Tuesday, April 19, 2016
What Should We Think when Performing Mitzvos Whose Reason We Do Not Know?
In the Hagadah the wise son asks, “What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that God our Lord commanded you?” The Sfas Emes understands that the wise son is asking to understand the reasons for the laws, not the actual laws. It is to be assumed that he knows the laws. The question arises, how can he ask for a reason for the statutes? Statutes do not have a reason. Included in statutes, for example, are the red heifer, sha’atnez (garments made from wool and linen) and eating non-kosher animals. These mitzvos have no apparent reason. How, then, can the wise son ask for the reason for these mitzvos?
David HaMelech, though, taught us, “מַגִּיד דְּבָרָיו לְיַעֲקֹב חֻקָּיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו לְיִשְׂרָאֵל/He told his words to Ya’akov, His statutes and laws to Israel.” (Tehilim 147:19) We see that really, statutes have meaning as well. How can we come to know the reasons for the statutes? The Sfas Emes explains that the way to attain an understanding of the statutes is by doing them even without understanding but with the faith that they have meaning. By performing these mitzvos without knowing or understanding the reason, we will merit knowing the reason as well.
The mitzvah of eating matzah alludes to this. Matzah is made of nothing but flour and water. It contains no additional spices or flavors. It has no additional taste. In Hebrew the same word is used for taste and for reason – טַעַם. We eat the matzah without adding any other flavor to it to show that the mitzvah itself, sans any reason, is enough for us.
Appropriately, the answer we give the wise son is, “one is not to eat any dessert after the Pesach-lamb.” He wants to know the טַעַם/reason for the mitzvos including the statutes. We tell him that the way to know the reasons is to do them without knowing the reason but with faith in God who commanded us. We give him a hint when we tell him not to add to the טַעַם/taste of the Korban Pesach.”
Even though we do not bring the Pesach lamb as a sacrifice today, this halachah applies nowadays as well. We eat matzah at the end of the Seder to commemorate the Korban Pesach. We do not eat anything after the matzah so that only the taste of the matzah lingers. This year let us contemplate, as we eat the Afikoman, the words of the Sfas Emes. Let us associate the טַעַם/taste of the Afikoman with the טַעַם/reason for the חוּקִים/statutes and may we merit understanding them as well.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Why the Shabbos before Pesach is Called Shabbos HaGadol
A Novel Understanding from the Chiddushei HaRim
Why do we call the Shabbos before Pesach, Shabbos HaGadol – The Great Shabbos? Various reasons are brought. The Chiddushei HaRim gives two answers. The first one follows.
The Chiddushei HaRim associates this question with a similar question we find in a Gemara regarding the name of the assembly of Torah greats that functioned during the Babylonian exile and at the beginning of the second Beis HaMikdash.
R’ Yehoshua ben Levi asks, “Why are they called Anshei K’nesses HaGedola – Men of the Great Assembly? Because they returned the crown to its former glory. Moshe said, ‘God, the great, the strong and the awesome.’ Yirmiyahu said, ‘Gentiles are cackling in His sanctuary. Where is the awe?’ (Therefore), he did not say, ‘the awesome.’ Daniel said, ‘Gentiles are enslaving His children. Where is His strength?’ (Therefore), he did not say, ‘the strong.’ They came and said, ‘Just the opposite. His strength is because He overcomes His anger and displays patience to the wicked. His awesomeness is because if it weren’t for the fear of God, one nation (Israel) would not be able to exist amidst all the others.”
We see though, that Yirmiyahu and Daniel never removed the appellation “great” and it therefore never had to be returned. It is true that the Anshei K’nesses HaGedola returned, “the strong” and, “the awesome” but why is this a reason to call their assembly, “great?” The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the Anshei K’nesses HaGedola did more than give a novel definition to God’s awesomeness and strength during the exile. They realized that God’s patience towards our enemies and the trying circumstances in which we survived the exile were the very key to making the subsequent redemption complete. After the redemption from our enemies in Persia and the miracle of Purim, it became clear that everything that we endured – that His “awesomeness” and “strength,” – were indications of God’s great love for us. This realization was understandably missing during the tribulations of the exile. For this reason, they were called the “great” assembly. They really returned the understanding of God’s greatness – His great love for us.
What is the connection between this and Shabbos HaGadol? The Chiddushei HaRim applies this same concept to the Creation. The Creation is an expression of God’s glory. However, this only became apparent when the Creation was completed, on Shabbos. On the first Shabbos it became clear that the entire Creation is really one integral system, each part of which works toward the common goal of revealing God’s glory.
When we say that it became clear, the meaning is that it became clear to man. God created the world for man to recognize Him through it. Before the nation of Israel accepted the Torah, only individuals recognized God in the Creation. The first time that an entire nation collectively recognized God as the Creator was on the Shabbos before the Exodus when we performed the mitzvah of taking the lamb in preparation for the Korban Pesach. This mitzvah represents the first time in history that God commanded an entire nation to perform an act and that nation submitted to God’s command. In terms of recognizing God in the Creation, this Shabbos was the culmination of Shabbos Breishis. On this Shabbos, it finally became clear to an entire people that everything that happened until this point in history including the Creation itself was the hand of the Creator. God’s greatness was finally revealed in the Creation. We commemorate the revelation of God’s greatness on this Shabbos by calling it Shabbos HaGadol – the great Shabbos.
Thursday, April 07, 2016
The Purpose of Exile
The Sfas Emes’s Approach to Life’s Challenges
Chazal 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,” (Shmos 12:2) he read, “הַחֵרֵשׁ הָיָה לִבָּם/Their hearts were deaf”, a seemingly innocuous mistake. The Chiddushei HaRim, 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 Midrash 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,” 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 experienced 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 …” (Tehillim 145:14), 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 Zohar 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. This idea is related in Chazal’s understanding of the following pasuk, “מִי־יִתֵּן טָהוֹר מִטָּמֵא לֹא אֶחָד/Who can produce purity from impurity? No one!” (Iyov 14:4) The Midrash translates this pasuk as, “Who produces purity from impurity? Is it not the One?” Impurity does not have an autonomous existence. Impurity is a screen that hides purity. 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 to God, 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.
This is why Parshas Para representing attainment of purity from an impure state precedes Parshas HaChodesh which represents spiritual renewal. May we merit it!