Friday, August 27, 2010

Ki Savo/Elul: Fresh Produce and a New Year

Parshas Ki Savo is always read as we enter into the second half of Chodesh Elul, moving full speed ahead towards the new year. Let’s see what we can take out of the Parsha to enhance our Avodah as we approach the Yomim Nora’im.

The ideas we will discuss are based on the Shiurim of Rav Sitorsky and the holy Sefer Emunas Itecha.

The Parsha opens up by telling us that the upcoming law is connected to entering into the new land, “V’Haya Ki Savo El Ha’Aretz”, ‘And it shall be when you enter into the land etc…’ Our goal is to explain how entering into the new land of Eretz Yisrael thematically mimics our entrance into the new year, via Rosh HaShana.

The Midrash Sifri tells us that Hashem tells the Jewish people, “Be very careful with the Mitzvah of Bikurim, because of its merit shall you remain in Eretz Yisrael.”

So what is the Mitzva of Bikurim? Bikurim are the First Fruits that appear upon any given person’s fruit trees. These special First Fruits are designated to be brought to the Beis HaMikdash.

Other ritual taxations, known as Trumos V’Ma’asros are to be brought to Yerushalayaim or at the very least given to the local Kohen. Why must the Bikurim be entered into the realm of the Beis HaMikdash?

The answer is that just like the Bikurim are a mark of a starting point – so is the Beis HaMikdash. The First Fruits, on a very micro-cosmic level, mark the beginning of one’s produce. The Beis HaMikdash and more specifically the Even Shesiya - the Foundation Stone – on which it stands, mark the beginning of existence as a whole.

Jewish thought teaches that the central point from where physicality started to be, the exact location of existence’s initial existence so-to-speak was the place on the Temple Mount, directly below the ‘Holy of Holies’; a ‘stone’ called the “Even Shesiya.” It marks the very start of everything. And it is in this spot where we build the Beis HaMikdash.

Thus we see how it would be very fitting to bring the Bikurim to the Beis HaMikdash. By bringing the First Fruits to the place where all ‘Firsts’ find their root, we in essence link together an entire cycle of the universe by connecting the start history with the start if this year’s produce. We take a piece of fruit, which by itself will rot away, and we join it to the Beis HaMikdash - something obviously much more significant than a piece of fruit.

The whole idea of Bikurim is teaching us about excitement, zealousness, Zerizus - to take a small spark of initial excitement and attach it to something much greater, to bring that opening enthusiasm into Avodas Hashem.

So where does this idea of Bikurim find its source? All the way back with the Bikurim of all souls – with Adam HaRishon. The first Man contained all the initial excitement we explained just above, and he was meant to be totally attached to Avodas Hashem, and thereby live forever. But on the very same day which he was born, on Rosh HaShana, he ruined his personal manifestation of Bikurim through his sin with the Tree of Knowledge. Through his disobedience to God’s will, the Torah tells us that he caused death to come over the world – the diametric opposition to the excitement of Bikurim - a concept that would have totally not existed at all had he not messed up in the way that he did.

Because what is death really? Death is simply a ceasing-to-be of life force. And life is really an ever-flowing continuum of renewal. One, tiny, new moment linked to a moment that ‘deceased’ an instant before. Life in its essence is constant freshness, excitement, originality, Zerizus. And without that constant sense of ingenuity, we are, on some level – dead.

So with the sin of Adam HaRishon, the Bikurim of all souls, death comes into the world, and as a part of fixing it we are commanded to show our commitment to Zerizus by taking the Bikurim of our fields to the meta-Bikurim of the universe – the Beis HaMikdash.

The Beis HaMikdash thus needs to be an embodiment of Zerizus, and we can see very clearly how this is in fact the cace. Back in Parshas VaYeitze, read how Yaakov Avinu falls asleep on some unspecified mountain and dreams of a majestic ladder which ascends into the heavens. Chazal tell us that this place on which he fell asleep was in fact the Temple Mount. When he awakens he proclaims, “Mah Norah HaMakom HaZeh! ‘How awe-inspiring is this place!’ Rashi explains that Yaakov meant that, ‘Had I known how holy this place was, I wouldn’t have dared to sleep here!’ The Temple Mount is a place of life, a place of invigoration, a place of excitement, not a place for sleeping! Sleeping is a little taste of death, and the Makom HaMikdash is not a place for that.

This also explains the seemingly extreme principles implemented against any Levite caught sleeping on the grounds of the Beis HaMikdash. There was a specially appointed person doing rounds to look for the sleeping Levites, and what was their wake-up call? This man’s job was to light their pants on fire! Wake up! The Beis HaMikdash is a place of exhilaration!

To move forward in our analysis let’s take a moment to introduce a concept gleaned from the Sefer Yetzira. We are taught that corresponding-counterparts can often be found within the context of space (Makom) and time (Zman). For example, what Bein HaMeitzarim, the Three Weeks in which we mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash are in the realm of time – the Dead Sea fills the same role in the realm of a physical location. They both are devoid of life and growth. They are both depressingly barren, and they are low, spiritually and physically (the surface of the Dead see is an amazing 1,300 feet below sea-level!). And while listing every connection would be beyond the scope of this essay, it is important to point out that such parallels run through every level of the Jewish cycle of the year.

So, in regards to our discussion, what is the thematic-counterpart of the Beis HaMikdash in the realm of time? The answer is Rosh HaShana. The explanation is obvious. Just like we explained that space unfolded from the physical place of the Beis HaMikdash, so too time kicked off from Rosh HaShana. If the Beis HaMikdash the direct center of Makom, then the clear corresponding moment in Zman would be Rosh Hashana. They both are the Bikurim, the fresh, first energy of their respective themes.

And to bring it all home, the numerical value of Beis HaMikdash is eight hundred sixty-one. And not so surprisingly, what other term shares that exact Gematria? Rosh HaShana. Do the math.

So if we are told to bring physical Bikurim to the physical Beis HaMikdash, then how are we supposed to bring conceptual Bikurim to Rosh HaShana - the Beis HaMikdash of Zman?

