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

Friday, August 01, 2014

Devarim 5631 Third Ma'amar

Many times we find ourselves in circumstances in which it is unclear what we must do.  What tool can we use to decide the correct course of action?  The Sfas Emes establishes a fundamental principle regarding lack of clarity.  The ultimate reality is God.  To God there is no such thing as a lack of clarity.  Any lack of clarity, therefore, is an illusion.  It is an external block preventing us from seeing clearly.  The way to gain clarity of vision is to remove the block.  Removing the block is essentially connecting with God.  And since God is everywhere and in everything, everything has the potential for clarity.  All that is necessary is to remove the block thus connecting with the Godliness in that which lacks clarity. 

How is this done?  We find a clue in this week’s parsha.  Referring to difficulties judges may have in rendering judgment, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation, “... וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶה מִכֶּם תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו/… Bring to me that which is too difficult for you and I will hear it.” (Devarim 1:17)  The Kesser Shem Tov[1] gives this pasuk broader application according to the Ramban.  Although addressing the issue from the perspective of rendering judgment, the same principles apply to any situation that requires a decision.  Here, “תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי/bring it to me” alludes to and implies bringing the unclear thing to God since Moshe Rabbeinu is the quintessential tool for giving over God’s teaching. 

The Sfas Emes explains that bringing something close to God means connecting with the Godliness within the unclear thing.  How?  The Kesser Shem Tov explains according to the Ramban that one must remove any personal bias.  When our personal bias is no longer a factor and our entire motivation is only to know the will of God, we will see the truth and know what is required of us. May we merit it.  Amen!

[1] Kesser Shem Tov 3a