Sunday, April 20, 2014

Pesach 5631 Last Days First Ma'amar

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיָשֻׁבוּ .../Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to return …” (Shmos 14:2)  The children of Israel had left Egypt three days earlier.  God commands Moshe Rabbeinu to instruct the nation to turn around and head back towards the Egyptians.  Pharaoh will think that the nation has lost its way in the desert and will be goaded into pursuing them.  When he confronts the nation of Israel, God will destroy him and the Egyptians.  The question that jumps out at us as we read these p’sukim is, “Why?”  What was to be gained by returning?  If God wanted to destroy the Egyptian army, He certainly had ample opportunity beforehand.

God took us out of Egypt, not because we deserved it but rather to fulfill His promise to our forefathers.  But God wanted us to be redeemed on our own merits.  So, he gave us the opportunity.  He instructed us to double back towards the Egyptians.  Such a counter-intuitive act required a very high level of faith in God.  Chazal teach us that due to this faith, God split the sea for us.[1]  Furthermore, Chazal tell us that at the time of the splitting of the sea, we were being judged to see if we were worthy of such a miracle.[2]  In other words, God wanted us to deserve being saved. 

This explains why we were fearful when the Egyptians came and why Moshe Rabbeinu cried out to God.  When you think about it, it seems strange.  God instructed us to return so that He could wipe out the Egyptians before us.  We knew this.  And yet, when we saw the Egyptians coming, the Torah relates that we were very afraid.  Not only were we very afraid, but Moshe Rabbeinu cried out to God.  Why?  Moshe Rabbeinu certainly knew that God was going to save us.  We knew it as well.  The answer is that the children of Israel of course believed that God was going to save them.  Our concern was that we would not be saved on our own merit.

With this idea we can understand the difference between a miracle we do not deserve but which God performs anyway in His infinite kindness and a miracle that we deserve.  Both Egypt and the sea represented barriers, challenges that stood between the nation and freedom, physical freedom and spiritual freedom.  It is important to see these barriers for what they really are, namely challenges put in our path.  They have no independent existence apart from this.  They are placed between us and our goals so that we may overcome them and earn closeness to God.  Overcoming the challenge and looking back, we see it for what it really is.  However, if God takes us past the challenge in His kindness, the challenge still appears real and tangible to us.  When God took us out of Egypt in his infinite benevolence, even though we did not deserve it, the barrier remained.  In our minds, Egypt was still there. 

When God saved us at the sea because we warranted it, however, the barrier itself was removed.  This is why, according to Chazal, the sea did not split until the water reached their noses.[3]  God only split the sea because of the faith we had in Him.  We find this same idea in Hallel, “הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו: הַיָּם רָאָה וַיָּנֹס .../Yehudah became His sanctuary, Yisrael His dominions.  The sea saw and fled …” (Tehilim 114:2-3)  The sea is no more than a challenge, an obstacle in our path.  When we walked into the sea we showed that we were unwilling to allow the sea to stand between us and God.  We came close to God.  The sea saw this and fled.  This is the meaning of another Midrash[4] which says that when Moshe Rabbeinu stretched his hand over the sea it refused to split.  It only split when it saw God.   

When God helps us and through his lovingkindness moves us past barriers that stand between us and our goals, those barriers are still real to us.  They may pop up again in different circumstances.  However, when we work on ourselves to serve God and come close to Him notwithstanding the impediments that stand in our way, those impediments, having served their purpose, fall.

[1] Mechilta BeShalach 2:3
[2] Zohar 2:47a
[3] Shmos R. 21:10
[4] Mechilta BeShalach 2:4

Friday, April 11, 2014

Shabbos HaGadol (Acharei Mos) 5649 First Ma'amar

Why do we associate the Shabbos preceding Pesach with Pesach.  Chazal[1] teach us that a great miracle happened on this Shabbos.  The Shabbos before the Exodus fell on the 10th of Nissan.  On this day, God instructed us to take lambs for the Pesach sacrifice.  The miracle was that the Egyptians could not do anything to stop us.  But usually we would associate the day of the month, not the day of the week, with the miracle.  Why do we associate the day of the week, in this case, Shabbos, with Pesach?

The Sfas Emes explains that there is an intrinsic connection between redemption and Shabbos.  Particularly, there is an intrinsic connection between a miraculous redemption and Shabbos.  God could have redeemed us in a natural way without violating the laws of nature.  He wanted to redeem us specifically in a miraculous way to show us that we can have a relationship with Him and that He wants to relate to us in a way that is not bound by natural law. 

