Friday, November 19, 2010

VaYishlach/Chanukah: Putting It All On The Line

Some of the ideas in this essay have been adapted from a Rav Avraham Schorr in his Sefer HaLekach V’Halibuv, Rav Moshe Shapiro in his Sefer Afikei Mayim, the Sfas Emes and the Shem MiShmuel. If there are concepts that I misunderstood; and thereby improperly conveyed, I apologize.

In the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Yaakov Avinu prepares for his reunion with his brother and nemesis - Eisav HaRasha. After sending gifts to appease him, and splitting up the camp in order to outsmart him; Yaakov, in a last minute decision decides to backtrack in the middle of the night to recover some forgotten containers. There he meets an angel, whom he wrestles with the whole night. Locked in stalemate, the angel lands a blow to Yaakov’s hip, but Yaakov doesn’t give up, rather he retains a headlock on his challenger and demands a blessing. The angel concedes and blesses Yaakov by giving him a new name: Yisrael.

It’s brought down that this strike to Yaakov’s hip was a P’gam, a ‘wound’ in the cosmic attribute of Hod; and through this, all of our problems with Greece begin as well. We need to clarify what Hod is, how this struggle damaged it, how this is connected to Greece, why the angel’s attack occurred now, and most importantly of all what we can take out of it all.

Hod means magnificence or glory. The deeper sources teach us that the beauty of Hod is different than other types of beauty. Hod is the beauty of revealing a splendor contained within. When externals are subdued to let the internal purity shine through – this is Hod.

In regards to our Avodah, Hod is our ability to be Modeh to Hashem. Modeh, L’Hodot, Hoda’a all have connotations of thanks and admittance. What is the common denominator between to thank and to admit? The answer is that when I thank someone, I admit that something I have is really attributed to him or her. When I admit in court that I in fact owe my friend two hundred dollars, I’m saying that in my possession is something that is not really relevant to me, even though right now it is physically located near me.

The Ramban explains that this is why we are called Yihudim (also from the same Lashon), because the entire role of a Jew lies inHod; to reveal and admit that no matter what the world says, everything s really Hashem’s. By thanking Hashem, we reveal His true ownership over everything and thereby return all physicality back to its spiritual source. Our relating things back to Hashem, sheds them of their dull physicality and reveals their inner beauty, i.e.: their connection to the divine. This is Hod.

It’s brought down that the different spiritual attributes parallel the human body. Hod corresponds to the leg/thigh. Why? The thigh is the part of my body that I use to bow, like we do during Modim (again, the same Lashon). By bowing, I say that I am subduing my body so that is can be a vessel of Ratzon Hashem. Bowing at the hip is an Avodah of Hod. In my life, all times that I ‘bow’ – all the times that I suppress my body so that my soul can shine through, I begin to express my inner Hod.

When the angel strikes Yaakov in the hip, an attempt is made to impede his ability to bow, and therefore the bang to the leg is a P’gam in Hod.

But why is the angelic ambush specifically posed against Yaakov Avinu now? As we mentioned before, Yaakov runs back in the middle of the night to find some lost containers. The Midrash tells us that these containers held oil inside, and even more amazingly it was this oil that lasted through the generations and was used to light the Menorah during the miracle of Chanuka! With a worldview of Hod, where everything is a vessel to reveal God’s dominion, every single thing in my possession gains an elevated purpose – everything is now of tremendous importance. How can I just let my possessions slip through my fingers? Everything I own is an instrument used to reveal God’s unity! So Yaakov makes a midnight run to retake another small tool to reveal just a little more Hod in the world – and it is here where the angel challenges him.

Through this jolt to the hip, the Jews received a prohibition: we can no longer eat from the Gid HaNasheh, which is commonly translated as the sciatic nerve, a tendon that runs through the thigh. Why is it called the Gid HaNasheh? The Zohar says because it is the Gid, the nerve which is Menasheh, which causes forgetfulness in man. (In Parshas Miketz we read the term Ki Nishani ‘because I was forgotten’. Enosh is also a description of mankind in his forgetful state.) The Gid HaNasheh is a tendon, that when eaten, creates a spiritual reality that causes one to forget the good that God does to him.

In essence the Gid HaNasheh and it’s consumption are in direct opposition to the attribute and beauty of Hod. When I thank Hashem, I tap into Hod. When I associate with the Gid HaNasheh, I forget Him and therefore push Hod farther away. Simply put, it’s Hod versus Gid HaNasheh. Hod is the part of my thigh that helps me serve Hashem, the Gid HaNasheh is the part of the thigh that prevents me from doing so.

