity is a matter of removing that which conceals God.  Intent before we act is crucial.  When we subordinate ourselves to the Source of life, God’s concealment is removed.  The impurity is removed.  This is the essence of teshuva/repentance – returning to the Source.
Whether we come close to God through our actions or not, is completely dependent on our intent.  If our intent is to do His will, the Godliness inherent in the action becomes revealed, we come closer to God and we become purified.  This is our main occupation in this world.  It is our Torah shebe’al peh.

[1] Zohar 3:179b
[2] Zohar 1:5a Introduction
[3] Avos 1:15
[4] Brachos 35b
[5] Bamidbar R. 19:1