Friday, May 08, 2015

Behar 5632 First Ma'amar

The Zohar teaches that God used the Torah to create the world.[1]  The Zohar is teaching us that the Torah is much more than the physical scrolls that are its physical manifestation.  The Torah is a powerful spiritual entity that Chazal metaphorically refer to as “fire.”[2]  Since God created the world through the Torah and keeps it in existence continually, it follows that God’s life-force permeates the entire Creation.

This life-force, though, is not apparent in the Creation.  The Creation itself acts as a barrier that hides the Godly life-force.  When we look around us, we see the physical world, not the spiritual life-force underlying it.  Our mission, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is to search and find the light of the Torah in all things.  How can we do this? 

The Midrash[3] in this week’s parsha teaches us through metaphors on the following pasuk in Mishlei (18:21), “מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁוֹן .../The tongue (i.e. speech) has the power of death and life …”  How does speech have the power of death and life?  Speech represents the life-force within us because we use our breath to speak.  Breath, the Torah tells us, is life, “וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים/He blew the breath of life into his nostrils.” (Breishis 2:7

The power of life and death, means the power to reveal or hide the Godliness that is within everything.  The Midrash compares this to blowing or spitting on coal.  When we blow on a coal, if flames up while spitting on it extinguishes it.  The flame in the coal is a metaphor for the spiritual within the physical in this world.  The flame is hidden within and attached to the coal[4] until we blow on it and reveal it.  So to, the spiritual is hidden within and attached to the physical.  When we acknowledge the spiritual within us we can recognize the spiritual in everything.  The spiritual within the physical is then revealed.  In the words of the metaphor, “Blowing on the coal causes it to flame.” 

If, however we do not recognize the spiritual within us, we cannot recognize the spiritual in the physical world around us.  Again, in the words of the metaphor, “… spitting on the flame, extinguishes it.” 

The Midrash also compares the power of life and death – the power to reveal or hide the Godliness within the physical world – to eating food that has been tithed or not tithed.  Eating food before it has been tithed is death through the tongue.  Eating food after it has been tithed is the power of life through the tongue.

The Sfas Emes explains the significance of this allegory.  Tithing our food to fulfill God’s commandment is a way of expressing our belief that the food, and by extension everything, is from Him.  The acknowledgement that the food is from God, reveals the Godliness inherent in the food.  Food that is not tithed can be viewed as being wrapped in a shell preventing its spiritual life-force from being experienced.

May we merit acknowledging the Godliness within us and as a result the Godliness that permeates the entire world.  Amen!

[1]  Zohar 1:5a
[2]  Ta’anis 7a
[3]  VaYikra R. 33:1
[4]   Sefer Yetzira 1:7

Friday, May 01, 2015

Emor 5632 First Ma'amar

Parshas Emor begins with the laws of purity of priests.[1]  Something which is pure is not mixed with anything else.  When we say that gold is pure, for example, we mean that it contains nothing but gold.  When we say that a person has pure intentions, we mean that his actions have no ulterior motives.  The priests’ service in the mishkan exemplifies serving God with purity.  How can we serve God with purity?  What technique can we apply in order to serve God with no ulterior motives? 

The first Midrash[2] on this week’s parsha addressing this question brings the pasuk in Tehillim (12:7), “אִמְרוֹת ה' אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת .../God’s sayings are pure sayings…”  “אִמְרָה/Saying” alludes to the ten מַאֲמָרוֹת/sayings with which God created the world.  The Sfas Emes explains that the saying itself gives existence to the Creation.  The creating power of God, through the saying, is hidden within the Creation.  It follows that the saying is the source of purity within everything.  To stress the point, the beginning of this week’s parsha, dealing with the laws of purity of priests, repeats the word “say”, “אֱמֹר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם .../Say to the priests the children of Aharon and say to them…” (VaYikra 21:1)  The redundancy is glaring. 

