Friday, July 31, 2015

VaEschanan 5631 First Ma'amar

The first Midrash[1] on this week’s parsha says that if a person pays attention to his prayer he can rest assured that it is heard as it says in Tehillim, (10:17) “... תָּכִין לִבָּם תַּקְשִׁיב אָזְנֶךָ/… You prepare their heart; let Your ear be attentive.”  If a person’s heart is prepared when he prays, God listens to the prayer.

This Midrash is difficult to understand.  It implies that if a person does not pay attention to the words of his prayer, he has prayed albeit not properly.  But the very definition of prayer is a request, a petition of God.  If a person mouths the words while his thoughts are elsewhere, is this prayer?
To be sure, at the very least one must be attentive to his words.  The Midrash, however, is referring to a higher level of prayer.  The clue to understanding this Midrash is in the pasuk the Midrash brings.  The pasuk says that God prepares their hearts and He listens to their prayers.  Shouldn’t the pasuk say that the ones who pray prepare their own hearts?  Why does it say that God prepares their hearts?  The Sfas Emes explains that at the highest level, true preparation is also from God.  The Midrash is teaching us that a person who prays in a totally unselfconscious way, pouring out his heart before God, has reached a level of prayer at which God Himself prepares and directs that person’s heart towards Him.  This type of prayer is certainly heard.

But why would we want God to direct our hearts?  Can we not direct our own hearts?  The answer to this question is related to the reason a person approaches God with a request.  At its highest level, prayer is not about asking for our own benefit.  At its highest level, prayer is about asking for the sake of Heaven.  The pasuk in Mishlei (16:1) says, “לְאָדָם מַעַרְכֵי־לֵב וּמֵה' מַעֲנֵה לָשׁוֹן/The preparation of thoughts in the heart are man’s but the response of the tongue is from God.”  A person who reaches the highest level of prayer, whose prayers are for the sake of Heaven is so completely unselfconscious and involved in the connection to God that the prayer affords, that he even forgets the need that brought him to prayer in the first place.  At this level God puts the appropriate words into his mouth to ask for what he really needs.  Shlomo HaMelech is teaching us that if we prepare properly for prayer then God supplies us with the proper words.  At this level of prayer for the sake of Heaven we want God to direct our hearts, to supply us with the proper words and the best way to approach Him.

What can we do to reach this level of prayer?  The Sfas Emes learns the ways of preparing for prayer from the first Midrash on the parsha.[2]  This Midrash mentions ten different expressions that represent prayer.  Significantly, the primary Hebrew word for prayer – tefilla, is not among them.  Why not?  The Sfas Emes explains that the Midrash is teaching us ten different ways of preparing for prayer.  In order to reach a level of prayer at which God directs us we need to use the tools mentioned in the Midrash.

Chazal teach us that even the righteous who are able to approach God in prayer on the merit of their good deeds prefer to come before God as unworthy and rely completely on His mercy and compassion.[3]  The Kotzker Rav asks from a pasuk in Iyov, (41:3) “מִי הִקְדִּימַנִי וַאֲשַׁלֵּם .../I will pay the one who comes before Me …”  God is telling Iyov that He will answer the prayers of the one who comes before Him and makes a request.  The implication is that no one really deserves to be answered, not even the righteous.  The Sfas Emes elucidates that if a person were truly deserving, he would not have to ask.  He would receive what he should according to the letter of the law.  Yet, Chazal tell us that the righteous are deserving in the merit of their good deeds.  How does this Chazal reconcile with the pasuk in Iyov?

