Friday, December 28, 2012

VaYechi 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

After Ya'akov requests of his son Yosef to bury him at the burial site of his forefathers he asks him to take an oath, "ויאמר השבעה לי וישבע לו וישתחו ישראל על ראש המטה/(Ya'akov) said, 'Swear to me.'  (Yosef) swore to him and Yisrael bowed at the head of the bed." (Breishis 47:31)  Two questions arise.  Why did Ya'akov find it necessary for Yosef to take an oath?  Surely Ya'akov trusted that Yosef would do everything in his power to fulfill his father's request.  Secondly, what is the connection between the oath and bowing at the head of the bed?  Why are these two events in the same pasuk?  This leads to an additional question.  Why did Ya'akov bow at the head of the bed?

Rashi on this pasuk explains the head of the bed represents the fact that all of Ya'akov's children remained true to their upbringing.  Even Yosef who was a king (the head of Ya'akov's bed) in Egypt and was even previously captured and lived among gentiles remained true to his forefathers and his traditions. 

How did Ya'akov know that Yosef was able to internalize the traditions and pass them on to his own progeny even as he led a life as king in the house of Pharaoh?

Ya'akov knew this from the oath.  How so?  What is the significance of an oath?  Is it simply a verbal commitment?  The Chiddushei HaRim teaches us that an oath is much more than that.  Oath in Hebrew – שבועה – has the same root as the word for seven – שבעה.  We each have seven primary character traits.  An oath implies bringing all of the seven primary character traits – ones entire being – to bear upon a decision, a commitment.  An oath is therefore a very serious matter in Jewish tradition.  Both Ya'akov and Yosef understood this and took it very seriously. 

Ya'akov Avinu wanted to know that his descendents would remain true to his traditions and deserve the redemption.  The oath was the mechanism that Ya'akov used both for understanding Yosef's essence and for passing on to him his own spiritual essence that allowed him to remain true to God even in Egypt.  Through the oath Yosef revealed his total essence to Ya'akov. 

Chazal teach us that Yosef inherited Ya'akov and that it was in his merit that we were redeemed from Egypt.  Chazal[1] teach us that because Yosef resisted the temptation of Potiphar's wife, he influenced the entire nation to refrain from illicit relations.  Chazal continue that in the merit of this we were redeemed.  Furthermore, Chazal[2] explain the pasuk, "הים ראה וינס .../The sea saw and fled …"  What did the sea see?  Chazal teach us that the sea saw the bones of Yosef.  Yosef fled from Potiphar's wife so the sea fled from his bones.

The Zohar[3] states that when God foretold to Ya'akov that, "ויוסף ישית ידו על עיניך/and Yosef will place his hand upon your eyes," He was telling him that Yosef would be his heir.  The Sfas Emes explains that this is referring to inheriting Ya'akov spiritually.  The mechanism for this inheritance was the oath.  Through the oath Yosef opened his entire essence before Ya'akov.  He was able to cleave to Ya'akov with his whole being.  He was thus able to receive the aspect of Ya'akov which enabled him to live in Egypt without being affected by Egyptian society.

When Ya'akov understood that he had a spiritual heir who would be able to influence the nation for good even as they lived in decadent Egypt, he realized that his bed was complete – his progeny would continue his traditions – and he bowed "at the head of the bed".

[1] VaYikra R. 32:5
[2] Mechilta Beshalach Masechta 2,3
[3] Zohar 1:226a

Friday, December 07, 2012

VaYeishev 5631 First Ma'amar

This week's parsha relates the story of how Yosef was kidnapped and separated from his father Ya'akov for 22 years.  The Midrash says that after his struggles with Lavan, Eisav, and Shechem, Ya'akov Avinu wanted to live a life of peace and calm.  This was not to be.  Specifically because of this desire, the distress of Yosef was brought upon him.[1]  We usually understand this Midrash as referring to the physical struggles that Ya'akov endured throughout his life.  However, the Sfas Emes explains that this Midrash is actually referring to Ya'akov Avinu's spiritual struggles culminating in his final spiritual struggle represented by Yosef.

The difficulty for Ya'akov in his journey to and travails with Lavan, Eisav, and Shechem was that these troubles took him away from a life of holiness in a place which was conducive for connecting with God, sheltered from the ugliness of the outside world.   Metaphorically, Ya'akov's departure from the house of his father Yitzchak, all that happened to him during his exile, and his subsequent return, parallel the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week.  Intuitively, it is easy to understand that Shabbos is a time conducive to connecting with God and holiness since we are not distracted by our weekday activities.  It is also spiritually a higher level day on which the entire world is truly closer to God than during the days of the week.  More than a holy day, Shabbos is a concept representing a certain level of closeness to God.

