Friday, August 28, 2015
How can we live in the physical world, be attached to physicality and yet live spiritual lives? The Sfas Emes finds the answer in the first mitzvah of this week’s parsha and a Midrash.
The parsha begins with the laws of a captured woman. “וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת-תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָׁה/And you saw in captivity, a beautiful woman and you desire her, and you take her for a wife.” (Devarim 21:11) The Torah permits a Jewish soldier, under certain circumstances, to take a non-Jewish woman in the heat of his passion. A strange law, to be sure. Rashi, citing Chazal, explains that the Torah is addressing a person’s evil inclination. If God had not permitted the captured woman, the soldier would take her in sin. God permitted her to him because it is not within the soldier’s ability to overcome the temptation.
The Sfas Emes asks, “Would it not be better to lessen the power of the evil inclination so that the soldier can overcome the temptation?” Why actually permit what would under any other circumstance be considered a low act?
To answer this question we must understand the nature of permitted acts and prohibited acts. The Hebrew for permitted and prohibited is heter and issur respectively. These words also mean released and bound. Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that a prohibition is called issur because the act binds one to the evil which is within it. The Sfas Emes extrapolates that a permitted act is one which enables a person to attach himself to the holy life force within it – the spiritual aspect of the act – instead of the physical. If the act is done for the sake of Heaven, the spiritual underpinnings of the act are revealed. Even if the act is not done for the sake of Heaven, one is not bound to evil. In fact, in principle, there is no other difference between a permitted act and one that is prohibited. Actions, in and of themselves are neutral.
This, then, is the reason the Torah permitted the captive woman to a Jewish soldier rather than lessen the temptation. Once the captive woman is permitted, marrying her does not bind one to evil. Indeed, the Torah goes on to detail the laws of a hated wife implying, according to Chazal, from the juxtaposition of these two laws that one leads to the other. A Jewish soldier who marries a non-Jewish female captive will not be bound to the evil within this act. Since the act is not generally done for the sake of Heaven but rather to fill a physical desire, in all likelihood, he will divorce her.
This concept is expounded upon in the Midrash on this week’s parsha. The Midrash teaches us that in order to facilitate a connection to the spiritual within everything, God associated mitzvos with everything we do. One who builds a house is required to build a fence around the roof. When he puts up the door, he needs to attach a mezuzah to the doorpost. When he puts on new clothing, he needs to ensure that they are not made of a mixture of wool and linen. Connecting to the spiritual, to the light of the Torah within the mitzvah act, is essentially connecting to God.
The Sfas Emes takes this concept one step further and applies it not only to stated mitzvos but to all actions. Any act that is done for the sake of Heaven is a mitzvah. This is hinted at in the pasuk from Mishlei that the above Midrash cites, “כִּי לִוְיַת חֵן הֵם לְרֹאשֶׁךָ .../For they are an adornment of grace for your head …” referring to the teachings of the Torah. (Mishlei 1:9) The Midrash in a play on words relates, “רֹאשֶׁךָ/your head” to “רְשֻׁיוֹתֶךָ/your permitted actions.” By striving to act for the sake of Heaven we turn mundane actions into holy ones and make ourselves holy, fulfilling the mitzvah of, “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ/You shall be holy (VaYikra 19:2). Conversely by refraining from certain actions for the sake of Heaven we fulfill the mitzvah of, “וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם .../And you shall not explore after your heart and eyes …” (BaMidbar 15:39)
This, then, answers the question we start with. By contemplating before any permitted action that it is for the sake of Heaven, in order to accomplish God’s will, the act becomes consecrated and we become consecrated as well.
Friday, August 14, 2015
When the Beis HaMikdash stood, a person was able to come close to God by physically travelling to the Beis HaMikdash where he was more easily able to experience the revelation of the Shechinah. There are in fact many mitzvos that require us to travel to the Beis HaMikdash several times a year. One of them is the mitzvah of Ma’aseir Sheni/Second Tithe that appears in this week’s parsha.
The mitzvah of Ma’aseir Sheni stipulates that we tithe our harvested grain, wine, and olive oil and bring the tithe to Jerusalem to be eaten there. A person who is blessed with such abundance that he cannot easily transport it all to Jerusalem may redeem the tithes with money and bring the money to Jerusalem. Once in Jerusalem, he must buy food with this money and eat it there.
The relevant pesukim are, “... כִּי־יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם ... וְנָתַתָּה בַּכָּסֶף וְצַרְתּ הַכֶּסֶף בְּיָדְךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם ... וְנָתַתָּה הַכֶּסֶף בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תְּאַוֶּה נַפְשְךָ ... וְאָכַלְתָּ שָּם .../… If the place is far from you … you shall change it into money, bind up the money in your hand and go to the place … You shall exchange the money for whatever your soul desires … and you shall eat it there.” (Devarim 14:24-26)
What can we do nowadays, when unfortunately the Beis HaMikdash is not yet rebuilt, in order to come close to God? The Sfas Emes learns the answer to this question from a homiletical interpretation of these pesukim. It is important to realize, firstly, that there is no place over which God does not have dominion. In Tehillim, David HaMelech taught us, “... מַלְכוּתוֹ בַּכֹּל מָשָׁלָה/… His kingdom reigns over all.” (Tehillim 103:19) We therefore have the ability to connect with God – to experience His presence – anywhere, even in places that are far from the Beis HaMikdash.
