Friday, December 26, 2014

VaYigash 5631 First Ma'amar

At the end of parshas Mikeitz, Yosef frames his younger brother Binyamin. He decides that as a punishment he will keep Binyamin as a servant and free the rest of his brothers.1 In the beginning of our parsha, Yehudah tries to convince Yosef to take him instead of Binyamin. To this end he recounts the sequence of events from the brothers’ initial encounter with Yosef to the present.2 The question that immediately presents itself is that Yehudah’s argument adds nothing that is not already known. He simply recounts the events leading up to the current situation. What is the point of this?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Jews are called Yehudim in Hebrew, after Yehudah. The name Yehudah comes from the root word hoda’a which means “thanks” and “admission.” Jews are called Yehudim because we thank God for everything, large and small. We know that everything comes from Him.

Yehudah understood that everything, even the most difficult situation, is from God. Yehudah knew that to be saved he would have to accept God’s providence in the entire sequence of events leading up to the present. By accepting God’s hand in the events, by acknowledging that God was “in” the events and their cause, he was removing the screen that hid God. He was saying, in essence, “I recognize that God is the cause of these events,” thus revealing God. In fact, the Sfas Emes explains in parshas Mikeitz that Yosef himself symbolized the Godliness hidden in the material world.3

The greatest good we can aspire to, is coming close to God himself, experiencing God, as it were. Therefore, revelation itself is redemption. That is why immediately following Yehudah’s argument, the Torah tells us that Yosef was no longer able to contain himself and he revealed himself to his brothers. Once the Godliness was revealed, the brothers were saved.

The Torah is teaching us an important lesson. Any time we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we have the tools with which to extricate ourselves. We need to first understand that God is hidden in even the most difficult circumstances. Even if a person thinks that his own mistakes caused his current situation – the Torah tells us that Yosef’s brothers blamed themselves for their predicament – when he recognizes that God is the life giving force behind his predicament and asks God for help, he will be answered. May we merit it!

1 Breishis 44:2-17
2 Breishis 44:18-33
3 Mikeitz 5631 Second Ma’amar

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Chanuka 5631 Eighth Night

The eighth day of Chanukah is called Zos Chanukah/This is Chanukah, after the Torah reading for this day which contains the words “zos chanukas hamizbei’ach …/this is the dedication of the altar ...” (Bamidbar 7:84)  Aside from the nice play on words what is the significance of the name?

The Sfas Emes explains that Zos Chanukah indicates something very fundamental about Chanukah.  The Chanukah story begins with the persecution of the Jews by the Assyrian Greeks.  The situation was bleak indeed.  The gentile rulers were powerful.  How could we overcome them?  From the depths of this darkness came the salvation.

The word zos/this, is laden with symbolism. In the Zohar[1] we find the word zos alluding to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Heaven.  The Midrash[2] says that the word zos/this in the pasuk, “... בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ/… in this I trust,” (Tehillim 27:1) is an allusion to God – in God I trust.  The early kabbalists[3] teach that zos alludes specifically to that point of spirituality through which God gives existence to the physical. David HaMelech as well, asked God to preserve this recognition of His presence within us, “... שָׁמְרָה־זֹּאת לְעוֹלָם לְיֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבוֹת לְבַב עַמֶּךָ .../… Preserve this forever – the product of the thoughts of Your people’s hearts …” (Divrei HaYamim 1 29:18)

Zos, then, is a reference to the Godliness hidden within us and all of Creation.  Knowing that everything, including God’s obscurity is powered by this point of God-given spirituality, essentially, knowing that God is “in” everything and that everything is therefore “good” is a tremendous tool for strengthening one’s faith particularly in times of exile.  This, in fact, is the fundamental meaning of the pasuk in Eicha (3:21), “זֹאת אָשִׁיב אֶל־לִבִּי עַל־כֵּן אוֹחִיל/This I will bear in mind; therefore I have hope.”  The prophet is teaching us that when we bear in mind zos – that the exile as well is from God and that He is present even in the darkness of it – we have good reason for hope.

This concept is the lesson of Chanukah.  The salvation came when the nation realized that God was with them in the darkness as well.  We find this idea as well in the following pesukim from Tehillim (112:7-8), “מִשְּׁמוּעָה רָעָה לֹא יִירָא נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה': סָמוּךְ לִבּוֹ לֹא יִירָא עַד אֲשֶׁר־יִרְאֶה בְצָרָיו/He will have no fear of evil tidings; his heart is firm, confident in God. His heart is steadfast, he shall not fear, he will even [expect to] see [vengeance upon] his tormentors.” When a person trusts in God, he knows that salvation is at hand. The Chiddushei HaRim points out that, significantly, the last letters of the words, “נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ בָּטֻחַ בַּה׳ סָמוּךְ/his heart is firm, confident in God, steadfast” spell out חֲנוּכָּה/Chanukah.

