Friday, December 30, 2011

VaYigash 5632 First Ma'amar

Many times we find ourselves in situations that appear bleak.  We search for a solution, a way out but fail to find one.  We are stuck.  What can we do?  Chazal[1] understand the story of Yehuda’s meeting with Yosef as just such a situation.  We can learn from Yehuda what to do.

Chazal base their understanding on a pasuk in Mishlei (6:1-3), “בני אם ערבת לרעך תקעת לזר כפיך: נוקשת באמרי פיך ... עשה זאת אפוא בני והנצל ... לך התרפס ורהב רעיך:/My son, if you have been a guarantor for your friend, if you have given your handshake to a stranger, you have been trapped by the words of your mouth … Do this, therefore, my son, and be rescued ... Go humble yourself before him, and placate your fellow.”

Chazal understand this pasuk metaphorically as referring to Yehuda.  He made himself a guarantor for Binyamin.  He promised his father that he would bring Binyamin back.  He was in a situation in which this looked like an impossible task.  The viceroy of the most powerful country in the world was about to take Binyamin for a slave.  What could he do?  The Midrash tells us, “Go humble yourself before Him …”  Humble yourself before God.

The Sfas Emes teaches that man was created in order to bring the entire Creation closer to God.  In the garden of Eden, this was obvious to Adam.  It was obvious that the purpose was to connect with God.  However, after his sin and banishment from Gan Eden, this fact became much less obvious.  It is not at all obvious to most of us.  In the words of the pasuk, “We have given our handshake to a stranger.”  This refers to the desire and lust to become involved in things that are not good, that distance us from God.  These desires color our perception.  We find this clearly in a pasuk in Iyov (34:11), “כי פועל אדם ישלם לו .../For He repays a man according to his deeds …”

A classic example of this was the sale of Yosef.  When the brothers sold Yosef, they distanced themselves from brotherly love.  As a result, when they met Yosef in Egypt, he seemed to them to be an enemy.  Yet, he was just Yosef, their brother.  They were living with a false perception resulting from their own actions.  There was no way they could see the truth – that Yosef was standing before them, not an enemy – until they fixed the underlying cause of this false perception.

The only thing to do, Chazal teach, is to acknowledge and accept God.  This is what Yehuda did.  The first pasuk of our parsha is, “ויגש אליו יהודה ויאמר בי אדוני .../Yehuda approached him and said, please my master …”  Chazal understand that this pasuk is referring not only to Yehuda approaching Yosef.  On a deeper level, it is referring to Yehuda approaching God.  Yehuda realized that the only way out of this terrible situation was to acknowledge God in it.  He did this to the extent that he was ready to sacrifice his own life to save Binyamin.

The result was, “ולא יכול יוסף להתאפק .../Yosef could not contain himself …”  The plain meaning is that Yosef was unable to continue the charade.  He was forced to reveal himself.  However, on a deeper level, Yosef represents the hidden spirituality within everything[2].  That spirituality is hidden in this world.  The physical that hides it seems to have a separate, autonomous existence, God forbid.  By acknowledging and accepting that this is not the case but rather that God is truly here with us and in every thing and every action, we merit a deeper perception of the truth.  “Yosef” is automatically revealed.

Yehuda had no idea from where salvation would come.  He just knew that he had to acknowledge God in the situation.  This is true for every single situation in which we find ourselves.  We give the physical world around us a reality that it does not deserve and then find ourselves in situations of our own making.  They are essentially self-created illusions. We no longer see the truth but rather a projection of what we think is the truth.

Chazal advise us to acknowledge God in everything and the truth will automatically be revealed to us.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis R. 93:1
[2] The Zohar teaches that Yosef is the “keeper of the covenant.”  He represents the bris which is hidden by the orlah.  He is the Tzadik Yesod Olam and the kabalists teach us that Yosef is represented by the sefira of Yesod which also represents the bris milah.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Chanukah 5632 First Night Second Ma'amar

In addition to our miraculous military victory over the Greeks, there was the miracle of the Menorah.  The Greeks had rendered all the oil in the Beis HaMikdash impure.  The Chashmona’im found one small container of oil that was sealed and pure.  It was enough for one night.  Miraculously, that one container lasted for eight nights.

The mitzvah of lighting the Menorah was not for the light it provided.  God does not need our light.  The Sfas Emes tells us that the mitzvah was simply the will of God.  There was no practical ulterior reason for this mitzvah.  When a situation arises in which it is impossible to perform the mitzvah, we are exempt.  What then was the purpose of this miracle?  

That God suspended the laws of nature to enable us to light the Menorah indicates the great affection God had for our performance of this mitzvah.  He wanted the enlightenment that comes from the Menorah to come specifically from our lighting it so much so that he enacted a miracle so that we would be able to perform this mitzvah and do His will.

This concept continues even to this day.  During Chanukah God gives special assistance to do His will miraculously and wondrously.

