Friday, May 27, 2011

BaMidbar: Desertminded

Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos, just please not during Tefilos!

This week, we begin to read from Sefer BaMidbar. As we set out in the beginning of the Sefer the Jews are counted, placed in formation and begin to travel towards Eretz Yisrael. The whole book details these journeys.

The first Passuk says, “Va’Yidaber Hashem El Moshe B’Midbar Sinai” – ‘And God spoke to Moshe Rabbeinu in the Sinai Desert’. Chazal come and focus in on the specificity of the location. Why does the Torah HaKedosha find a need to frame this communication between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and Moshe Rabbeinu within the context of Midbar Sinai?

In response to this, the Midrash lays down a fundamental concept in spiritual growth. Communication with the Divine only comes in the desert. More expressly, depth and connection to the spiritual are only made available to those who make themselves Hefker, uncontrolled and unowned like a desert. A desert is a free, non-dominated place, and only a person who maintains such a headspace will enter into spiritual greatness.

This is not just a spiritual reality; it’s physical as well. Says the Rambam, when a person is feeling subjugated and overwhelmed by his surroundings, when the culture is preventing one from attaining purity and holiness – the place to escape to is the desert. There he will find the opportunity to really develop.

We know that the name of any given object, anywhere and anything in the universe, is completely defined by its name. An object’s title characterizes its essence. Based on this, and in light of the above, we should walk away with pretty good feelings as to what the Midbar, and therefore Sefer BaMidbar represents.

But there is another side to the story. Because when we look through the stories of Sefer BaMidbar we only see failures. Korach, the spies, the harlots of Midyan among many other shortcomings poke out their ugly heads specifically in Sefer BaMidbar. What happened?! What happened to all of the idealistic symbolism that the Midbar represented? The liberated thinking, the being Hefker that creates inspiration in the mind and heart – shouldn’t the Jewish people only get it right during their journeys there?

In order to answer in one possible way, we need to gain a deeper insight into exactly what it is that drives us to make mistakes and fall prey to the pitfalls laid for us by the Yetzer HaRa, the Evil Inclination.

Let’s work backwards. By understanding how we are taught to deal with the Yetzer HaRa, we will be able to retroactively shed light on what exactly it is that we’re up against. For this we have the famous words of Chazal. Hashem says, Barasi Yetzer HaRa, Barasi Torah Tavlin - I have created the evil inclination, and I’ have created the Torah as its spice.

The learning of Torah, the dissemination of the will of Hashem from an abstract concept into part of my very being, learning that which I need to make Avodas HaBoreih a real part of my life… that’s the remedy to the snares of the Yetzer HaRa. The adaptation of my desires to His will be the only way to not lose that battle.

But if this is so, then why is the term for the Torah’s role a Tavlin, a spice to the Yetzer Hara? Hashem created the Torah HaKedosha as a means of spicing up my baser drives? That’ the purpose? The line shouldn’t use Tavlin, rather we would expect to hear radically different terminology. ‘I created the Evil Inclination and I created Torah to vanquish, kill, destroy – take your pick – behead it. What in the world are we being told when Chazal say that Torah is the spice to the Yetzer HaRa. A spice makes things more palatable, not non-existent!

The following answer was given over by Rav Michael Hershkovitz Shlit’a in the name of Rav Tzadok HaKohen MiLublin.

We are born small and we grow up to become bigger. We come bigger physically and emotionally. In a different way we also become bigger spiritually. Hashem makes a space between us and Him. He pulls back in such a way that we don’t see Him openly. We look around and His presence is not obvious to the naked eye. Why? It’s because God wants us to take this ‘empty space’ and do something amazing. He gives us wiggle-room so that we can grow. By making Himself less obvious we can work on our Emunah and we can be Mekadesh this world, make it more holy by bringing His Message and His Pressence into that space. He pulls back so that we can make something of ourselves… He pulls back so that we can become big.

