Friday, March 07, 2014
This week we begin reading Sefer VaYikra most of which is about sacrifices and their laws. The Torah teaches that we can get absolution for our sins by sacrificing an animal to God. Why should bringing an animal sacrifice gain us penance?
The Sfas Emes explains that the life force of animals comes to them through us. We are the conduit. We see this in the following pasuk, “... כל שתה תחת רגליו/… You placed everything under his feet.” (Tehillim 8:7) The entire Creation is under Man. The Sfas Emes teaches that this pasuk is not referring only to the physical aspect of the world. It is referring to the spiritual aspect as well. All spirituality comes into the world through Man including the life force of the animals.
When we bring an animal sacrifice we are exchanging our own life force for that of the animal. Our life deserves to be taken. We are saying to God, please take the life force of the animal instead of ours.
With this idea we can explain a difficulty in a Midrash that Rashi brings on the pasuk, “... אדם כי יקריב מכם קרבן לה' .../… When a man from among you brings a sacrifice to God …” (VaYikra 1:2) The word, man/אדם/Adam in this pasuk is an uncommon usage. Generally, the Torah prefaces a commandment with the word, man/איש or sometimes, man or woman/איש או אשה. Why does the Torah introduce the topic of sacrifices with the word, man/אדם/Adam? Rashi answers, quoting Chazal, that the Torah is referencing Adam, the first man. Just as Adam did not bring sacrifices from that which was stolen since he owned everything, so too, may we not bring sacrifices from that which is stolen.
This Midrash is difficult to understand for two reasons. Firstly, without the Midrash would we have thought that it is permitted to bring sacrifices from stolen animals? Why do Chazal need to teach us this? Secondly, assuming that Chazal are not teaching us this but maybe they are teaching us that sacrifices from stolen animals are ineffective, what is the proof from Adam? He had no stolen animals!
The Sfas Emes therefore explains this Midrash homiletically. Chazal are teaching us about the nature of sacrifice. As we have said, the reason we can bring an animal sacrifice and be absolved is because animals derive their life force from us. We tell God, “Please take the life of the animal which derives from me in lieu of my own.” This only applies to a person on the level of Adam in the sense of the hierarchy we find in the Creation – דומם – inanimate, צומח – plant, חי –living, מדבר – speaking. מדבר/speaking, also means, “leading”. The Sfas Emes understands that the first man Adam, was on a level of leading and influencing the animals and the rest of Creation. He was the conduit through which life came to the entire Creation. Because of this he was able to sacrifice animals.
What of a person who is not on this level? About such a person Chazal say that even an insect was created before him; even an insect is on a higher level than he. How can he give God an animal in lieu of himself? The animal does not derive its life through him. It is as if he is sacrificing something that was stolen. It is ineffective.
What can we do to reach a higher level, a level on which life comes into the world through us? We learn from the pasuk quoted earlier, “... כי יקריב מכם .../… When he brings from among you …” The words, “from among you” seem to be extraneous. What do they add to this pasuk? The Sfas Emes teaches that we are able to raise our level by identifying with and subordinating ourselves to the nation. The nation as a whole is always on a higher level. The nation as a whole is always the conduit through which life and spirituality flow into this world. When we identify totally with the nation and become one with it, we come “from among you”, we can bring an effective animal sacrifice. May we merit it. Amen!
Friday, February 28, 2014
The beginning of this week’s parsha is an accounting of all the materials that were brought to build the Mishkan. Ideally, Chazal teach us, it is better not to count material possessions because blessing rests only upon those things which are hidden from the eye – not counted. Why, then, were the materials of the Mishkan counted? The Zohar answers that since the counting was done by Moshe Rabbeinu, blessing nevertheless rested on the materials and the work. What is the meaning of this enigmatic Zohar?
To understand the Zohar we need to understand why blessing does not rest on things that are counted. The Sfas Emes explains. Everything in this world is connected to the spiritual and, in fact, derives its physical existence from the spiritual. The spiritual power that underlies the physical can be viewed as the root of the physical just as a tree’s branches derive their existence from the tree’s roots. Just as there is one root to a tree with many branches, so too, the more spiritual the less plurality there is. At the top of the hierarchy – whose bottom is all the disparate components of the physical world – is God Himself, the ultimate Unity and Root of everything. Things that are uncounted are viewed from the perspective of the whole rather than the individual parts. The whole, because it represents less plurality, is closer to “oneness,” – to the spiritual – than its separate components. Accordingly, blessing rests on them.
