Friday, June 27, 2014

Chukas 5632 First Ma'amar

Note:  This week marks the 8th anniversay of the Sfas Emes blog.  Here is a link to the first post: First Post Chukas 5631 First Ma'amar.  It is so appropriate for this is also the first Shabbos that my mentor Chayim Daskal zt"l is no longer with us.  He was the inspiration for this blog.  Throughout the years he encouraged me to continue and spread the blog to others as well.  Before his passing he asked that people do mitzvos and chassadim l'iluy nishmaso. I wish to dedicate the Sfas Emes blog l'iluy nishmaso.  חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין.

This week’s parsha begins with the laws of the red heifer.  The ashes of a red heifer are required as part of the procedure to purify one who has had contact with a corpse.  Impurity is an actual spiritual state.  How do the ashes of the red heifer wipe it away?  Chazal were bothered by this question in the first Midrash[1] of our parsha.  The following pasuk forms the question, “מִי־יִתֵּן טָהוֹר מִטָּמֵא לֹא אֶחָד/Who produces purity from impurity?  No one!” (Iyov 14:4)  The Midrash answers that God can produce purity from impurity and they translate the pasuk slightly differently, “Who produces purity from impurity?  Is it not the One?!”  The Midrash Tanchuma quotes Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who says explicitly that the red heifer does not purify.[2]  There is no physical process in place through which the ashes of the red heifer purify.  Rather God decreed that the corpse should produce impurity and that the red heifer should purify.

What is the nature of this decree?  Another pasuk the Midrash[3] quotes from Tehillim (12:7) gives us a clue, “אִמְרוֹת ה' אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת .../God’s sayings are pure sayings…”  What is this pasuk teaching us?  It obviously cannot be taken literally because “God is pure and His servants are pure.” (Nidah 31a)  There is no need for a pasuk to teach us that His sayings are pure as well!
The Sfas Emes explains that “אִמְרָה/Saying” in this pasuk alludes to the ten מַאֲמָרוֹת/sayings with which God created the world.  The Sfas Emes explains that the saying is more than just the words God used to create.  The saying itself is a spiritual power that gives existence to the Creation.  The creating power of God, through the saying, is hidden within every part of the Creation.  It follows that the source of purity is hidden within every part of the Creation.  Every part of the physical world, then, has at least the potential for purity because of the spiritual Godly creation force inherent in it.  This is the meaning of the pasuk in Tehillim.  God’s sayings – His presence within the Creation – are pure and therefore purify.

How can we actualize the potential for purity that is hidden within ourselves and the physical world?  The Sfas Emes explains that the purity is revealed and affects us and our surroundings when we contemplate and acknowledge that it is there.  Chazal tell us that Avraham Avinu first recognized that God must be in the world.[4]  God then revealed Himself to Avraham Avinu.
Regarding producing purity from impurity the Midrash says, “Who commanded thus?  Who decreed thus?  Is it not the One?!”  The Sfas Emes explains the redundancy.  The existence of the physical world contains two wonders.  As we’ve said, God’s creative power is constantly working and is hidden within the Creation.  Without it, the world would cease to exist.  The first wonder is that God gives existence and strength to evil to resist the very “sayings” that are the source of its existence.  Relative to this the Midrash says, “Who decreed thus?”

The second wonder is that God gave us the ability to draw His “sayings” into the physical world, to reveal spirituality and ultimately to experience God Himself even as we live in the physical world.  Through the commandments we elevate ourselves and our surroundings to God.  Regarding this the Midrash says, “Who commanded thus?”  The Sfas Emes explains that when we perform the mitzvos, and contemplate that the physical act has a spiritual source, we “connect” the physical to that source.  The physical is affected by its spiritual source.  The physical becomes pure.

Purity and impurity, and in fact, the entire Creation works according to the laws that are familiar to us because God decreed that it should be so.  The same way that God decreed that the ashes of the red heifer change a person’s spiritual status, He decreed every aspect of the Creation.

We find this in the pasuk in Tehillim (148:6) regarding the Creation, “... חָק־נָתַן וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר/… He issued a decree that will not change.”  The word חוֹק/decree has the same root as the word for engrave – חָקַק.  This decree is engraved, as it were, within the Creation.  It is the underlying force that is the source of the Creation’s existence.
In the same vein Chazal[5] tell us that חָק suggests sustenance as we find in the pasuk, “... וְאָכְלוּ אֶת־חֻקָּם .../… they ate their allowance …” (Breishis 47:22)  The underlying spiritual force sustains the entire Creation.  It is constantly imbuing the Creation with life and abundance.  The Sfas Emes teaches that the reason we were created is to reveal this spiritual life force in everything by contemplating that it exists within everything.  May we merit it!

