Friday, February 27, 2015

Purim 5631 Second Ma'amar

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
2Pesachim 117b

3Brachos 19a-b

Friday, February 20, 2015

Terumah 5632 First Ma'amar

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 sellerGodcomes 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

Friday, January 30, 2015

BeShalach 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

The nation of Israel is standing at the sea, trapped. The sea is before them and the Egyptian army is in hot pursuit behind them. The nation seeing this cried out to God. Moshe Rabbeinu, as well, cried out to God. The Ibn Ezra1 and the Ramban2 both have difficulty with Moshe Rabbeinu crying out to God. God had just finished telling him exactly what would happen. There were no surprises here. God told Moshe to bring the nation back to camp by the sea. He told Moshe clearly that Pharaoh would pursue them and that God would be glorified by the destruction of the Egyptians before their eyes. The nation may not have known all this. It is not clear from the pesukim that Moshe Rabbeinu told them. They certainly had every reason to cry to God in prayer. Why, though, did Moshe Rabbeinu cry out to God? He knew exactly what was about to transpire.

The Sfas Emes explains that it is the way of the righteous to cry out to God even after they are promised salvation. As a vehicle for serving God and coming close to Him, prayer is relevant and required even after God promises to fulfill a request. Chazal teach us that there are no guarantees for the righteous.3 According to the Sfas Emes, this means that the righteous understand that they must turn to God even after assurances are given. In fact, the Sfas Emes takes this idea a step further and says that God only promises those who He knows will continue to turn to Him in prayer even after the promise. Moshe Rabbeinu, therefore, cried out to God even after the promise. For this very reason, God made the promise known to him.

The nation, on the other hand, apparently would not have continued to pray for salvation had we known God’s promise to destroy the Egyptians. It is possible that for this reason God did not command Moshe Rabbeinu to convey the promise of Egypt’s destruction to the nation. Chazal teach us that God wants us to cry out to Him.4 In Shir HaShirim (2:14) we find, “ יוֹנָתִי בְּחַגְוֵי הַסֶּלַע ... הַשְׁמִיעִנִי אֶת-קוֹלֵךְ .../My dove, in the clefts of the rock … let me hear your voice …” The Midrash in this week’s parsha explains that this is an allegory. It refers to God telling the nation of Israel at the sea that He wants to hear our voice in prayer.

God wants us to turn to Him always. The Sfas Emes teaches in a different ma’amar that we are required to turn to God in prayer even after our prayers are answered. This approach to prayer is very different from the conventional approach. This approach to prayer is based on the concept that prayer is primarily a tool for coming close to God, may we merit it.

1Ibn Ezra on Shmos 14:15
2Ramban on Shmos 14:15
3Breishis R. 76:2
4Shmos R. 21:5

Friday, January 16, 2015

VaEira 5631 Third Ma'amar


In the beginning of this week’s parsha God commands Moshe Rabbeinu to tell the nation, “אֲנִי ה' וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם ... וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם /… I am God and I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt … and I will redeem you …” (Shmos 6:6) Why does the Torah need to tell us the sequence of events leading to the redemption? Obviously, when we are redeemed we are no longer subject to the burdens of Egypt. The Chiddushei HaRim explains that although the plain meaning of the pasuk refers to physical servitude, the deeper meaning refers to bearing the burden of the impurity, the evil and the decadence of Egypt. The Torah is not simply listing the sequence of events leading up to the redemption. The Torah is teaching us that the first event is a prerequisite for the next. When can the redemption begin? Only after decadence of Egypt becomes a burden to us – and we can not bear it any longer.


This also explains the deeper meaning of Moshe Rabbeinu’s response to God’s command to speak to Pharaoh. Moshe Rabbeinu said, “... הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה .../… Here, the children of Israel did not listen to me so how will Pharaoh listen to me? …” (Shmos 6:12) What is the logic here? The Torah states that the children of Israel did not listen to Moshe because of their anguished spirit and hard labor. This certainly did not apply to Pharaoh. What is the meaning of Moshe Rabbeinu’s response, then?


The Sfas Emes explains that Moshe Rabbeinu understood that before redemption the nation would need to become fed up with the decadence of Egypt. Since they did not listen to him, this obviously had not happened. They had not as yet fulfilled the first prerequisite of the redemption. Since they were not yet ready for redemption, Pharaoh certainly would not listen.


In truth, though, the decadence of Egypt had become unbearable for the nation and we were ready for redemption. Moshe Rabbeinu, however, was on a higher level than the nation. He was more removed from the impurity of Egypt than we were. For this reason Moshe Rabbeinu says clearly, “The children of Israel did not listen to me …” The emphasis here is on the word, “me.” Since they had not reached his level of disgust with Egypt, Moshe thought that we were not yet ready for redemption.


After enumerating the sequence of events leading to the ultimate redemption God tells Moshe Rabbeinu, “... וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם/… You will know that I am God your Lord who is bringing you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” (Shmos 6:7) Why does God mention specifically the first prerequisite of redemption? Why does He not say, “I am God … who has redeemed you from Egypt.”? The Sfas Emes explains that after the redemption is completed it is imperative for us to acknowledge that were it not for God’s help we would not have been able to fulfill even the first prerequisite of redemption. God told Moshe that He took us out from under the burdens of Egypt. Clearly, without God’s help we would still be under those burdens; we would still not be disgusted by the impurity of Egypt.


The Sfas Emes advises us, therefore, that in order to reach a personal redemption we need to work on ourselves to truly hate evil. Chazal1, in fact, teach us, “A person should always rile up his good inclination against his evil inclination.” This, the Sfas Emes teaches, is the beginning of redemption. May we merit it!