The chapter in Tehillim that we say on Chanukah bears out this idea. “הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה/You have transformed my lament into dancing for me; You undid my sackcloth and girded me with happiness.” (Tehillim 30:12)  The word for transformed – הָפַכְתָּ – also means to overturn or to turn inside out. The difference between lament and dancing is whether God is hidden or revealed. Dancing is lament turned inside out, as it were. The important point is that God is present in both. The Midrash[4] on the curses in parshas BeChukosai makes this point when it says that the difference between the blessings and the curses is that the blessings are in the order of the Hebrew alphabet whereas the curses are backwards.

The second half of the pasuk continues this idea. It is important to understand that the sackcloth, a clear reference to exile and God’s concealment is only a cover. When the sackcloth is undone, when the concealment is removed, God is revealed in the form of salvation and closeness to Him. Then we are girded with happiness. This is the meaning of Chanukah, the days of miracles, when the nation of Israel was at a very low point and God helped us. It is encouraging to know that according to the extent of concealment so is the extent of the good since everything is from God and everything is for good. And according to our recognition of this fact and our trust in God so the underlying good will be revealed and we will merit salvation.

[1] Zohar 1:93b-94a
[2] VaYikra R. 21:4
[3] Sha’arei Ora 1:14a-b
[4] VaYikra R. 35:1

Friday, November 21, 2014

Toldos 5639 First Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha Yitzchak Avinu blesses both his children.  At least part of those blessings is very similar.  To Ya’akov he says, “ויתן לך הא-להים מטל השמים ומשמני הארץ .../And may God give you the dew of the heavens and the fatness of the land.” (Breishis 27:28)  To Eisav he says, “... משמני הארץ יהיה מושבך ומטל השמים מעל/… you will live off the fatness of the land and from the dew of the heavens above.” (Breishis 27:39)  It seems that Yitzchak gave material blessing to both Ya’akov and Eisav.  Is there any difference between these blessings?

The answer lies in a deeper understanding of Yitchak’s blessing to Ya’akov.  Yitchak’s blessing to Ya’akov begins with the word, ויתן/and may He give.  The word is enigmatic in that it starts with a vav/and, implying that this is a continuation and not the beginning of the blessing.  Why does the blessing begin with, “and”?  Furthermore, the structure of the beginning of the blessing is uncommon.  It translates literally as, “And He will give you God …”

Chazal[1] note these difficulties.  They explain that the extra vav implies that God will give and then give again.  He will continue to give.  The uncommon wording at the beginning of the blessing teaches us that God would give Ya’akov of His Godliness.

Putting the two together, the Sfas Emes teaches us that Yitzchak’s main blessing to Ya’akov was not material plenty.  Rather, the main blessing was that God would give him the plenty.  God imbues us with Godliness through the material blessing that he bestows upon us.  We connect with God by receiving His bounty.  Yitzchak says that God will give and give again implying that there will always be the opportunity to connect to God by acknowledging that He is the root of the plenty that we have.

For Eisav, on the other hand, Yitzchak says that he will have what he needs, however he gets it[2].  Of course everything always comes from God.  However, for Eisav, the main thing is the material plenty whereas for Ya’akov the main thing is that it is a gift from God, a way to connect with God.

Since the physical plenty that Ya’akov receives is an indication of a connection to God, Yitzchak continues, “... הוה גביר לאחיך .../… you will be a master over your brothers …”  Since Ya’akov is connected to the root of the blessing, the plenty that reaches the entire world comes through him.  In fact, the word, הוה/you will be, connotes a command.  Yitzchak is telling Ya’akov that he must accept upon himself to draw the plenty into the world for the benefit of the nations when the nations are subservient to him.

Yitzchak’s blessing is meant of course for the nation of Israel, Ya’akov’s progeny.  We need to realize that the blessing of material plenty that we have is not primarily the plenty itself but rather that God gave it to us so that we can connect with Him and attain Godliness.  May we merit it.  Amen!

[1] Breishis R. 66:3
[2] See also Ramban on 27:28 from והנכון בעיני.  Ramban also notes that Yitzchak says ויתן only to Ya’akov.  See his conclusions based on this.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Lech Lecha 5632 First Ma'amar

... לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ/Leave your country, your birth place and your father’s house for the land that I will show you.” (Breishis 12:1)  Why did God not reveal the land to Avraham Avinu immediately?  The reason, according to the Midrash[1], was to make the task more precious to him and to give him a reward for each step that he took to get there.

Coming to the land of Israel represents a quest to understand and achieve God’s will.  We can merit understanding God’s will by subordinating our own to His.  We show God that we want to subordinate our own will to His by being willing to sacrifice all to see His will.  This is the lesson we learn from Avraham Avinu.  He had such a burning desire to know God’s will that he was ready to leave everything he knew behind to pursue it.  When he did this, God’s will was revealed to him.