Greece is compared to the hip. In one of Daniel’s prophecies he sees a statue comprised of four parts, each one corresponding to one of the four exiles. There, the hips, which are described as the third segment, are analogous with the Greek domination. It’s brought down that this paralleling of the Greeks to the hips teaches us that Greece stands as the opposition to Hod.

How? Greeks introduced philosophy. They tell us that we don’t need a Torah, because all the wisdom you need is right there is your brain. The olympics teach us to glorify the body. In essence they tell us that reality starts and ends with human capabilities and that there is no need to tap into a higher source. There is no reason to attribute things to a higher power. So we see very clearly that the Greek mentality stand in direct disagreement to everything that Hod stands for.

This is why they attempt to impurify the Beis HaMikdash. The Gemara in Brachos tells us that the term Hod is a reference to the Beis HaMikdash. Why? Because it is there that we fully ‘bow’ to Hashem, in the physical and figurative sense. There, through animal sacrifice, we clearly say that the physical is merely a vessel that reveals the divine.

The Zohar tells us that the three hundred and sixty five negative prohibitions line up with the days of the solar year. The prohibition of eating the Gid HaNasheh corresponds to Tisha B’Av, the day of the destruction of the Temple. The day of the loss of the Beis HaMikdash, is the day that we lose Hod, and therefore it corresponds to the Gid HaNasheh, the energy that opposes Hod.

It’s brought down that the two names of Yaakov and Yisrael correspond to the body and soul respectively. So it is only when Yaakov, the body side, puts his life on the line for the sake of Hod can he achieve the highest level of personal Hod by letting his soul shine through and attain the name Yisrael corresponding to his spirit-portion.

And therefore it is only when the Chashmonaim; the Maccabees, put their physical bodies on the line in defense of the Beis HaMikdash and everything that Hod stands for can they find the very same containers of oil that Yaakov Avinu put his body on the line for, and did so for the very same reason. And when they do, they reveal from within this oil supernatural amount spirituality. For nothing reveals godliness in this world, nothing serves as a vehicle of Hod as much as an open miracle, and the classic example of an open miracle is the oil’s burning for eight straight days.

The whole world stands in the way of Hod. Culture screams to us that we should see things only on the surface. Billboards and disposable cutlery dull us to any deeper sense of reality. But it is our job, like Yaakov Avinu and Chashmonaim to put ourselves on the line and see through all the density that blinds us to the meaning of life. It is this mentality that re-establishes the Beis HaMikdash.

B’Ezras Hashem we should be Zocheh to perceive the world in such an exalted manner. Because if we can, there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and meaning, moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kislev/Vayeitzei: Extraction

We know that the Avos instituted the Tefilos, the prayers that we use to connect to Hashem. Each one of our forefathers set up a prayer K’neged - in parallel to one of three daily Korbanos.

Avraham Avinu instituted Tfilas Shacharis K’neged the Tamid of the morning. In Parshas Chayei Sarah, Yitzchak Avinu introduced the afternoon service of Mincha K’neged the Tamid Shel Bein HaArbayim. These two offerings culminate with the throwing of blood on the Mizbeiach, on the altar, a process called Zrikas HaDam.

In this week’s Parsha, as Yaakov Avinu leaves his home, he stops at what he later finds out is the Temple Mount. There institutes Ma’ariv, the prayer that is K’neged the Eivarim, the limbs which burn on the Mizbeiach all night.

Why is it that Avraham and Yitzchak institute Tefilos K’neged Zrikas HaDam, and Yaakov Avinu set’s up a Tefila Kneged the Eivarim?

The Shem MiSmuel explains based on a Midrash. The Midrash points us to a Passsuk in Tehilim. The Passuk says, “Tzamah Licha Nafshi, Kamah Licha Bisari.” ‘Hashem, my soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for You.’ The Midrash tells us that Yaakov knew this Passuk, but he added on to it. Kmo She’Nafshi Tzamah Licha, Kach HaEivarim She’Yeish Li Tzamim Licha, In the same way that my soul thirsts for you, so too does my body thirst for you.

What is the Midrash telling us? We already know that his body yearns for Hashem - Kama Licha Bisari! So why would the Midrash add that not only does his body yearn, but like his soul, his body also thirsts for closeness to Hashem. What’s being added here?