Friday, December 16, 2011

VaYeishev 5633 First Ma'amar

The second pasuk of our parsha, "אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף בן שבע עשרה שנה היה רועה את אחיו בצאן .../These are the descendents of Ya'akov, Yosef was seventeen years old when he herded the sheep with his brothers …" (Breishis 37:2)  The words "אלה תולדות .../These are the descendents …", are usually followed by a list of descendents.  Here, however, these words are followed by the story of Yosef.  Why is this?

Chazal[1] teach us that Yaakov wondered how he would be able to persevere and conquer the generals of Eisav listed at the end of last week's parsha.  At the beginning of this week's parsha, the Torah hints at the answer.  Ya'akov would be able to cope with Eisav through Yosef.  This is alluded to in the pasuk, "והיה בית יעקב אש ובית יוסף להבה ובית עשו לקש ודלקו בהם ואכלום/The house of Ya'akov will be fire, the house of Yosef a flame, and the house of Eisav will be as straw; and they will ignite them and consume them …" (Ovadia 1:18)

Why does the pasuk compare Ya'akov to fire and Yosef to a flame?  Is there significance to this association beyond the simple metaphor?  The Sfas Emes teaches that there is.  Elsewhere, we find the Torah referred to as fire, "... כה דברי כאש נאום ה' .../… My word is like fire, declares God …" (Yirmiyahu 23:29

The pasuk in Ovadia is teaching us that Ya'akov Avinu is like the Torah.  He is the repository of Torah and has the spiritual power of Torah.  This is a very high level.  The Sfas Emes teaches us that Ya'akov Avinu was on a spiritual level that was beyond nature.  However, because he was on such a high level, he was not able to influence the physical world.  He was beyond the physical world.  The Torah too, is ephemeral.  It needs something to ground it in the physical world.  Just like fire needs to be fanned to spread, the Torah needs a flame as well.  This flame is represented by Yosef.  Yosef is the להבה/flame that will spread the Torah in the physical world.

What is this flame that will spread Torah?  The word להבה/flame has the same root as the word התלהבות/enthusiasm.  In order for us to internalize the fire of the Torah so that we can be influenced by it and use to influence others and the world around us, we need to approach it with enthusiasm.

Rashi[2] explains that the flame enables fire to control that which is far from its source.  The farther a person is from something the stronger his desire to come close to it.  When we are close to something, we do not have a strong desire to come close to it.  We are already there.  It is easy.  However, when we are far from something that we want, we have a strong desire to come close to it.  It is this strong enthusiasm, then, that enables the Torah to spread far and wide.  

This explains, "אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף .../These are the descendents of Ya'akov, Yosef …"  The word תולדות/descendents can be understood loosely to mean anything that comes from Ya'akov, not necessarily his progeny.  It can also mean Ya'akov's Torah.  We've already seen that Ya'akov himself represents the fire of Torah.  The pasuk can be understood then, to mean that Torah will spread only with the desire and enthusiasm represented by Yosef HaTzadik.

[1] Breishis R. 84:5
[2] Breishis 30:25, ד"ה כאשר

Friday, December 09, 2011

VaYishlach 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו .../Ya’akov sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Eisav …” (Breishis 32:4) The word מַלְאָכִים/messengers also means angels.  The Midrash tells us that the messengers Ya’akov Avinu sent to Eisav were actual angels.[1]  Why did Ya’akov send angels to meet Eisav?

To answer this question we must understand what angels signify.  Chazal teach us that we create an angel each time we do a mitzvah.[2]  The angels that Ya’akov sent to Eisav represented Ya’akov’s mitzvos.  Why did Ya’akov feel compelled to send his “mitzvah angels” to Eisav?  Angels are the vehicle through which God directs nature.[3]  Our mitzvos affect nature.  The means by which our mitzvos affect nature is through the angels that our mitzvos create.

Meeting Eisav and, for that matter, traveling to Lavan represent Ya’akov entering and interacting with the physical world.  Ya’akov himself was on a level above nature.  He connected to God without the need for mitzvos and their effects (i.e. the angels).  However, when he lowered himself into the physical world he needed the mitzvos and their power to affect the physical world around him and to bring him close to God even from within the natural world.  This idea is clear in a pasuk in Tehillim (91:11), “כִּי מַלְאָכָיו יְצַוֶּה-לָּךְ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בְּכָל-דְּרָכֶיךָ/For He will command His angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways.”  The angels/mitzvos will protect you as you move through the material world.

We see this concept clearly in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week.  On Shabbos the physical world automatically becomes closer to its spiritual roots.  In fact, Shabbos as a concept represents this connectedness to the spiritual.  This is why Ya’akov who was on a level above nature in his connectedness to God, represents an aspect of Shabbos.  We have the ability to reach this spiritual level during the week as well but it requires work.  It requires a high level of mitzvah observance.  In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk “שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ/Six days shall you labor and accomplish all your work” (Shmos 20:9,10) refers specifically to the mitzvos.  Significantly the word מַלְאָךְ/angel has the same root as the word מְלָאכָה/work.  We spend the days of the week doing מְלָאכָה/work (i.e. mitzvos) to create מַלְאָכִים/angels.   