Before Ya'akov went to Lavan, he was on a level of Shabbos in his relationship with God.  Just as Shabbos is separate from the days of the week so to Ya’akov was completely separate from anything worldly.  His efforts with Lavan, Eisav, and Shechem represented a descent into the physical world, a descent from a level of complete separation from the distractions of the world around him, a level of Shabbos, into a level of the days of the week.  Ya'akov needed to work hard, paralleling the work of the days of the week, to maintain his connection to God even as he lived in Lavan's house with its accent on the physical world.  The beginning of this week's parsha suggests Ya'akov's return to a level of Shabbos, "וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב .../Ya'akov dwelt ..." (Breishis 37:1)  The first word of the parsha, וַיֵּשֶׁב/He dwelt, comes from the same root as the word Shabbos.

The difficulties that Ya'akov experienced with Lavan, Eisav and Dina were an attempt to separate him from God.  Living a life of serenity, of Godliness, even in the physical world is the ultimate desire of the righteous.  It means spreading an awareness of God in the physical world, a place were He is normally hidden.  It means bringing the level of Shabbos into the physical world.  This concept is symbolized by Yosef.  This is the deeper meaning of the distress of Yosef mentioned in the Midrash.  How so?  The word Yosef means to add.  The strength of Yosef was the ability to spread an awareness of God in the physical world.  If Ya'akov Avinu was on a Shabbos level of attachment to God, then Yosef, the Sfas Emes explains, was תּוֹסְפוֹת שַׁבָּת/an addition to Shabbos.  Rashi cites the Midrash that Ya'akov Avinu waited for Yosef to be born before he was prepared to meet Eisav.  With Yosef he was able to overcome the this-worldliness that Eisav represented.

Shabbos is made for connecting to God.  We learn from Ya'akov that we can live a life in which we reveal God during our daily activities as well.  We do this by cultivating a desire that the result of our activities be a greater awareness of God.  Accepting Shabbos early symbolizes this work because when we accept Shabbos early we are actually bringing the holiness of the Shabbos into what would otherwise be a part of the week.  Working to raise our weekday experiences to a Shabbos level, essentially yearning for Shabbos during the week, makes it easier for us to accept and experience Shabbos early.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis R. 84:3

Friday, November 30, 2012

VaYishlach 5633 Third Ma'amar

"ויבא יעקב שלם עיר שכם .../Ya'akov safely arrived (lit. arrived complete) in the city of Shechem …" (Breishis 33:18)  Chazal and the commentaries discuss the significance of this statement.  What is the pasuk teaching us when it tells us that Ya'akov arrived "complete"?  The Sfas Emes as well discusses this. 

Ya'akov experienced many hardships in his lifetime.  In fact, from the time he fled to Lavan until he came to Egypt, a period of fifty three years, he knew many hardships.  Fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esav, he arrived penniless at the house of his uncle Lavan.  Lavan allowed him no peace.  For twenty years he slaved for Lavan.  If not for the grace of God he would have left Lavan as penniless as he arrived.

Not in spite of his suffering but rather as a direct result of it, he arrived "complete".  Shlomo HaMelech teaches us, "כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם .../For the righteous may fall seven times and then arise …" (Mishlei 24:16)  Conventionally, we understand this to mean that if the righteous fall even seven times, he will still arise.  However, the Sfas Emes understands that arising is a direct result of falling.  The righteous rise specifically because they suffer.

We find this concept in a Zohar[1] explaining the pasuk, "רבות רעות צדיק ומכולם יצילנו ה'/The afflictions of the righteous are many, but God rescues him from them all." (Tehillim 34:20)  Literally, the pasuk says, "There are many afflictions – the righteous."  The Zohar asks that it would be more proper for the pasuk to say, "רבות רעות לצדיק/There are many afflictions for the righteous."  The Zohar answers, according the Sfas Emes, that pasuk is teaching us that afflictions are not the lot of the righteous.  Rather, the hardships and evils that the righteous experience actualize their righteousness. 

Evils and hardships are a powerful test.  How can we cope with suffering that we experience?  The natural tendency is to be angry with God.  Why has this evil been wrought upon me?  The Sfas Emes explains that God uses affliction in order to bring out our righteousness.  He helps us to become complete through our experience.  