The repetition is significant and gives us a clue as to how we can attain purity in our own actions.  A similar repetition in parshas Ki Savo sheds light on our parsha.  In parshas Ki Savo we find, “אֶת־ה' הֶאֱמַרְתָּ הַיּוֹם/Today you have made God unique.” (Devarim 26:17)  In the next pasuk we find, “וַה' הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם/And God has made you unique today.”  Chazal[3] explain that the nation of Israel made God unique by declaring, “שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד/Listen Israel, God is our Lord, God is One.” (Devarim 6:4)  God made Israel unique by declaring, “מִי כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל גוֹי אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ/Who is like your nation Israel, one nation on earth.” (Shmuel II 7:23

When we consider a relationship to be unique, we mean that there is a special connection that we have that excludes all others.  The relationship is pure in the sense that it applies to one and to no other.  Considering God unique to us is the essence of pure service.  We reject all others.  We reject our own desires and we subjugate ourselves to the will of God.  The word used for “unique” in these p’sukim has the same root as “אִמְרָה/saying.”  

In parshas Ki Savo we learn how to attain a level of pure intentions in serving God.  There is a two step process in attaining purity.  First God brings us close to Him.  He makes us unique among the nations.  Then, we accept this closeness and make Him unique.  Instead of following our own desires, we will follow only His.  This is the essence of purity.  To the extent we subordinate our own desires to God’s we become pure.

The Torah contains other examples of this two step process in reaching a level of pure intentions in our actions.  Each example serves to clarify the process so that we are better able to apply it to our daily lives. 

The first example is the relationship between the Exodus and the mitzvah of counting the Omer.  First God brought us close to Him by bringing us out of Egypt.  Our subservience to Him was a natural reaction to the miracles and revelation which we witnessed.  In addition to freeing us from our bondage to the Egyptians, He freed us from our bondage to our own desires and subjugated us to Him.  Then, during the period of Sfiras HaOmer we accepted His closeness, quelled our own desires in favor of His and our worship became pure. 

The Sfiras HaOmer itself hints at the idea of accepting God’s closeness and purity of worship.  But how can we finite beings come close to the infinite God.  How can we receive anything from or even relate to Infinity?  In order to be able to receive from and relate to God, He created a mechanism through which the finite Creation can draw God’s infinite blessing into it.  This mechanism is called midos/measures[4] implying that although God is infinite, His blessing reaches us in measured doses that we can receive. 

There are seven midos which correspond to the seven primary personality traits[5].  Each of the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos corresponds to one of these midos.  It is a time that is particularly conducive to working on our personality traits to use them only according to God’s will; to draw upon the Godly midos to this end.  We did this between the Exodus and receiving the Torah and it applies today as well.  In fact, purification is one of the reasons for the mitzvah of Sfiras HaOmer.  The prayer following Sfiras HaOmer begins, “Master of the Universe, You commanded us … to count Sfiras HaOmer in order to purify us …”

A second example of the two step process in attaining pure intention is found in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week.  On Shabbos, God is more manifest in the Creation.  It is easier to focus only on God.  God brings us close to Him on Shabbos so that after experiencing Shabbos, we can draw that special revelation into the week.

Finally, the redundancy at the beginning of our parsha, as well, alludes to this process.  “אֱמֹר/Say” connoting connection and purity, suggests that God brings us close to Him.  We are a unique nation unto God.  “וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם/And you will say to them” suggests that we accept His closeness in everything that we do and in our desires.  He is unique to us.  To the extent that we accept God in our actions, our motives become pure.

[1]           VaYikra 21:1-6
[2]           VaYikra R. 26:1
[3]           Brachos 6a
[4]           The midos are also referred to as sefiros in Kabbala literature.  See Terumah 5631 First Ma'amar Sfas Emes Trumah 5631for more on the concept of midos.
[5]           The seven midos are Chessed-Lovingkindness, Gevurah-Restraint, Tiferes-Beauty, Netzach-Dominance, Hod-Empathy, Yesod-Foundation, Malchus-Kingship.  For an illuminating discussion of the midos see the excellent book Inner Space, Chapter 4, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan zt”l.