The answer is found in an accepted practice of all Jewish people in these times of Elul. Sefaradim start in the beginning of the month, and Ashkenazim wait until the end, but no matter which sect you find yourself a part of, it is an accepted practice among Jews in this time of the year to get up earlier in the morning and recite Selichos, to beseech mercy and forgiveness in preparation for Rosh HaShana.

What greater Zerizus is there than to get up early in the morning, to take the ‘Bikurim’ of the day so-to-speak, and focus them towards the Beis HaMikdash of Time? In the same way that we take the Bikurim of our physical fields and bring them to the Beis HaMikdash - we take the fresh energy of the start of the day and direct it to Rosh HaShana.

To enjoy Bikurim without bringing it to the Beis HaMikdash is to ride the thrill of the initial excitement of anything without putting it into a greater context of Avodas Hashem. Like we said before – a first fruit by itself will rot – an exciting burst of energy is nice; but it will wear off.

The Avodah of Elul is to take the energy of these exciting times and pump it into Avodas Hashem. Whether it is the Beis HaMikdash in Yerushalayim, the Beis HaMikdash of the New Year, or the Beis HaMikdash in our hearts, we need to take the Bikurim in our lives, the moments of excitement and inspiration and use it to excel as much as we can in our Avodas Hashem inundate our lives with exhilaration and Zerizus in our relationship with the Divine.

B’Ezras Hashem we should all be Zocheh to take advantage of the rest of Chodesh Elul and our lives as a whole – to tap into our Zerizus, our inner ‘Bikurim’ and channel it towards the Beis HaMikdash - on whatever level we can. If we can do this there is no doubt we will live lives of happiness and fulfillment, coming away with a tremendous experience on Rosh HaShana, moving closer to the creator and ultimately the redemption!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Elul/Ki Seitzei: Purim, Shevet Dan and the lessons for a better Rosh HaShana

This week’s Parsha on the whole deals with the issue of Tikkun, rectification. Through a closer analysis of the Tikkun of Elul and the general Tikkun of the world we will be able to hopefully come away with a strong lesson on how to overcome that which prevents us from making the most of our experience on Rosh HaShana.

An apology is required in advance – this essay is longer than usual. This is due to a larger spectrum of factors that are dealt with. The connections are broad and beautiful. Enjoy.

The concepts we will hopefully discuss have been influenced by Emunas Itecha, Pachad Yitzchak Rav Reichman and Rav Sitorsky.

To put things in perspective let’s lay down a few examples as to how Ki Seitzei raises the issue of rectification. The first concept discussed is that of the Eishes Yefas To’ar. We are told that in the course of a battle, if a warrior sees a woman who catches his eye, then with certain regulations he can take her as his own. While on the simple level we see this as the Torah creating a leniency for our baser desires as the Gemara describes, the Ohr HaChayim takes a more esoteric approach:

When we go to war as a nation we are doing so on a much higher level, way above that which rests on the geo-political playing field. When Am Yisrael goes to war in a manner of holiness we are doing so do eliminate the forces of evil in the world. The very physical action of destroying that which opposes Hashem creates a massive spiritual Tikkun.

But even in the evil of that which we need to destroy exists small sparks of holiness that can be saved and salvaged. And with the careful eye of the Tzaddikim fighting in Hashem’s army they can pick out those sparks of holiness and release them from the evil which keeps them on lock-down.

So – when we go to war to destroy evil, where are those hidden sparks of holiness hidden? In the Eishes Yefas Toar. By destroying the evil of the enemy as a whole and simultaneously picking out the small bits of that which is good we can bring a Tikkun to the nation which we are batteling.

Another example that we see is found when we learn about Hashavas Aveida - returning a lost object. How is this a Tikkun? Bob has a certain amount of property to his name – his control extends over these objects. If he loses something, then that lost object extends beyond the reach of his control. He who returns the object to Bob has brought about a Tikkun to the wholeness of Bob’s property.

There are other examples, but that’s not our focus. We need to discuss the most important Tikkun of all, and that is how our Parsha ends. We need to delve into Mechias Amalek - the total decimation of Amalek.

The Jewish people were one fire. After inexplicable miracles they leave Egypt in full glory. They are on the way to Har Sinai. They are bound to receive the Torah. Everything is great.

But what happened to the Jewish people on the path? Amalek attacked. The Passuk in our Parsha says, “Asher Karcha BaDerech” they happened upon you on the Derech - the way. The Stutchiner Rebbe Shlita brings out the depth of the Passuk. Reb Tzadok HaKohen explains that in order to reach the most intrinsic meaning of what a word in Torah really means then the analysis must begin with how it is used the first time that it appears in Torah. So where is the first time that we Derech? Back in Parshas Bereishis. Let’s analyze.

Adam HaRishon is born on Rosh HaShana. He doesn’t even last a few short hours before sinning with the Eitz HaDa’as. He eats from the Tree of Knowledge and is forced to leave the Garden.

Hashem placed two angels with revolving, flaming swords to block the passage back into Gan Eden. This path is what the Torah calls the Derech Eitz HaChayim, the way (back) to the Tree of Life. And thus based on this we see that the Derech that Amalek interrupted when we were attacked in the desert was the Derech Eitz HaChayim.

How is the journey to Har Sinai the Derech Eitz HaChayim? The answer is that we call Torah, Eitz Chayim Hi LaMachazikim Ba, Torah is the Tree of life for those that cleave to it. We describe Torah as Chayeh Olam eternal life, exactly how the Torah described the potential results of eating from the original Eitz HaChayim situated in Gan Eden. The journey to Har Sinai where Amalek attacked is the Derech Eitz HaChayim. And destroying him (even if as a concept more than a physical nation) means clearing
That Derech.

To bring things a bit deeper, let’s introduce a concept about the Jewish cycle of the year. The Mishna tells us that the world really has two starting points: Nisan and Tishrei. If we see the Jewish calendar as a circle with twelve sections, then we would see these two months six months apart on exactly opposing parts of the year. What emerges is that these two starting points generate two different perspectives of the twelve months that make up the journey through the year.