During the week, God relates to the world indirectly through spiritual agents and a spiritual hierarchy.  Shabbos, on the other hand, is an aspect of revelation in which God relates to the world directly.  Parallely, God took us out of Egypt Himself, “אני ולא מלאך/I and not an agent. (Haggadas Pesach)  Significantly, the Torah refers to Pesach as Shabbos[2].

This explains, too, why the Torah tells us that Shabbos is a remembrance for the Exodus, “וזכרת כי עבד היית בארץ מצרים ויוציאך ה' א-להיך משם ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה על כן צוך ה' א-להיך לעשות את יום השבת/Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and God, your Lord took you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore God, your Lord commanded you to make the Shabbos day.” (Devarim 5:15)  It is clear why the holidays such as Pesach are a remembrance for the Exodus but what is the connection between the Exodus and keeping the Shabbos?  According to what we’ve said though, it is clear.  God wanted to relate to us in a direct way uninhibited by nature.  This is the way that God relates to the world on Shabbos.  Therefore, keeping the Shabbos is a testimony to our special above nature relationship with God that began at the Exodus.

This also explains an enigmatic statement that we make in the Haggadah.  We say, “אלו לא הוציא הקב"ה את אבותינו ממצרים הרי אנו ... משועבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים/If God had not taken our forefathers out of Egypt we … would still be subjugated to Pharaoh in Egypt.”  Would we really still be enslaved to Pharaoh today, thousands of years later?  What are Chazal teaching us?  The Maharal gives a hint.  This statement is saying that if God did not take us out Himself, we would still be subjugated.  If God did not take us out directly, miraculously, our relationship with Him and our national life would be according to the laws of nature.  We would still be subordinate to those laws as we were when we were slaves in Egypt.  God’s direct intervention in the Exodus freed us from this subordination from then and forever.

So, when we remember the Exodus, we are not simply remembering our freedom from slavery.  We are remembering the special direct and beyond nature relationship with God that began with the Exodus.  This relationship is especially clear on Shabbos but since it is beyond time and nature it can apply to all times and all places, if we let it.

[1] Viz. Tosfos in Maseches Shabbos 87b, V’Oso Yom
[2] וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת/You shall count for yourselves from the day following the Shabbos (referring to Pesach) VaYikra 23:15

Friday, April 04, 2014

Metzora 5635 First Ma'amar (Part 2 of 3)

This week's parsha describes the process of purifying a metzora/leper.  The Torah makes a big deal about leprosy.  Two full parshas in the Torah, deal with its laws.  Why is this?  Chazal[1] teach us that leprosy comes from speaking evil about and slandering others. 

The Sfas Emes explains that Chazal are teaching us an important underlying concept about the connection between the physical and spiritual.  Leprosy is the physical manifestation of spiritual damage caused by speaking lashon hara.  Chazal are teaching that there is a close parallel between what happens to us physically and spiritually.  Furthermore, we can learn about the spiritual by observing the physical. 

The Sfas Emes explains what we learn.  The primary physical sources of life are the heart and lungs.  The blood goes out from the heart to all parts of the body and returns.  The Torah teaches, “... דמו בנפשו ... his blood is associated with his life-force …” (VaYikra 17:14)

Spiritually, Chazal[2] teach us that the strength of our nation primarily involves the mouth particularly when we study Torah out loud as Chazal learn from the pasuk in Mishlei (4:22), “ כי חיים הם למוצאיהם .../For they are life to those who find them …”  Chazal[3] understand that this pasuk refers to one who learns Torah and in a play on words read the last word, “למוצאיהם/to those who find them, as “למוציאיהם/to those who bring them out (or, say them out loud.)”  Furthermore various Chassidic masters[4] have taught us that things which a person says with all his heart, enter the heart of others more easily – דברים היוצאים מן הלב נכנסין אל הלב.