[1] Bamidbar R. 19:1
[2] Tanchuma Chukas 8
[3] Bamidbar R. 19:2
[4] Breishis R. 39:1
[5] Beitza 16a

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Baruch Dayan HaEmes

Our dear friend and mentor Chayim Daskel passed away last night after battling cancer for a little more than 1 year.  

Eight years ago I told him that I had learnt a ma'amar of the Sfas Emes and was very excited about it.  He encouraged me to learn a ma'amar every week.  He was, in fact, the inspiration for this weekly blog.  And through the years since, he encouraged me to keep going.  Very recently even while in the midst of the pain that came with the cancer and the treatments, he sent me an email thanking me for the blog.

More than just the Sfas Emes, he opened my eyes and heart to Chassidic thought at a time when that was very important for me.

A very, very special soul, I will miss him dearly.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Korach 5631 Second Ma'amar

The Sfas Emes teaches a fundamental principle.  When we subordinate ourselves to God realizing that all our strength comes from Him, he gives us everything we need.  When we separate ourselves from God, the source of everything we have, and try to take whatever we want, even what we have is taken from us.

The Sfas Emes understands this from the first Midrash in this week’s parsha.[1]  The Midrash quotes a pasuk in Mishlei (18:19), “אָח נִפְשָׁע מִקִּרְיַת-עֹז .../A rebellious brother [is deprived] of a strong city …”  Chazal teach ust that this pasuk is referring to Korach who rebelled against Moshe Rabbeinu.  Because he rebelled, he was deprived even of the strength and honor that he had.

The Sfas Emes explains that the first words of the parsha, “וַיִּקַח קֹרַח/Korach took” imply rebellion against God.  Onkelos thus, translates this as, “Korach separated himself” implying a separation from Moshe Rabbeinu and God.  The Zohar explains that he took for himself.[2]  One who subordinates himself completely to God has no need to take anything for himself since God gives him everything he needs.  Korach’s mistake then, was that he wanted to take for himself rather than subordinate himself to Moshe Rabbeinu, from whence his honor came.

When he separated himself, even that which he had was taken from him because he cut himself off from the only source of his strength.  We find this idea in a pasuk in Tehillim (84:6), “אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם עוֹז־לוֹ בָךְ .../Happy is the man whose strength is in You.”  We also find in Yeshaya (27:5), “אוֹ יַחֲזֵק בְּמָעוּזִי יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם לִי שָׁלוֹם יַעֲשֶׂה לִּי/If [Israel] would grasp my stronghold, he would make peace with me; peace, he would make with me.”  By recognizing that God is the source of our strength we connect to Him and we attain peace.

The Sfas Emes explained in the previous ma’amar that the Creation is considered at peace when all parts of it elevate towards God, the One source of all.  This happened for the first time on the first Shabbos, Shabbos Breishis and it happens to an extent on every Shabbos.  Therefore, when we consciously recognize God as the source of everything we have, we are actively promoting an aspect of Shabbos and peace in the world.

[1] Bamidbar R. 18:1
[2] Zohar 3:176a

Friday, June 13, 2014

Shelach 5633 Fourth Ma'amar

The end of our parsha relates the story of the man who is caught transgressing the Shabbos by gathering wood.  According to a Midrash[1], God asks tells Moshe why he did this.  The wood gatherer profaned the Shabbos because he was not wearing tefillin.  If he had been wearing tefillin, merely seeing them would have been enough to cause him to refrain from profaning the Shabbos.  So, God gave us the mitzvah of wearing tzitzis which, unlike tefillin, applies on Shabbos as well.  The mitzvah of tzitzis helps us to remember the other mitzvos, “... וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצותי .../… and you will see it and remember all my mitzvos …” (Bamidbar 16:39)

The Sfas Emes asks that although it is true that we do not wear tefillin on Shabbos, Shabbos itself is a mitzvah.  In fact, Chazal[2] teach us that the reason we don’t wear tefillin on Shabbos is because it replaces tefillin.  Just as tefillin is a sign connecting us to God, Shabbos is a sign connecting us to God.  God relates regarding tefillin, “והיה לך לאות על ידכה/And it will be a sign upon your arm.”  (Shmos 13:16)  Regarding Shabbos God tells us, “כי אות היא ביני וביניכם/For it is a sign between you and I.” (Shmos 31:13)  Since we have the Shabbos as a sign, there is no need for tefillin.[3]  The Sfas Emes therefore asks why the mitzvah of Shabbos wasn’t enough to remind the wood gatherer and prevent him from transgressing.