This is the meaning of the end of the pasuk, "... ומכולם יצילנו ה'/… and God rescues him from them all."  The Sfas Emes explains the word, יצילנו/He rescues them, as He separates them.  We find this understanding in the following pasuk, "ויצל ה' מקנה אביכם ויתן לי/God took away your father's livestock and gave it to me." (Breishis 31:9)  Here the word, ויצל certainly does not mean to save.  Rather it means to separate.  God separated the livestock from their father Lavan and gave it to Ya'akov.  Here too, the Sfas Emes understands the word יצילנו to mean that God separates the righteous from incompleteness through the affliction.  The result is and addition of shleimus/completeness that did not exist before.

May we merit understanding our suffering experiencing its positive benefits.      

[1] Zohar 1:179b

Friday, October 19, 2012

Noach 5631 First Ma'amar

... נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק/… No’ach was a righteous man …”  (Breishis 6:9)  The word צַדִּיק/righteous, has the same root as צֶדֶק/justice and צוֹדֵק/correct.  Just as in a court room, a house of justice, there is a struggle between two sides until one side emerges צוֹדֵק/correct, so too, a righteous person is one who has emerged victorious from various struggles with his evil inclination.  A חָסִיד/pious individual, on the other hand, is on a higher level.  He no longer has a struggle with his evil inclination.  David HaMelech alludes to this level when he says in Tehillim (109:22) , “... וְלִבִּי חָלַל בְּקִרְבִּי/… and my heart has died within me …” According to Chazal, David HaMelech is saying that his evil inclination had died within him.  David HaMelech had reach a stage at which there was no longer a struggle with his evil inclination.

One who struggles with his evil inclination is one who is not fully aware of God’s presence.  The person who is fully aware of God’s presence will not be tempted by his evil inclination.  The evil inclination goes hand in hand with the physical world.  In the physical world it is difficult indeed to be completely conscious of God.  In a sense, the חָסִיד/pious, who, despite his physical surroundings is totally aware of God, can be said to be above nature.  The צַדִּיק/righteous person, on the other hand, is one who struggles within the physical world and finally emerges from his trials victorious.

These two levels, חָסִיד/pious and צַדִּיק/righteous person, are exemplified by Avraham Avinu and Ya’akov Avinu.  Avraham Avinu was on the level of the חָסִיד/pious.  He no longer struggled with his evil inclination.  He was completely aware of God’s presence.  The physical world presented no barrier for him.  Ya’akov Avinu, on the other hand, was on the level of the צַדִּיק/righteous person.  He struggled within the physical to discover God.

The Sfas Emes explains that we find this difference between Avraham Avinu and Yaakov Avinu in an interesting Midrash[1] that says that Yaakov Avinu kept Shabbos.  The Midrash does not tell us that Avraham kept Shabbos.  Why is this?

In general, the struggle in the physical for spirituality and subsequent victory can be understood in terms of the days of the week and Shabbos.  We struggle during the week to become more aware of God in spite of the distractions that surround us.  The Sfas Emes uses a metaphor of a closed gate that during the week prevents us from being more aware of God’s presence.[2]  Our struggle ends on Shabbos when we rest from the week’s distractions and can spend time immersed in the spirituality of Shabbos.  On Shabbos, the gate opens.  How much the gate opens for us, how much we experience the spirituality on Shabbos, is in direct proportion to how much we worked during the week to become more aware of God’s presence. 

Yaakov Avinu struggled to become more aware of God in spite of his physical surroundings.  He reached a level, through hard work, on which he became as aware of God as possible within the physical world.  He reached a level on which the physical world no longer presented a barrier to his awareness.  This is the deeper meaning of Chazal when they say that Ya’akov Avinu received an inheritance with no boundaries.[3]  The plain meaning refers to his inheritance of the land of Israel.  The deeper meaning, though, refers to his victorious struggle over the physical which prevented a total awareness of God’s presence.

As noted, Chazal do not mention that Avraham Avinu kept Shabbos.  Shabbos, representing the culmination of a struggle, did not apply to Avraham Avinu.  This is because the physical world never presented a barrier to Avraham Avinu’s awareness of God’s presence.  We find this idea in a Midrash which says that the word in parshas Breishis, “בְּהִבָּרְאָם/in their creation” (Breishis 2:4) refers to Avraham Avinu because it comprises the same letters as אַבְרָהָם/Avraham.[4]  Chazal are teaching us that Avraham Avinu’s awareness of God was on a level whereby the physical world did not conceal Him.  In this sense Avraham Avinu’s awareness of God precedes the Creation.