The holy Shem MiShmuel explains that the Midrash is telling us that Yaakov Avinu attained such a degree of holiness in his physical body that his body was elevated to the level of a soul, and therefore the Passuk of Tzamah Licha Nafshi, Kama Licha Bisari is not enough, but also Kmo She’Nafshi Tzamah Licha, Kach HaEivarim She’Yeish Li Tzamim Licha - my body is as spiritually sensitive as my soul is.

With this in mind we can begin understand why it is Davka Yaakov who institutes the Tefilah K’neged the Eivarim.

The morning and afternoon both fall under the category of day, light and brightness. These terms are themes that are connected to outright spirituality. The soul is light, he who is holy has a face that ‘shines’, Tzadikim benefit from the ‘glow’ of the Shechina, the righteous are enlightened. So it makes sense that the Tefilos of the day are connected to blood.

Why? Because the Passuk in Devarim tells us, “HaDam Hu HaNefesh” ‘The blood is the (seat of) the soul.’ The physical component of the soul’s life-giving force is found in the blood. Thus the blood is the most material way to relate to the soul. And based on this; the day, which is the time of metaphorical spiritual clarity, has sacrifices that will relate directly to the soul, as we see by the sprinkling of the blood by the Timidim of Shacharic and Bein HaArbayim.

The night on the other hand is darkness. This is physicality. The material world is dense. In both the physical and metaphorical sense, we can’t see through it. In the same way it is impossible to visually penetrate a wall, so too it is extremely difficult to see past the body and relate to the soul. It is so easy to become blinded by that which is real to the touch, and miss the deeper meaning contained within.

The scene of Parshas Vayeitzei opens with night. The sun dramatically disappears on Yaakov Avinu and night comes upon him. It is specifically then, in the time of material and metaphorical darkness that Yaakov taps into his exalted perception of physicality and institutes Ma’ariv. Like we said, Ma’ariv is K’neged the physically dense, dark and very ‘real’ Eivarim. Therefore it is Yaakov, who has Eivarim of his own which are on the elevated level of Nefesh who can elevate such a time, and thereby elevate a service rooted in body to become a service of soul. Beautiful.

We are now entering the night of the year. The day is becoming its shortest and the night is dominating our twenty-four-hour cycle. (Purim is Ayeles HaShachar, sunrise. Pesach is the morning etc…). So it is clearly very fitting that we introduce this concept of ‘spirituality in the night’ as we cross the threshold into the darkness of the year.

The Sefer Yetzira tells us that every month of the year has a letter, body-part and bodily function associated with it. The letter of the Kislev is Samech, the body-part is the stomach and the bodily function listed there is sleep. On top of all that, these factors need be seen through the lens the upcoming holiday of Chanukah.

As we know, the Avodah of Chanukah is candles. The subject of candles in Judaism is perhaps best summed up by the Passuk in Mishlei, “Ki Ner Mitzva V’Torah Ohr” ‘Mitzvos are the candle and the Torah is the light’. What does this mean?

A candle’s role is to convert oil or wax into light. In reality there is potential for light present inside of the fuel, it just needs the candle to extract and reveal it. In essence a candle is a vessel that reveals the light already present in fuel.

The world is a sea of endless dense, physical objects, but contained within all matter is the will of Hashem: how HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants me to relate to all of the physicality that comes my way. Says Chazal, ‘Istakel Be’Oraisa V’Bara Alma’ - Hashem peered into the Torah and created the world. This means that the Torah is inner-frame on which all things are formed. Inside any given object is its Penimius, the Koach of the Torah inside of it its internal value. This is it’s inner component of Razton Hashem. But how do we hit that point?

This is the job of Mitzvos. The Midrash Tanchuma tells us that there is not a single object in the world that can’t be related to through some form of Mitzvah. If every object has some Mitzvah attached to it, then there is always a way of revealing the Koach HaTorah stored inside of that object.

Just like we said that the light is present in the fuel but it needs the candle to expose it, so too the Ohr Torah, the spiritual light enclosed within physicality is revealed through the Ner Mitzvah the candle of the Mitzvos.

Yaakov Avinu, the third of our forefathers goes K’neged the third month of the year. And the concept of attaining the level of soul even in the context of body goes hand-in-hand with we are raising here in respect to Chanukah.