This same concept applies whenever we recognize and acknowledge that the physical has spiritual roots. Moshe Rabbeinu understood this as he was the ultimate believer. Chazal teach us that the pasuk in Mishlei (28:20), “אִישׁ אֱמוּנֽוֹת רַב־בְּרָכוֹת .../A man of faith will increase blessings …” refers to Moshe Rabbeinu. Even though Moshe Rabbeinu was very involved with the physical world, since he internalized that God is in everything, that everything physical stems from spiritual roots, all his deeds were blessed.
The second part of this pasuk from Mishlei, “...וְאָץ לְהַֽעֲשִׁיר לֹא יִנָּקֶֽה/… but one impatient to become wealthy will not be exonerated,” is the exact opposite. Chazal teach us that this part of the pasuk refers to Korach who wanted the priesthood for himself even though it was not his. He did not recognize God in everything for if he did, he would have recognized the blessing in what was his and not have been tempted by what belonged to others.
This concept explains the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (4:1), “אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר הַשָׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ/Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot.” According to the Sfas Emes, the Mishnah is teaching us that a person’s desire for his wealth needs to be because that is the portion that God granted him. He needs to know and recognize that no one can take away that which is his and he cannot take from another that which is not his. He is not “impatient to become wealthy” like Korach jealously regarding what others have because he desires only that which God designated for him. He recognizes God in his assets. As a result, there is blessing in them.
Chazal teach us this concept elsewhere as well. Chazal say that a person who wishes to protect his assets should plant a maple – אֶדֶר – tree as it says, “אַדִּיר בַּמָרוֹם ה'/God is strong on high.” (Tehillim 93:4) Is this just a play on words or are Chazal teaching us something deeper? Chazal relate planting a maple – אֶדֶר – tree to God being strong on high. The Chiddushei HaRim explains that by recognizing that God is the source of our assets, it is as if we are planting His strength in our assets.
We learn this same idea from the word for assets – נְכָסִים which, according to Chazal, imply being covered from others and revealed only to their owner (נְכָסִים/Assets has the same root as cover – כִּסוּי.) The Chiddushei HaRim explains the significance of this. A person’s assets are his – no one can take them from him – specifically because they are hidden from others. As we noted earlier, blessing rests on assets that are hidden from the eye – uncounted. And as the Sfas Emes explained, uncounted assets represent metaphorically closeness to “oneness” – to the spiritual – and ultimately, closeness to God.
With these concepts we can understand the difficult Zohar. Even though Moshe Rabbeinu counted the materials of the Mishkan, blessing rested on them because he recognized in the deepest way their spiritual roots.
For this same reason blessing rests in Shabbos. Shabbos is the day when the Creation became a single complete system, every disparate component performing its unique task but with the singular goal that the entire system “works.” Because of this, the entire Creation as a whole became “connected” to its spiritual root. Shabbos thus became a vehicle for receiving blessing.
We can ensure that blessing rests on our assets as well, by recognizing that they are our God-given portion and that they have spiritual roots. The very recognition affects the things we do with our assets. May we merit using them to fulfill the will of God. Amen.
Friday, February 14, 2014
In this week's parsha God commands us to keep the Shabbos, "אך את שבתותי תשמורו ... לדעת כי אני ה' מקדשכם/Only keep My Shabbosim … to know that I am God Who sanctifies you." (Shmos 31:13) and a few pesukim later, "ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת לעשות את השבת לדורותם ברית עולם/The children of Israel will keep the Shabbos to make the Shabbos throughout their generations an eternal covenant." (Shmos 31:16) The word שמור/keep connotes guarding. What does the Torah mean when it tells us to "keep/guard" the Shabbos? It cannot be understood literally because it is the Shabbos that "keeps/guards" us, not the other way around.
In order to understand how we "guard" Shabbos, the Sfas Emes teaches us a deeper understanding of what Shabbos is. The Sfas Emes explains elsewhere that Shabbos can be defined as a state of Godly revelation. This state occurs naturally on the seventh day of the week, the day we call Shabbos. However, it is not bound only to that day. In fact, Godliness permeates the Creation. So, we can say that an aspect of Shabbos permeates the Creation. We are not generally aware of this because it is hidden. On Shabbos it is more revealed.
This hidden Godliness is alluded to by the word את in the pasuk, "את שבתותי תשמורו/Keep My Shabbosim." This is because Chazal in many places understand the word את to include things that are subordinate to the main object of the pasuk. The main object of this pasuk is Shabbos. The word את includes that aspect of Shabbos that is hidden in the Creation.
