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