We learn an important principal from Avraham Avinu.  Many times God’s will is beyond our ken.  We do not understand what God wants from us.  We do not understand why things happen to us.  We find it difficult to leave behind that which we understand, know and are comfortable with for uncharted territory.  However, if we express our desire to understand by always being open to hear and accept God’s will even at the expense of suppressing our own, even if it is beyond our current understanding and knowledge, it will be revealed to us.  This is clear from a pasuk in Tehillim (45:11), “שִׁמְעִי בַת וּרְאִי וְהַטִּי אָזְנֵך וְשִׁכְחִי עַמֵּךְ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ/Listen daughter and see and incline your ear and forget your nation and your father’s house.”  An attitude of openness and acceptance, a mode of listening, seeing and hearing even at the expense of current understanding and knowledge, is needed.    This open attitude of acceptance of that which is beyond our grasp is the prerequisite for understanding God’s will.

[1] Breishis R. 39:9

Friday, October 24, 2014

No'ach 5633 Second Ma'amar

At the end of this week's parsha the Torah relates the story of the tower of Bavel.  The generation that built the tower sinned and was punished by being scattered across the face of the earth.  It's not clear from the pesukim, though, exactly what their transgression was.

The Sfas Emes explains that the sin of the dor hapalaga/generation that was split, as Chazal call it, is closely connected with the very purpose of our existence.  We can learn about that purpose from the special Mussaf tefilla of Rosh Chodesh that falls on Shabbos as it does this week.  The middle bracha of the special Mussaf begins, "אתה יצרת עולמך מקדם/You have formed Your world in ancient times." The word מקדם comes from the root קודם/before.  So, this tefilla can also be translated as, "You have formed Your world beforehand."  God formed the world before what?  The Sfas Emes explains that the physical world that we live in has a spiritual counterpart that was formed first.  The tefilla is actually referring to the spiritual world that God formed before the physical one in which we live.

The Sfas Emes teaches that the physical world is like a garment and an allusion to the spiritual world much like clothes say something about the person who is wearing them.  On the first Shabbos, when the Creation was completed, the physical world became a vehicle for the revelation of God's will.  At the very least, the harmony of the physical world is a lasting testimony to the Creator. 

In fact, every Shabbos has this quality.  It is easier to connect with and experience the physical world's underlying spirituality on Shabbos.  We learn this from a pasuk in Yechezkel (46:1) referring to the third Beis HaMikdash, “... שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית הַפֹּנֶה קָדִים יִהְיֶה סָגוּר שֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה וּבְיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת יִפָּתֵחַ וּבְיוֹם הַחֹדֶשׁ יִפָּתֵחַ׃/The inner courtyard gate that faces east will be closed during the six workdays but on Shabbos it will be opened and on Rosh Chodesh it will be opened.”  The gates of the temple opening and closing connote spiritual gates opening and closing.  On Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh there is a spiritual revelation that we don’t find naturally during the week.

קדים/east also has the same root as קודם/before and therefore alludes to the spiritual that underlies the physical world.  Our job is to acknowledge the spiritual underpinnings of the physical world and to internalize the understanding that the spiritual is the main thing.

How can we do this?  The Sfas Emes's advice is to identify strongly with the nation of Israel.  The Sfas Emes learns this from a Zohar that sheds light on the story of the tower of Bavel.  The Zohar infers from pesukim in the story that the generation that built the tower was rebelling against God.  The Sfas Emes understands this to mean that they only wanted to recognize and associate with the physical world.  They wanted to exclude the spiritual from their lives.  The Torah says, "בנסעם מקדם/as they travelled from the east."  As we've said, "מקדם/from the east" can also mean "from the spiritual that was created beforehand."  The Zohar tells us it means that they were trying to flee from God who existed before the Creation.  Either way, it's clear that they wanted nothing to do with the spiritual.

The Torah relates that they would have succeeded if God had not intervened.  Amazingly, they would have succeeded even though their goal was at odds with the purpose of the Creation.  Why is this?  Why would they have succeeded?  They would have succeeded because they were united in a singular purpose.  They spoke the same language – the holy language – and all struggled toward the same goal.  The Zohar concludes that the nation of Israel when united in serving God can certainly succeed and will receive God's help as well. 

God split the generation that tried to build the tower of Bavel.  However, to us He gave the Torah so that we would remain together with the singular purpose of internalizing the spirituality that underlies the physical world.  This is the meaning of the pasuk, "זכור ימות עולם ... בהפרידו בני אדם יצב גבולות עמים למספר בני ישראל כי חלק ה' עמו .../Remember the days of old ... when He separated the children of Adam.  He fixed the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the children of Israel.  For God's portion is His people …" (Devarim 32:7-9)  This pasuk is referring to the generation that was split – the dor hapalagah.  God's portion is His people so He gave us the Torah and one language – the holy language – as vehicles for unification.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Succos 5634 Fourth Ma'amar

There is a famous allegory mentioned by Chazal[1] comparing the relationship between the nation of Israel and God to that between a bride and bridegroom.  The Sfas Emes elaborates and relates it to Succos.  The Exodus is considered the marriage as the pasuk states, “אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם: הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם .../I am God who sanctifies you, who takes you out of the land of Egypt.” (VaYikra 22:33:34)  The Hebrew word for marriage – kidushin – is the same as the word for sanctify.  The underlying meaning of both is to become dedicated.  A married woman is “dedicated” to her husband in the sense that her marriage permits her to him and prohibits her to all others.  In the same sense, when God sanctifies us, He makes us dedicated to Him alone.

