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
Friday, March 20, 2015
Chazal1 relate a story about the Tanna, Rebbi Elazar ben Arach. After the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, Rebbi Elazar ben Arach went to a certain city expecting his students to follow him. They didn’t. Alone in a city known for its decadence, he forgot his Torah learning. When he had the opportunity to read from a Torah, instead of reading, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you,”2 he read, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf”, a seemingly innocuous mistake. The Chiddushei HaRim3, however, understands that this was not an innocuous mistake. The mistake was actually a hint to Rebbi Elazar to leave the city.
The Chiddushei HaRim understands this from a Midrash4 which implies that the leaders of Israel have the power to lead the people and steer them onto the right path. If instead they allow themselves to be led by the people, they fall. Rebbi Elazar understood the words that he mistakenly said as applying to the inhabitants of the city of his exile. He understood that he would not be able to improve them, would be drawn after their evil ways and should therefore leave.
The Sfas Emes gives another interpretation to this story. The new moon/month symbolizes renewal. The Hebrew words for “month” and “new” are the same, חֹדֶשׁ and חָדָשׁ, respectively. In order to experience the light of renewal, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you,”5 the Sfas Emes explains, we first must experience the darkness of deafness, represented by, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf”.
We could only experience God’s revelation at the redemption from Egypt after having first experiencing the darkness of His concealment in the exile. In fact, we define exile and redemption as God’s concealment and revelation respectively. The redemption is simply a removal of the screen that hides God. We merited this renewal of our relationship with God by first living through and bearing His concealment.
This idea underlies the need for the four kingdoms – Babylon, Medes, Greece and Rome – before the final redemption. Each of the four kingdoms is a rectification for an aspect or aspects of God’s concealment. A complete rectification will manifest at the ultimate redemption as, “מַלְכוּתְךָ מַלְכוּת כָּל־עֹלָמִים .../Your kingdom is a kingdom spanning all worlds …”6, the culmination of the historical process.
Rebbi Elazar ben Arach went to the city knowing that the inhabitants were on a low spiritual level. He wanted to experience an atmosphere of God’s concealment so that subsequently he could find a renewed revelation.
The Zohar7 as well teaches us that purity implies a preceding period of impurity. Attaining purity from a state of impurity means that the mask hiding God is removed. We find this in the following pasuk, “מִי־יִתֵּן טָהוֹר מִטָּמֵא לֹא אֶחָד/Who can produce purity from impurity? No one!”8 The Midrash9 translates this pasuk as, “Who produces purity from impurity? Is it not the One?” God produces purity from impurity by removing the screen that hides Himself.
We can only experience God's revelation by subordinating ourselves to Him. This is also symbolized by the ashes of the red heifer. The ashes represent our own subordination. We only attain purity when we are sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer. When we subordinate ourselves and our own desires for God’s, we “connect” to Him and attain a state of purity.
When purity is reached we are open to a renewed relationship with God. This is the meaning of the pasuk, “לֵב טָהוֹר בְּרָא־לִי אֱ־לֹהִים וְרוַּח נָכוֹן חַדֵּשׁ בְּקִרְבִּי/Create a pure heart for me, Lord, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Tehillim 51:12) First David HaMelech asks God for purity - revelation. This naturally leads to a desire for renewal.
Parshas Parah representing attainment of purity from within an impure state therefore precedes Parshas HaChodesh representing spiritual renewal. May we merit it!
Friday, March 13, 2015
This week we read the laws of the red heifer. The red heifer's ashes purify. The Torah tells us to burn not only the heifer, but also wood from a cedar and a hyssop, and a scarlet thread.
Rashi1 cites a Midrash2 explaining that metaphorically the entire procedure of the red heifer is a purification and atonement for the sin of the golden calf. In this context the cedar tree which is very tall represents one whose arrogance causes him to sin. The hyssop grows low to the ground and the scarlet thread in Hebrew is synonymous with the Hebrew word for worm. These represent humility. The Midrash states that a haughty person who sinned should humble himself like a hyssop and a worm. Haughtiness causes a person to sin. Humility prevents it.
The Sfas Emes asks, why is the cedar wood in the ash mixture? The cedar representing arrogance is what we want to stay away from. Shouldn't the mixture contain only the symbols of humility, the character trait that we strive to attain?
The Sfas Emes explains that the cedar wood is part of the ash mixture because arrogance can actually be used as a tool for reaching humility. When a person who is arrogant contemplates God, he is moved to ask himself, how can his heart be filled with arrogance before the Master of everything? Inevitably he is humbled and overcome with shame.