1Brachos 5a

Friday, January 09, 2015

Shemos 5631 Second Ma'amar


וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ עַל-מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע אֶת-יוֹסֵף/A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Yosef.” (Shmos 1:8) Explaining this pasuk the Midrash1 says that after Yosef died the nation of Israel stopped circumcising their children. They said, “Let us be like the Egyptians.” As a result God caused the love the Egyptians had for us to turn into hatred. As a result, “a new king arose who did not know Yosef.”

Generally, Chazal give novel interpretations to pesukim when the simple meaning is difficult. What compelled the Midrash to explain this pasuk? What bothered Chazal in this pasuk? The key word in the pasuk is “new.” The Chidushei HaRim explains that novelty is an attribute of spirituality. When we contemplate the material world around us it is easy to conclude that nothing new happens. Nature follows predictable laws. Today is the same as yesterday which was the same as the day before. The Chidushei HaRim explains that while this may be the case for the material world it is not true of the spiritual. Shlomo HaMelech teaches this in the pasuk, “... וְאֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ/… and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Koheles 1:9) The implication is that above the sun – beyond nature – there is novelty and renewal. Originality, creativity and novelty are spiritual endeavors. The physical is merely a manifestation of that which already exists in the spiritual.

Because novelty is a spiritual attribute, it is particularly associated with the nation of Israel. But the pasuk associates novelty with Egypt. This begs an explanation and is the issue that the Midrash addresses.

The key to change and creativity is the realization that everything physical contains within it spirituality. When we disregard external physical appearances and relate to the underlying spirituality in our actions, the power of creativity is ours. In Egypt we disregarded the spiritual and allowed ourselves to be affected by the physical environment of decadent Egypt. As the Midrash notes, we wanted to be like the Egyptians. So, novelty was taken from us and given to the Egyptians instead.

What, though, is the significance of breaching the covenant of circumcision? After all, in Egypt we fell to very low levels. Why does the Midrash single out circumcision as the reason for losing our connection with God, with novelty?

The Sfas Emes explains. The Torah calls Yosef the keeper of the covenant referring to the covenant of the circumcision. The plain meaning is that he resisted the temptations of Potiphar’s wife. However, on a deeper level, circumcision represents unveiling the spiritual that is concealed by the physical.   Yosef is called a keeper of the covenant of circumcision because he believed that although the material world around him was decadent, spirituality was concealed within it. Yosef’s belief was total. He did not notice the physical decadence. He saw only the spiritual.

In our daily lives, we many times see barriers and obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals. We can overcome them by cultivating the belief that the physical is a mask that hides the spiritual. On a spiritual level, there are no barriers. They are illusory. Everything starts with belief that the spiritual light exists but we don’t see it because it is behind a screen. We find a hint to this in the brachah following Sh’ma at night. The bracha starts, “אֱמֶת וֶאֱמוּנָה/Truth and faith.” At night, a time of darkness when we do not see light, Chazal advise us to believe that it is there anyway.

We see this again when Moshe Rabbeinu says in response to God’s request to return to Egypt to begin the process of the redemption, “... וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ לִי .../… and they will not believe me …” (Shmos 4:1) Faith is a prerequisite for redemption. In order to merit redemption – seeing God – we must have faith during the preceding darkness of concealment.

Responding to Moshe Rabbeinu’s concern, God gives him a sign which gives expression to this concept. God tells Moshe to throw his staff to the ground. When he does this it turns into a snake. When he grabs it, it turns back to a staff. In reality it was a staff. The snake was an illusion. The way to see the reality behind the illusion is by believing it is there, grabbing on to it, connecting with it and, importantly, disregarding external appearances. The staff appeared as a snake. God told him to disregard this and to grab its tail. Upon doing so the snake reverted to a staff. God powers external appearances as well.

God gives existence to the screen that we call reality even when the screen appears to contradict spirituality and holiness. The truth, though, becomes clear to us according to the level of our faith. We can actually experience the spiritual that underlies the physical world by first believing it is there. Once we believe, no physical obstacle can stand between us and our goals. We are connected directly with the source of novelty, creativity and originality.

The Sfas Emes applies this concept to exile and redemption. Exile means that God is concealed. Redemption means that God is revealed in the world. As we’ve said, a strong belief that the physical world is powered by the spiritual is a necessary prerequisite for redemption to occur. During exile this idea is concealed. If it were revealed there would be no possibility of exile.

We find this concept explained in the Zohar.2 The Zohar uses the analogy of sound vs. speech to explain God’s presence vs. His influence in the world.
Undifferentiated sound represents God’s oneness. He is everywhere always. In terms of God’s presence, there is no difference between one place and another. Speech is “processed” sound. It is the method by which we relate to and influence others. Speech, therefore, represents God’s influence and revelation in the Creation. With regard to God’s revelation, there are differences between one place and another. Exile means that God’s influence in the world is not apparent. It is concealed. For this reason the Zohar3 tells us that in Egypt, speech was in exile. God’s influence was not apparent.

Realizing this and believing it means to understand that although we see things differentiated in the physical world, underlying every separate thing is Oneness. The “undifferentiated sound” is ubiquitous. To the person who internalizes this belief totally, there is no fundamental difference between revelation and concealment. This is the deeper meaning of Chazal4 telling us that faith is the one basic principle as the prophet Habakuk (2:4) said, “The righteous person lives by his faith.” May we merit it!

1Shmos R. 1:8
2Zohar 2:3a
3Zohar 2:25b
4Makkos 24a