Friday, June 17, 2011

Shlach: Depth Perception

The beginning of this week’s Parsha chronicles the less-than-pleasant story of the Meraglim, spies, who were sent out LaSur, to check out Eretz Yisrael. As we know, they brought back and convinced the nation of a terrifying report about land; condemning the entire generation to death. The end of the Parsha deals with something completely different. In the last few Psukim we are introduced to the concept of Mitzvas Tzitzis - the Torah commandment to tie a combination of white and blue fringes each of the corners on a four-cornered garment.

As Chazal have taught us, all of the topics within one Parsha are unified by a single theme. HaKadosh Baruch Hu broke up the subject matter of the Torah in such a way that there is always a meta-theme, a grand unifier that keeps the Parsha fluid and coherent. This being said, what in the world connects the Meraglim and their downfall to Tzitzis?

In order understand the powerful lesson that the Meraglim/Tzitzis relationship provides we need to analyze each one separately and only from there will the connection become apparent.

Let’s begin from the end and discus Tzitis first – and to do so we need to address a whole series of questions. Let’s explore.

The most first and most obvious question is very much also the most overlooked – what does the word mean? If we are to figure out the spiritual nature of these mysterious tassels we need to learn about the most basic level of its identity, its name.

Secondly, the Psukim say, “U’Re’isem Oso, U’Zchartem Es Kol Mitzvos Hashem Va’Asisem Osam.” – ‘You will see the Tzitzis and you will remember and carry out all of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s commandments.’ What about seeing the Tzitzis will make me do the Mitzvos? The Passuk says that that’s the way it works, but it doesn’t tell us how!

After telling us of the spiritual benefit of wearing Tzitzis the Torah sends us a warning in the form of a Mitzvas Lo’Sa’aseh, a negative commandment against looking at and thinking about inappropriate things. “V’Lo Sasuru Acharei Levavchem V’Acharei Eineichem” – ‘Don’t wander off with your heart and eyes.’ Why is this moment, the discussion of Tzitzis the appropriate time to deliver the message of V’Lo Sasuru?

And while we are on the subject of V’Lo Sasuru, we need to address Rashi’s connection of these words to the down fall of the Meraglim: In the same way that the spies went out LaSur, to scope out the terrain, so to the eyes are scouts of the body and they can make us fall in the same way, thus the Torah commands us V’Lo Sasuru - coming from the same root as LaSur. What is the dynamic of the relationship between these two things?

Finally, whatever it is that Tzitzis are coming to teach us, why is it that the commandment is to specifically tie them to our clothes? Why not put it next to the Mezuzos on our doorposts, or attach it to our wallets or fridges? What is it about the essence of Tzitzis that necessitates its placement on our clothing specifically?

We can begin to answer all of our questions by analyzing yet another factor of Tzitzis - the Techeiles-strand, the blue string among the white ones that all Tzitzis should ideally have.

Techeiles, as Chazal teach us in Menachos is supposed to be used as a sort of divine form of an association game. When one looks at the blue of the Techeiles his mind should be automatically drawn to the blue of the Yam, the sea. Once the mind is brought to the blue of the ocean his free flowing thoughts can be pulled upwards to the blue of the Raki’a, the sky. And once his thoughts have traveled to the heavens they can be brought from there to the blue of the Kisei HaKavod - God’s Throne of Glory.

What is this Gemara telling us? The transition from the Techeiles to the ocean is understandable, and from the ocean to the sky is understandable as well. This is really an association of recognizing the source. The Chilazon - the animal from which the Techeiles is produced – is a sea creature. Thus the blue of the Techeiles is a product of the sea. And it’s a matter of scientific fact that the fact that the ocean is blue is a reflection of the sky above it. Thus the blue of the Techeiles is drawn from the blue of the ocean, whose source is the blue of the sky.

But then there is a leap. The Techeiles is here in this world. I’ve seen the ocean and I’ve certainly seen the sky. I can relate to those degrees of association. But the Kisei HaKavod? Who has seen that? How am I supposed to make that connection?