And this could be the ‘Stomach’ of Kislev. The singular role of the stomach is very connected to the above lesson of candles. The entire purpose of the stomach is to extract the life-source from within the food that it comes in contact with. When I look at a granola bar I don’t see the energy to hike up the mountain, but it’s there, and it’s my stomachs job to elevate that food into sustenance. Is there no clearer metaphor for Ki Ner Mitzvah V’Torah Ohr?

And this also could be the ‘sleeping’ that the Sefer Yetzirah connected to Chodesh Kislev. The themes of sleep understandably root themselves in the themes of night. And just like we said night is a metaphor for heightened physicality, so too for sleep. When I pass out, my soul leaves my body. For that reason my inner core of spirituality dims and I become a more physical being. With this in mind, it should be no surprise that Yaakov Avinu attains a prophecy deeper than any of the forefathers, and specifically in a state of unconsciousness. Because just like we said that Yaakov had a body on the level of a soul, so too his sleep was on a level more profound than the average cognizance and alacrity. For in Yaakov’s vision of the ladder that reached heavenward, the Passuk tells us that angels ascended and descended the ladder and Hashem Nitzav Alav, Hashem stood atop the ladder. The Midrash points out that the word Alav doesn’t necessarily mean on the ladder, rather it can be a reference to Yaakov himself. During his transcendental slumber, the presence of Hashem rested Mamesh on him! A truly amazing level.

And this could also be the letter Samech of this month. What is Samech? David HaMelech tells us in Ashrei that Samech is Somech Hashem L’Chol HaNoflim. Hashem supports all those who fall. Nefilah throughout scripture is a terminology used for falling asleep. For even now, in the night of the year God empowers us to be the candle in the darkness.

And perhaps this is also the Sulam, the ladder in the prophecy of Yaakov. The Passuk tells us that it was rooted in the ground, but reaching heavenward. And this is truly the life of every person. With our base in physicality we are always trying to connect to higher and higher places.

Life is so deep. Hashem is constantly sending me messages, sometimes subtle and sometime blatant. And all He wants is for me is to open up and little by little make myself more spiritually sensitive. Little by little to contemplate my surroundings and just ask, ‘What does Hashem want from me right now?’ Everything we mentioned above? This is how starts. A slight tweak in perspective that depth is attainable on all levels of life – this is how we, step by step bring ourselves to the level of Yaakov Avinu. Just by opening up my mind to the thought that physicality is meaningful is the biggest switch in perspective. Life is as meaningful as we choose to make it. With our entrance into the darkness of the year, we should take Yaakov’s message of Ki Ner Mitzvah V’Torah Ohr to heart.

If we can do this, there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Shleimus moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geula Sheleimah!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Toldos: The Only thing To Fear Is Fear Itself

The most implicit theme of any given Parsha is revealed to us through it’s name. The title of the Parsha is the common denominator that ties all of it’s various components together.

With this in mind, what is the meaning behind the name of this week’s Parsha, Toldos? The word ‘Toldos’ is translated as ‘Offspring’, ‘Legacy’ or ‘Life Story’. The obvious logical conclusion would be that this week we should see the unique narrative of Yitzchak Avinu play out. The problem is that the total opposite seems to be true. Let’s explore.

The first Passuk reads, “V’Eileh Toldos Yiztchak Ben Avraham, Avraham Holid Es Yitzchak.” – ‘And these are the offspring of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak.’

A person’s legacy is what he brings into the world, not that which came before him. If this is so, why in the very first verse, when introducing the concept of Yitzchak’s legacy, do we backtrack and start the whole thing off by saying who his father was?! That’s not his legacy, that’s not his mark on the world - that’s his prequel! Why are we starting his legacy by telling us who is father was? Let’s get to his kids were!

This question permeates the entirety of Yitzchak’s recorded life. On almost every level, Yitzchak’s experiences in the Torah are clear re-enactments of stories we read about Avraham.

We find out that Yitzchak’s wife was barren, as was Avraham’s. Two distinctly different children eventually are born, just like we saw by Avraham. A famine strikes and forces Yitzchak to leave his home, just like Avraham had to. Upon arriving at the new, safer Gerar Yitzchak attempts to save his own life by convincing the locals that his wife is really his sister. He is eventually found out, and subsequently leaves, becoming tremendously rich in the process – a story that happens twice with Avraham once in Mitzrayim and once in Gerar. Avraham digs wells, which are subsequently covered by the Plishtim and then re-dug by none other than Yitzchak, who calls them by the same names that Avraham did. They both feud with local shepherds. They both make treaties with Avimelech, and they both receive almost identical blessings from God.