To answer this question the Sfas Emes differentiates between Shabbos and all other mitzvos.  Chazal[4] teach us that God took every human activity and made a mitzvah for it.  Essentially, every action is a potential mitzvah.  If we perform a mitzvah, that action is holy.  If we do the exact same action but it is not a mitzvah it is not holy.  If we take a lulav on Succos, it is a holy action.  If we take a lulav the day after Succos, it is not holy.  By giving us mitzvos, God gave us the ability to draw holiness into this world through our actions.  He wants us to draw holiness into every aspect of our lives. 

The holiness of Shabbos, on the other hand, is not dependent upon us.  Chazal teach us that the holiness of Shabbos is established and set – kevia vekayama.[5]  This is the reason that the middle bracha of the Amida on Shabbos ends with, “מקדש השבת/He makes the Shabbos holy” whereas the middle bracha of the Amida on the holidays ends with, “מקדש ישראל והזמנים/He makes Israel and the times holy”  Chazal interpret this as, “He makes Israel holy who, in turn, make the times holy.” God makes Shabbos holy.  We make the holidays holy. The Sfas Emes teaches us that this is the same for every mitzvah.

It is clear now, why the Shabbos was not enough to prevent the wood gatherer from transgressing but a mitzvah such as tzitzis would have influenced him not to profane the Shabbos.  We don’t do anything to make the Shabbos holy.  It has less of an influence on us.  Actually acting with the intent to perform a mitzvah has a much greater influence on us.  May we merit it.  Amen!

[1] Tanna Devai Eliyahu Rabba 26, starting, “Teida lecha shekein hu
[2] Eiruvin 96a
[3] Eiruvin 96a – R’ Akiva
[4] Tanchuma Shelach 15
[5] Pesachim 117b

Friday, June 06, 2014

BeHa'aloscha 5631 Second Ma'amar

If a person wants to grow in his service to God, should he deliberately place himself into a situation in which he will be tested?  According to the Sfas Emes the answer to this question is in this week’s parsha. 

After the nation left Mount Sinai they complained that there was no meat to eat.  Rashi asks that in fact they did have plenty of meat.[1]  The pesukim relate that they left Egypt with cattle and sheep and they entered Israel with cattle and sheep.  Why did they complain?  Rashi answers that they were looking for an excuse.  The Sfas Emes asks that since they had meat this wasn’t even a lame excuse.  It was no excuse at all.  What, then, is the meaning of their complaint?

We find a clue at the beginning of the pasuk in which they complain.  The pasuk says, “... הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה .../… they caused themselves to crave …” (Bamidbar 11:4)  We can infer that at first they had no desire yet they caused themselves to desire.  How is it that they had no desire initially?  Furthermore, since they had no desire, why did they deliberately bring it on?  The Sfas Emes explains that they were on a very high spiritual level.  They were on a level above nature, a level on which they were free from their evil inclination.  Remember, they had spent the previous year, following the receiving of the Torah, in a highly spiritual environment.  They were at the foot of Mount Sinai basking in God’s presence which was manifest in the Mishkan.  All their physical needs were provided for allowing them to focus completely on the spiritual.

They were above physical desire yet they caused themselves to crave meat.  Why?  The Sfas Emes explains that they wanted to reach an even higher spiritual level.  They wanted to merit giving God even more satisfaction by eating something as physical as meat in holiness.  Leading a very holy life while totally detached from the physical world is certainly a high level.  But leading a holy life within the physical world is certainly an even higher level.  

We find this concept in a Midrash on the pasuk, “... ולעבדו ... בְּכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם/… and to serve Him … with all your soul.” (Devarim 11:13)  The Midrash explains that the way to serve God “with all your soul” is by directing all the attributes and forces within the soul, including physical desires, towards serving God.  When the nation complained, “נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה/our soul is dry,” (Bamidbar 11:6) they were complaining that because they were living is such a highly spiritual environment, they did not have the opportunity to worship God with all the attributes of their souls.  Their souls were dry, so to speak.  They “rectified” the situation by causing themselves to crave meat.

God, though, did not agree with their approach.  A person should be more concerned with violating the will of God by deliberately placing himself into a risky situation even if by so doing he might reach a higher spiritual level.  In fact, the Sfas Emes explains that one who does this is demonstrating an element of selfishness.  Those who are truly concerned only about doing God’s will, will be content with a simpler approach and rely on God to provide tests.

[1] Rashi on Bamidbar 11:4