The physical world around us, though, prevents us from easily experiencing God’s presence anywhere. Outside of the Beis HaMikdash, where there was a high state of revelation, God’s presence is concealed. The advice the Torah gives to allow us to experience God’s presence outside the Beis HaMikdash is to cultivate an intense desire to do so.
The first pasuk quoted above alludes to this. Chazal often use the word מָּקוֹם/place to refer to God. The word כֶּסֶף/money has the same root as כִּיסוּף/yearning. The word “צַרְתָּ/you shall bind” also means, “you shall form or engrave” a picture.
Accordingly, the pesukim can be interpreted, “... כִּי־יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם ... וְנָתַתָּה בַּכָּסֶף וְצַרְתָּ הַכֶּסֶף בְּיָדְךָ /… If God is far from you … pine for Him, engrave the yearning in your strength and actions.” Then the next pasuk states, “וְנָתַתָּה הַכֶּסֶף בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תְּאַוֶּה נַפְשְךָ .../You shall place the yearning in everything you desire.” We should imbue all our actions with a yearning for a connection with God. All our actions should embody our love for God and our desire to experience His presence.
If we do this, we will merit, “... וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם .../… You will go to the place.” Even though we are presently unable to experience the Shechinah’s revelation in the Beis HaMikdash, Chazal teach us that if we intend to do some positive action and are prevented due to circumstances beyond our control, we are considered to have done it. We can therefore believe with absolute faith that we have connected, through sheer willpower manifested in our everyday activities, to the root of our souls, the Shechinah itself, even if we have not actually experienced this in the Beis HaMikdash.
May we merit experiencing the revelation of God’s presence in the Beis HaMikdash!
Friday, August 07, 2015
“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, addressing this question, quotes the Midrash Tanchuma that the word eikev/because, which also means heel, refers to “light” mitzvos that people tread on with their heel, so to speak. If we keep even those mitzvos that people tend to neglect, then surely God will keep His promise to our forefathers.
The Sfas Emes expounds on these “light” mitzvos. Which mitzvos are Chazal referring to? According to the Sfas Emes these mitzvos are all our daily activities which are not necessarily mitzvos at all until we realize that we can direct all of our daily activities toward the service of God thus transforming everything we do into a mitzvah. Chazal call them “light” or easy mitzvos not because they are easy to do, but rather because it is easy to ignore them as mitzvos. The Godliness in our daily activities, because they are commonplace, is hidden.
The Sfas Emes learns this from the first Midrash Tanchuma on the parsha that Rashi quoted. Relating to the word eikev/because, at the beginning of the parsha, the Tanchuma quotes a pasuk in Tehillim (49:6), “... בְּשָמְרָם עֵקֶב רָב/… in keeping them there is great reward.” Although literally, eikev in this pasuk means “reward”, the Tanchuma understands it as an allusion to the light mitzvos. David HaMelech is telling us that there is great reward for keeping the light mitzvos. As noted earlier, eikev/because, also means “heel.” The heel is that part of the body which is farthest from the head. It thus is a metaphor for the most mundane activities, those which are seemingly furthest away from anything to do with holiness. The Tanchuma is teaching us, according to the Sfas Emes, that all our mundane daily activities have the potential for holiness. The holiness is hidden, though, as the Tanchuma continues with another pasuk from Tehillim (31:20), “מָה רַב־טוּבְךָ אֲשֶׁר־צָפַנְתָּ .../How abundant is your goodness that you have hidden.” This pasuk refers to all the commonplace activities we do every day that have latent holiness.
David HaMelech is teaching us that God wants us to draw out the holiness inherent in our daily activities by contemplating serving Him before every action we take. In this way, the whole of Creation becomes a unified tool for revealing God. We build, so to speak, the Creation into what it is supposed to be. In fact, as the Sfas Emes noted in parshas Tetzaveh the word mitzvah – מצוה – has the same root as the Aramaic word for joining - צִוְתָּא. Our mitzvos cause the entire Creation to be joined together in a unified whole.
For this reason the first Midrash on the parsha starts with the prohibition against constructing a candelabrum made from separate parts on Shabbos. Chazal consider it building, one of the thirty-nine categories of work that is prohibited on Shabbos. What has this halacha to do with our parsha?