A Jewish marriage transaction, though, comprises two parts.  The first part is the marriage/kidushin by which the husband makes his wife dedicated to him alone.  The second part is the chupah by which he takes her into his home.  The canopy – chupah – under which a couple marries, symbolizes the husband’s act of taking his wife into his home.  When the nation of Israel left Egypt, God took us to live in huts in the desert, “... בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם .../… I settled the children of Israel in huts when I took them out of the land of Egypt …” (VaYikra 23:43)  The Sfas Emes teaches that these huts symbolize the completion of the marriage transaction – the chupah – as it were,  between us and God.

That God separated us from among the nations to be dedicated to Him alone causes vulnerability.  Separateness draws attention.  The huts of the desert symbolize God’s protection over us.  He separated us from the nations and made us unique.  But He also provided us protection.  We find another pasuk which hints at this as well, “ ... וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת .../… and for his livestock he made huts …” (Breishis 33:17)  This pasuk is referring to Yaakov Avinu however it alludes to God.  The word for livestock has the same root as the word for acquisition.  The pasuk can therefore be translated as, “… and for His acquisition He made huts …”, implying the nation of Israel whom God “acquired” by taking us out of Egypt and over whom He spread his protective canopy.  Along the same lines we say in Ma’ariv, “הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ/He spreads a canopy of peace on us.”  The word poreis/spread, also implies a portion (as in אֲכִילַת פְּרַס/eating a piece.) hinting, as well, that God separated us.

Clearly God chose us to be His nation from among the nations.  The pasuk states explicitly, “ ... חֵלֶק ה' עַמּוֹ .../… God’s portion is His people …” (Devarim 32:9)  The Sfas Emes asks, though, that since God is the ultimate completeness, why would He choose only a portion?  A portion seems to contradict wholeness.  Should God not have chosen all the nations?

When we think about this, though, we realize that the question really does not start.  The reason is that wherever God reveals Himself, there is completeness.  Where does God reveal Himself?  Where does He dwell, as it were?  The prophet Yeshayah stated, that God dwells specifically with “broken vessels”, “אֶשְׁכּוֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל־רוּח/I will dwell with the despondent and lowly of spirit.” (Yeshayah 57:15)  These are the righteous whose hearts are broken in their service to God.  The Zohar[2] explains that although they are “broken vessels” they are really more complete than any other place.  
God Himself, chooses to dwell within the righteous and makes them whole.  This is a deeper meaning of, “הַפּוֹרֵס סוּכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ/He spreads a canopy of peace on us.”  As we’ve said, poreis/spread, also means a portion.  Shalom/Peace has the same root as the word for whole – shalem.  This brachah, then, is saying that God separated us from the nations of the world but then protected us with His canopy of peace, making us whole. 

It is our duty to spread an awareness of God to the rest of world.  God structured the physical world so that there is a spiritual life force inherent in every creation.  This spiritual life force, actually a revelation of God in a sense, is a point of completeness within the physical.  So too, the nation of Israel is the point of wholeness among all the nations. 

This idea relates particularly well to the holiday of Succos.  Chazal[3] teach us that Succos is for the nations of the world as well as for us.  Seventy cows, representing the seventy nations, were sacrificed.  The water libation, unique to Succos, represents the nations of the world as well.[4]  The point of this is that Godly abundance comes to the nations through us, the nation of Israel.  It is our duty not to keep God, as it were, to ourselves.  Rather we are required to request that the kingdom of God spread throughout the Creation.  We find a hint to this in Avos (1:3),  “אַל תִּהְיוּ כַּעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְשִׁים אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנַת לְקַבֵּל פְּרַס/Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward.”  Rather we should serve God altruistically.  The Tanna uses the word pras for reward.  As we’ve seen, pras also means a portion.  Therefore, the Tanna is hinting that we should not serve God only for ourselves but rather we should seek to spread awareness of Him throughout the world.

Succos, then, is a culmination of the process by which God established the nation of Israel as the point from which completeness and abundance spreads to the rest of the world.  It is also the beginning of the process of spreading the abundance to the rest of the world.  Succos represents the culmination of the “marriage” between the nation of Israel and God, God’s protection and making us whole.  It also represents our spreading an awareness of God and His abundance to the entire world.  May we merit being God’s channel.

[1] See Mechilta BaChodesh 3
[2] Zohar 3:90b
[3] Succah 55b
[4] See Gur Aryeh on Rashi, Bamidbar 29:18, remez lenisuch hamayim

Friday, October 03, 2014

Yom Kippur 5641 First Ma'amar

It is a mitzvah to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur in preparation for the fast.[1]  Chazal also teach us that we are required to begin fasting while it is still daytime.[2]  In the language of Chazal מוֹסִיפִין מֵחוֹל עַל הַקוֹדֶשׁ/We add to the holy from the profane.  The Torah and Chazal impart significance to the day before Yom Kippur.  It is important, on the one hand to eat on Erev Yom Kippur.  It is so important, in fact, that Chazal consider one who eats on Erev Yom Kippur, as if he fasted on that day as well.  On the other hand, it is also important to actually begin fasting on Erev Yom Kippur.  What is the relationship between Erev Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is a day which enables us to come as close to God as a physical being can.  The laws of Yom Kippur, which require us to abstain from physical pleasure, are designed so that we may enact a next-world spiritual experience.  The less physical and the more spiritual we are, the closer we can come to God.  The reason for this is that closeness to God entails breaking any barriers that separate us from Him.  Our physical bodies and needs are major barriers that keep us from coming close to God. 

This is why the ultimate coming close to God occurs after our soul leaves the physical body.  Then, there is a complete nullification of the self to God.  God, as it were, completely engulfs us.  The prophet Yirmiyahu hinted at this concept when he said, “מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל ה'/God is the hope of Israel.” (Yirmiyahu 17:13)  The word for hope – מִקְוֵה, also means a mikveh – a purifying bath.  According to Chazal, the prophet is teaching us that just as a mikveh purifies, so too, God purifies.[3]  And just as a mikveh purifies only when a person immerses his entire body in the waters, so too, God purifies only when a person nullifies himself completely to God.  This happens when a person’s soul is no longer bound by his physical body.  Minimizing bodily pleasures on Yom Kippur, therefore, enables us to come close to God. 

Since the greatest bliss we can experience is coming close to God, Yom Kippur is a day of joy.  Our physical needs, though, prevent us from properly experiencing the joy of connecting with God.  In order to enter Yom Kippur in a state of joy, therefore, the Torah commands us to eat and drink on Erev Yom Kippur.  Rabbeinu Yonah in Sha’arei Teshuvah, in fact, makes this very point.[4]  He says that since we cannot experience the joy that comes from the holiday meal on Yom Kippur, we have a mitzvah to be joyful on Erev Yom Kippur through eating and drinking. 

Even from a state of joy, though, we do not enter Yom Kippur directly.  Our state of joy allows us to first experience the aura of Yom Kippur which “spills over,” so to speak, onto the moments directly preceding and following the day itself.  We therefore abstain from food and drink and other physical pleasures during the moments preceding Yom Kippur.  From the experience of connecting with the aura of the moments preceding Yom Kippur from within the state of joy we are in, we can connect with the enlightenment of Yom Kippur itself.   The moments preceding Yom Kippur are a necessary segue into the holiness of Yom Kippur itself.

In order to properly experience Yom Kippur, therefore, it is important, to eat and drink on Erev Yom Kippur with the intent of reaching a state of joy.  From within this state, when our physical needs are no longer an issue, we can nullify ourselves to God and experience in some sense a glimpse of the next world.

[1] Yoma 81b
[2] Ibid.
[3] Yoma Mishna 8:9
[4] Sha’arei Teshuvah 4:9

Friday, September 19, 2014

Nitzavim 5631 First Ma'amar

In this week’s parsha we find the following pasuk.  “לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ ... כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד .../It is not in Heaven [so as] to say, ‘Who will ascend to Heaven to take it for us? … rather it is very close to you …” (Devarim 30:12)  Rashi[1] cites Chazal[2] who say that if the Torah were in Heaven, we would in fact, be required to ascend to Heaven to learn it.  What does this mean?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Chazal are teaching us something very significant about learning Torah.  Intuitively we understand that we need to work hard to attain goals that are far from us.  We view the goal as static so if it is far away we need to move a long way to get to it.  When the goal is close, we do not need to work as hard to attain it.  The Torah, however, is not static.  When our goal is the Torah and and we work hard for it, the Torah itself responds and comes close to us.  It appears that it was never far from us.  When, however, we do not work for it, it remains far away.

Chazal are teaching us that when we want to connect to the Torah so much, with all our heart, that we would search for a way to get it even if it were in Heaven, then it is indeed very close.  It is specifically because we would ascend to Heaven to get it, if required, that it is very close to us.

[1] Rashi ad loc.
[2] Eiruvin 55a

Friday, September 05, 2014

Teitzei 5631 First Ma'amar

כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ/When you go to war against your enemies and God, your Lord delivers him into your hands and you capture his captives.” (Devarim 21:10)

The Sfas Emes explains this first pasuk of the parsha homiletically as referring to our ongoing battle with the evil inclination to search out and discover the hidden Godliness in the world.  This struggle has a time structure.  The cycle of weekdays followed by Shabbos entails hard work during the week after which God is revealed on Shabbos.  By keeping Shabbos we are testifying that God created the world and that the act of creation is constant.  During the week we need to struggle to reveal the Godliness that keeps the world in existence each moment.  Even though on Shabbos there is no struggle, God allows Himself to be revealed only in proportion to the work we did during the week.  
This is the meaning of Chazal’s maxim that whoever struggles (to prepare) on Erev Shabbos will eat on Shabbos.[1]  It follows that Shabbos can be defined as a state of God’s revelation.  

This state can be reached to some extent during the week as well.  The word erev/eve alludes to this because erev also means to mix together.  Therefore Erev Shabbos/Shabbos Eve implies that we can mix aspects of Shabbos into the weekdays.

Although we work hard during the week to uproot our evil inclination and to discover God, we cannot succeed without God’s help.  God does not uproot our evil inclination for us.  Rather he gives us the strength to do it.  This is the meaning of the second part of the pasuk, “...וּנְתָנוֹ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ .../… God, your Lord delivers him into your hands …”  “Into your hands” implies that God puts the strength needed to deal with the enemy – the evil inclination – in our hands but it is still we who must use this God-given strength to uproot the evil and reveal God. 

We find this idea in a pasuk in Tehillim (62:13) “וּלְךָ-ה' חָסֶד כִּי-אַתָּה תְשַׁלֵּם לְאִישׁ כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ/And you God have kindness for you repay a man according to his action.”  Chazal[2] note the apparent contradiction in the pasuk.  Repaying a man according to his action does not seem to be an aspect of kindness.  Does a person not deserve to be repaid according to his action?  However, the question is based on the premise that man can act independently of God.  If man’s actions are independent of God then repaying a person according to his deeds is indeed justice, not kindness.  When we realize, though, that it is God who gives us the strength to act, the question becomes moot.  God repays man according to his action even though the very ability to act comes from God.  This truly is kindness.

This realization that even though it is we who perform mitzvos, it is God who gives us the strength and directs us to do so, is key in serving God.  We are God’s messengers in this world.  He sent us here to perform mitzvos thereby revealing Him in the world. A messenger by definition is one who acknowledges that someone sent him.  If the messenger does not acknowledge the sender, he is no longer a messenger.  He is an independent agent.  This is the meaning of the words at end of the pasuk  “... וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיו/… and you capture his captives.”  These words have the same root as the Hebrew for return - הַשָׁבָה.  The pasuk can thus be translated as, “… and you return your actions to Him (by acknowledging that we are doing on His behalf.)”  The pasuk is teaching us that it is not enough to overcome the evil inclination and do good.  We need to acknowledge that we are God’s agents and not acting independently.  A key part of serving God is affirming our role as God’s messengers and His role in sending us and giving us the ability to act on His behalf.  May we merit it.  Amen! 

[1] Avoda Zara 3a
[2] Rosh HaShanah17b

Friday, August 29, 2014

Shoftim 5631 First Ma'amar

A pasuk in Mishlei (31:23) states, “נוֹדָע בַּשְּׁעָרִים בַּעְלָה .../Her husband became known at the gates (of the city) …”  The Zohar[1] explains this pasuk as a metaphor for the relationship between the nation of Israel and God.  The wife represents the nation of Israel and the husband represents God.  The city’s gates represent the gates of the heart.  The Hebrew word for gate has the same root as the word for conjecture.  The pasuk can be translated metaphorically as, “God becomes known to the nation of Israel according to the level on which we contemplate Him and His greatness.”  Each of us have different and unique abilities and talents.  Accordingly, each of us contemplates God differently.  The way we contemplate God determines the way and level at which He makes Himself known to us.  

The Chiddushei HaRim applies the Zohar’s metaphor to the first pasuk of the parsha, “שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֵּן־לְךָ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ .../Place judges and enforcers in all your cities (lit. gates) that God your Lord gives you …” (Devarim 16:18)  The Chiddushei HaRim understands this pasuk homiletically as referring to the gates of the heart. 

According to the metaphor the entire pasuk relates to each of us individually.  The first word of the parsha, Shoftim/Judges, implies self judgment.  She’arecha/Your cities (lit. gates), refers, as we’ve said, to the gates of the heart.  The pasuk is teaching us that after all is said and done, after each of us contemplates God from his unique perspective, when we judge ourselves and realize what we are in relation to God, the knowledge of and connection to God that follows is His gift to us.  This is the meaning of the next part of the pasuk, “... אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ .../… that God, your Lord gives you …”.  The pasuk implies a gift.  God owes us nothing.  Any connection and revelation that we achieve is His gift to us.

The Sfas Emes explains the first pasuk of the parsha a little differently.  Our desires and feelings originate in the heart.  The pasuk teaches us that we must pay close attention to our desires and feelings when they first pass through the gates of the heart.  It is important not to allow our desires and feelings to develop uncontrolled but rather we must notice them, using our intellect to steer them toward God alone.  If we use our God-given understanding and knowledge in this way, we merit that the gates of our hearts will open up to receive God’s enlightenment.

