Friday, May 08, 2015
The Zohar teaches that God used the Torah to create the world. 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.” 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 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 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!
Friday, May 01, 2015
Parshas Emor begins with the laws of purity of priests. 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 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 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 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. 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.
 VaYikra 21:1-6
 VaYikra R. 26:1
 Brachos 6a
 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.
Friday, April 17, 2015
The first half of this week’s parsha describes the procedure that a metzora/leper must undergo in order to return to a state of purity. Chazal teach us that tzora’as/leprosy is a consequence of slandering. The Midrash says that the word metzora alludes to this because the word can be split into two words, motzi ra/spew out evil (speech).
The Sfas Emes understands the word ra/evil here, homiletically as an allusion to the evil inclination. God created us with a good and an evil inclination. Chazal teach us that we are expected to serve God with both the good and the evil inclinations. How can we serve Him with our evil inclination? The evil inclination provides us with challenges and opportunities to grow. Acknowledging this makes it easier for us to accept the challenges that occur in our lives. We can even welcome them since they are the means by which we are able to grow closer to God and accomplish our mission in this world.
The Sfas Emes understands Chazal’s play on the word metzora - motzi ra - as an allusion to spewing out or expelling the evil inclination. If we expel our evil inclination and do not accept it for the tool that it is meant to be, then instead of helping us it becomes rather a hindrance in our service to God, a source of impurity.
This concept may be alluded to in the procedure for purifying the metzora. The procedure calls for two pure birds. The Sfas Emes says that these birds may represent the two inclinations within us, the good and the evil. However, even though one of those birds represents the evil inclination, the Torah also refers to it as pure just as it refers to our soul – which contains the evil inclination – as pure. The key is not to reject any part of the root of our soul but rather to take advantage of everything that God has given us even if at first glance it appears to be unhelpful. In reality, we need all of it to achieve the mission for which God sent us into this world.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
On the seventh day of Pesach the nation of Israel crossed the Red Sea and sang Shiras HaYam/The Song of the Sea.1 The Shirah starts with, “... אָשִׁירָה לַה' כִּי־גָאֹה גָּאָה .../I will sing to God for He is most exalted.” The double wording “גָאֹה גָּאָה/He is most exalted” implies that He is the epitome of exaltedness, of greatness. To say that the difference between God’s exaltedness and that of others is simply a matter of degree is difficult. Instead, the Sfas Emes explains that the double wording teaches us something about the relationship of the greatness of others to God. It implies that the greatness of all others are only for His glory whereas God’s glory is inherent. It has no ulterior reason. How so?
We find in Mishlei (16:18), “לִפְנֵי־שֶׁבֶר גָּאוֹן/Pride precedes destruction.” The greatness of the wicked glorifies God in their destruction. The greater they are, the greater the destruction when they fall and the greater God’s honor when they are destroyed. The greatness of the righteous glorifies God as well when the righteous person even in greatness subordinates himself to God and recognizes His benevolence. The greater the righteous the more he glorifies God when he acknowledges God’s kindnesses. We see that the greatness of others is not intrinsic. The greatness of others is defined by its relationship to God and how it brings out God's glory. God's glory, though, is independent.
According to this we can understand why we find in the Shirah, “אָמַר אוֹיֵב אֶרְדֹּף אַשִּׂיג .../The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will reach …” (Shmos 15:9) Why is this part of the Shirah? Do we care to know the intentions of the enemy? Is not the purpose of the Shirah to sing praises to God for having saved us? The Sfas Emes explains that this is exactly the reason that the enemy’s intentions are mentioned. The more impertinent the enemy the greater God’s glory when he is destroyed. The enemy’s intentions are followed directly with God’s action to destroy him, “נָשַׁפְתָּ בְרוּחֲךָ כִּסָּמוֹ יָם .../You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them …” (Shmos 15:10) The enemy’s impudence helped cause his own destruction.
1See Rashi on Shmos 14:5
Friday, March 27, 2015
Much has been written about the name of the Shabbos preceding Pesach – Shabbos HaGadol, the great Shabbos. Why is it called the great Shabbos?
In order to answer this question, we need to understand what significance keeping Shabbos has for us. Of course, keeping Shabbos is our testimony that God created the world. However, in addition to this, keeping Shabbos has significance for each of us personally. It is, after all, a day of rest. At the very least, on Shabbos we do not “go to work”. We stay home with our families.
A day of rest signifies that whoever is controlling our lives during the week, is not in control on Shabbos. Shabbos, then, sets us free from the rule of flesh and blood. At least for one day a week, we can subordinate ourselves to God. On this level of keeping Shabbos, Chazal1 tell us that even in Egypt, Moshe Rabbeinu requested and received permission from Pharaoh to grant the nation one day of rest per week from their backbreaking physical labor. In addition to the welcome physical rest, for one day a week the nation was free from the rule of Pharaoh and was able to accept the rule of God.
The Zohar2, however, mentions two levels of keeping Shabbos. There is the level of those who are enslaved and the level of those who are not enslaved and are able to subordinate themselves to God during the week as well. The significance of Shabbos for these people is that on Shabbos it takes less effort to experience God. To these people, Shabbos signifies a day on which they are free from the distractions of weekday activities. Spiritually as well, it is a day on which it is easier to experience God. This is a much higher level of keeping Shabbos.
We first experienced this higher level of Shabbos as a nation on the Shabbos preceding the redemption. Prior to this Shabbos Moshe Rabbeinu promised us that after the coming plague we would be leaving Egypt for good. We finally left the servitude of Pharaoh and became subordinate to God alone. We were thus able to experience the higher level of Shabbos. In commemoration of the first time we experienced the higher level of Shabbos, we refer to the Shabbos before Pesach as the great Shabbos.
1 Shmos R. 1:28
2 Zohar Raya Mehimna 3:29b