The Sfas Emes explains that in the context of unifying the disparate parts of the Creation towards the common goal of serving God the candelabrum is a metaphor for the Creation. Each individual component of the candelabrum is meaningless by itself. It is only when they are put together that they form a tool. Each part of the candelabrum, when it performs its individual task assures that the candelabrum as a whole, works. Each part of the Creation as well has a specific task. Man has the ability (and the responsibility) to unite the entire world in the service of God. As we’ve said man can complete the Creation turning it into a tool for revealing God. The mechanism for doing this is the performance of the mitzvos. The Torah stresses the “light” mitzvos (i.e. all our commonplace activities) because they are easy to overlook.
How does this work? Every creation and action has a Godly spiritual force in it that gives it its existence. When we direct our activities in the service of God we draw out the spiritual light latent in those actions. This is certainly the case regarding mitzvos in which the Godly force is more apparent. Obviously, donning tefillin, for example, is a holy act. The Sfas Emes explains, though, that this is the case regarding all our mundane activities. When we dedicate our activities to the service of God we transform them into mitzvos as well. We thus reveal the spiritual light inherent even in our most banal activities.
A person who realizes that there is a Godly force in everything he does and that he is able to reveal that force through correct intentions thereby transforming every action into a mitzvah, is well on his way towards yiras shamayim/awe of Heaven. He sees God in everything. In this week’s parsha we find, “... מָה ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם-לְיִרְאָה אֶת-ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ ... וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ .../… What does God your Lord ask of you if not to fear Him … and to love Him …” (Devarim 10:12) The pasuk makes it sound easy. All we need to do is have fear of Heaven. Chazal ask the question, “Is fear of Heaven a small thing?!” Chazal answer that for Moshe Rabbeinu it was a small thing. But Moshe Rabbeinu is talking to the nation. According to Chazal, Moshe Rabbeinu is telling the nation that fear of God is not difficult and presents himself as an example! What does this mean?
The meaning of this Chazal lies in the reason fear of Heaven was easy for Moshe Rabbeinu. Chazal themselves give a clue. Chazal compare it to asking a person to borrow a big tool. If the person has the tool he does not consider it big but if he does not have it he considers it big. The Sfas Emes explains that Moshe Rabbeinu already had the attribute of fear of Heaven so for him it was a small thing. The Sfas Emes relates this to each of us.
Fear of Heaven, the Sfas Emes teaches can be a small thing for each of us just as it is for Moshe Rabbeinu, if a person desires it. Our desire to fear God brings us to a low level of awe. Then, step by step we attain higher and higher levels of awe of God. Each step in itself is a small thing. As Chazal said regarding Moshe Rabbeinu, since he already had it, for him it was a small thing. The exact same logic applies to each of us.
This concept explains another teaching that Chazal learn from this pasuk – everything is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven. Why do Chazal say only fear of Heaven? After all, the pasuk goes on to list other things that God requests of us as well. We are required to love Him, to walk in His ways and to serve Him with all our hearts and souls.
The Sfas Emes explains that certainly fear of Heaven is the main thing since it is listed first. However, in terms of service to God, it is listed first, as well, because it is the basis, the prerequisite, the preparation, for all the other requirements that follow in the pasuk. Everything else in the pasuk builds on it. In order to truly love God, we must first learn to be in awe of Him. By mentioning only fear of Heaven, Chazal are not excluding the other attributes listed in the pasuk. They are stressing fear of Heaven because in the context of our lifelong dedication toward serving God it is the first level that we must attain.
The word ma/what in this pasuk alludes to awe of God as well. Chazal learn through a play on the word ma/what, which is similar to me’ah/one hundred, that we are required to say one hundred blessings each day. What compelled Chazal to learn me’ah/one hundred blessings from ma/what of this pasuk specifically? The Sfas Emes explains that the main aspect of awe of God is understanding that our very lives are in His hands exactly like an ax in the hand of a woodchopper. Ma/What connotes humility as in Moshe Rabbeinu’s response to the nation’s complaints, “וְנַחְנוּ מָה כִּי תַלִּינוּ עָלֵינוּ/what are we that you complain to us?” (Shmos 16:7) Seeing God’s power behind everything leads us to bless Him for everything we take from this world. This compelled Chazal to learn the requirement to say blessings from the word, ma/what, in this pasuk.
We can serve God in everything we do. We merely need to preface all of our activities with this thought. May we merit seeing God in everything, attaining awe of Heaven which is the first step in serving God and revealing the latent holiness in all our actions.
Friday, July 31, 2015
The first Midrash 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. 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. 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.
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 3:23) VaEschanan/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!
Devarim R. 2:1
Ibid., א"ר יוחנן עשרה לשונות נקראת תפלה ואלו הן, שועה, צעקה, נאקה, רנה, פגיעה, ביצור, קריאה, ניפול, ופילול, ותחנונים
Sifri VaEschanan 26
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
“וּמִקְנֶה רַב הָיָה לִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וְלִבְנֵי-גָד .../The children of Reuven and the children of Gad had much livestock …” (Bamidbar 32:1) The Midrash 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.