But the Yetzer HaRa’s job is to convince us to misuse that space. He wants us to get really big too. Bloated. Inflated. It can be our stomachs or our personalities. With this gap made by God, we can be tricked into forgetting Him altogether - making ourselves ‘big’ in lots of other ways. We expand our egos; we allow our lowly desires to run totally amuck. We get really big. God gives us an open playing field – namely this world - and we can either make it or break it. With the empty space given to us it’s a simple fact that we will grow. The question then becomes which part of us will be developed. Will we go out of our way to increase our purity? Will we try to become massive Tzadikim and Gedolei HaDor? To become Something bigger than our earthly bodies? Or will we become, Chas V’Shalom victims of the Yetzer HaRa and make ourselves bigger in less ideal ways.

This is where the Torah comes in. We all feel that natural tendency to become big in a selfish way. This is, as we explained, is the tactic of our evil inclination. The Torah comes as a Tavlin, a spice to slightly rectify, to take that desire to grow and make it more palatable, make it sweeter. It’s simply a nuanced redirection. To take my ego’s desire to take advantage of that empty wiggle room, that open field, and channel it to something higher, something loftier and more refined. This is why Torah is a spice to the evil inclination and not a deathblow. We are taking an inherently powerful tool (the desire to grow) and putting it in its proper place.

The Midbar is that concept of empty space taken to the extreme. The desert, very much like the mind of a person is a Tabula Rasa - a blank slate, an absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals, just blankness for as far as the eye can see. The ability to plumb the depth of the significance of the Divine-wiggle-room that makes us or breaks us is most accentuated in the context of the Midbar. It itself is that space.

It is specifically here that the Rambam sends a person to go to recreate and reinvent himself. The clean backdrop of the desert comes to give a person the option to reanalyze what to do with the wiggle-room that God gave him. And thus a person who makes himself Hefker like the Midbar - meaning he takes no personal, no biased, tainted claim over that space, rather he lets the presence of He who truly owns everything enter in and direct his growth - “La’Hashem HaAretz Umlo’ah”, To Hashem does the land all and that fills it belong – only that person has the gates of growth, depth, spiritually and (most importantly for this discussion) greatness opened to him.

But as the potential for growth exponentially increases in the desert – so does it’s capability for that power going awry dangerously increase as well. And lo and behold, we see the Jews time and time again make these mistakes throughout Sefer Bamidbar. All the problems that we are going to encounter over the course of the following Parshios come as a result of the inherit dangers that the Midbar offers. For as the gap between us and Him grows – our ability to fill it with our egos grows as well.

We don’t have to look around to far to see many, many people who may have fallen into this trap. God lays out the world in front of us and says that it’s ours for the taking. HaKadosh Baruch Hu says, ‘There’s nothing that’s out of your reach. Pretend like I’m not here. In fact, I’ll hide to make that easier. Okay, now it surely feels like there is no one over your shoulder – whatcha gonna do?”

And so, people take their lives, lives latent with potential and bring it to a world ready for the taking – and then, unfortunately, make all that growth self-oriented - without ever considering a higher cause.

But we are not such people and we need not fall into such a trap. We, the attuned, choose to be aware. We see past the fa├žade of this desert-world of ours. We know that there is a reason that Hashem has given us so much to work with. We have learned before, and will review again the multitude of mistakes that desert-thinking has caused, and we will take from those lessons as to not fall pray to those same mistakes ourselves. It takes time and patience to internalize, but it’s clear – and getting clearer all the time – that this world we live in was built to make us big. Not big in the sense of stomachs and egos rather immense in stature. As Rav Kagan put it so beautifully, ‘We are not responsible for the fact that we are, but we are fully responsible for who we become.’ And with Hashem’s help we’ll become tremendous.