Thus if both of these months are a “Rosh HaShana” of sorts that would mean that the processes leading up to them would also parallel on a certain level. So Elul, our month, which precedes the Rosh HaShana of Tisrei would chronologically line up with Adar, the month which precedes the “Rosh HaShana” that takes place in Nisan.

It takes little seeking to see how Adar is a month of the destruction of Amalek. Adar’s heavy-hitting holiday is Purim. Purim is the holiday where we battle and defeat Haman, both the biological and ideological outgrowth of Amalek. It is in this month where Amalek as an entity takes a tremendous blow. And Chazal tell us that our victory on Purim served as a re-acceptance of the Torah. All that which was lacking due to Amaleks attack on the way to Har Sinai was undone and was given a Tikkun when we overcame those same forces on Purim.

How does this connect back to Elul? As we have previously seen, Elul serves an acrostic, or Rashei Tevios for many different things, each of those different initials revealing another facet of the month. This week we can point out another, surprising Rashei Teivos for Elul. In Megilas Ester we are commanded to send gifts Ish L’Rei’eihu U’Matanos L’Evyonim - Gifts from man to his friend and presents to the poor. This Rashei Teivos of this phrase in the Megila also serve as the letters which spell Elul – thus connecting Adar to Elul and more specifically Purim to Ki Seitize.

A quick review before we go on: Adar and Elul are parallels on the two simultaneous cycles of the year. Adar, the month of Purim, which is a battle against Amalek lines up against our Parsha, the Parsha of Tikkun which comes to a peak with the biggest Tikkun of all which is Mechias Amalek. It is Amalek who is responsible for keeping us away from the national Tikkun of getting back to the Eitz HaChayim and out from the under the influence of the Eitz HaDa’as.

There is much discussion as to how the Original Snake which caused the sin of the Eitz HaDa’as later came to be revealed in human, then national, then ideological form of Amalek. In the same way that the Snake caused Chava (Eve) to doubt the totally unified dominance of Hashem, so too Amalek continues in this path trying to insert doubt into our Emunah - faith, and thus the Gematria, the numerical value of Amalek is Safek which is the Hebrew word for doubt. Both the Snake and Amalek prey on the loose ends, the sensitive areas, the weakest points, seeing as those would be the best choices for places to combat clear Emunah and replace it with Safek.

And that is exactly what Amalek did. When Amalek attacked, the Passuk says that he attacked “HaNecheshalim, the weak and the tired, those who straggled behind. The commentators tell us that these stragglers were the members of the Tribe of Dan who were forced to follow the rest of the camp from behind due to their issues with Emunah (shockingly, they got caught up in idol-worship upon the exodus from Egypt). So it makes a lot of sense that Amalek would strike here.

How is this relevant? We know that in the camp, each tribe was given a flag with an image that thematically described what that tribe was all about - Dan’s flag contained a picture of what? A Snake.

Dan in his ideal state represents the Nachash D’Kedusha the snake on the side of holiness, as displayed by his flag as well as the blessing which he receives from Yaakov Avinu. At the end of Sefer Bereishis where Yaakov Avinu blesses all the tribes, he says the following about Dan. “Dan Yadin Amo - Dan shall avenge his peopleYihi Dan Nachash Alei Derech - and Dan shall be a snake upon the Derech (the reader knows exactly which Derech is being referenced here!).

On the other hand, as we have explained, Amalek brings out the Nachash D’Tumah, the snake on the side of impurity. Thus had Amalek’s attack on the tribe of Dan been fully successful it would have been a decisive display of the dominance of the Nachash D’Tumah.

In the blessing we mentioned a moment ago Yaakov said that Dan will take revenge for his people. When does this happen? It happens in this week. Parshas Ki Seitzei always falls out in the week of the Ninth of Elul, which we are taught is the Yartzeit, the commemoration of the passing of Dan. (In Judaism, the day one dies marks the day that his life source came into its fullest fruitin and therefore nothing is left. And on that day, every year after an expression of that person’s soul re-enters the world. Thus Dan’s passing on in this week would mean that…) even though Amalek struck first, Parshas Ki Seitzei, which comes out in Dan’s week shows us that in the end the Nachas D’Kedusha of Dan will win out with the eventual Mechias Amalek.

Fine, so we need to go through this week’s Parsha with all of its connections to learn about the depth of destroying Amalek. But how is this going to give us a better Rosh HaShana?

We are told to destroy Amalek. How are we told to do this? Through the commandment of Zachor. Don’t forget what he did to you. How does remembering him help us wipe him out? Certainly the opposite is true! IF we forget all about Amalek that will lead to him eventually being swept away in the pages of history! Remebering him seems counter-intuitive to totally destroying him.

We can answer in the following way: We explained that Amalek’s key weapon is doubt. Doubt takes that which was clear to me originally and shakes things up so that I end up less certain of those same concepts. Thus it is the power of memory, constant review, a repetitive internalization of the fact the God runs the show that overcomes the doubt that Amalek uses to break our Emunah. Thus it is through Zachor that we overcome Safek.

The connection to Rosh HaShana is simple. Rosh Hashana is the day that we declare God as King. We drive the message of Emunah home like no other time of the year. And throughout our sources, Rosh HaShana is called many times by the name of Yom HaZicaron - the Day of Memory.

It is Amalek, the Snake, the Sin of the tree of knowledge and the doubt which comes with all three of them which keep us away from internalizing that God is King. But through destroying this doubt, through Mechias Amalek we can overcome these hurdles and truly celebrate our connection to the Divine.

It is a tremendous Avodah to constantly work on one’s Emunah. But it this task which will bring about Mechias Amalek and the eventual complete Tikkun of the world. Let’s start this week. The week of Dan, the week of the Parsha of Tikkun, when we connect back to Purim – now is the most opportune time to connect ourselves to our most powerful faculties of Zicaron.

If we can truly work on our Emunah, if we can truly drive home the point that God is king, then it will serve as a personal Tikkun for each one of personally. It is through this that we will be able to make the most of our time in Elul, eventually in Rosh HaShana and hopefully in our lives on the whole. If we can do this there is no doubt that we will live lives of happiness and meaning, moving closer to the Creator and ultimately to Tikkun Olam!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Adding some layers to thoughts on Elul.