It is this hidden holiness that the Torah enjoins us to guard. How? Our mission is to recognize and reveal the Godliness that is in everything. Not only is this Godliness inherent in everything, it is the motive force within our very actions. Our activities, although physical, have a spiritual component. In fact, the spiritual component of our actions is really the main thing. What is this spiritual component? Everything that we do either brings us closer to God or distances us from Him. Many times an action is neutral and it is our intent that makes all the difference. Do we eat solely for the physical pleasure or do we eat to live in order to perform God's mitzvos? The former hides the spiritual. The latter reveals it.
The Sfas Emes teaches that when the purpose of our actions is to satisfy the will of God, we are acting for the sake of Shabbos which is the same as saying for the sake of revealing the hidden Godliness within our actions. This is the meaning of the pasuk, "לעשות את השבת/to make the Shabbos." Everything we do should be for the purpose of reaching that state of revelation that is called Shabbos. In this way we "guard" Shabbos, keeping it vibrant within the Creation.
We learn this concept also from the word אך in the pasuk, "אך את שבתותי תשמורו/Only keep My Shabbosim." Chazal teach us that אך/Only connotes exclusion. For example we find, the word אַךְ/only regarding purifying vessels that we receive from non-Jews, “אַךְ אֶת־הַזָּהָב וְאֶת־הַכָּסֶף .../only the gold and silver …” (Bamidbar 31:22) From the word אַךְ/only we learn that the gold must be pure. It must not have any rust on it. אַךְ/Only tells us that only unsoiled gold can be purified.
So too, "אך/only" in "אך את שבתותי תשמורו/Only keep My Shabbosim" teaches us that we should see through the physical that hides the spiritual that is inherent in our actions and in everything. We should see through to the pure Shabbos that is essentially spiritual. When we do this, we will see holiness everywhere.
Friday, January 31, 2014
Today and tomorrow are Rosh Chodesh Adar I. The root of the name of the new month, Adar, means, “dwell.” The Chiddushei HaRim relates the word, “Adar”, to a Midrash which explains a pasuk in the beginning of this week’s parasha, “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם/Make for me a sanctuary so that I will dwell in your midst.” (Shmos 25:8) The Midrash explains that God wanted to give us the Torah but did not want to leave it, as it were. So He asked us to build for Him a sanctuary so that He could dwell – אדור בתוכו – in it and thus be close to the Torah and to us, so to speak.
This is quite an enigmatic Midrash! God is infinite and everywhere at once. God certainly has no need for a dwelling place. What is this Midrash teaching us? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the concept of God dwelling among us makes sense only from our perspective and our relationship to God. God dwelling among us is revelation to us.
But God will only reveal Himself to us to the extent that we realize that everything comes from Him. This requires humility from us. When we humble ourselves to internalize the idea that everything is from God, God can dwell among us and we merit revelation. Chazal allude to this idea. They teach us that of an arrogant person God says, “He and I cannot dwell – לדור – together in the world.” Arrogance can only happen when there is a lack of belief that everything is from God. Arrogance is the opposite of this belief. Arrogance implies an autonomous existence outside of God. Obviously, there can be no revelation in the presence of arrogance.
The Sfas Emes teaches that this idea is alluded to in the name of this month. אדר/Adar is an acronym for א – the One, דל – inadequate, רש – poor. When we realize our own inadequacy vis a vis God, when we understand that everything we have, see around us and do come from God, we can connect to Him and experience Him in our lives.
Chazal allude to this concept when they say that God is the “place” of the world. He contains the world, not the other way around. Chazal also teach us that there is nothing that has no place. To the extent that we understand that everything that exists only exists because it is from God, the Godliness is revealed. In the words of Chazal, God is the place of the world.
It really cannot be any other way. The world is simply a screen that hides God. It is not autonomous and can only exist because of the Godliness within. As the prophet Yeshayah teaches us, “אשכון את דכא/I will dwell with the downtrodden.” (Yeshayah 57:15) The world exists only because God dwells with it.
Friday, January 24, 2014
The Midrash[i] in our parasha states that God metes out justice to the nations of the world. The Midrash also states that He put the power to mete out justice in our hands as God told Moshe in the first pasuk of our parasha, “ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם/And these are the laws that you will place before them.” (Shmos 21:1) The Hebrew word for law – משפט – also means justice. Does God dispense justice or is it dependent upon us?
The Sfas Emes explains that God wants to dispense justice and revenge upon the nations of the world with one caveat. We, the nation of Israel, must deserve good treatment. God will not treat us well undeservedly and deal with the nations of the world according to the strict letter of the law, so to speak. If He treats us well, even though we do not deserve it, He will not be strict with regard to the nations of the world.
This is the reason God told Moshe Rabbeinu, “... אשר תשים לפניהם/… that you will place before them.” God’s justice towards the nations of the world is dependent upon us.