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha of overflowing inspiration to channel our potentials to only the best of uses. If we all as individuals commit ourselves to the highest, loftiest, holiest use of all that Hashem gave us there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Sheleimus moving closer to the Creator and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lag Ba'Omer: We're All In This Together

This Motzaei Shabbos, Am Yisrael is going to enter into a brief window of time where a tremendous amount of spirituality will enter the world. A special deal. A limited time offer. The largest yearly gathering of Jews anywhere in the world. This Motzaie Shabbos six hundred thousand Jews will converge on Meiron, the small town in the north of Israel – home to the Kever, the burial place of Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai - better known simply as Rashbi the sacred author of the Zohar, the centerpiece of all of the hidden secrets of the Torah.

What’s happening this Motzaei Shabbos? It’s Lag Ba’Omer, the thirty-third day between Pesach and Shavuos, which happens to be the day that Rashbi passed away. But don’t worry – the end of the Zohar describes this day in detail and begins with the introduction where Rashbi says that his whole life was in anticipation of this day. On this day his life comes fully into fruition. On Lag Ba’Omer Rashbi tells of how he can reveal on this day more than any other.

But that’s not the only excitement of Lag Ba’Omer. It’s famously explained that this is the day upon which Rebbe Akiva’s students stopped dying. The end of this plague too is a reason for commemeration.

There are those that enter into Lag Ba’Omer thinking about Rashbi. There are those whose intentions are focused on the students of Rebbe Akiva. But when we attempt to approach matters with more depth a very poignant question must be asked. We know already that the Jewish cycle of the year is really a series of different spiritual energies that enter the world. Everyday has its nuance which translates into the importance of that day. There is something very unique about the tenth day of Tishrei that creates Yom Kippur. If this is true then it must be that if multiple things fall out on one date then automatically they must be related. Therefore if Lag Ba’Omer is the date on which two separate occurrences took place – namely the celebration of Rashbi and the commemoration of the death of the students of Rebbe Akiva then perforce we say that they are linked.

Based on this out question becomes deeper. Lag Ba’Omer isn’t just anywhere on the calendar. Lag Ba’Omer is just that – on the Omer. The Omer is our path to Shevuos and Kabalas HaTorah. Whatever the connection between the two facets of Lag Ba’Omer is, we need to analyze it in the context of it’s centricity to the national acceptance of the Torah.

(My Rebbe, Rav Yoel Rackovsky brought down a beautiful illustration of the importance of Lag Ba’Omer to Kabalas HaTorah: David HaMelech says, Gal Einai V’Abita Niflaos MiTorasecha - Open up my eyes and I will see miracles from Your Torah. Gal (Open up) spells Lag [33 – as in the day of the Omer]. Niflaos is really broken down into two parts: Nun Plaos - fifty wonders. What is David HaMelech saying? Perhaps one level of understanding is this. ‘Gal Einai’ Let me see the world through Lag, meaning Lag Ba’Omer, V’Abita Nun Plaos MiSorecha and I’ll automatically connect to the fifty wonders – the fifty phenomenal days that lead to Kabalas HaTorah. I can’t have Sfiras HaOmer without Lag Ba’Omer. Hopefully we will come to understand why this is so.)

Why did Rebbe Akiva’s students die? The Gemara tells us that they didn’t act with proper respect between one another and for this Hashem sent a wave of death that reduced Rebbe Akiva’s Torah kingdom to rubble. (Why their lack of respect garners a death penalty is a completely different topic, and not the one of this essay, nonetheless this is what happened.) The Gemara, in its description of the tragedy, throws in the two cities between which these students lived. The commentators point out that these two towns are actually not that far away from one another. What emerges is that these people were probably close socially. Their geographical situation allowed for lots of potential closeness – which wasn’t there. They could’ve been very close and they passed it up.

Rashbi is the total opposite. From Chassidishe and Yeshivish to the completely non-observant. Six hundred thousand Jews make the trek up to become unified by him. He’s got that power. There is no being a germy by Rashbi. Claustrophobia ceases to exist on Lag Ba’Omer. In Meiron, everyone is your brother and you best friend – no matter how different he is. I’ve experience this first hand.