We find this idea in the beginning of the piyut/liturgical poem written by the Ari z”l and sung Friday night.  The piyut begins, “אֲזַּמֵר בִּשְׁבָחִין לְמֵעַל גוֹ פִּתְחִין .../I will sing with praises to enter inside the gates …”  The commentaries explain that Azameir/I will sing also means, “I will cut” as in the pasuk in parshas Behar (25:4), “... וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר/… and you will not prune your vine.”   The Ari z”l is saying that with praises to God we will cut away and remove the outer layers that hide the revelation of God.  Once we do that, we will be able to enter inside the gates.  The gates of our hearts open to receive revelation from God.

This is also the reason for saying Pesukei DeZimra/Verses of Song before praying each morning.  The word Zimra/Song, as we’ve said, also means “cutting away.”  The Sfas Emes explains that when we sing praises to God before prayer we are sending away the Satan – the block that prevents us from connecting with and experiencing closeness to God.  This enables us to more easily connect with God when we pray.

Both the Chiddushei HaRim and the Sfas Emes are teaching us the importance of contemplating God’s greatness and its results.  The Chiddushei HaRim teaches us that God opens our hearts as a gift so that we can receive His enlightenment.  The Sfas Emes teaches us that we need to notice the desires and feelings emanating from our hearts and steer them toward God.  Using our God given intellect in this way and praising Him results in a cutting away of the outer layers that separate us from God.

[1] Zohar 1:103b

Friday, August 22, 2014

Re'ei 5631 First Ma'amar

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה/Look, I place before you today blessing and curse.” (Devarim 11:26)  The Chiddushei HaRim notes that this pasuk establishes that we are each able to distinguish between good and bad, between blessing and curse, and to choose the blessing.  This is the meaning of the first of the blessings we say each morning, “... הַנוֹתֵן לַשֶׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין .../… Who gives the heart understanding to distinguish …”  

We find this concept in the Midrash[1] on the pasuk, “... וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים .../… and you shall choose life …” (Devarim 30:19)  God not only places the choices before us.  He also teaches us to choose life.  The implication is that we have the ability to make a choice.  

Often, we feel that we are the victims of circumstance.  Being a victim implies powerlessness.  The Chiddushei HaRim is teaching us that God always gives us a choice and empowers us to choose.

[1] Devarim R. 4:3

Friday, August 15, 2014

Eikev 5633 First Ma'amar

Chazal[1] teach us that the entire nation of Israel has a portion in the world to come.  The world to come is the primary venue for receiving reward for the mitzvos we do in this world.  But not all mitzvos are equal.  There are difficult mitzvos which require a lot of time, energy and money to perform and then there are mitzvos which are easy to do.  

The Torah does not elaborate about the rewards for the mitzvos.  Accordingly Chazal[2] teach us that we should perform easy mitzvos with the same enthusiasm with which we perform more difficult ones.  Still, the Sfas Emes teaches that certainly we receive greater reward for performing a more difficult mitzvah than for performing an easier one.

With this in mind it is difficult to understand the Tanchuma[3] on the first pasuk in our parsha, “וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה .../And it will be, because you will heed these laws …” (Devarim 7:12)  The word, eikev/because, appears awkward.  The pasuk could have said simply,  “If you will heed these laws …” as it says in other places.  Rashi[4], addressing this question, quotes the Midrash Tanchuma that the word eikev/because, which also means heel, refers to easy mitzvos that people tread on with their heel, so to speak.  If we keep even those mitzvos that people tend to neglect, then God will give us great rewards.  As David HaMelech wrote, “גם עבדך נזהר בהם בשמרם עקב רב/When Your servant is scrupulous in them, there is also in observing them great reward.”  (Tehillim 19:12) The word eikev in this pasuk means reward and alludes to the easy mitzvos.  The Tanchuma quotes another pasuk in Tehillim as well, “מה רב טובך אשר צפנת ליראיך .../How abundant is Your goodness that You have stored away for those who fear You …” (Tehillim 31:20)  The Tanchuma asserts that this pasuk, as well, is referring to the easy mitzvos.

Why do the easy mitzvos receive such great rewards?  Certainly the more difficult a mitzvah, the greater the reward!  The clue to the answer is in the word, “ליראיך/to those who fear You”.  The fact is that when we perform mitzvos that demand our time, energy and money, it is easy for us to feel that we deserve a just reward.  After all, these mitzvos were difficult (i.e. I paid a lot of money for that esrog) and we did them!  Easy mitzvos are different.  We generally don’t do them for the reward.  They’re easy to do and so we don’t expect much of a reward anyway.  We do the easy mitzvos because we want to do God’s will.  We do them because we are in awe of God.  This purity of intent truly deserves great reward.  In the words of David HaMelech, “How abundant is Your goodness that You have stored away for those who fear You …” 

The Sfas Emes teaches us that this idea applies not only to the easy mitzvos.  It’s just more common with them.  This idea applies anytime we pursue the path of truth in our service of God.  The path of truth requires us to serve God because that is His will and not for the promised reward.  To the extent that we succeed we consequently merit God’s “abundant goodness”.