This itself is a rectification for the sin of haughtiness. May we merit it. Amen!
1 Bamidbar 19:22, Eitz Erez
2 Bamidbar R. 19:3
Friday, February 27, 2015
We find in Megillas Esther (3:7), “... הִפִּיל פּוּר ... מִיּוֹם לְיוֹם וּמֵחֹדֶשׁ לְחֹדֶשׁ .../… he cast a lot … for every day and for every month …” If he cast a lot for every day, every month is included. Why did he cast both for every day and also for every month? The Midrash1 explains that first he cast a lot for the days of the week. This did not work because the archangel of each day complained to God. When Haman saw that the lot for days was not working, he switched to months. This Midrash is difficult, though, because even the lot for months must fall on a specific day of the week. What did Haman gain by switching to months?
The Sfas Emes explains that there is a fundamental difference between days of the week and days of the month. The Gemara2, noting this difference, says that Shabbos is established and set from the Creation – the days of the week never change – whereas the Jewish People establish the holidays – establishing when the month starts, was given to the nation of Israel.
On a deeper plane the Sfas Emes explains that God did not merely give us the power to establish new months. The new month is a metaphor for renewal in the natural world. With the ability to establish new months, God made us the vehicle through which new life is drawn into the world. Generally we don’t think of nature as needing renewal. Nature appears to be constant, following set and unchanging laws. Things seem the same today as they did yesterday and the day before. Actually, though, God is constantly renewing the Creation. The act of creation was not a one time event. Rather, it is constant and continuous. God’s will for the Creation to continue is fed to the physical world through a spiritual hierarchy of which the nation of Israel is an integral part. Therefore, the creative life force that is responsible for the continuing existence of everything we see, comes through us. The cycle of the lunar month symbolizes this constant renewal of Creation because it is so blatant. Every month the moon waxes, wanes, disappears and reappears. Significantly, the Hebrew word for month – חוֹדֶשׁ – has the same root as the Hebrew for new – חָדָשׁ.
For Haman the wicked, our connection with the source of life was anathema. Haman was at the exact opposite end of the life – death spectrum. We are part of the life giving structure of the Creation. Chazal tell us that the wicked, on the other hand, are considered dead even as they live.3 Haman, the wicked, had cut himself off from the source of life.
Haman understood this clearly. When he proposed our destruction to Achashveirosh, he said, “ ... יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם־אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד .../There is one nation, scattered and separated …” (Esther 3:8) Even though we were scattered and separated, we were one nation. The surface view of the Creation shows innumerable different and disparate things. However, at the most fundamental level, there is one creative life force that is responsible for the entire Creation’s continued existence. Haman understood that the nation of Israel represents this Oneness that underlies everything. Even in exile, when there is much less awareness of God, we remain one nation. Our very existence testifies to the fundamental unity, the Godly life force that underpins every disparate part of Creation. In fact, our primary mission in the exile is to become aware ourselves and to make others aware of this. This is what so greatly angered Haman. We were an intrusion on his turf, so to speak. Haman is part of the physical world. But he is wicked and wants nothing to do with the source of life. We are a threat to him because we represent the source of life.
And this is the reason he switched his lots to months after days of the week failed. As we indicated earlier, the days of the week culminating in Shabbos are God given from the time of Creation. They are above nature. Haman has no part of it. Because Haman was part of the physical world, he could have more “success” with months which represent renewal in the physical world.
Haman wanted to destroy us because we represented connection to the source of life in the natural world and he wanted to remain disconnected from God, the source of life. It is particularly significant, because of this, that the miracle of Purim occurred specifically within the bounds of nature. The miracle had to occur within nature in order to show that nature does not “belong to” Haman and Amalek. Rather, God is the source of life and existence in the natural world. This explains why the Megilla associates the miracle with the month in which it happened, “... וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה .../… and the month which turned for them from sorrow to joy …” (Esther 9:22) The Megilla is alluding to this concept by emphasizing that the miracle did not exceed the bounds of nature.
1Esther R. 7:11
Friday, February 20, 2015
1. The parsha begins, "דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו .../speak to the children of Israel and have them take for me a contribution from every man whose heart impels him …" (Shmos 25:2) The purpose of this command is for the people to give towards the building of the Mishkan. Why then does the Torah use the word "ויקחו/have them take", instead of "ויתנו/have them give"?