In order to interact with Eisav representing the physical world, Ya’akov Avinu had to send his מַלְאָכִים/messengers, his mitzvos, which affect the physical world, to afford him protection.  We learn from Ya’akov Avinu that each of us has the ability to immerse and act in the physical world, really to use the physical world, to come close to God.  We are intimately connected with the way the world works both spiritually and physically.  The Zohar says that our 613 limbs and tendons – 248 limbs and 365 tendons – parallel 613 specific spiritual forces in the world.[4]  There are also 613 mitzvos in the Torah – 248 positive mitzvos and 365 negative mitzvos.  Each time we do a mitzvah we rectify that part of the Creation associated with the specific limb and activate that spiritual force that conforms to that mitzvah.  We create an “angel.”  In this way we remove God’s concealment and come close to Him from within the physical world.

Spiritually, Ya’akov Avinu’s successful return from Lavan and Eisav represents an ascent from a level of weekday work to a level of Shabbos.  This is why the Midrash in this week’s parsha explains that Ya’akov Avinu entered the land of Israel and came to Shechem on Erev Shabbos.[5]  He prepared for Shabbos and kept it before it was given.  This is also the reason the pasuk says, “וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם .../Ya’akov came safely to the city of Shechem …” (Breishis 33:18)  שָׁלֵם/Safely also means “whole.”  His successful return from Eisav and Lavan represents a spiritual completeness.  It also suggests Shabbos as the Zohar says that Shabbos is שָׁלוֹם/peace[6] which has the same root as שָׁלֵם/complete.  As Ya’akov, may we merit connecting to God through the mitzvos even as we live and work within the physical world.

[1] Breishis R. 75:4
[2] Zohar Chadash 57a and 92a; also see Avos 4:13
[3] See Breishis R. 10:6 - There is no blade of grass that does not have a spiritual force causing it to grow. 
[4] Zohar 1:134b
[5] Breishis R. 79:6
[6] Zohar 3:176b

Friday, December 02, 2011

VaYeitzei 5634 Third Ma'amar

The beginning of this week’s parsha recounts Ya’akov Avinu’s journey to Charan and the prophetic dream he had along the way.  The Torah relates to us Ya'akov's reaction upon awaking, "ויירא ויאמר מה נורא המקום הזה אין זה כי אם בית א-להים וזה שער השמים/He feared and said, 'How awesome is this place!  This is none other that the house of God and this is the gate of the heavens." (Breishis 28:17)

The Torah relates the dream because of its great significance.  In this dream God communicated directly with Ya'akov promising to protect him, to make him into a great nation and to give him the land of Israel.  However, why does the Torah relate to us Ya'akov's reaction to having slept in this holy place?  Why is this significant?

The answer lies in an understanding of Ya'akov's fear.  Ya'akov was not afraid of divine retribution.  He was not afraid for himself.  The Sfas Emes explains that Ya'akov's fear was in fact fear of heaven or perhaps better translated as awe.  The Torah is praising Ya'akov.  Whereas another may have felt pride in having such a dream in which God spoke directly to him, Ya'akov was overcome by awe.  Ya'akov, a man of truth, did not allow his personal spiritual growth to cloud his thoughts and affect his reaction.  He had slept on holy ground.  He was in awe.

Ya'akov Avinu's awe was significant for another reason as well.  The Sfas Emes explains that due to Ya'akov's awe, we – his progeny – merited the Beis HaMikdash on this site.  The Sfas Emes learns this from a Midrash.  The Midrash[1] teaches us that God showed Ya'akov a prophecy of the Beis HaMikdash when it was standing, destroyed, and after it will be rebuilt in the future.  The Midrash infers this from the pasuk above.  The Midrash associates the beginning of our pasuk, "ויירא ויאמר מה נורא המקום הזה/He feared and said, 'How awesome is this place!" with a pasuk in Tehillim (68:36), "נורא א-להים ממקדשיך .../You are awesome, O God, from Your sanctuaries …"  From this association the Midrash understands that Ya'akov saw the Beis HaMikdash when it was standing.  

The Midrash is teaching us that when we relate to God as awesome, as Ya'akov did, we merit the Beis HaMikdash.  The Midrash considers fear of God to be the key factor in the existence of the Beis HaMikdash.  When Ya'akov said, "אין זה כי אם בית א-להים/This is none other than the house of God," he is stating the result of fear of heaven.

In fact, awe and fear of God is not only the main reason for the existence of the Beis HaMikdash.  It is the main cause for the existence of everything as we find, "יראת ה' טהורה עומדת לעד/Fear of God is pure; it stands forever." (Tehillim 19:10) 

Furthermore, fear of heaven causes an opening through which our prayers can be received as we find at the end of our pasuk, "וזה שער השמים/and this is the gate of the heavens."  The gate of the heavens opened because of Ya'akov Avinu's fear of God.  As well, they open for us when we have fear of God. 

[1] Breishis R. 69:7