We've previously discussed how Elul is a movement towards Tov. For a full explanation it is highly suggested that the reader see here.

We know that Moshe went up on Har Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Elul in order to receive the second Luchos, the second set of Tablet with the Ten Commandments. The Gemara in Brachos tells us that one of the defining characteristics of this second set was that, as opposed to the first this second set contained a reference to Tov - Goodness. It arises in the phrase "Lma'an Yitav Lach" 'So that it shall be good for you.'

In short, if the journey to receiving the "Tov" of the second Luchos begins on Rosh Chodesh Elul, then on some level the month of Elul as a whole is intrinsically attached to attaining Tov.

Perhaps we can add even more based on a teaching of the Arizal. We are taught that each one of the twelve months of the year parallel one of the twelve Shvatim, one of the twelve tribes of which the Jewish people are comprised.

The month of Elul goes along with the tribe of Gad. If we understand more about the arrival of Gad and its significance, then surely we will have a deeper understanding of the month of Elul.

When Gad is born the Passuk gives a very short statement about his arrival. "Bah Gad" 'Gad had come.' To explain this very vague line Rashi gives us two possible interpretations, each one with powerful links to the month of Elul.

The first explanation offered is that the term Bah Gad means "Bah Mazal Tov" 'Good fortune has arrived.' We with our previous understandings of this month the connection is beautiful. Elul is the month in which we attain Tov, and Elul, the month of Gad is an auspicious time in this regard, for we know that when Gad arrives - and his month - Bah Mazal Tov an air of Tov fills the world.

The second explanation given is that Gad was born Mahul, Gemalt, meaning he was born with his Bris Milah, he came out of the womb miraculously circumcised.

How is this connected to Elul? The four letters that comprise the word Elul are often broken apart as a part of several different acrostics, or as it is known in Hebrew, Rashei Teivos. In Parshas Eikev we are told, that Hashem will preform a circumcision of sorts on the hearts of the Jewish people. The Passuk says "U'Mol Hashem Elokecha Es Levavcha Ve'As Levav Zarecha." 'And God will circumcise the 'foreskin' (a reference to any impure blockage) of your hearts and the hearts of your descendants.'

Four words in this phrase, "Es Levavcha V'Es Levav" comprise the Roshei Teivos of the word Elul.

What emerges is that Elul is time when Hashem is more is excitedly waiting to help us remove the blockages, the Orla in whatever form that they take. Because if we start, if we simply desire, then Hashem will hopefully give us the Siyata Di'Shmaya that we need to overcome any obstacle and attach ourselves to Him.

Chodesh Tov!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Shoftim/Elul: Digging for His Merit and Finding Your Own

This week’s Parsha has an interesting emphasis on the concept of Tzedek - Justice. We need to understand the deeper meaning of what Tzedek is in context of the content of the Parsha and see how it is deeply connected to Chodesh Elul as we prepare for Rosh HaShana. Hopefully through a deeper understanding of these concepts we will be able to walk away a new perspective on how to get the most out of these times of Teshuva, of returning to Hashem.

The following is an adaptation of ideas I heard from Rav Sitorsky.

The Parsha opens up with Hashem commanding the Jewish people to appoint judges and officers to ensure order and justice. “Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha B’Chol Shearecha…V’Shaftu Es Ha’Am Mishpat Tzedek.” - ‘Judges and officers shall you give to yourself in all your gates…and you shall judge the nation in a Judgment of righteousness.’

Let’s point out a few interesting anomalies in the Passuk: For starters, the audience to which the Passuk is speaking to seems to switch half-way. The Passuk begins, Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha, Judges and officers shall YOU - in the singular – give to yourself. But the Passuk ends V’Shaftu Es Ha’Am Mishpat Tzedek - the whole nation needs to get judged appropriately! If the Passuk stuck to the singular we wouldn’t have the same problem, for if it did we could simply say that the overall singular reference is going on the Jewish people as a whole, but the fact that the Passuk switches in the middle to speak about the masses means that the singular individual spoken about in the beginning of the Passuk is in fact really one guy!

Two Psukim later the term Tzedek arises again. “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof” – ‘Justice! Justice shall you pursue.’ What is this emphasis of Tzedek that it appears three times within three Psukim and again multiple more times throughout the Parsha?

Now let’s jump to the end of the Parsha. The last concept spoken about in the Parsha is the idea of Egla Arufa. The case is the following. A dead victim, presumably murdered, is found lying out in the fields between two cities. Those who investigate cannot figure out who he is and to which city he belongs. What do we do now? We measure to see which city he closest to and break the neck of a cow in order to achieve atonement.

Here too we need to look a little deeper and ask some questions. The Passuk says, “Ki Yimtza Chalal Asher… Nofel Ba’Sadeh”, ‘When you find a corpse who fell in the field. (What will happen?)’ “V’Yatzu Ziknecha V’Shoftecha” ‘And your elders and your judges shall come out (to the scene)’ And they will take a cow to the river and break it’s neck. They will say to Hashem ‘Forgive your people’.

Ki Yimtza Chalal” – this word is translated as ‘corpse’ but it means ‘desecrated’ and ‘empty’, how is that relevant here? “Asher Nofel Ba’Sadeh” – Who fell in THE field, why so specific? It would be sufficient to say Bi’Sadeh, in a field! And who are the Ziknecha V’Shoftecha? Lastly, Why do the officiators involved need to request forgiveness on behalf of all of Am Yisrael?! It would be quite enough to ask on behalf of the suspected city to which the Challal was closest! And even that would be a lot, for it was not the whole city that was responsible, rather one person was the murderer!

And surely all of this is connected to the month of Elul, because Parshas Shoftim is always the first Parsha read in this month! Let’s pick out one specific detail of this month. The Arizal explains that Hashem’s name of Yud-Kay-Vav-Kay has twelve possible permutations not including the repeats. He goes further to say that each one of these is associated with a month of the year and attached to each one is a scriptural reference to which the permutation can be derived. For example, our month, the month of Elul’s permutation is Kay-Kay-Vav-Yud and it emerges from the line “U’Tzedaka Tihiye Lanu Ki” The line means ‘And there shall be Tzedeka for us’ and it emerges in that the last letter of each of those four words spells the permutation connected to this month.