The physical reality is merely a symbol of the spiritual essence. How does Rebbe Shimon do it? What does Rashbi have that brings Jews together? He tells us himself. It is said in the name of the Zohar that the spreading of the concepts of the deeper aspects of Torah that he revealed, Pnimius HaTorah - is one of the main vehicles that will bring the Geula. The profundity of Torah gives us the strength and the insight to see and tap into the inherit holiness that permeates the very physical and seemingly mundane world around us. Redemption means Kibbutz Galios - ingathering of the exiles. All the Jews from all of their various colorful backgrounds, Jews from all over the world are and will be drawn together by the Zohar’s propelling redemptive force. And therefore they all converge on his Kever on his deepest day - Lag Ba’Omer..

The important thing is that in contrast to Rebbe Akiva’s students who could’ve be close and weren’t - Rashbi takes those who wouldn’t normally be close and brings them together. These two things happen on the same day become one is the answer to another. The problem faced by Rebbe Akiva’s students could have easily been solved by the messages of Rashbi. It’s now clear why the end of the plague coincides with the revelation of national unity via Pnimius HaTorah. The plague ends when the message comes out.

And as we’ve discussed in other essays – it’s absolutely impossible to have a national acceptance of Torah without complete and total unity. As Chazal explain: We are told that there are six-hundred-thousand root souls of the Jewish nation which correspond to the six-hundred-thousand letters of the Torah. Just as Halacha declares that if there is one letter missing the whole Torah scroll is rendered invalid – then in the same way the Jewish people suffer as a whole if they do not come together as individuals to create that unit. And this explains that if the wholeness of the Torah is intertwined with the unity of Am Yisrael then the Midrash which says that the Torah was only able to come down in a situation in which all Jews were present. If we are whole down here, then it can come to be with us. Based on this we understand why Lag Ba’Omer falls out during our journey to Kabalas HaTorah. We see the depth of Gal Einai V’Abita Niflaos MiSorasecha. We can’t get there without this.

Perhaps we can take things one step deeper. Hashem operates with this world through seven emanations called Sfiros or Midos. These spiritual modes of communication mirror themselves as character traits in man. Through our refinement of those Midos from our end we liken ourselves to our Maker and therefore automatically we become more holy.

Each one of these seven can be seen in the light of the other seven. For example – the first Midah of Chessed has within it all the other seven. If all seven have all seven then the result is forty-nine combinations in all.

Each one of these forty-nine combinations has its very specific Avodah mirrored on man’s end that stems from the uniqueness of its factors. If you look in your Siddur you will see that each one of the days of Sefira is dedicated to the refinement of one combination of Sefiros (they come from the same root for good reason). Each weak one Midah is taken as the big picture and then all seven are passed through it as a prism. Therefore on the fifth day of the third week, the fifth Midah in the series is seen in the context of the third etc…

The fourth Midah in the series of seven is called Hod. Hod, which literally means ‘Glory’ is described as the ability to empty myself of my biases and pre-concieved notions to make room for a greater presence. The Bitul - the nullification – of desires, distractions and predispositions - that is required in so much of our Avodas Hashem is rooted in Hod. But that’s just in regards to our relationship with Upstairs. There is Hod in my interpersonal relationships as well. Those people who it most difficult for me to get along with require the same implementation of Hod if there is to be nay chance of fostering a relationship between the two of us. If I get see past my own ego, if I remain stuck in my own perspective and fail to remove myself from the equation to see a bigger picture – then I nix the opportunity to create something very deep with those who seem not to be able to stand.

If the fourth Midah is Hod, that means that Hod becomes the theme of the fourth week of the Omer. In the same vein, the fourth day of the fourth week with be the day of Hod within the context of Hod. The fourth day of the fourth week becomes the day where I am most able to rectify the interpersonal relationships that I find more than just challenging the rest of the year. The fourth day of the fourth week is exactly thirty-three days into the count. Hod within the context of Hod falls out on Lag Ba’Omer.

