Friday, July 18, 2014
The beginning of parshas Matos details the laws of vows. The first Midrash on the parsha teaches us that not just anybody is permitted to take a vow. The prerequisite traits that are needed before a person may take a vow are derived from a pasuk in Devarim (10:20), “אֶת־ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ תִּירָא אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק וּבִשְׁמוֹ תִּשָּׁבֵעַ/You shall fear God your Lord, serve Him and cling to Him, and swear by His name.” The Midrash says that to take a vow one must be God-fearing like Avraham Avinu, Iyov and Yosef whom the Torah refers to as God-fearing. One must serve God through Torah and mitzvos to the exclusion of all else. Finally, one must cling to God.
Regarding the last required trait of clinging to God the Midrash asks, “How is it possible to cling to the Shechina?” The Torah calls God a consuming fire. Is it possible for a physical being to connect to a consuming fire? The Sfas Emes elucidates the Midrash’s question. He explains that it is based on the premise that connecting to God involves distancing oneself from the physical, since God is far removed from physicality. The Midrash notes the difficulty with this direct approach to clinging to God. The Midrash answers that the only way a physical being can connect to God, is indirectly, through activity in this world. We connect to God in this world when our actions are done for His sake.
This explains how we can experience God in this world but why must a person’s every action be done for the sake of Heaven in order to take vows? What is the connection between dedicating our actions to God and taking vows? Understanding the nature of vows will shed light on this question. A vow is a verbal expression of a person’s desire to do a given action. The Torah gives such a declaration the status of a legal commitment. Chazal tell us that vows can be used as a tool to encourage us in the performance of mitzvos.
Avraham Avinu, Iyov and Yosef, the people the Torah explicitly refers to as God-fearing, were on a level at which awe of God permeated and motivated their every action. Everything they did was for His sake. Since everything they did increased God’s glory in this world, every one of their actions, even the most mundane, was transformed into a mitzvah.
The Midrash is teaching us that when all of a person’s activities are for the sake of Heaven, when one’s desires and God’s will are in complete alignment, he has transformed his actions into mitzvos. It is appropriate for this person to declare his desire, which mirrors God’s will, in the form of a vow.
However, for many of us, our desires are not totally aligned with God’s will. Our actions may be motivated by other factors such as personal desires. These actions are not mitzvos. It is thus not appropriate to declare such desires as vows. What can we do to align our desires with God’s? The Sfas Emes advises us to work on performing our routine daily activities because we need to (e.g. we need to eat to live) rather than because we desire to. This is the first step in aligning our actions with God’s will. May we merit it. Amen!
Friday, July 04, 2014
There is more to the world around us than what we sense with our eyes. Everything physical has a spiritual aspect to it. Even those things which our eyes tell us are antithetical to holiness have a spiritual aspect. They must, otherwise they would not exist. Those who are on a high spiritual level can sense the spirituality.
The nation of
Israel in the
desert was on such a level. Not only were
the people on this level, but their high spiritual level spilled over, so to
speak, on their surroundings such that the peoples they passed and with whom
they came into contact experienced a Godly revelation as well. What happens when a person who is not ready
for it, experiences a spiritual truth that contradicts the evidence of his own
eyes? The Sfas Emes explains that he
denies it and believes, rather, what he sees.
The wicked cannot see the truth.
This explains the pasuk at the beginning of our parsha, “... עַם יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם הִנֵּה כִסָּה אֶת־עֵין הָאָרֶץ .../… a nation went out from Egypt; behold, they have covered the face of the earth …” (Bamidbar 22:5) The literal translation is, “He has covered the eye of the land.” “The eye of the land” is a metaphor for eyes which only see the physical. Balak, as well, experienced the revelation which showed the spiritual to be the ultimate reality, not the material world around him. From his perspective, though, the exact opposite happened. The reality of his physical surroundings was covered over with a veneer of spirituality. This is why he was angry with the nation of
Israel. They were disturbing his view of
Friday, June 27, 2014
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 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. 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 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. 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 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!
Sunday, June 22, 2014
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
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. 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. 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.