Combining these two ideas the Sfas Emes teaches that when we learn Torah out loud with all our hearts, those very words of Torah return to ourselves with new and novel understandings just like the blood goes out to all a person’s limbs and returns.  Chazal[5] alluded to this very idea in a Midrash on the pasuk in Koheles (1:7), “כל הנחלים הולכים אל הים והים איננו מלא אל מקום שהנחלים הולכים שם הם שבים ללכת/All the streams flow into the sea yet the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they return to flow again.”  The Midrash teaches that all the Torah a person learns is in his heart.  Just as the streams don’t fill up the sea, the Torah will not fill his heart.  He will always desire to learn more.  And just as the waters return to flow again, the Torah even as he teaches another from the depths of his heart always returns to him, the teacher.  What does this mean?  Obviously, the teacher doesn’t lose what he knows by teaching it.  The Sfas Emes therefore understands that the Torah that he says out loud (so others can hear) returns to him with new and deeper understandings.

It is exactly the opposite when someone slanders another.  This also comes from the heart, specifically the left side of the heart where a person’s evil inclination resides as we find in another pasuk in Koheles (10:2), “... ולב כסיל לשמאלו/… and a fool’s heart tends towards his left.”  Just as the Torah that a person speaks returns to him with new and deeper understanding, a person’s “leftist” speech returns to his heart as an air of nonsense – רוח שטות.

It is the tongue and the mouth that connect the physical and the spiritual.  This is why Chazal[6] teach us that everything depends on the tongue as we find in a pasuk in Mishlei (18:21), “מות וחיים ביד לשון/Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

[1] Arachin 15b
[2] Tanchuma Balak 3; Mechilta Beshalach Masechta 2:2
[3] Eiruvin 54a
[4] Kedushas Levi VaYigash viz ויגש אליו יהודה; Noam Elimelech Toldos, viz ויזרע יצחק; Kol Mevasser Devarim 1
[5] Koheles R. 1:7:5
[6] Tanchuma Metzora 2

Friday, March 28, 2014

Tazria and Parshas HaChodesh 5646 First Ma'amar

The first Midrash[1] of this week’s parshah explains the pasuk in Tehillim (139:5), “אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי .../From behind and from in front you have bound me…”  Chazal explain that this pasuk alludes to this world and the next.  “אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם/behind and in front” can also be translated as “last and first.”  “אָחוֹר/Last” refers to this world which was created last and “קֶדֶם/first” refers to the next world which was created first.  If a person merits it, he inherits two worlds, this world and the next. 

The word, צַרְתָּנִי/you have bound me, can also be translated, “you have formed me.”  Chazal therefore relate this pasuk to the creation of man, “וַיִּיצֶר ... אֶת־הָֽאָדָם .../He … formed the man …” (Breishis 2:7וַיִּיצֶר/He formed, is written with two yods, an uncommon spelling, to teach us that man comprises two components, physical and spiritual.  The Zohar teaches us that man is a microcosm of the entire physical and spiritual worlds.[2]  While he has a physical body, through his soul, he is connected to the upper spiritual realms.  The Zohar and the Tanchuma[3] teach that a person’s soul includes the forms of these realms.

There is an aspect of the nation of Israel which is spiritual, corresponding to God’s thought, as it were, and there is an aspect that is physical, corresponding to the physical Creation.  Chazal hint at this when they teach us that God created the world for Israel who are called רֵאשִׁית/first.[4]  God’s thought comes before the physical Creation.

We find this split between thought and action in the relationship between the days of the week and Shabbos.  The pasuk  in Tehillim (92:6) states, “מַה־גָּֽדְלוּ מַֽעֲשֶׂיךָ ה' .../How great are Your works, God …” suggesting the days of the week during which God created the world.  The pasuk continues, “... מְאֹד עָֽמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶֽיךָ/… Your thoughts are very deep,”  referring to Shabbos.  Because Shabbos is the day on which God ceased to create, it is associated with God’s thought rather than with activity.  It was given to the nation of Israel which existed in God’s thought before the physical Creation.  Shabbos, then, is the sign that the children of Israel have a special spiritual status, “בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא .../It is a sign between me and the children of Israel …” (Shmos 31:17)  All the creations of the world have a place in the physical Creation.  However, only the nation of Israel attaches to Shabbos, representing God’s thought.

