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.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Eikev 5632 First Ma'amar

The first Midrash[1] on this week's parsha cites a halacha that on Shabbos we are prohibited from erecting a candelabrum made of parts.  The Sfas Emes understands this halacha as a metaphor teaching us a fundamental truth our world and the reason we are here.

The physical world and everything in it is connected to holiness.  This holiness is the spiritual root from which stems the existence of the entire physical world.  This is, of course, not at all apparent.  We do not see the spirituality that is the source of our physical surroundings.  We are here in order to reveal this truth, to connect everything physical, as it were, to its spiritual root.

The candelabrum represents the physical world.  During the week, our job is to connect the separate pieces of the candelabrum so that the spiritual that inheres in it can shine as Shlomo HaMelech wrote, "נר ה' נשמת אדם/Man's soul is the God's candle." (Mishlei 20:27)  The word נר/candle really means the vessel that holds the oil and wick.  When we connect the pieces of the candelabrum, it can be used to produce light.

During the week we need to work to reveal the spiritual that is the root of the physical.  In the words of the metaphor, we need to connect the pieces of the physical candelabrum.  However, on Shabbos, there is no need to do this.  On Shabbos, God reveals the spiritual without our help.  All we need to do to experience the spiritual is to desire to receive its enlightenment.

We learn this from Chazal[2] who taught that whoever delights in the Shabbos is given his heart's desires.  The Chiddushei HaRim explains that a person should make sure that his heart's desires are good and for the sake of Heaven.  The Sfas Emes says that it could very well be that Chazal's intent was to teach us that we are given the proper desires.  To want the right things is also considered being given the heart's desires.  And the proper desire is to want to experience God's enlightenment. 

[1] Devarim R. 3:1
[2] Shabbos 118b

Friday, August 12, 2011

VaEschanan 5632 First Ma'amar

The Midrash[1] at the beginning of the parsha states that one who prays with intent – kavana – is guaranteed that his prayer will be accepted.  This Midrash is difficult for it implies that a prayer that is uttered without intent – without kavana – is indeed a form of prayer, albeit it a degraded form, that is not accepted.  Can we even consider words uttered without intent to be prayer?  Is a speaker who simply mouths words but whose mind is disengaged any different than a parrot?  Certainly this cannot be considered prayer at all.  Then what is the meaning of this Midrash?

The Sfas Emes explains that when the Midrash refers to one who prays with intent (lit. directs his heart – כוון לבו), it is referring to one who is changed by the prayer.  In Hebrew the word for prayer – להתפלל – is in the reflexive form.  For prayer to be effective it must affect the one who prays.  This type of prayer, the Midrash teaches us, is accepted.  

This concept affords a deeper meaning of the pasuk, "כי מי גוי גדול אשר לו א-להים קרובים אליו כה' א-להינו בכל קראנו אליו/For which is the great nation that has God so close to it as God our Lord whenever we call Him (lit. in all our calling to Him.)" (Devarim 4:7)  He is close to us according to the nature of our calling to Him.  To the extent that we bring ourselves close to God, He reciprocates and comes close to us as Shlomo HaMelech wrote, "כמים הפנים לפנים .../As water reflects a face back to a face …" (Mishlei 27:19)  This pasuk is referring metaphorically to our relationship with God.

This concept all sheds light on another Midrash[2] in our parsha that declares that a person who says Kri'as Shema, thus mentioning God's redemption of the nation, and then immediately prays is guaranteed that his prayer is accepted.  Redemption in essence is God's revelation.  By mentioning redemption we are acknowledging that all is from God including our very existence as we find in Tehillim (139:16), "גלמי ראו עיניך .../Your eyes have seen my unshaped form …"  We are nothing without God.  Hence, we subordinate ourselves to God.  In response, He draws near to us, as it were. 

This second Midrash is teaching us that in order for our prayers to be heard we need to consider how we approach prayer.  Before we can deign to pray, to make a request of God, we need to acknowledge that all is from Him.  We need to subordinate ourselves to Him.  This is the reason that before requesting that God allow him to enter the land, Moshe Rabbeinu stated God's praises.  He wanted to remember and to acknowledge that God is the beginning and source of everything before making his request.

In this way, we enable our prayer to change us, to affect us as the first Midrash teaches.  Then we are guaranteed that our prayer will be heard.

[1] Devarim R. 2:1
[2] Ibid 2:10

Friday, August 05, 2011

Devarim 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

Many times we find ourselves in circumstances in which it is unclear what we must do.  What tool can we use to decide the correct course of action?  The Sfas Emes establishes a fundamental principle regarding lack of clarity.  The ultimate reality is God.  To God there is no such thing as a lack of clarity.  Any lack of clarity, therefore, is an illusion.  It is an external block preventing us from seeing clearly.  The way to gain clarity of vision is to remove the block.  Removing the block is essentially connecting with God.  And since God is everywhere and in everything, everything has the potential for clarity.  All that is necessary is to remove the block thus connecting with the Godliness in that which lacks clarity. 

How is this done?  We find a clue in this week’s parsha.  Referring to difficulties judges may have in rendering judgment, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation, “... וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶה מִכֶּם תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו/… Bring to me that which is too difficult for you and I will hear it.” (Devarim 1:17)  The Kesser Shem Tov[1] gives this pasuk broader application according to the Ramban.  Although addressing the issue from the perspective of rendering judgment, the same principles apply to any situation that requires a decision.  Here, “תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי/bring it to me” alludes to and implies bringing the unclear thing to God since Moshe Rabbeinu is the quintessential tool for giving over God’s teaching. 

The Sfas Emes explains that bringing something close to God means connecting with the Godliness within the unclear thing.  How?  The Kesser Shem Tov explains according to the Ramban that one must remove any personal bias.  When our personal bias is no longer a factor and our entire motivation is only to know the will of God, we will see the truth and know what is required of us.

[1] Kesser Shem Tov 3a