[1] Sanhedrin 90a
[2] Avos 2:1
[3] Tanchuma Eikev 1
[4] Rashi ad loc.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New Blog - Sfas Emes Index

I'd like to introduce everyone to a new blog called Sfas Emes Index.  The tag line of the blog is, "Categorizing Sfas Emes - One Thought at a Time".  Sounds promising and exciting.  It would be great to have an index of the Sfas Emes by subject.

There is an index of sefer VaYikra that was published a few years ago by Rav Druckman's yeshiva, the same people who republished the Sfas Emes with sources but for some reason it was not continued.  

I wish the blogster Yechiel much success!  Hatzlacha Rabba!

I've added the blog to my blog roll.  Here's the link:

Friday, August 08, 2014

VaEschanan 5631 Third Ma'amar

Chazal[1] teach us that if one prays immediately after saying Kri’as Shma, his prayer is accepted.  Why is this?  Why is it important to pray immediately following Kri’as Shma?  The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches, requires a deeper understanding of both Kri’as Shma and prayer.
A simple understanding of the sequence of Kri’as Shma followed by prayer is this.  Kri’as Shma is a declaration that God is One and that He gives existence and life to all.  Prayer is calling out to God.  Our prayers are meaningful to the extent that we believe our declaration.  Significantly, the pasuk upon which this Chazal is based ends with the words from this week’s parsha, “... בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/… whenever we call to Him.” (Devarim 4:7)  Prayer is meaningful to the extent that we are calling to God.

The Sfas Emes, however, elucidates a deeper aspect to the connection between Kri’as Shma and prayer.  The Sfas Emes teaches us that prayer follows the declaration of Kri’as Shma because to the extent that God is revealed, our prayers are accepted.  Certainly Kri’as Sh’ma is an acknowledgement that God is with us.  However, what is the connection between this acknowledgement and our prayers being accepted?  To understand this, our concept of prayer needs to change.

Generally, we think of prayer as requests that we make of God.  We ask God for things that we believe are good for us.  The ultimate good, of course, is God Himself.  When God gives us something that is good, in essence He is revealing Himself to us.  Everything that we receive is essentially a revelation.  Taking this idea to extreme, if He revealed Himself to us completely, we would have no need for further prayer.  Regardless of our specific request, then, what we are generally asking for when we pray is God’s revelation

God gave us the ability to effect His revelation by calling out to Him, declaring that we believe He is here but hidden and asking Him to reveal Himself.  The ultimate goal of prayer is God’s revelation.  Thus, God’s revelation and the acceptance of our prayers is one and the same thing.  As the Sfas Emes teaches us, to the extent that God is revealed, our prayers are accepted.  First we acknowledge God’s presence with the declaration of Kri’as Sh’ma.  Then we ask for His revelation by praying to Him.

In addition to saying Kri’as Shma, Chazal required us to precede prayer with a mention of the redemption from Egypt.  Recalling the redemption is another way of reminding ourselves that God is hidden within everything, even the darkest exile.  The definition of redemption, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is revelation.  If redemption is revelation, then exile is concealment.  God is in the exile with us.  He gives existence to the exile as well.

There can be no better segue to prayer which, as we’ve said, is essentially a request that God reveal Himself to us, than to remind ourselves that God is here and hidden and can therefore reveal Himself to us.

This week’s parsha contains the Ten Commandments.  This is the second time the Ten Commandments appear in the Torah.  They first appear in parshas Yisro.[2]  There are several differences between the two versions of the Ten Commandments.  We find one difference in the mitzvah of Shabbos.  In parshas Yisro the Torah tells us that the reason for the mitzvah of Shabbos is because God rested on the seventh day of the Creation.[3]  By keeping Shabbos we give testimony that God created the world and that he is the cause of its continued existence.

In this week’s parsha the mitzvah of Shabbos contains no mention whatsoever of the Creation.  Instead, the Torah tells us that by keeping Shabbos we remember the Exodus.[4]  We were slaves in Egypt and God delivered us from bondage.  What is the connection between Shabbos and the Exodus?

According to the concept that exile is God’s concealment and redemption is His revelation, the answer is clear.  Both the Exodus and Shabbos are testimony that everything is from God.  For this reason, we say in kiddush on Friday night that Shabbos is a remembrance for the Exodus.
May we merit approaching prayer as it was meant to be approached, as a plea for God’s revelation.  Amen.

[1] Devarim R. 2:10
[2] Shmos 20:1-13
[3] Shmos 20:10
[4] Devarim 5:14