Like Ya’akov, No’ach also struggled.  As noted earlier, the pasuk calls No’ach a צַדִּיק/ righteous person.  Chazal, in fact, make this distinction between No’ach and Avraham Avinu.  Referring to No’ach the pasuk says, “... אֶת הָאֱ-לֹהִים הִתְהַלֵך נֹח/… No’ach walked with the Lord.” (Breishis 6:9)  Avraham Avinu, however, says, “... ה' אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלַכְתִּי לְפָנָיו .../… God before Whom I walked …”  (Breishis 24:40)  The different wording indicates that No’ach needed God’s help to walk with Him.  He struggled and required help.  Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, was able to walk alone before God without help.[5]

The idea that No’ach struggled within nature to reveal God explains an enigmatic Zohar.  The Zohar says that No’ach is an aspect of Shabbos.  (Tikunei Zohar 70:138b)  Of course, No’ach’s very name means rest which happens on Shabbos (וַיָּנַח בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי/He rested on the seventh day.  (Shemos 20:10)) but what is the significance of this?  According to what we’ve said, though, it is clear.  No’ach was righteous.  As we’ve made clear, this means that he struggled within nature and emerged victorious.  No’ach connected to God after a struggle.  This, as we’ve seen, parallels exactly our struggle to connect to God during the days of the week culminating in revelation/rest on Shabbos.

God gave us the gift of Shabbos, a day on which the gate is opened.  We can take full advantage of this gift by recognizing that our activities during the week affect how much the gate opens for us.  As No’ach the tzadik and Ya’akov Avinu before us, our struggle to become aware of God’s presence during the week results in our fully experiencing the gift of God’s revelation on Shabbos.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis R. 79:6 יעקב אבינו קבע תחומין
[2] Based on Yechezkel 46:1
[3] Shabbos 118a-b
[4] Breishis R. 12:9
[5] Breishis R. 30:10

Friday, October 12, 2012

Breishis 5631 First Ma'amar

וַיְכַל אֱ-לֹהִים בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ... /On the seventh day God completed His work that He did …”  (Breishis 2:2)  This pasuk implies that God’s work was completed on the seventh day itself, not before.  What work did God do on the seventh day?  Rashi answers that the world was still lacking מְנוּחָה/rest.  God created rest on the seventh day.

We usually think of rest as a cessation from activity.  Rashi, however, relates to rest as something positive.  What is this positive entity called מְנוּחָה/rest?  God created the world to bestow His light and good.  The vehicle that God uses is nature.  Since God’s good comes through nature,  His hand is not apparent.  Looking around us, it seems as if the universe operates autonomously.  The Chiddushei HaRim points out that God’s concealment in the Creation is alluded to by the Hebrew word for world – עוֹלָם – which has the same root as the word for concealment – הָעָלַם

There are places and times when God’s presence is more strongly felt just as there are places and times when His presence is not felt at all.  When we view the Creation as a whole, though, when we see the harmony that exists in the universe, each part of the Creation performing its unique task, doing the will of God, so that the entire system that we call the universe works, we become aware of God’s presence in the Creation.  The universe, then, while concealing God, is also a tool for revealing Him. 

The following p’sukim and Chazal allude to the idea that the completed universe is a tool for revealing God's glory.  “כָּל פָּעַל ה' לְמַּעֲנֵהוּ/Everything that God made, He made for His own sake.” (Mishlei 16:4).  Chazal tell us, too, that He created everything for His honor.[1]  Also, we find in this week’s parsha, “וַיַּרְא ה' אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד/ God saw all that he had done and behold it was very good.”  (Breishis 1:31)  Since God Himself is the ultimate “Good”, the deeper meaning of this pasuk is our concept; the completed Creation, as a whole, reveals God.  The common denominator in these p’sukim and the Mishnah is the word כָּל/everything implying completion.  The completed Creation enhances God's glory.

This idea is hinted at also in the pasuk signifying the completion of the Creation which begins, “וַיְכֻלוּ/ They were completed.” (Breishis 2:1)  This word has the same root as the Hebrew word for vessel and tool – כְּלִי.  The Midrash says that once the Creation was completed, it became a tool.[2]   The completed Creation is a tool for revealing God’s glory.  The word “וַיְכֻלוּ/ They were completed” also has the same root as the Hebrew for yearning as in the pasuk in Tehillim (84:3), “... כָּלְתָה נַפְשִׁי ... /… my soul yearns …”  indicating that each part of the Creation yearns to do the will of God.