Lag BaOmer is time where we will be uniquely empowered to achieve in our relationship with the divine via improving our relationships with our neighbors. Lag Ba’Omer is a central and pivotal step in the process of making it towards Matan Torah. Because if we are unified, if we come together in the name of making the world a more meaningful place - everything that Rashbi is trying to teach us - then that togetherness only creates an exponentially more potent Kabalas HaTorah.

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha to be empowered enough to implement Hod as a means to achieve the deepest possible levels of Gal Einai V’Abita Niflaos MiTorasecha. If we can do this there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Shleimus, moving closer to the Creaotr and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Emor: You are important

The following is based in part on the Sefer Mima’amkim and discussions with my dear friend Rav Nati Yefet. Please feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos - just not during Tefilos!

In this week’s Parsha we encounter the Megadef, a man who was killed for cursing Hashem. In order to understand how the story of the Megadef applies to us we need to understand where he went wrong, so that in contrast we will learn what to do right.

The verse that introduces us to the Megadef opens up with the interesting phrase that seemingly comes out of nowhere. “VaYeitzei Ben Isha Yisraelis -and a man, son of a Jewish woman went out…” Meaning, as the verses go on to describe; he went out into the camp, got into an argument, cursed God and was subsequently put to death for his deeds.

If he ‘went out’ then it must mean that he was somewhere previously and then left that place into the scene that the Torah describes. From where did he leave? Rashi brings down the Midrash which says that Mei’Olamo Yatza - he left his world. This means that he entered a scene where he committed a sin that would cause his removal from this world (being put to death). VaYeitzei means that he left the status of justified existence.

But there are two problems. First, MeiOlamo Yatza is an awfully ambiguous way of saying that he was Chayav Misa (incurred a death penalty). Second, why does it say that he left Olamo - his world. MeiOlam Yatza - that he left the world would have been enough. What, the world belonged to this Megadef?

In order to reach the depth of the matter we need to learn about what caused this man to curse God out. The Torah already tells us that this man’s mother was Jewish, but his father was Egyptian. This leaves him in an uncomfortable situation. In Judaism you need a Jewish mother to be in the religion but you are associated with a tribe based on where your father is from. Therefore this man is Jewish, but without a tribe. Therefore when he tried to set up his tent amongst Shevet Dan (where his mother was from) they kicked him out. He took them to court and Moshe Rabbeinu went with the members of Dan.

This man felt like now, without a place to pitch his tent, he had no place in the world. He had no physical base onto which he could settle his life. He felt like he didn’t belong, but on a more philosophical level - like he didn’t have a place in this world. This caused an emotional downward spiral until he eventually made the fatal mistake of cursing HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

This stemmed from a very deep mistake: Ein Licha Davar SheEin Lo Makom - There is nothing that doesn’t have it’s place. Everyone has a place in this world, we all have a place where we belong - but this place is not physical. Let’s explain.

Hashem is called in many places by the title of HaMakom which literally means “The Place”. This means SheHu Mikomo Shel HaOlam, V’Ein HaOlam Mikomo - that He is the Space in which the world exists and not that He exists within the world. As the Rambam explains – if we would cease to be, God would be just fine, but in the impossible situation that He would cease to exist – we would stop existing as well. A vessel without water is just fine. But water without a container can’t stay in place. Hashem’s title as HaMakom is a reference to how His Ratzon, His will justifies our existence. Inasmuch He wills us to be we have a floor to stand on.

And it goes a step deeper. The fact that I take on a physical form is only due to the fact that Hashem has found a Makom for me, a place within His masterplan to reveal Himself in this world. I am a physical manifestation of my mission. We all have our contribution to make. The fact that our role exists gives way to our physical continuation to manifest. And obviously no one has the same role. Every person – every creation for that matter – has its unique role to play.