But here is that term Tzedek again! How is this reference in the month of Elul connected to the same term used so often in our Parsha?

Let’s begin to answer our questions by understanding a deep and beautiful teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov.

There is a famous line in Pirkei Avos that tells us that we should not judge our friend until we arrive in his place. The simple understanding is that you will never know exactly what someone has gone through that made him arrive at his current decision, and because you can’t know all the factors, don’t judge him negatively.

The Ba’al Shem Tov offers a mystical understanding. It is know that when we do a mistake, if we, heaven forbid, sin; God can address our mess-up in one of two ways: either He can look upon it favorably and find merit on our behalf, or the harsher option would be unleash the full wrath that the misdeed deserves. The first is kindness and the second is a harsher judgment.

But how does Hashem decide which to use in any given situation? The answer is that Hashem will allow a person to judge himself. How? He will present that person with the sight of someone doing the very same action, which he himself transgressed in the first place. If the man in our case judges the man he sees favorably, then Hashem will judge him favorably in return. But the opposite is also true; if the man in our story looks upon the second man with disdain and judgmentally, so too shall God look upon him, and the strict justice will be delivered in lieu of mercy.

This idea is hinted to in the line we mentioned before. ‘Don’t judge your friend until you arrive in his place.’ The meaning is that any time you are judging your firend it is because you are really judging yourself, you and he are standing in the same place. God has matched up two people who have done the same action in order to determine he best mode of Divine Response.

The rule that we get from here is that the way that we are judged in heaven is a direct response to how we treat our fellow Jew.

And this is the deeper meaning of Tzedek/Tzedaka. Unkelos in Parshas Va’Eschanan defines it as ‘Zechusa’ – Merit in Aramaic. If the goal of all justice is really to find MERIT – then we can begin to tie everything together.

When we say Selichos, when we begin to pray for mercy before Rosh HaShana the very first thing we say is Lecha Hashem HaTzedaka - To you Hashem is the ability to find merit. This is the starting point of all of our requests.

But it really starts from us, for Hashem will only treat us in this way if we treat others in the same manner and this is where Parshas Shoftim comes in.

Why does the Passuk in the start of Parsha switch from singular to plural? We notice that the command to appoint judges and officers applies to the individual, but to the rest of the nation? V’Shaftu Es Ha’Am Mishpat Tzedek. To yourself appoint judges and officers, be very strict, as strict as you want - with yourself. “Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha.” But when you come to judging everyone else? That is the time to employ Tzedek, V’Shaftu Es Ha’Am Mishpat Tzedek. This explains the general repetition of the term throughout the Parsha as well. A Parsha defined by its qualities of judgment (as evident by its name) needs to have the goal of all justice repeated again and again.

So what is happening by Egla Arufa? The Challal, literally ‘the empty one’ - devoid of spirituality; found randomly murdered, a punishment from Hashem that he certainly had coming to him, who mysteriously cannot be traced to any specific locale – certainly this man has many factors leaning towards seeing him unfavorably.

(This is the meaning of Ba’Sadeh - THE field. What is THE field? The influence of Eisav. Why? He is called Ish Sadeh. This man who fell in the field, it seems that this man seems totally and fully secularized on the outside.) All in all it is very difficult to find merit to this man who died without any clues.

But how do we respond? We send ‘Ziknecha V’Shoftecha.’ And who are they? Rashi tells us that it the Sanhedrin, the highest court from Yerushalayim. Why do we need them, the biggest court we have, to come and investigate? Because Yehshaya HaNavi calls Yerushalayim the Ir Tzedek - the city of Tzedek. Only the biggest judges from the city of merit are able to deal meritoriously with such an estranged man.

Reb Tzadok HaKohen points out that this whole concept of Egla Arufa is teaching us a lesson in Arvus, responsibility for the Jewish people. The highest court from the city which David HaMelech calls Ir She’Chubra LaYachdav’ it’s the city that brings people together – it is they who have the ability to approach the Chalal who has fallen into the Sadeh and find merit, even there. They have the ability to look at this situation and think, maybe Hashem did something to this man to teach a lesson to me, or the Jewish people as a whole! And as such they ask forgiveness on behalf of the entire Jewish people.

And all of this comes down to the fact that we use this Parsha to enter into the month of Elul, the month of “U’Tzedaka Tihiyeh Lanu Ki” – the month that if we can find merit in others, Hashem will find merit in us.

In a world where I am constantly trying my very best to find merit in everyone around me I can make my relationships with those around grow, and through that boost my connection with Hashem. Hashem created all sorts of people around me and He really wants us to get along. It’s a difficult but rewarding task that is truly life-transforming, and it is totally crucial step into making the most out of the Teshuva process.

B’Ezras Hashem we should be Zoche to operate in the world in such a beautiful fashion. For when we begin to place merit on others, Hashem begins to place merit on us. If we can do this then there is no doubt that we will all live lives of fulfillment and happiness, moving closer to the Creator and ultimately the redemption!

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Radical Idea on Elul: Thoughts On Reality, Thoughts Of Reality

The goal of this essay is to convey a tremendously profound and inspiring concept of the Bnei Yissachar which can be found in the fourth entry of his first essay on Chodesh Elul. In order to do so effectively we will need to begin with some essential introductory background information.

Our task is to understand the following line: If the world physically came to be in the month of Tishrei then the thought of creation and the processes leading up to it took place in the month of Elul. What does that mean and how does that play out in our understanding of how to act in this month?

Buckle your seat belts; this is going to be a ride.

God, in His essence; intrinsically, in the truest way we can state, is totally beyond our comprehension. It’s a level of unique perfection far surpassing the capabilities of the human mind. There is no grasping God Himself. It just doesn’t happen.

But on the other hand, God gave us His self-titled Attributes, Names and Descriptions that we do use to relate to how He interacts with us. This much we can say. Can we relate to God intrinsically? No. Can we relate to how He interacts with us. Yes.

With this on the table we can discuss a totally crucial peg of all Jewish thought as taught to us by the Ramchal. The first of these attributes that God titled Himself with was “Tov” – ‘Good’. Before anything else, God calls Himself Good, Good in the truest, most perfect sense. Good, but not in anyway you would see in a finite context. He’s uniquely good, infinitely good, divinely good.

Continues the Ramchal, the nature of that which is good is to bestow good on others. This how the good of any object is realized. Good becomes good only when it is extended into or onto something else, thus making that good recognizable, activated and altogether present.

Based on this, it is the self-titling of God as Good that sparked creation to be. For at the exact moment that God calls Himself good, it requires that there be something or someone for that good to be bestowed upon, and –bam- creation happened.

But with this information on the table we can now more acurately reformulate it in the reverse. The reason that God gave Himself the title of Good was in order that there would be a creation that He would be able to bestow that Good upon.

The slight change we just stated is as follows: Until now we said that a title of Good was placed, and that title necessitated the creation that could receive that good. We are now giving this understanding a new nuance by saying that the it was the end result, the desire for those subjects onto which good could be bestowed, that was the cause for the title – which in turn set the stage for those creations to exist.

But there’s a nuance, for while it is true that all aspects of the created world are relevant to receiving Goodness, the goal of all things that were created was so that they could set the stage for and facilitate the Jewish people -Am Yisrael reaching the highest level of that Good.

How do we know this to be true? From the first word of the Torah. Bereishis - ‘In the beginning.’ Simple enough, but Chazal tell us that Bereishis has contained within it a deeper message. “Bereishis, Bishvil Yisrael She’nikra ‘Reishis’”, “What does is mean, ‘In the beginning’? It means for Am Yisrael which is called a ‘Beginning’.” And verses are brought to prove this.

With this in mind we need to address a new question: What is the best to go ahead and bestow that good? God knew that free handouts of good would feel like charity, and no one likes to be on the receiving end of charity. We’ve all felt some sort of guilt or unworthiness that sours any undeserved freebie.

Thus God set up the system (ie: the universe we are currently in) in such a way that the creations, and Jews in specific, would have to work to receive their good. By putting in effort to receive the good that Hashem sought to give, the creations could receive that good, and not have that pleasure tainted by the feeling of receiving unmerited and unjustified freebies. Thus we have Torah and Mitzvos to help us get connected Hashem’s Goodness.

This system of earning our connection to Goodness through our actions is called Isarusa Di’Lisata, literally ‘An Awakening from Below.’ This means, us (the ‘Below’) cause the arousal of Good through our actions.

It is in the month of Tishrei that man was brought into the world, thus commencing the physical reality. But all the thoughts and plans for how the world would be brought about so that Goodness could be achieved through Isarusa Di’Lisata were conjured up in the month before, in the month of Elul.

With everything said, here is where everything gets problematic. In theory we can propose the following question: Any system that is true to itself does not work against its own principles. And if the end-goal of all of creation is to receive goodness through a system of Isarusa Di’Lisata, where was there any Isarusa Di’Lisata to begin creation? That was all on God’s side! All effort from the side of creations is all after the fact! And thus an entire system predicated upon Isarusa Di’Lisata does not have a practical foundation in that very concept!

Here the holy Bnei Yissachar reveals a massively novel idea about the nature of the basis of creation:

Is must be that the thought of the future actions of Am Yisrael alone was considered enough of a Isarusa Di’Lisata to stimulate a creation.

This is a potential tapped into again and again by Jews throughout history. When times are rough and we don’t feel that we have enough merit to support us and back us up to a positive outcome, we know that on a very real level God appreciates actions we know that we want to do in the future.

But this power comes to its fullest fruition in the month of Elul. For it was in the very first Elul, in the Elul before there was a world, that God looked to the future, perceived the actions that we would do as a retroactive Isarusa Di’Lisata and bestowed good – all good that would ever be – because of it.

It is because of this that in our prayers we say “Hashiveinu Hashem Eilecha V’Nashuva, Chadesh Yameinu K’Kedem” – “Hashem! Return us to you and we shall return, renew our days as they were previously.” What is the deeper meaning here? ‘Hashiveinu Hashem Eilcha - Hashem! Return us to you.’ Connect us to you. Bestow good upon us. ‘V’Nashuva - And we shall return.’ We’ll try our very best to be better in the future. ‘Chadesh Yameinu K’Kedem – Renew our days as they were previously.’ Treat us now as You did previously, before there was a world, before creation, before existence was – in a time where the mere thought of our future righteous deeds was enough of an Isarusa Di’Lisata to do good with us.

Elul is a time where we are in a unique position. God wants our will. Because Elul puts in a place where, more that ever, a pure thought can lead to a legitimate action. Where the desire to be good in the future can really be a first, concrete step to a brighter future. Elul is a time where positive thinking is a real Isarusa Di’Lisata of a better tomorrow.

B’Ezras Hashem we should be Zoche to tap into such a holy (albeit attainable) state of mind. If we can do that, if we can really focus on creating better realities for ourselves, there is no doubt that we will live lives of meaning and happiness moving closer to the Creator and ultimately the redemption!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Motzei Shabbos Sipurei Tzaddikim: Rav Levi Yitzchak and the Angels

Rav Baruch of Mezibuz sat with his Chassidim in his BeisMidrash (study hall) discussing the deeper aspects of the Torah. Unexpectedly, he turned to them and asked, "Can any of you say something negative about Rav Levi Yitzchak MiBerditchev? The astonished Chassidim struggled to comprehend what was behind their Rebbe's request. They supposed that he was trying to impress upon them the elevated level of the Rebbe MiBerditchev, and to prove that no one on earth was capable of saying a bad word about him. So they didn't answer him.

"Come on," Rav Baruch pressed them, "I'm waiting to hear something bad about him!" The Chassidim were mystified by their Rebbe, but now they understood that this was what he really wanted. They raked their memories for something negative they may have heard once about the Rebbe MiBerditchev, but to no avail. They were unable to satisfy their Rebbe.
An hour of unsuccessful efforts went by, by then the suspense of the Chassidim had become unbearable. Finally Rav Baruch explained his strange request:

I must now tell you that the Angels of Heaven are jealous of Rav Levi Yitzchak MiBerditchev. He perfectly embodies the verse, "you will find grace and good sense in the eyes of G-d and men" (Proverbs 3:4). He is so flawless in the study of Torah, fear of G-d, love of the Mitzvos and love of the Jewish People, that the Angels envy him. The result is that a great accusation has been provoked against him and his life is in peril. I must find some flaw in him in order to cool down the jealousy of the Angels."
As soon as the Chassidim understood the meaning of their Rebbe's strange wish¸ they tried with all their strength to find some fault in Rav Levi Yitzchak, knowing that by doing so, they will save his life.

In the meantime, a wealthy merchant from Mezibuz entered the Beit Midrash. Most of his time was spent traveling from town to town on his many business dealings. When he heard what the Rebbe and his students were discussing, his eyes lit up. He waited for a moment of silence and said:

"I can tell you of Rav Levi Yitzchak's shortcomings!"
All eyes were fixed on the merchant, who spoke with delight. Rav Baruch looked at him with penetrating eyes and said, "If so, tell your story!"

The merchant began his tale:

"A few weeks ago I happened to be in Berditchev on business. I woke up late in the morning in my hotel and went to the town's Synagogue. At that late hour, all the Minyanim (community prayers) had already finished. To my surprise, I saw Rav Levi Yitzchak in the corner of the Synagogue, completely immersed in the morning prayer. I clearly heard that he was in the midst of reciting the blessing "Yotzer Ohr" (literally, "[You who] creates light," which is said before "Shema Israel"). I stood at the doorway, about to enter in order to pray alone. To my surprise, Rav Levi Yitzchak came over to me and said, 'what will the Angel Michael say?! And what will the Angel Gavriel say?!' Immediately afterwards, the Rav returned to his place and continued praying as usual."

The merchant studied the faces of his listeners and raised his voice: "So what can you say about this strange behavior of Rav Levi Yitzchak? What does all of what he said have to do with me? What is this business about the Angels Michael and Gavriel in the middle of the prayer," the merchant asked with a contemptuous smile. "And most importantly: Since when is it permitted to interrupt in the middle of saying "Yotzer Ohr" in order to speak to someone?!"

The Chassidim stared at the merchant, stunned that he had found a real flaw in Rav Levi Yitzchak. They breathlessly awaited their Rebbe's reaction. Rav Baruch began: "In the blessing "Yotzer Ohr," when we reach the words 'Yotzer Meshartim' (meaning [You who] creates servants), the Angels Michael and Gavriel stand up in order to appeal on behalf of the nation of Israel. At that moment, Rav Levi Yitzchak joins them as well, and he also pleads for a favorable judgment for the Jewish people."

The Rebbe turned his head towards the merchant and focused his penetrating eyes on his eyes:
"When Rav Levi Yitzchak saw you entering the Synagogue with your Tefillin bag in your hand, and in your coat pocket the silver spoon you stole from your hotel that morning, he tried to find some justification for you but didn't succeed, since you are a rich merchant and have no reason in the world to steal."

Rav Baruch's eyes didn't budge from the merchant. He raised his voice and said: "That is why Rav Levi Yitzchak came over to you! He knew that even the Angels wouldn't find any excuse for you, that's why he called out, 'what will the Angel Michael say?!' and 'what will the Angel Gavriel say?!'"

The arrogant smile was wiped off the merchant's face, which became red and progressively turned pale. The Chassidim were left breathless by this revelation of divine insight of Rav Levi Yitzchak and Rav Baruch.

In a moment, Rav Baruch's gaze became softer, as well as his voice. "If you desire atonement," he said to the merchant, you must return to Berditchev and return the stolen item to its owner, go to the Tzaddik and ask forgiveness for your insolence toward him, and beg the Holy One, Blessed be He, to help you return to the proper path."

Rav Baruch's words entered the merchant's heart like an arrow. He rose without a word and departed from the Beit Midrash of Mezibuz to Berditchev, determined to mend his ways. In conclusion, the merchant returned entirely to the path of the righteous, and Rav Levi Yitzchak MiBerditchev was saved from the jealousy of the Angels.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Pre Shabbos Thought: The Neshama Yeseira - You don't know what you got 'til it's gone

The famous Passuk in Shemos says in regards to Shabbos, “U’Vayom HaShivi’I, Shavas VaYinafash.” ‘And then on the seventh day (Hashem) came to a still and rested.’

We know that on Shabbos Kodesh we receive an extra soul, a Neshama Yeseira – a facilitation for greater spirituality. The Gemara in Beiya (15:a) ties the aforementioned Passuk into this concept of Neshama Yeseira. “VaYinafsh? Oy She’avda Nefesh” What does the word ‘VaYinafash’ make you think? Oy, how terrible it is that we lose the Neshama Yeseira when Shabbos leaves!

The Sfas Emes in this weeks Parsha raises a famous question of the Baal Shem Tov about this Gemara: This Passuk of “U’Vayom HaShivi’I, Shavas VaYinafash” is a reference to how Shabbos started, not only that, but we say it on Friday night as Shabbos enters, why then does the Gemara use it as a springboard to start worrying about what happens when Shabbos ends?!

He answers by saying that if a person knows throughout Shabbos that the boosted spiritual enlightenment that is available to him is only a limited time offer, then he will do his best to take advantage of it the whole time – because after all, soon it’ll be gone! Therefore the Gemara gets us worrying about the loss of the Neshama Yeseira just as soon as we get it.

B’Ezras Hashem we should be Zoche to truly take advantage of our Neshama Yeseira this, and every Shabbos Kodesh!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Re'eh/Elul: A Journey to 'Tov'

As we enter into this Shabbos, Shabbos Mevarchim Elul, the final Shabbos as we enter into the new month of Elul, we read Parshas Re’eh. Let’s try gain some deeper insight into what Elul is all about and how that relates to the content of Parshas Re’eh, and hopefully from there we will be able to take a powerful message on how to foster a stronger relationship with Hashem.

Parshas Re’eh has one central theme: Service gone good versus service gone bad. What does this mean? Within this one theme, two major topics arise in this week’s Parsha. Not worshiping idols; and conversely, the appropriate way to serve Hashem.

Here are some examples. When you get to Eretz Yisrael destroy all the places of worship where Avodah Zara - idol worship, was practiced. Climb the mountains to find them, search beneath the ground. Utterly destroy their altars, and their sacred trees of worship are to be cut down. And obviously - break the statues and idols themselves. After they’re all gone don’t go ahead and try to replicate their ways – it makes God really angry – don’t do it. And when a false prophet tries to convince you of lies, if he tries to get you to serve idols, even if he performs miracles – don’t listen. Find him. Kill him. In fact, anyone for that matter. Anyone who tries to get you to do Avodah Zara, it’s no mercy. Kill him. And if you find an entire city that has been led astray with idol worship, destroy the whole city and everyone in it.

On the other hand we are also given the commandment to build the Beis HaMikdash. “Ki Im El HaMakom Asher Yivchar Hashem Elokeichem… U’Va’as Shama” Go and serve God in the place that He will choose. This place is destined to be the Beis HaMikdash. Furthermore, we are taught how to deal with sacrifices and we are instructed once more about the Regalim, the three festivals in which we are commanded to go up to Yerushalayim and visit the Beis HaMikdash.

So it is quite clear that we can crunch all of this into the following line. Don’t do Avodah Zara. Serve Hashem.

So how is all of this connected to the month of Elul? Rav Sitrosky explains that we need to understand what important historical events occurred in this month. With a simple bit of math we will soon see.

We know that after the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf (the first National Sin of the Jewish people – which happened to be idolatry) Moshe smashed the first Luchos - the first Tablets. Afterwards, to receive atonement, Moshe goes up to receive a second set/ We are told two things about the second set. The first is that they were brought down to the people on Yom Kippur, thus declaring God’s forgiveness of the people of the Golden Calf. Secondly we are told that Moshe spent forty days on the mountain receiving that second set of Tablets.

Count backwards forty days from Yom Kippur; where do we arrive? Rosh Chodesh Elul.

What does this mean? The meaning is that the beginning of the process that is the Tikun - the fixing of the first national mess-up with idolatry begins when? Rosh Chodesh Elul. And how do we start the month of Elul? With Parshas Re’eh, the Parsha of destroying idolatry.

Let’s examine another angle of Moshe’s receiving of the second Luchos.The Gemara in Bava Kama makes a sharp insight, followed by an obvious question. The Gemara there points out that there is a word that appears in the second set of Luchos that did not appear in the first set – that word is ‘Tov’, ‘Good’.

The word Good appears in the second set in the Fifth Commandment, “Lman Yitav Lach” – ‘So that it shall be good for you.

And the question is obvious: Why wouldn’t God put the word ‘Good’ in the first set? The answer is that God saw how in the near the future the first set of Commandments would be shattered, and he didn’t want to think that the concept of ‘Good’ was lost. So He never put it there to begin with.

But now we can see how the month of Elul, the fixing of the Sin of the Golden Calf now translates into a journey of receiving the second set of tablets – the Tablets of Tov.

We are taught by Chazal that every month has a Mazal, a constellation, a structure of stars that are a part of that month’s characterization. Meaning, the heavenly bodies that preside over any given month can give deeper insight into what that month is all about.

The Mazal of Elul is the Besula the ‘Young Maiden’ or literally, the ‘Virgin’. Now we need to understand how that is relevant to everything that we said above. And in order to do that we need to tie everything together by delving into the beautiful words of the holy Bnei Yissachar.

He connects the aforementioned Gemara to a Passuk in Mishlei (18:22). The Passuk says “Matza Isha Matza Tov V’Yafik Ratzon Me’Hashem.” If you find a woman, you find goodness, and (that will lead you to) bring favor forth from Hashem.

The simple explanation of verse is that he who finds a good wife finds goodness from his life which will foster a strong relationship with Hashem.

But the Rebbe illustrates a truly fantastic allegorical interpretation of the verse. What is Matza Isha - ‘Find a woman’? This is a reference to the Besula, the Virgin, the Mazal of Elul. And what is Matza Tov - ‘And you shall find goodness’? This is the ‘Tov’ of the second Luchos, Lmaan Yitav Lach. And what is V’Yafik Ratzon Me’Hashem? ‘And you shall bring forth favor from Hashem’? This is the end of the journey, the end of the forty days, the forgiveness of the Golden Calf, this is Yom Kippur.

This means that, when one enters into the month of Elul, the month of the Besula, one has a chance to embark on a journey towards reaching a place of L’maan Yitav Lach and eventually Yom Kippur.

But what about the Besula makes it the contrast to Avodah Zara? We say in the last paragraph of Shema: ’V’Lo Sasuru Acharei Livavchem V’Acharei Eineichem Asher Atem Zonim Achareihem. Don’t be led astray by your eyes and heart (Chazal tell us that one understanding means idolatry) that you will be turned into harlots after them. Obviously the harlot, the promiscuous woman is the diametric opposite of the Besula, the virgin.

It is through our journey in Elul, our growth with the Besula that we overcome the sin of the Golden Calf - Zonim Achareihem. When we accomplish this we reach the Tov of the second Luchos, Lmaan Yitav Lach, and eventually Yom Kippur.

But what about me? I don’t have any desire to bow down to idols! How is this at all relevant?

Says the Magid MiMezritch, Avodas Hashem is a 24/7 job. I’m ideally supposed to channel every emotion, every energy every possession to becoming closer to Hashem. Even when I relax it should be for a greater purpose. Thus he explains that Avodah Zara on a practical level is when I devote time, money and energy to things that are not conducive to growth, or Chas v’Shalom destructive to my relationship with Hashem. Are we not all guilty of this on some level?

But the month of Elul is a time that is super-charged with potential for growth. It is right now that we can overcome all of our little mess-ups with Avodah Zara, each one of us in our own private way.

B’Ezras Hashem we should be Zoche to take full advantage of the potential that Elul contains. Because if we tap into the message of Mazal Besula and Matza Isha Matza Tov then there is no doubt we will lead lives of happiness and fullfilment moving closer to the Creator and ultimately the Redemption!