We are therefore forced to say that the goal of meditating upon the Techeiles and the Tzitzis is to train my mind to perceive that there is a deeper reality beyond the surface-level that my eyes are able to see. To take my mind to its physical limits and then cross the threshold into more divine realms of conceptualization. The Tzitzis are guiding my mind to become accustomed to more profound levels of existence. In as much as I know that the Techeiles is drawing from its source in the sea, which in turn is drawn from its own root in the skies; so too are we being taught that the world at large, that boundless skies themselves are emerging from a deeper reality. The entire background of the reality around me – as far as my eyes can see – there is yet more depth to life than that.

It’s from this headspace, this mindset that Tzitzis get their name. The root of Tzitzis comes from Le’ha’tzitz, to gaze at or focus upon. When the Midrash describes the beginning of Avraham Avinu’s relationship with Hashem it says there that Hashem was Meitzitz Alav, He fixed His attention on Avraham and saw our forefather through tunnel-vision, so-to-speak. Or like the Passuk inShir HaShirim says, “Meitziz Min HaCharakim” - peering through the fences.

This form of intense focusing, the spiritual depth perception that the Tzitzis are giving us stands diametrically opposed to the sin of the spies. They reported to the people that when they entered the land they saw big tall giants, intimidatingly sized fruits and no feeling of God being with them. The simple reality dictated that Am Yisrael's entrance into the land would certainly spell their death.

But obviously this was a perfunctory and shallow observation of the situation. While it is true that simple logic dictates that the Jews, former slaves and untrained soldiers stood no chance against gargantuan enemies who awaited them inside Eretz Yisrael - the world doesn’t run on simple logic alone. There is a deeper, less obvious side of the universe filled with godliness and providence, and with that in the picture nothing would stand in Am Yisrael’s way of conquering of the land. The lesson of the Tzitzis is nothing less than a direct response to the sin of the Meraglim. Depth versus shallowness.

Now we can understand why Rashi connects the sin of the spies who went LaSur to V’Lo Sasuru. The meaning of LaSur is to wander with ones eyes, to glance over, to check out, to get a basic sketch. The shallowness of LaSur stands in direct opposition to the way we explained Le’ha’tzitz. The sin of the spies and the person who lets his eyes pull him to inappropriate places are both a result of the same shortcoming: shallowness. An obsession with the superficiality of flesh is a direct outcome of a lack of appreciation for meaning and substance. Thus, it is the during the moments where we connect to Tzitzis - and thereby moments of cerebral penetration - that are the most opportune to strengthen ourselves against the pettiness of looking at things too shallowly – and thus it is specifically at this point that we are introduced to V’Lo Sasuru. The Meraglim and he who does not guard his eyes are one in the same – and Tzitzis is the answer to both.

With this is mind we can also understand why Tzitzis are placed specifically on the clothing. When it comes to the way that I come across to the world, it is my clothing that is most external. Before my actions, history and personality – the clothing I wear defines me on the most basic level. This, as modern culture has taught us, can be tremendously dangerous. We can produce tremendously shallow images of ourselves based on what we wear. For this reason we attach Tzitzis, the very manifestation of depth and meaning to contrast and elevate that which can be the first pitfall to superficiality.

Most relevantly, we can now understand what it means when the Passuk says, “U’Re’isem Oso, U’Zchartem Es Kol Mitzvos Hashem Va’Asisem Osam.” – ‘You will see the Tzitzis and you will remember and carry out all of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s commandments.’ Let's bring home why this is so.

If I perceive the world in a shallow fashion then all of the Mitzvos cease to make sense. What in the world does putting a Mezuza on my door accomplish? Nothing! What mighty cosmic energies are being shifted as I shake Lulav? None! Of what consequence is it if I mix wool and linen? Zero! But when I begin to let the meditative properties of my Tzitzis teach me how to be more spiritually attune and aware then the answer to all of those questions flips immediately.

All the Mitzvos are here to make me more spiritually aware. By internalizing the lesson that Tzitzis teaches, I am opened up to a world where everything is so much more meaningful. If reality doesn’t end at the sky, if there is yet the influence of the Kisei HaKavod, if the world around me is truly deeper than my fleshy eyeballs allow me to perceive then all of the Mitzvos become infinitely more relevant and applicable to my life, because now I’m in tune with the fabric of the true nature of the universe! “U’Re’isem Oso, U’Zchartem Es Kol Mitzvos Hashem Va’Asisem Osam.” – ‘You will see the Tzitzis and you will remember and carry out all of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s commandments.’