This is true meaning of Ein Licha Davar SheEin Lo Makom - ‘There is nothing that doesn’t have it’s place.’ Like we just explained, the term Makom is not necessarily physical space on which to stand - Makom is a reference to God as He gives justification to all creations to exist. And therefore Ein Licha Davar SheEin Lo Makom teaches us that there is nothing in this world without a unique, justified existence. If it’s here in this world then it has an exclusive place – a relationship to HaMakom within the plan. The fact that something exists is merely a sign, a reference to the fact that it has a lofty purpose – for if that purpose, that Makom wasn’t there neither would the object itself. There is nothing in this world that doesn’t have a unique connection to HaMakom, and now we can say that the intrinsic existence of any given object is testimony to this concept.

And perhaps this is the meaning of the famous premise that every person must believe that Kol HaOlam Lo Nivra Ela Bishvili - the whole world was created just for me. First off, if taken out of hand this can become a very egotistical outlook! Secondly, how can it even be true? The whole world can’t be created just for Joe and just for Bob. But in light of what we said perhaps we can understand. If I am the manifestation of one facet of God’s will, then the relationship that I have to everything that I come in contact with, the desire of the outcomes had by God for those relationships, is totally different than every other person. The way I relate to any given object is wholly unique in light of my Makom.

Chazal bring down a parable to what this is comparable. A king enters a town with three of his officials: a General, a Tax-Collector and a Wiseman. The General enters the town and sees how this roof is good for archers; this is a weak spot in the wall and therefore a good entrance for storming the city. The Tax-Collector sees how certain areas have a denser population, how there he’ll need to be more careful. He sees where the rich live and organizes when to approach whom. The Wiseman sees the infrastructure merely as a reference point to greater sociological issues. He analyzes the plight of the needy. Even though they all see the same physical space – their relationship to it is completely unique based on their roles.

What emerges is that the reality of each creation in the context of Ein Licha Davar SheEin Lo Makom creates the possibility in which the world can be perceived through the lens of Kol HaOlam Lo Nivra Ela Bishvili.

My ‘place’ in this world is not a physical one. My ‘place’ is the point of expression where I fit into the greater plan. My Makom is my purpose. This is how we are to approach he world with the eyes of Ein Licha Davar SheEin Lo Makom.

This was the mistake of the Megadef. He thought that his Makom was a physical set-up, that with out it his life would fall into disarray. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy. When he was forced out of his physical space, namely the Tribe of Dan, he took it as a sign from God that he didn’t have a unique spiritual role in the world. It was this that led to his spiritual demise.

Now we understand why the Midrash tells us that MeiOlamo Yatza - he left from his world. His basing himself on his physical space caused him to lose touch with his perspective of Kol HaOlam Lo Nivra Ela Bishvili - the world ceased to be his own. He stopped seeing his place in it. By cursing God, the Megadef took HaKadosh Baruch Hu out of the picture. And like we said from the Rambam, if there is no God, then automatically the creation can longer exist – the floor to stand on disappears. Thus MeiOlamo Yatza, is a reference to his death sentence.

God was telling the Megadef ‘Relocate’ not ‘You don’t matter’.

Inasmuch as we tap into the extreme importance of what we said we will always be filled with nothing but inspiration. Because if I know that there is a purpose for me no matter where I go, then I can always fall back on the questions of, “What does God want from me right now?” “What is the HaKadosh Baruch Hu want to emerge from my relationship with this sandwich?” Knowing that God has a specific plan for me, a unique desire for every moment of everything empowers me to make the right decisions all the time. It gives me the strength I need to overcome the most difficult of situations. Knowing that I am a physical manifestation of a very specific manifestation of God’s will gives me courage to know that my most challenging situations are in reality moments of specified Divine intervention and attention.

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us the strength to live with such a lofty mindstate, for if we do there is no doubt that we will live lives in which we achieve Sheleimus and live with Simcha, moving closer to the Creator and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!