The first Midrash1 on the parsha addressing this issue associates this pasuk with a pasuk in Mishlei (4:2), "כי לקח טוב נתתי לכם תורתי על תעזובו/For I have given you a good teaching. Do not forsake my Torah." The word לקח/teaching has the same root as the word מקח/purchase. The pasuk is advising us to remain connected to the Torah for it is a good purchase. Unlike other purchases, the Torah contains everything as we find, "תורת ה' תמימה .../God's Torah is complete …" (Tehillim 19:8). Furthermore, the seller – God – comes with the purchase.
The Sfas Emes explains. On our own, we are incapable of understanding the depths of the Torah. However, by constantly "taking" the Torah – by constantly trying to understand, God gives us the gift of understanding. This is the meaning of "על תעזובו/Do not leave it."
This Midrash relates to learning Torah. The Sfas Emes expands this concept to include all of our activities. Whenever we "take" anything for ourselves, anytime we want to commence an activity, make a purchase, start a program, our intent should be to give to God. We should have in mind that our action give nachas ru'ach/satisfaction to God. When this is our intent, we will find that events conspire in our favor so that we succeed as Koheles said, "טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו .../The end of a matter is better than its beginning …" (Koheles 7:8)
We can also understand this from the pasuk, "ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל .../Take for me a contribution from everything …" By taking for ourselves in order to give to God, we elevate everything to God.
We find another allusion to the concept of doing everything for God in the Zohar2 on the words, "כל איש/every man." The Zohar interprets this as, "the entire man." The Torah is telling us that whatever we do, our intent should be to do it for God with our entire being.
Another allusion to this idea can be found in the drasha from which Chazal3 learn that a man can marry a woman by giving her money or something of value, as in fact, we do today. The groom gives the bride a ring. The pasuk states, "כי יקח איש אשה/When a man takes a wife …" (Devarim 22:13) The pasuk that relates Avraham Avinu purchasing Efron's field states, "נתתי כסף השדה קח ממני/I have given the price of the field, take it from me …" (Breishis 23:13) Since both pesukim use the word קיחה/taking, Chazal learn from one to the other. Just like Efron's field was purchased with money, so too, a wife can be acquired with money.
Money in Hebrew – כסף – has the same root as the word for pining – כיסופין. The woman in the pasuk is a metaphor for the Torah4. When we pine for God we are able to feel His presence in our lives. We "acquire" Him, as it were. Purchasing a field is a metaphor for physical activity. We learn from the desire we have regarding worldly activities how to fulfill God's will as well with all our heart.
The same concept is alluded to in the first Midrash5 of our parsha. The Midrash tells of a king who gives his daughter in marriage to a prince who will take her to a far away place. The king cannot bear to leave his daughter but also does not want to prevent the marriage. The king resolves the problem by asking the prince to build a room for him so that he can visit.
As before, the daughter is a metaphor for the Torah. The king represents God and the prince represents each member of the nation of Israel. To the extent that a person is connected to the Torah he can merit living with the Divine presence just like the king in the allegory could not bear separating from his daughter. The Sfas Emes broadens this concept to include all activities for the sake of God. And this is the meaning of the pasuk from Mishlei mentioned earlier, "תורתי על תעזובו/Do not leave my Torah." If the pasuk tells us not to leave the Torah, we can infer that being connected to the Torah is a continuous lifetime job that affects and influences everything we do.
2. From the pasuk, "... מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו .../… from every man whose heart impels him …", we also learn that there are two components to success. The first component is that each person should do what his heart compels him to do, "... אשר ידבנו לבו .../as his heart impels him …" But this is not enough. Certainly each one of us is unique and was created for a unique purpose. Still, fulfilling that purpose alone is not enough. We also need to identify with the nation of Israel. Our unique purpose is not only for us alone. It is also for the nation. This is alluded to by the words, "מאת כל איש/from every man," as we find in parshas Nitzavim, "אתם נצבים היום כולכם ... כל איש ישראל/You are standing today, all of you … every man of Israel." (Devarim 29:9)
To succeed the nation needs each person to fulfill his unique mission, his raison d'être. Each person also needs to identify with the nation. This is the meaning of, "... כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו/… every man who's heart impels him." The Chiddushei Harim notes that this is also the meaning of a Mishna in Avos (1:14), "אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני/If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am only for myself what am I." Each of us needs to "be for himself" – to accomplish that unique thing the reason for which he was created. But we must do it as a part of the nation of Israel.
1 Shmos R. 33:1
2 Zohar 2:134b
3 Kedushin 2a
4 As in the first Midrash of the parsha mentioned later.
5 Shmos R. 33:1