This is the Toldos of Yitzchak Avinu? This is his great legacy? It seems as if his life is a re-run.

In order to answer our question we to take a detour and analyze some other themes.

In his discovery of Hashem, Avraham becomes the first Kiruv-success story. He’s the first Ba’al Teshuva, the first ‘flip-out.’ Therefore, we learn from Avraham all the lessons we need to know about getting started in Avodas Hashem. It’s explained that Avraham’s attribute was Chessed, which means loving-kindness, the extension of one’s self. Joy and colorful self-expression was the mode of his closeness to God. He built a warm, loving relationship with the Creator.

And this is how we see all Ba’alei Teshuva pitches work. A warm Shabbos table, good singing, excited prayers, a meaningful Havdalah and inspiring moments and are all necessary ingredients in attracting Jews to come closer to their heritage. All beginnings in Avodas Hashem start with this Ahavas Hashem. ‘Judaism is fun, this lifestyle will make you truly happy, etc.’, are the type of things that need to be said to start anyone on the path of closeness to Hashem. We learn this from Avraham.

But there is a second side of the coin, the attribute of Yitzchak: Yiras Hashem - Fear of God. This subject is spoken about much less. It’s more taboo to speak about fear as a positive trait. No one likes to be afraid. It sometimes seems that in some cultures Ahavas Hashem is put on a pedestal and Yiras Hashem is put in the corner. No motivational Kiruv speech revolves around the topics of trepidation andhell.

The consequences of this imbalance can be destructive. While Ahavas Hashem can inspire me to have a profoundly moving prayer, if I’m buddies with God, then maybe He won’t care if I rush through a different prayer tomorrow. If my entire Judaism revolves around Ahavas Hashem alone, then I’ll have rousing moments, but I’ll also find excuses to cut corners; because after all, I can get away with it – me and God are cool.

Ahavas Hashem is a beautiful start, but it is not enough on it’s own.

Perhaps we can make Yiras Hashem more approachable through the following explanation: The Zohar brings down that true Ahavas Hashem produces Yiras Hashem. Why? The answer comes through a close understanding of the nature of fear.

Fear means I’m insecure about losing something. Stage fright is panic of losing one’s dignity. A fear of heights is rooted in the desire not to splatter on the ground below and lose health. A fear of the dark is an insecurity rooted in losing control.

It’s true, walking around in dread and apprehension of incoming lightning bolts is not a pleasant existence, but it is also not the Yiras Hashem that Judaism believes in. As we explained before, my Yiras Hashem, like my Yirah of anything has to be a fear of losing something. This becomes very well understood in the light of the Zohar that we mentioned that Yirah is an outgrowth of Ahavah not merely an entity of its own.

So what am I afraid of losing? After I build a warm relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu I’m going to be walking on eggshells trying to maintain that level! I’m afraid of losing that warmth! Therefore, on the exterior level I look like I’m still holding by pure Ahavah, my Tefilos are excited, my learning is more intense, I’m simply more joyous, but now that I feel a certain inner Yirah of losing it, the whole Avodah of Ahavah becomes deeper and a level more real.

The Sfas Emes explains that this concept is the inner meaning of Avraham Holid Es Yitzchak. Avraham’s attribute of Ahavah ‘gave birth to’ and produced Yitzchak’s attribute of Yirah. And this is Yitzchak’s whole life. He is going through every Avodah that Avraham did, but now he is doing them with one more level of Kavanah deeper.

This is Yitzchak’s Midah of Gevurah. Gevurah is my ability to withhold, to grip tightly to my current position. And this is the Toldos, the legacy of Yitzchak. The fact that the verses show that he carries out the same actions as Avraham shows not only that he is doing them, but that he is doing them with this deepened understanding.

We don’t need to be afraid of Yiras Hashem. Yiras Hashem doesn’t mean that I’m buckling at the knees out of terror. I’m not walking around afraid that some Grand Puppet Master is going to smite me. Yiras Hashem means I’m constantly trying my very best to hold onto every achievement I have.

We should be Zoche to both of these levels. We should have inspiring moments and also have the dedication to engrain them into ourselves. We should be meritorious enough to feel both Ahavah and Yirah. If we can do this there is no doubt that we will live full, balanced lives, moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah!