Friday, March 28, 2014

Tazria and Parshas HaChodesh 5646 First Ma'amar

The first Midrash[1] of this week’s parshah explains the pasuk in Tehillim (139:5), “אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי .../From behind and from in front you have bound me…”  Chazal explain that this pasuk alludes to this world and the next.  “אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם/behind and in front” can also be translated as “last and first.”  “אָחוֹר/Last” refers to this world which was created last and “קֶדֶם/first” refers to the next world which was created first.  If a person merits it, he inherits two worlds, this world and the next. 

The word, צַרְתָּנִי/you have bound me, can also be translated, “you have formed me.”  Chazal therefore relate this pasuk to the creation of man, “וַיִּיצֶר ... אֶת־הָֽאָדָם .../He … formed the man …” (Breishis 2:7וַיִּיצֶר/He formed, is written with two yods, an uncommon spelling, to teach us that man comprises two components, physical and spiritual.  The Zohar teaches us that man is a microcosm of the entire physical and spiritual worlds.[2]  While he has a physical body, through his soul, he is connected to the upper spiritual realms.  The Zohar and the Tanchuma[3] teach that a person’s soul includes the forms of these realms.

There is an aspect of the nation of Israel which is spiritual, corresponding to God’s thought, as it were, and there is an aspect that is physical, corresponding to the physical Creation.  Chazal hint at this when they teach us that God created the world for Israel who are called רֵאשִׁית/first.[4]  God’s thought comes before the physical Creation.

We find this split between thought and action in the relationship between the days of the week and Shabbos.  The pasuk  in Tehillim (92:6) states, “מַה־גָּֽדְלוּ מַֽעֲשֶׂיךָ ה' .../How great are Your works, God …” suggesting the days of the week during which God created the world.  The pasuk continues, “... מְאֹד עָֽמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶֽיךָ/… Your thoughts are very deep,”  referring to Shabbos.  Because Shabbos is the day on which God ceased to create, it is associated with God’s thought rather than with activity.  It was given to the nation of Israel which existed in God’s thought before the physical Creation.  Shabbos, then, is the sign that the children of Israel have a special spiritual status, “בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא .../It is a sign between me and the children of Israel …” (Shmos 31:17)  All the creations of the world have a place in the physical Creation.  However, only the nation of Israel attaches to Shabbos, representing God’s thought.

We find another instance of this concept in a Midrash[5] on the pasuk in Tehillim (40:6), “רַבּוֹת עָשִׂיתָ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהַי נִפְלְאֹתֶיךָ וּמַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ אֵלֵינוּ .../You have done much, God, my Lord; Your wonders and thoughts are for us …”  The first part of the pasuk, describing God’s doing, relates to the physical world.  The second part makes it clear that God’s wonders and thoughts – the spiritual – are for us, His nation, as the pasuk states, “... נֶגֶד כָּֽל־עַמְּךָ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה נִפְלָאֹת .../… In front of all your people I will perform wonders …” (Shmos 34:10)

The nation of Israel merited this special relationship with God at the time of the Exodus when God changed nature on our behalf.  Although the Exodus itself was initiated by God, He told us at that time, that we would need to work to merit this special relationship.  This is alluded to in the first words describing the first mitzvah that God gave us as a nation, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים .../This month is for you the beginning of the months …” (Shmos 12:2)  The word חוֹדֶשׁ/month connotes חָדָשׁ/new.  With this first mitzvah, God hinted that He gave us the ability to draw novelty into the world. 

Novelty is beyond nature because the natural world is a closed system.  Nothing new can happen in it.  Novelty can only come from without, from the spiritual.  God is telling us that in order for us to be connected to the spiritual, we must draw it down.  How do we draw novelty into the world?  How can we not be bound by the physical world?  The answer, the Sfas Emes explains, is by realizing that the physical world is dynamic, not set.  By internalizing the concept that the physical world is changeable, the gates of miracles, wonders and novelty open.

This is why on Shabbos when, to an extent, we disregard the physical world by not performing creative work, the spiritual gates open.  We find this in a pasuk from this week’s haftara.  Yechezkeil describing the gates of the Beis HaMikdash tells us that the gate of the inner courtyard will be closed during the six days of the week and open on Shabbos.[6]  These physical gates suggest spiritual gates.

A person who takes these words to heart, though, realizes that the physical world is a barrier which separates him from God’s light.  The Sfas Emes says that this is not a reason to become melancholy.  It is all for good.  God sent us into this world, exile and darkness specifically to find His enlightenment which is hidden within it.  David HaMelech said, “וָֽאֹמַר אַךְ־חֹשֶׁךְ יְשׁוּפֵנִי וְלַיְלָה אוֹר בַּֽעֲדֵֽנִי/I said, ‘Surely darkness will shadow me, then the night would become as light for me.” (Tehilim 139:11)  Chazal[7] translate the pasuk as, “I said, ‘Surely darkness will shadow me in the next world.  In the end even this world which is likened to night has become light for me.”  David HaMelech was concerned that he would not merit God’s light in the next world.  In the end, he merited it even in this world.  We need to remember that the physical component of man and the physical Creation are also from God.  Fortunately, God enlightens us in this world as well through the Torah and the mitzvos.  

Both the darkness and the light are true and needed.  Realizing that we are in darkness, that this world is a barrier that hides God’s light is the first step towards revealing that light.  We find a hint to this idea in a story involving the Tanna Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch.[8]  When all his students went to Yavneh after the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch went to a different city expecting his students to follow him.  They didn’t.  Alone in a city known for its decadence, he forgot his Torah learning.  When he had the opportunity to read from a sefer Torah, instead of reading, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you,”  He transposed letters and read, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf.”  Although at first glance this appears to be an innocuous mistake, the Sfas Emes explains that it actually bears out our concept.  In Egypt we first needed to experience the darkness before we could merit the renewal of God’s light.  The prophet Yeshayah, as well, prophesied this idea, “הַחֵרְשִׁים שְׁמָעוּ/Listen deaf ones.” (Yeshayah 42:18)  They needed to experience the deafness before they could merit listening.

In exile the nation of Israel pines to hear the word of God but it is hidden from us.  We need to not give up hope but rather to understand that it is hidden within the very darkness that we experience.  In fact, since revealing God’s light is the primary reason that we exist in this world, we are guaranteed success through hard work.  Yeshayah said this clearly, “מִי ... חֵרֵשׁ כְּמַלְאָכִי אֶשְׁלָח/Who … is deaf like My messenger who I send.” (Yeshayah 45:15)  The messenger – us – needs to experience the deafness in order to merit being the messenger whom God sends.  May we merit it!

[1] VaYikra R. 14:1
[2] Zohar 1:170b, 3:48a
[3] Tanchuma Tazria 1
[4] VaYikra R. 36:4
[5] Pesikta Rabasi 15
[6] Yechezkeil 46:1
[7] Pesachim 2b
[8] Shabbos 147b

Friday, March 21, 2014

Parashas Parah (Shemini) 5646 First Ma'amar

Chazal[1] established reading four special sections of the Torah during the Purim season.  The first, Shekalim[2], is read on the Shabbos preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar.  Zachor[3] is read on the Shabbos preceding Purim.  We read HaChodesh[4] on the Shabbos preceding Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  Parah[5] is read on the Shabbos before Parshas HaChodesh.
Each of the parshiyos commemorates an activity which occurs during this time.  Shekalim commemorates the proclamation on Rosh Chodesh Adar to bring shekalim (a denomination of coin) to the Beis HaMikdash.  When we read Zachor we fulfill the mitzvah of remembering what Amalek did to us.  Appropriately, we read this parsha on the Shabbos before Purim since Haman descended from Amalek.  Parshas Parah which describes the mitzvah of the red heifer, is a reminder to become pure before Pesach so that we can bring the korban Pesach.  Finally, HaChodesh describes the mitzvah of bringing the korban Pesach.

The Torah relates that the Mishkan was built and activated on Rosh Chodesh Nissan.[6]  The first red heifer was brought only after the Mishkan was built, after Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  It could not have been brought earlier because it needed the Mishkan.  Since the red heifer could not have been brought beforehand, it would make more sense to read parshas Parah during the month of Nissan, when the red heifer was actually brought.  Why, then, do we read Parah before parshas HaChodesh rather than following it? 

The Sfas Emes explains that two critical things happened between the first Rosh Chodesh Nissan two weeks before the Exodus and the second one, a year later, when the Mishkan was built.  First, at the time of the Exodus, God chose us as His nation.  This is described in parshas HaChodesh which relates the Korban Pesach, the first mitzvah we were given as a nation.  Second, a year later, on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the Mishkan was activated.  This second Rosh Chodesh Nissan was the eighth and final day of the initiation sacrifices of the Mishkan.[7]  With the building and activation of the Mishkan the sin of the golden calf was rectified, God’s presenced was revealed and we came close to Him, as we find in the first pasuk of this week's parsha, “וַֽיְהִי בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי ... וַֽיִּקְרְבוּ כָּל־הָעֵדָה וַיַּעַמְדוּ לִפְנֵי ה'׃/It was on the eighth day … the entire community came close and stood before God.” (VaYikra 9:1-5)  These two events, being chosen and coming close to God are the two key things that differentiate us as a nation, as we say in the prayers of Yom Tov, “אַתָּה בְחַרְתָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִים ... וְקֵרַבְתָּנוּ ... לַעַבוֹדָתֶךָ/You chose us from all the nations … and drew us near … to your service.”

At the time of the Exodus, God first chose us and then we drew near to Him.  At that time, we were immersed in slavery and the decadence of Egypt.  We needed an external catalyst to start the process which culminated in the redemption.  Now, however, to reach a level of being chosen we need to first come close to God through repentance.  When we show God that we desire to be close to Him, He reciprocates and chooses us.  For this reason, parshas Parah, which represents what we do to purify ourselves in order to come close to God, precedes parshas HaChodesh which, as we’ve said, represents God’s choosing us. 

Chazal allude to this at the end of last week’s parsha following the description of the initiation services and sacrifices during the eight days culminating on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, “כַּֽאֲשֶּר עָשָׂה בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה צִוָּה ה' לַֽעֲשֹׂת לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם׃/As he (Moshe) had done on this day, so God commanded to do in order to atone for you.” (VaYikra 8:34)  Chazal teach us that לַעֲשֹׂת/to do, refers to the red heifer [8]  Why do Chazal find a hint to the red heifer specifically here, before Rosh Chodesh and the activation of the Mishkan?  The Sfas Emes explains that Chazal are teaching this very concept.  To merit being chosen by God, we must first show him that we desire to be close to Him by purifying ourselves through repentance.

The Sfas Emes says that it is very possible that Chazal are hinting to another important idea, as well.  Apparently the period immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh Nissan was designated from the time of the initiation of the Mishkan for atonement and purification.  In fact, the Sfas Emes says further, that for those of us who desire and anticipate purification, an aspect of purification enters our souls before Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  For this reason Chazal established reading Parah specifically prior to Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  This is the time when we are given the opportunity to merit purification and coming close to God.

[1] Mishnayos Megila 3:4
[2] Shmos 30:11-16
[3] Devarim 24:17-19
[4] Shmos 12:1-20
[5] Bamidbar 18:1-22
[6] Shmos 40:17
[7] Sifra Shemini Mechilta deMiluim 1
[8] Yoma 2a

Friday, March 14, 2014

Purim 5634 Third Ma'amar

Chazal established four mitzvos on Purim.  They are the reading of the Megillah, the Purim meal, Mishloach Manos/Sending gifts of food, and Matanos LaEvyonim/Giving money to the poor.  The first two are self-explanatory.  We read the Megilla to recount the story of Purim and our salvation.  We have a festive meal because parties were the venue of most of the Purim story.  Our redemption and the progress toward redemption occurred either during or as a result of a party.

However, the last two mitzvos need explanation.  Why did Chazal establish giving gifts to friends and money to the poor specifically on Purim?  What is the connection between these mitzvos and Purim?

In order to answer this we need to understand the Purim story on a deeper level.  The Purim story is not simply a wicked plot to destroy us and the miracle of our deliverance.  The wicked Haman descended from Amalek, the nemesis of the Jewish people throughout history.  The Purim story was essentially a plot by Amalek destroy the nation of Israel.  Instead we destroyed Haman, the scion of Amalek together with his cohorts and followers.

What power does Amalek have over the nation of Israel?  The Sfas Emes explains elsewhere that Amalek’s power derives from our disunity.  When we were in the desert after the Exodus, Amalek attacked the stragglers.  Chazal teach that we were not unified at that time. 

Our power to defeat Amalek derives from our unity as we find in the Megilla, ... נקהלו ועמוד על נפשם .../… they assembled and defended themselves …”  Chazal as well teach us that Ya’akov was saved from Eisav because he assembled together with his children.

When there is unity among the nation of Israel, God’s reputation, represented by His name becomes sanctified and spreads in the world.  This is why God said that His name will not be complete until Amalek is destroyed.  Amalek will only be destroyed when we are unified.  Our unification also represents the completeness of God’s Name.  It follows that God’s Name will only be  complete when Amalek is destroyed.

When Esther told Mordechai, “לך כנוס את כל היהודים .../Go and gather together all the Jews …” her purpose was not only for them to cry out to God.  It was also to unite them.

Chazal ask why Mordechai is referred to as איש יהודי/a man of the tribe of Yehuda (or a Jewish man).  Mordechai came from the tribe of Binyamin.  They explain that יהודי/Judean alludes to יחידי/alone or only.  Mordechai unified the entire nation.  He was called יהודי/Judean or Jew because he identified with all the יהודים/Jews.

Therein lies our power.  When we are united we have the power to destroy Amalek.  When we are not united, we are liable to be attacked from without.  May we merit working towards harmony!

Friday, March 07, 2014

VaYikra 5635 First Ma'amar

This week we begin reading Sefer VaYikra most of which is about sacrifices and their laws.  The Torah teaches that we can get absolution for our sins by sacrificing an animal to God.    Why should bringing an animal sacrifice gain us penance?

The Sfas Emes explains that the life force of animals comes to them through us.  We are the conduit.  We see this in the following pasuk, “... כל שתה תחת רגליו/… You placed everything under his feet.” (Tehillim 8:7)  The entire Creation is under Man.  The Sfas Emes teaches that this pasuk is not referring only to the physical aspect of the world.  It is referring to the spiritual aspect as well.  All spirituality comes into the world through Man including the life force of the animals.
When we bring an animal sacrifice we are exchanging our own life force for that of the animal.  Our life deserves to be taken.  We are saying to God, please take the life force of the animal instead of ours.

With this idea we can explain a difficulty in a Midrash that Rashi brings on the pasuk, “... אדם כי יקריב מכם קרבן לה' .../… When a man from among you brings a sacrifice to God …” (VaYikra 1:2)  The word, man/אדם/Adam in this pasuk is an uncommon usage.  Generally, the Torah prefaces a commandment with the word, man/איש or sometimes, man or woman/איש או אשה.  Why does the Torah introduce the topic of sacrifices with the word, man/אדם/Adam?  Rashi answers, quoting Chazal, that the Torah is referencing Adam, the first man.  Just as Adam did not bring sacrifices from that which was stolen since he owned everything, so too, may we not bring sacrifices from that which is stolen.

This Midrash is difficult to understand for two reasons.  Firstly, without the Midrash would we have thought that it is permitted to bring sacrifices from stolen animals?  Why do Chazal need to teach us this?  Secondly, assuming that Chazal are not teaching us this but maybe they are teaching us that sacrifices from stolen animals are ineffective, what is the proof from Adam?  He had no stolen animals!

The Sfas Emes therefore explains this Midrash homiletically.  Chazal are teaching us about the nature of sacrifice.  As we have said, the reason we can bring an animal sacrifice and be absolved is because animals derive their life force from us.  We tell God, “Please take the life of the animal which derives from me in lieu of my own.”  This only applies to a person on the level of Adam in the sense of the hierarchy we find in the Creation – דומם – inanimate, צומח – plant, חי –living, מדבר – speaking. מדבר/speaking, also means, “leading”.  The Sfas Emes understands that the first man Adam, was on a level of leading and influencing the animals and the rest of Creation.  He was the conduit through which life came to the entire Creation.  Because of this he was able to sacrifice animals. 

What of a person who is not on this level?  About such a person Chazal[1] say that even an insect was created before him; even an insect is on a higher level than he.  How can he give God an animal in lieu of himself?  The animal does not derive its life through him.  It is as if he is sacrificing something that was stolen.  It is ineffective. 

What can we do to reach a higher level, a level on which life comes into the world through us?  We learn from the pasuk quoted earlier, “... כי יקריב מכם .../… When he brings from among you …”  The words, “from among you” seem to be extraneous.  What do they add to this pasuk?  The Sfas Emes teaches that we are able to raise our level by identifying with and subordinating ourselves to the nation.  The nation as a whole is always on a higher level.  The nation as a whole is always the conduit through which life and spirituality flow into this world.  When we identify totally with the nation and become one with it, we come “from among you”, we can bring an effective animal sacrifice.  May we merit it.  Amen!

[1] Sanhedrin 38a