Before the Creation was completed, the harmony of the universe was not apparent.  It was not apparent that every creation was fulfilling the will of the Creator.  The universe was not yet a single system working together.  However, once the Creation was completed and there was a cessation from creative activity, it became apparent that the Creation was one complete system wherein every part, by performing its own unique function, accomplishes God’s will.  This state that the universe achieved on the first Shabbos is what Rashi refers to as מְנוּחָה/rest.  A system can be said to be at rest when all its parts are working smoothly and efficiently.  There is no “noise” in the system.

This idea sheds light on an enigmatic Zohar which states that Shabbos is the name of God, a name that is complete in every aspect.[3]  The Sfas Emes explains that God’s name represents His influence in the Creation.  God, of course, does not change.  He was One before the Creation and He is One after the Creation.  The Creation is the mechanism by which God reveals Himself, His Oneness, as it were.  When the entire Creation works harmoniously to do God’s will, God is essentially revealing Himself through the Creation.  The Creation reflects God, in a manner of speaking.  When the prophet says that God’s Name is One[4], he means that God’s oneness is revealed in the harmony we see in the Creation.  On the first Shabbos the universe became a completed tool for revealing God’s greatness.  On the first Shabbos, His Name became One.  This is why the Zohar associates Shabbos with the name of God.  The first Shabbos was the first time it became possible to recognize God’s oneness through the harmony of the completed Creation.

The Hebrew for complete – שָׁלֵם – has the same root as the word for peace –שָׁלוֹם.  On the first Shabbos with completeness came peace.  Chazal teach us that only a vessel of peace can hold blessing.[5]  When the Creation became complete, it became a vessel that was able to receive God’s blessing.

[1] Avos 6:12
[2] Breishis R. 10:2
[3] Zohar 2:88b
[4] Zecharya 14:9
[5] Uktzin 3:12

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Succos 5634 Sixth Ma'amar

When the Beis HaMikdash was standing in addition to the mitzvah of taking the four species, there was an additional mitzvah to bring aravos to the Beis HaMikdash, stand them against the altar and walk around the altar.[1]  Today we commemorate this mitzvah on Hoshana Raba, the last day of Succos by taking aravos in addition to the four species.  What is the significance of the arava?  Why, of the four species is the arava singled out for an added mitzvah?

Chazal teach us that each of the four species alludes to different types of Jews.  The esrog which has taste and smells good alludes to those who have Torah and good deeds.  The lulav which has taste (i.e. the date, fruit of the palm tree) but no smell alludes to those who have Torah but no good deeds.  The hadas/myrtle branch which has a nice smell but no taste alludes to those who have good deeds but no Torah.  Finally the arava which has neither taste nor smell alludes to those Jews who have neither Torah nor good deeds.

The arava was singled out for the additional mitzvah in order to show that our special connection to God is intrinsic and unconditional rather than based on our Torah and good deeds.  The Torah unconditionally calls us children of God, "בנים אתם לה' א-להיכם .../You are children to God, your Lord ..."

We see this idea in a pasuk from Shir HaShirim (1:2), "ישקני מנשיקות פיהו כי טובים דודיך מיין/If only He would kiss me with the kisses of His mouth, for Your love is better than wine."  נשיקה/Kiss is closely related to the word השקה which means bringing together or touchingFor example, a pool of water can be made kosher to be used as a mikva if it touches water that is already kosher for a mikva.  This is called השקה.  When we long for God's kiss, as it were, we are asking for a connection to Him that would purify us the way that water becomes pure through השקה/touching.  That connection is better than wine.  What does wine signify? 
The end of the pasuk, "טובים דודיך מיין/Your love is better than wine" is an allusion to the wine libations of the entire year.  Using wine as a libation represents our Mitzvos and good deeds.  In contrast, on Succos, in addition to the wine libation, there is a water libation.  Water, the universal solvent, the simplest liquid represents our intrinsic connection to God and God's unconditional love for us.  Our connection to God that we merit as a result of our Torah and mitzvos cannot compare to the intrinsic connection that flows from God Himself, "כי חלק ה' עמו/For God's portion is His nation."

This realization of the fundamental connection between us and God causes us incredible happiness, another reason that Succos is the time of happiness.

[1] Succa 4:5

Friday, October 05, 2012

Succos 5634 Second Ma'amar

The two primary mitzvos of the holiday of Succos are dwelling in the succah and taking the lulav. What is the connection between these two mitzvos?

The Sfas Emes explains that the succah represents God protecting us. God spreads His canopy over us, “הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ/He spreads His canopy of peace upon us.” (Evening prayer on Shabbos and Yom Tov)  We leave our “secure” homes to live for a week in a temporary dwelling in order to show that it is God who protects us, not our secure home. Whether we deserve it or not, God wants to protect us just as a father wants to protect his son. In fact, God relates to us as His children, “בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַה׳ אֱ־לֹהֵיכֶם .../You are children of God, your Lord …” (Devarim 14:1)  This is obviously a great kindness that God shows us.

For our part, the children of Israel also want to connect with God and come close to Him. We want to accomplish His will so that we deserve His protection rather than being the beneficiaries of God’s total kindness. Taking the lulav represents our accepting God’s benevolence. “וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם ... פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים .../Take for yourselves … the fruit of the citrus tree, branches of palms …” (VaYikra 23:40)  The extra word לָכֶם/for yourselves implies that we take God’s benevolence to ourselves.

Why does the lulav particularly represent God’s benevolence? The word לוּלָב/lulav has the same gematria – numerical value – as the word חַיִים/life. By taking the lulav we are showing God that we want to receive true life from Him. In Tehillim we find, “תּוֹדִיעֵנִי אֹרַח חַיִּים שֹׂבַע שְׂמָחוֹת .../Make known to me the path of life, the satiating joys …” (Tehillim 16:11)  Recognizing that true life comes from God filled David HaMelech with joy and satiates us as well.

The succah represents more than God’s protection, though. It also represents da’as/knowledge as we find regarding the mitzvah of succah, “לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ ... כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל .../In order that they may know … that I settled the children of Israel in huts …” (VaYikra 23:43)  The pasuk uses the word “knowledge” in order to hint that God gives each Jew knowledge through the mitzvah of succah.  
The Sfas Emes takes this concept a step further and declares that the knowledge of the entire year stems from Succos. Succos is the last holiday of three major holidays, the shalosh regalim. The word for holiday that is used here is regel which literally means foot implying that the entire year stands upon the base of these holidays.

The Sfas Emes explains elsewhere that da’as/knowledge represents applying our spiritual wisdom and understanding in our everyday lives.[1] By taking the lulav we accept this attribute of da’as/knowledge into the depths of our hearts.

The mitzvah of succah represents God’s protection, enlightenment and gift of da’as/knowledge. The mitzvah of taking the lulav represents our internalizing these gifts. May we merit it!

[1] The Sfas Emes may be alluding to chochma/wisdom, bina/understanding and da’as/knowledge. Each of the shalosh regalim would then represent one of these midos with Succos representing the last midah of da’as/knowledge. See Sfas Emes Naso 5631 First Ma’amar.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yom Kippur 5655 First Ma'amar

Chazal[1] relate that the children of Israel fasted each day of the forty days preceding Yom Kippur, when Moshe Rabbeinu was on Mount Sinai to receive the second tablets.  On the fortieth day, the day that was to become Yom Kippur, they fasted the entire twenty-four hour period.  God was appeased and established that day as the day of forgiveness for all time.  The Sfas Emes teaches that certainly Aharon HaCohen, who was involved in the sin of the golden calf, also helped the nation to return to God to rectify that sin.  This is the reason that God's forgiveness each year is dependent upon the service of the High Priest.

Certainly fasting each day is a way of rectifying sin.  What, however, was the significance of fasting for the entire twenty-four hours of the last day?  Chazal[2] teach us that the nation was on a particularly high level of faith because we said, "נעשה ונשמע/We will do and we will listen." (Shmos 24:7)  We committed to whatever God commanded even before we knew what He would require of us.  This special level of commitment and faith was broken with the sin of the golden calf.  The Midrash[3] says, "You broke, 'נעשה/we will do.'  Be careful with 'נשמע/we will listen."

The nation understood that in order to rectify this, they would have to prove once again that they would do even without being required.  They therefore fasted on the entire day that would become Yom Kippur even before being required to do so.