We find another instance of this concept in a Midrash[5] on the pasuk in Tehillim (40:6), “רַבּוֹת עָשִׂיתָ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהַי נִפְלְאֹתֶיךָ וּמַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ אֵלֵינוּ .../You have done much, God, my Lord; Your wonders and thoughts are for us …”  The first part of the pasuk, describing God’s doing, relates to the physical world.  The second part makes it clear that God’s wonders and thoughts – the spiritual – are for us, His nation, as the pasuk states, “... נֶגֶד כָּֽל־עַמְּךָ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה נִפְלָאֹת .../… In front of all your people I will perform wonders …” (Shmos 34:10)

The nation of Israel merited this special relationship with God at the time of the Exodus when God changed nature on our behalf.  Although the Exodus itself was initiated by God, He told us at that time, that we would need to work to merit this special relationship.  This is alluded to in the first words describing the first mitzvah that God gave us as a nation, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים .../This month is for you the beginning of the months …” (Shmos 12:2)  The word חוֹדֶשׁ/month connotes חָדָשׁ/new.  With this first mitzvah, God hinted that He gave us the ability to draw novelty into the world. 

Novelty is beyond nature because the natural world is a closed system.  Nothing new can happen in it.  Novelty can only come from without, from the spiritual.  God is telling us that in order for us to be connected to the spiritual, we must draw it down.  How do we draw novelty into the world?  How can we not be bound by the physical world?  The answer, the Sfas Emes explains, is by realizing that the physical world is dynamic, not set.  By internalizing the concept that the physical world is changeable, the gates of miracles, wonders and novelty open.

This is why on Shabbos when, to an extent, we disregard the physical world by not performing creative work, the spiritual gates open.  We find this in a pasuk from this week’s haftara.  Yechezkeil describing the gates of the Beis HaMikdash tells us that the gate of the inner courtyard will be closed during the six days of the week and open on Shabbos.[6]  These physical gates suggest spiritual gates.

A person who takes these words to heart, though, realizes that the physical world is a barrier which separates him from God’s light.  The Sfas Emes says that this is not a reason to become melancholy.  It is all for good.  God sent us into this world, exile and darkness specifically to find His enlightenment which is hidden within it.  David HaMelech said, “וָֽאֹמַר אַךְ־חֹשֶׁךְ יְשׁוּפֵנִי וְלַיְלָה אוֹר בַּֽעֲדֵֽנִי/I said, ‘Surely darkness will shadow me, then the night would become as light for me.” (Tehilim 139:11)  Chazal[7] translate the pasuk as, “I said, ‘Surely darkness will shadow me in the next world.  In the end even this world which is likened to night has become light for me.”  David HaMelech was concerned that he would not merit God’s light in the next world.  In the end, he merited it even in this world.  We need to remember that the physical component of man and the physical Creation are also from God.  Fortunately, God enlightens us in this world as well through the Torah and the mitzvos.  

Both the darkness and the light are true and needed.  Realizing that we are in darkness, that this world is a barrier that hides God’s light is the first step towards revealing that light.  We find a hint to this idea in a story involving the Tanna Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch.[8]  When all his students went to Yavneh after the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch went to a different 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 sefer Torah, instead of reading, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month is for you,”  He transposed letters and read, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf.”  Although at first glance this appears to be an innocuous mistake, the Sfas Emes explains that it actually bears out our concept.  In Egypt we first needed to experience the darkness before we could merit the renewal of God’s light.  The prophet Yeshayah, as well, prophesied this idea, “הַחֵרְשִׁים שְׁמָעוּ/Listen deaf ones.” (Yeshayah 42:18)  They needed to experience the deafness before they could merit listening.

In exile the nation of Israel pines to hear the word of God but it is hidden from us.  We need to not give up hope but rather to understand that it is hidden within the very darkness that we experience.  In fact, since revealing God’s light is the primary reason that we exist in this world, we are guaranteed success through hard work.  Yeshayah said this clearly, “מִי ... חֵרֵשׁ כְּמַלְאָכִי אֶשְׁלָח/Who … is deaf like My messenger who I send.” (Yeshayah 45:15)  The messenger – us – needs to experience the deafness in order to merit being the messenger whom God sends.  May we merit it!

[1] VaYikra R. 14:1
[2] Zohar 1:170b, 3:48a
[3] Tanchuma Tazria 1
[4] VaYikra R. 36:4
[5] Pesikta Rabasi 15
[6] Yechezkeil 46:1
[7] Pesachim 2b
[8] Shabbos 147b

Friday, March 21, 2014

Parashas Parah (Shemini) 5646 First Ma'amar

Chazal[1] established reading four special sections of the Torah during the Purim season.  The first, Shekalim[2], is read on the Shabbos preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar.  Zachor[3] is read on the Shabbos preceding Purim.  We read HaChodesh[4] on the Shabbos preceding Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  Parah[5] is read on the Shabbos before Parshas HaChodesh.
Each of the parshiyos commemorates an activity which occurs during this time.  Shekalim commemorates the proclamation on Rosh Chodesh Adar to bring shekalim (a denomination of coin) to the Beis HaMikdash.  When we read Zachor we fulfill the mitzvah of remembering what Amalek did to us.  Appropriately, we read this parsha on the Shabbos before Purim since Haman descended from Amalek.  Parshas Parah which describes the mitzvah of the red heifer, is a reminder to become pure before Pesach so that we can bring the korban Pesach.  Finally, HaChodesh describes the mitzvah of bringing the korban Pesach.

The Torah relates that the Mishkan was built and activated on Rosh Chodesh Nissan.[6]  The first red heifer was brought only after the Mishkan was built, after Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  It could not have been brought earlier because it needed the Mishkan.  Since the red heifer could not have been brought beforehand, it would make more sense to read parshas Parah during the month of Nissan, when the red heifer was actually brought.  Why, then, do we read Parah before parshas HaChodesh rather than following it? 

The Sfas Emes explains that two critical things happened between the first Rosh Chodesh Nissan two weeks before the Exodus and the second one, a year later, when the Mishkan was built.  First, at the time of the Exodus, God chose us as His nation.  This is described in parshas HaChodesh which relates the Korban Pesach, the first mitzvah we were given as a nation.  Second, a year later, on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the Mishkan was activated.  This second Rosh Chodesh Nissan was the eighth and final day of the initiation sacrifices of the Mishkan.[7]  With the building and activation of the Mishkan the sin of the golden calf was rectified, God’s presenced was revealed and we came close to Him, as we find in the first pasuk of this week's parsha, “וַֽיְהִי בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי ... וַֽיִּקְרְבוּ כָּל־הָעֵדָה וַיַּעַמְדוּ לִפְנֵי ה'׃/It was on the eighth day … the entire community came close and stood before God.” (VaYikra 9:1-5)  These two events, being chosen and coming close to God are the two key things that differentiate us as a nation, as we say in the prayers of Yom Tov, “אַתָּה בְחַרְתָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִים ... וְקֵרַבְתָּנוּ ... לַעַבוֹדָתֶךָ/You chose us from all the nations … and drew us near … to your service.”

At the time of the Exodus, God first chose us and then we drew near to Him.  At that time, we were immersed in slavery and the decadence of Egypt.  We needed an external catalyst to start the process which culminated in the redemption.  Now, however, to reach a level of being chosen we need to first come close to God through repentance.  When we show God that we desire to be close to Him, He reciprocates and chooses us.  For this reason, parshas Parah, which represents what we do to purify ourselves in order to come close to God, precedes parshas HaChodesh which, as we’ve said, represents God’s choosing us. 

Chazal allude to this at the end of last week’s parsha following the description of the initiation services and sacrifices during the eight days culminating on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, “כַּֽאֲשֶּר עָשָׂה בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה צִוָּה ה' לַֽעֲשֹׂת לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם׃/As he (Moshe) had done on this day, so God commanded to do in order to atone for you.” (VaYikra 8:34)  Chazal teach us that לַעֲשֹׂת/to do, refers to the red heifer [8]  Why do Chazal find a hint to the red heifer specifically here, before Rosh Chodesh and the activation of the Mishkan?  The Sfas Emes explains that Chazal are teaching this very concept.  To merit being chosen by God, we must first show him that we desire to be close to Him by purifying ourselves through repentance.

The Sfas Emes says that it is very possible that Chazal are hinting to another important idea, as well.  Apparently the period immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh Nissan was designated from the time of the initiation of the Mishkan for atonement and purification.  In fact, the Sfas Emes says further, that for those of us who desire and anticipate purification, an aspect of purification enters our souls before Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  For this reason Chazal established reading Parah specifically prior to Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  This is the time when we are given the opportunity to merit purification and coming close to God.

[1] Mishnayos Megila 3:4
[2] Shmos 30:11-16
[3] Devarim 24:17-19
[4] Shmos 12:1-20
[5] Bamidbar 18:1-22
[6] Shmos 40:17
[7] Sifra Shemini Mechilta deMiluim 1
[8] Yoma 2a