The Sfas Emes explains, according to what we’ve said, that while the pasuk in Iyov is referring to petitioning God with requests, Chazal are referring to approaching God in prayer.  No one, not even the righteous, merit positive answers from God.  And this is implied by the pasuk in Iyov.  However, the righteous are certainly able to approach God and come close to Him in the merit of their good deeds.  Still, they prefer to come before God as unworthy.  They would rather approach God with entreaties.  The last of the expressions of prayer mentioned in the Midrash, in fact, is tachanunim/entreaties which comes from the root chanun/compassionate.  It implies that God in His mercy allows us to approach Him with our requests even when we are unworthy of His compassion[4]

This is why the first Midrash above brings the pasuk, “... תָּכִין לִבָּם .../… You prepare their heart …” as an expression of the highest level of prayer.  As we noted earlier, significantly, the pasuk says that God prepares their hearts rather than their preparing their own hearts.  At the highest level, we want to approach God from a position of unworthiness and rely upon Him to prepare our hearts, to guide us in prayer.

According to this approach to prayer we can understand the inner meaning of the first pasuk in our parsha, “וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל־ה' ... לֵאמֹר/I entreated God … saying.” (Devarim 3:23VaEschanan/I entreated is in the reflexive form.  The last word in the pasuk, leimor/saying is apparently extra.  Moshe Rabbeinu is saying, “I prepared myself reaching the level of one who entreats before God so that I could be guided by Him in prayer.”  Moshe Rabbeinu is teaching us that prayer is a reflexive activity.  It is working on ourselves, preparing ourselves to approach our Creator.  The primary goal of prayer is approaching and coming close to God.   May we merit it.  Amen!

[1]Devarim R. 2:1
[2]Ibid., א"ר יוחנן עשרה לשונות נקראת תפלה ואלו הן, שועה, צעקה, נאקה, רנה, פגיעה, ביצור, קריאה, ניפול, ופילול, ותחנונים
[3]Sifri VaEschanan 26
[4]See also Ramban in Parashas Mishpatim (Shmos 22:26) That חנון implies that He accepts supplication even from one who is not worthy.  The root of חנון is חנם/free.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Matos 5631 Second Ma'amar

וּמִקְנֶה רַב הָיָה לִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וְלִבְנֵי-גָד .../The children of Reuven and the children of Gad had much livestock …” (Bamidbar 32:1)  The Midrash[1] on this pasuk says that when a person receives a gift such as wisdom, power or wealth, on the merit of his Torah, it will last.  It came from God.  However, if a person grabs wisdom, power or wealth, it will not last.  It did not come from God.  Because of their love for their wealth, the tribes of Reuven and Gad refused to enter the land of Israel.  Significantly, they were the first of the tribes to be exiled.

The Midrash thus differentiates between a gift that comes from God and a gift that one grabs for himself – a gift that does not come from God.  Does not everything come from God, though?  Is it possible to grab a gift that God does not what me to have?  What does the Midrash mean when it refers to a gift that does not come from God?

Of course everything comes from God.  However, God’s power is sometimes revealed and sometimes hidden.  Whether it is revealed or hidden depends upon a person’s thoughts.  The one who realizes that everything he owns comes from God, will experience the Godly power inherent in everything he owns.  He will not lose his possessions.  The one who thinks that God has little to do with what he owns, rather he believes that they are his due to his own strength or wisdom will not experience the Godly power inherent in them.  Left to the vagaries of chance, so to speak, he may very well lose everything.

[1]Bamidbar R. 22:7

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pinchas 5631 First Ma'amar

God gave the priesthood to Aharon and his progeny as a gift, not as an earned reward as the pasuk states, “עֲבֹודַת מַתָּנָה אֶתֵּן אֶת כְּהוּנַתְכֶם/The service is a gift that I have given with your priesthood.” (Bamidbar 18:7)  Yet the first Midrash[1]  on the parsha says that Pinchas earned the priesthood. How can he have earned it if the Torah says explicitly that it was a gift?  The Sfas Emes says that there is no contradiction.  The Midrash is teaching us that it is possible to earn a gift.  Where do we find the concept of earning a gift?

First we need to understand that a gift represents love and kindness.  Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes in his seminal work Tanya[2] that there is a level of love for God which cannot be reached directly.  Rather by working on developing awe of God, achieving the highest level we possibly can, each of us according to our individual potential, we are granted a commensurate level of love for God.  This level of love is a gift that is granted involving no prior direct effort or preparation.  The terms awe and love as used by the author of Tanya and by the Sfas Emes imply serving God and coming close to Him respectively.  We cannot work to experience God directly.  However, we can strive to serve Him.  As a reward, He allows us to experience closeness to Him.  Rav Shneur Zalman is teaching us that God’s love – the experience of closeness – is a gift that can be earned. 

The priesthood as well, represents love and kindness.  Indeed, the Zohar[3]  explains that the priesthood is a channel for drawing God’s lovingkindness into the world.  God granted the priesthood as a gift.  This represents God’s love.  The priests, too, whose work in the Beis HaMikdash brings us closer to God and is done on our behalf, represent love and kindness. 

In this sense, Pinchas, too, was granted the priesthood, an aspect of love and kindness, of closeness to God, as a gift for acting zealously on behalf of the nation, essentially for striving to serve God to the utmost of his ability.  He earned the gift.
The reason Pinchas merited the priesthood is thus clear, but why did his progeny merit it through his act?  The Sfas Emes explains Pinchas merited for his progeny as well because he acted on behalf of and from within the nation.  His act atoned for the nation and saved their progeny.  As a reward he merited the priesthood for his progeny.  

The Sfas Emes expounds on this concept.  The key to Pinchas’s act of vengeance was not the act itself.  Rather, the key was that Pinchas acted solely on behalf and for the benefit of the nation.  He had no personal motives.  He was not hero-motivated.  For this reason the pasuk describes his act as, “... בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם .../… by acting zealously among them …” (Bamidbar 25:11)  “Among them” seems an unnecessary addition to this description.  The Sfas Emes explains that this teaches us two things.  Firstly, Pinchas acted on behalf of the nation.  Secondly, the act of zealousness needed to be done by an ordinary member of the nation, someone with no rank, someone who rose up from amongst the nation[4].  Pinchas acted on behalf of and as a representative of the nation.  This is why Pinchas was not granted priesthood earlier.  Only one of the rank and file of the nation with no special status could have acted as he acted.  This is also why Moshe Rabbeinu could not have done what Pinchas did.  To atone for the nation’s sin, a member of the nation had to act. 

For this reason as well, Pinchas is related back to his grandfather Aharon in the beginning of the parsha.  Usually the first time a person is mentioned in the Torah, he is related back one generation.  Pinchas is related back two generations and this is not even the first mention of him.  Pinchas was already mentioned in parshas Balak.  Why then, does the Torah relate him back two generations to Aharon HaCohen?  Chazal tell us that Aharon loved peace.[5]  Everything he did was in the name of the entire nation of Israel.  The Torah relates Pinchas back to Aharon to teach us that Pinchas acted in the name of the entire nation as well.

The concept of earning a gift was introduced by Avraham Avinu.  The Midrash tells us that Shem the son of Noach received the priesthood.[6]  The Midrash makes it clear that he was not chosen to receive the priesthood as a reward.  When Shem died, Avraham Avinu received the priesthood.  The Midrash states clearly that he was chosen because of his righteousness.  In another Midrash we find that Shem called Yerushalayim, Shalem/Complete whereas Avraham Avinu called it Yir’a/Awe.[7]  What is the significance of these different names and what is their connection with Shem and Avraham Avinu? 

Shalem – Shem’s name for Yerushalayim – means complete.  It is also related to the Hebrew word for peace – shalom.  The Sfas Emes explains that receiving an undeserved gift is an aspect of peace.  God, for example, gives life to everything as an act of unearned kindness.  The Zohar calls this aspect of God, peace.[8]  We find this concept relating to the Creation.  Chazal teach us that Shabbos is an unearned gift that God bestowed on the Creation.[9]  Shabbos as the culmination of the Creation was the point at which the Creation was complete.  A system which is complete is at peace with itself.  Each part of the system is doing its unique job but striving towards the common goal of the entire system.  Each part of the Creation, by doing its unique job, is bringing the entire Creation closer to God.  This is why on Shabbos we say that God spreads His canopy of peace upon us.[10]  Peace and Shabbos are very closely connected.  We see clearly, that God bestowed the unearned gift of Shabbos upon the Creation and the Zohar calls Shabbos, peace.[11]  Shem called Yerushalayim Shalem because he himself was granted the priesthood unearned through God’s kindness.

Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, developed, cultivated and perfected his strength to achieve anything God asked of him.  He passed the ultimate test when he went to sacrifice his son Yitzchak.  As a result he was granted the highest level of love of God. 

First, with Shem, God granted closeness to Himself through pure lovingkindness.  This is why Shem called the city Shalem.  Avraham Avinu taught us that we can achieve closeness to God through service to God; we are able to merit the gift.  This is the reason Avraham Avinu called the city Yir’a.  By striving to be in awe of God we can merit the gift of closeness to Him.  God connected the two and called the city Yerushalayim.  Yerushalayim represents each person’s ability to reach a high level of love and completeness, a closeness to God, by serving Him to deserve the gift.

We find this concept in the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week. The Tikunei HaZohar states that during the six days of the week we serve God with awe.  On Shabbos we serve God with love.[12]  The Sfas Emes teaches us that one follows the other.  The way we serve God on Shabbos depends on how we serve God during the six days of the preceding week.  If we serve God with awe during the week, we are granted the gift of love – closeness – on Shabbos.

The concept of completeness coinciding with closeness to God is brought out by a Gemara in Maseches Kidushin.[13] The Gemara states that a priest who is physically disfigured may not serve as a priest. The Gemara learns this from the pasuk describing Pinchas’s reward as the covenant of peace.  As we’ve said, shalom/peace has the same root as shalem/complete.  Therefore, a priest who is disfigured is physically incomplete and may not serve.  A pasuk in Yeshaya, though, implies that God dwells specifically with “broken vessels”, “אֶשְׁכּוֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל־רוּח/I will dwell with the despondent and lowly of spirit.” (Yeshaya 57:15)  How does this pasuk reconcile with the law prohibiting a physically disfigured priest from serving in the Temple?  The Zohar answers that physical disfigurement disqualifies a priest because it infers a spiritual blemish.[14]  A righteous person, however, whose heart is broken in his service to God is not a disfigurement.  The Zohar says that he is God’s pride. 

We cultivate a sense of awe, then, by contemplating God’s completeness and our own lowliness.  This is what the Zohar refers to as “broken vessels.”  When we do this to the best of our ability, God grants us a degree of closeness to Him which is impossible to reach directly and can only be described as a gift.  It is what we’ve described earlier as the highest level of love for God.  

[1]Bamidbar R. 21:1
[2]Tanya, Igeres HaKodesh 6, 18
[3] Zohar 3:48b
[4] Also, see last week’s parsha, “ויקם מתוך העדה/[Pinchas] arose from the midst of the congregation.”
[5]Avos 1:12
[6]Breishis R. 4:8
[7]Breishis R. 56:10
[8]Zohar Chadash Shir HaShirim in Midrash haNe’elam 72c
[9]Shabbos 10b
[10]Birchos Kri’as Shema Arvis; Zohar 1:48a, also see Bamidbar R. 21:1
[11]Zohar 3:176b
[12]Tikunei Zohar 36:78a
[13]Kidushin 66b
[14]Zohar 3:90b

Friday, July 03, 2015

Balak 5648 Second Ma'amar

Note:  Click here for a fascinating story regarding this ma'amar told over by the Tolener Rebbe.

... וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם מֶה־עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי זֶה שָׁלֹש רְגָלִים/(The donkey) said to Bil’am, ‘What did I do to you that you hit me three times?” (Bamidbar 22:28)  The word “time” is found many times in the Torah as “פַּעַם.”  This is the only place in Tanach where the word regel is used to mean “time.”  Why?  The Midrash answers that the Torah is alluding to the shalosh regalim, Pesach, Shavuos and Succos, the three holidays that we celebrate each year.[1]  God is berating Bil’am for wanting to destroy a nation that celebrates these three holidays.

The nation keeps many mitzvos.  Why did God hint specifically at the shalosh regalim?  The allusion to the three holidays specifically, is a response to Balak’s complaint.  Balak’s stated purpose was to prevent the nation from entering the land of Israel, “... אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה־בּוֹ וַאֲגֳרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן־הָאָרֶץ .../… Perhaps I will be able to strike them and banish them from the land …” (Bamidbar 22:6)  The Sfas Emes explains that from the three holidays we learn of the special connection between the nation of Israel and the land of Israel.  By alluding to the shalosh regalim God is telling Bil’am that there is a special relationship between the nation of Israel and this particular land.  No other land will do.

How do the shalosh regalim indicate a special relationship between the nation of Israel and the land of Israel?  A primary element of the shalosh regalim celebrations is the aliya laregel, the requirement for every male to go up to the Beis HaMikdash on the holiday.  The Sfas Emes explains that aliya laregel is a testimony that the land of Israel was set aside specifically for the nation of Israel as David HaMelech wrote in Tehillim (122:4), “שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים ... עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל .../For there the tribes ascended … a testimony for Israel …”  Bil’am himself prophesied this, “כִּי־מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ .../For I will see him (the nation) from the top of mountain peaks and will view him from hills.” (Bamidbar 23:9)  The plain meaning of this prophecy is that every mountain peak and hilltop was designated for the nation of Israel.  He saw the nation filling the entire land. 

Chazal also mention this relationship.[2]  Chazal teach us that God acquired, as it were, five things in this world.  Three of the five are the heavens and the earth, the nation of Israel and the Beis HaMikdash.  That these are mentioned together in this mishna indicates that there is a strong relationship between them. 

What is the nature of this relationship? The Sfas Emes explains that the children of Israel have qualities which exactly match the qualities inherent in the land of Israel.  Just as the Zohar[3] teaches that the land of Israel and the Beis Hamikdash are the foundation from which the entire Creation sprung, so too, the Sfas Emes teaches, the children of Israel are the foundation for all the souls in the Creation.[4]

The land of Israel needs the nation for its tikun/rectification.  Chazal teach us that Bil’am’s blessing, “מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב .../Who can count the dirt of Ya’akov …” (Bamidbar 23:10) is referring to the many mitzvos which are fulfilled only in the dirt of the land of Israel.  The mitzvos of tithing, shmitta and many other mitzvos can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel.  These mitzvos are needed to rectify the land and only the children of Israel are able to perform these mitzvos.  This is why God blessed Ya’akov by comparing his descendents to the dirt of the land, “וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ .../Your progeny shall be like the dirt of the land.” (Breishis 28:14)  The Creator prepared the dirt of the land of Israel specifically for the descendents of Ya’akov.  Only we can rectify it. 

Just as He measured the land, “מִי־מָדַד ... וְכָל בַּשָּׁלִשׁ עֲפַר הָאָרֶץ .../Who measured with a measure the dirt of the land …,” (Yeshaya 40:12) He also measured the dirt of Ya’akov, “מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב .../Who can count the dirt of Ya’akov …”  The Sfas Emes teaches us that that each grain of dirt in the land of Israel is associated with a Jewish soul.  May we merit appreciating the integral connection between us and our land and to fulfilling the mitzvos needed to rectify it!

[1] Bamidbar R. 20:14
[2] Avos 6:10
[3] Zohar 2:222a-b
[4] The Creation is structured as a hierarchy leading from most to least spiritual.  Life giving energy flows from the Creator through the spiritual realms and finally to the physical world, giving existence to all.  The souls of the nation of Israel are an integral part of this hierarchy.  (see Nefesh HaChaim 1:17 and 2:17)