As a result the luchos habris were given on Yom Kippur.  The words of the ten  commandments were engraved in the stone tablets.  As well, they were engraved in our own hearts, "כתבם על לוח לבך/Write them on the tablet of your heart." (Mishlei 3:3)  However, the sin prevented us from receiving the tablets both physically and in the spiritual sense.  As long as the sin was not rectified, we were not ready to receive the physical tablets and their words could not be engraved in our hearts.

However, after we were forgiven on Yom Kippur this all changed.  Chazal[4] teach us, though, that notwithstanding the repentance for the sin of the golden calf, the consequences of that sin are nevertheless included in every punishment that God metes on the nation in every generation.  The Sfas Emes teaches us that each year on Yom Kippur a small part of that sin is forgiven.  As a result every one of us, the entire nation merits entering the gates of holiness where a bit more of the holiness of the luchos is engraved in our hearts.

[1] Tanna D'Bei Eliyahu Zuta 4
[2] Shabbos 88a
[3] Shmos R. 27:9
[4] Sanhedrin 102a

Friday, September 21, 2012

Nitzavim 5632 First Ma'amar (second half)

Note: Even though this ma'amar appears in Nitzavim in the Sfas Emes, I've chosen to send out the second half of it this week since it explains pesukim from VaYeilech. 

In this week's parsha, parshas VaYeilech, God tells Moshe Rabbeinu that in the future, as a result of our sins God's anger will flare, "... והסתרתי פני מהם ... ומצאוהו רעות רבות וצרות/… and I will hide My countenance from them … and many evils and calamities will befall them …" (Devarim 31:17) In the very next pasuk God repeats, "ואנוכי הסתר אסתיר פני .../Ad I will certainly hide my countenance …" (Devarim 31:18)  Why the repetition?

Why does the Torah bother to tell us that God will hide His countenance from us?  Why doesn't the pasuk simply say that God's anger will flare and many evils and calamities will befall us?  The Torah is teaching us a fundamental idea about God's relationship with us especially during times of calamity.

The Torah is teaching us that God is always with us even in the darkest times.  During those times we do not perceive His presence.  He is hidden from us.  The idea that God is always with us no matter what is happening is very encouraging and the Torah encourages us to strengthen this belief.
However, it is not easy to believe that God is with us even as we are living through bad times.  The first pasuk above continues, "... ואמר ביום ההוא הלא על כי אין א-להי בקרבי מצאוני הרעות האלה/… (The nation) will say on that day, 'Isn't it because my God is not in my midst that these evils have befallen me." (Devarim 31:17)  The Chiddushei HaRim[1] quoting the Rav of Parshischa says that this is considered a sin.  In answer to this faulty reasoning and lack of faith God answers and repeats, " that it is not because He is not with us that these evils have befallen us.  He is always with us but has hidden Himself.

This is the reason we find in the first pasuk of last week's parsha, "אתם נצבים כולכם לפני ה' א-להיכם .../You are standing, all of you, before God, your Lord …" (Devarim 29:9)  After the curses and rebukes of the previous parsha, parshas Ki Savo, Moshe Rabbeinu encourages the nation by telling them that they are still standing before God.  He has not abandoned us and He will not abandon us.  The curses are no more than God hiding His countenance from us.  Our challenge is to cultivate the belief that God is with us even when we do not perceive Him.  May we merit it!        

[1] Chiddushei HaRim VaYeilech, on this pasuk

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rosh Hashana 5632 Second Ma'amar

On Rosh HaShanah, God provides abundance for the entire year.  God’s blessing begins as something spiritual that becomes physical in the material world.  In the transformation from spiritual to physical, other changes take place as well.  Spiritual abundance is uniform.  Physical forms, on the other hand, differ.  This concept is suggested by the very name of the holiday.  Literally, Rosh HaShanah means the head of the year.  However, the word shanah/year also means change.  In this sense, Rosh HaShanah connotes the beginning or source of abundance before it changes from spiritual to physical.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Nitzavim 5632 First Ma'amar (partial)

"הנסתרות לה׳ א־להינו והנגלות לנו ... לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת/The hidden things are for God your Lord and the revealed is for us … to fulfill all the words of this Torah." (Devarim 39:28)  The simple meaning is that we are only held responsible for those things that we can see.  We are not responsible the blasphemous thoughts of others[1].

The Sfas Emes understands this pasuk homiletically as referring to each individual and his struggle between the material life he lives and the spiritual life he would like to live.  How can we reconcile the two?  Is it possible to live a life connected, as it were, to God, a life of holiness, while being involved in all the mundane activities that we do each day?
The Sfas Emes answers that not only is it possible; it is required.  To be sure, our physical body has physical needs that we must see to.  However, if our passion and innermost desire is to be devoted to God, our mundane activities will not separate us from Him.  Quite the opposite; our spiritual aspirations will influence us so that even our mundane activities will take on spiritual meaning.

