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