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.