The Sfas Emes learns this concept from our pasuk.  "הנסתרות לה' א-להינו .../The hidden things are for God your Lord …"  If our hidden innermost passion and desire is devotion to God.  "... והנגלות לנו .../… and the revealed is for us."  Even though we are required to take care of our physical needs.  The result is, "לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת/… to do all the words of this Torah."  Because of our inner devotion to God, everything that we do becomes a way of serving God.  This is called drawing the power of the Torah into our actions.  May we merit it!!

[1] Viz. Rashi on this pasuk

Friday, September 07, 2012

Elul 5644 First Ma'amar

"There is nothing new under the sun."  The Sfas Emes explains in many places[1] that "under the sun" refers to the physical world.  All novelty and renewal comes from "above the sun" – from spiritual realms.  Rosh HaShana is a time of renewal.  The Creation was completed on Rosh HaShana and is renewed every year on Rosh HaShana.

What is renewal?  Renewal, the Sfas Emes explains, is God's revelation.  How can we experience renewal?  How can we experience God?  The Sfas Emes teaches that in order to experience God's renewal, we need to understand that our relationship with Him is reciprocal.  To the extent that we dedicate ourselves to Him, He will reveal Himself to us.  This idea is more than simply a mechanism for experiencing God.  It is our raison d'etre.  God wants us to dedicate ourselves to Him, "עם זו יצרתי לי/I formed this nation for Myself" (Yeshaya 43:21)   

There are many examples of this concept.  We see it in the famous אלול/Elul acronym – אני לדודי ודודי לי/I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me" (Shir HaShirim 6:3)  This is a metaphor for the relationship between the nation of Israel and God.  We have no reason for existing other than to accomplish God's will and spread His glory in this world.  To the extent that this is clear to us, it is clear, as it were, in Heaven that the entire Creation and subsequent revelations are for us.

The Chiddushei HaRim learns this concept in the following pasuk in Tehillim (100:3), "דעו כי ה' הוא א-להים הוא עשנו כתיב ולא קרי ולו אנחנו עמו וצאן מרעיתו/Know that God is the Lord; He made us and we are His, His people and the sheep of His pasture."  There are many words in the Torah which are traditionally read differently from the way they are spelled.  In this pasuk, the word ולא/and not, is read ולו/and His.  The translation above is according to the traditional reading.  According to the spelling, the pasuk states that God made us, we did not make ourselves. 

The Chiddushei HaRim points out that the two words, לא and לו together, spell אלול.  He explains the significance of these words in the context of the pasuk.  To the extent that we are לא אנחנו/not for ourselves, לו אנחנו/we are His.  To the extent that we suppress our own desires in favor of God's, we become His people, His flock.

This week's parsha – Ki Savo – contains a classic example of this idea.  "את ה' האמרת ... וה' האמירך .../You have distinguished God … and God has distinguished you …" (Devarim 26:17, 18)  Rashi explains that the words, האמרת and האמירך mean to glorify as in, "יתאמרו כל פועלי און/They glorify themselves, all doers of iniquity" (Tehillim 94:4).  There is nothing more important to the nation of Israel than glorifying God by achieving His will.  By the same token, as it were, God loves us more than any other creation, "ובך בחר ה' להיות לו לעם סגולה/God chose you to be a treasured nation" (Devarim 14:2)

Since Rosh HaShana is the prime time for yearly renewal, The month leading up to Rosh HaShana is dedicated to preparing for the renewal.  As we've seen, the way to prepare for renewal is by dedicating ourselves to God.  In practical terms this means returning to Him.  The Jewish concept of repentance is much broader than simply having remorse for our mistakes.  The essence of repentance is returning to a state in which we can experience God once again.  This is, after all, our fundamental reason for being. 

When we come to the end of the year, we introspect and come to the realization that God created us only to reveal Him in this world.  Cultivating this belief leads us to a strong desire to fulfill it in practice, "אני לדודי/I am for my beloved"  As a result, we merit the renewal of Rosh HaShana, "ודודי לי/… and my beloved is for me."

[1] S.E. Chayei Sara 5631 Fourth Ma'amar, Mikeitz 5631 Second Ma'amar and others