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha to attain such lofty levels of spiritual sensitivity. We should have the inspiration to be constantly seeking to attain more and more of a profound relationship to the godliness that surrounds us all the time. If we can truly activate this place within ourselves, if we can tap into the headspace the seeks out the deeper levels of spirituality in our lives then there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Shleimus moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Beha'aloscha: Point A to Point B

The following is an adaptation of concepts from Rav Yitzchak Izak Chever, The Chalban in his Sefer Talilei Chayim, and the Sefer Mima’amakim. Please feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh just please not during Tefilos!

This week’s Parsha is famously broken into three parts. If we are to open any Chumash or Sefer Torah we will notice that the two Psukim of VaYihi BiNsoa HaAron and U’V’Nucho Yomar are literally bracketed off to be a section unto itself by upside-down Nuns (This letter: נ), breaking up the Parsha into three. The whole concept really begs an explanation.

While the goal of this essay is not to discuss why the Nun-brackets are upside-down, we do want to delve deeper as to why HaKadosh Baruch Hu chose to break off this section with the letter Nun specifically. For this we need to understand two things: first, what is the significance of these two Psukim? Second, what is the letter Nun all about? If we can properly understand these two factors separately then hopefully the connection between them will emerge by itself.

As the Torah tells us, the Aron HaKodesh’s movements dictated where and when the Jewish people would travel around the desert. When it started to move, so did the camp. When it’s travels ceased, the nation rested as well. These two Psukim detail what Moshe Rabbeinu would say when the Aron started and stopped its journeys.

The Psukim read as follows: Va’Yihi BiNsoa HaAron Va’Yomer Moshe, “Kuma Hashem V’Yafutzu Oivecha V’Yanusu M’Sanecha MiPanecha”. U’V’Nucho Yomar, ‘Shuva Hashem Rivivos Alfei Yisrael.” – ‘When the Ark would journey Moshe would say, ‘Arise Hashem! Let your foes be scattered and let those who hate You flee from before You’. And when the Ark rested he would say, ‘Reside Hashem among the myriad thousands of the Jews.’”

In short, when the Aron began to move, Moshe would ask of Hashem to destroy his enemies - evil and those who promote it. When it rested Moshe’s request would be that of relationship – God’s presence dwelling amongst the Jewish people. The question is so obvious that it almost asks itself: what is the connection between the Ark’s travels and Moshe’s prayers? For this we need to clarify the nature of traveling in general.

We move from Point A to Point B because there is something that we need to do or seek to gain at our destination. If there would be nothing to do at the target location, then per force it would cease to be a destination and there would be no point in leaving Point A in the first place.

The Aron’s travels were no different. It’s brought down in many sources that the whole point of the journeys around the desert was to tame and subdue evil and impure forces in order to extract from those places the hidden holy sparks that those places contained. The Torah-presence that the Aron wielded had the proper energy of Tikun (spiritual rectification) to extract and save that holiness. When it’s job was finished in Point A, it would pick up and move to Point B to go and bring positive spiritual vibes to that new place as well.

These travels of the Aron are a microcosmic manifestation of history on the whole.

The universe, from the time of its very inception, has been wrought with flaws. The most potent goodness that God created, the Or - the Light from the very beginning was stored away – creating the possibility for negativity to fill that gap. The waters split and it created Machlokes - disagreement and friction between the creations. The moon rebelled against God. The Trees rebelled against God. Man rebelled against God. A simple look through Parshas Bereishis shows us a universe off to a bad start.

Why did Hashem choose to do it this way? Rav Shmuel Tal brings from the Ramchal that the was to build the concept and need for Tikun into the very fabric of reality. He made an unsound world to give us a playing-field on which to work. By placing us in an imperfect universe, He gives us the opportunity to fix it, to become active participants in making it right.

How it this accomplished? By revealing God’s presence in the world. Hashem, as we know, is the ultimate Good and the revelation of His glory elevates everything around it. But if God’s Intrinsic Self – a concept too profound for a human to fathom – would enter our sphere of existence, the sheer power of His being would blow us all away and return everything to naught. So what are we to do? If we need Godly force to change the world for the better, but it’s simply too much – how can we bring Tikun?

In response to this problem He gave us the Torah. The Torah HaKedosha, as the Ba’al HaTanya, Leshem and many others explain, is God’s presence in the way that this world can handle. Through the Torah, HaKadosh Baruch Hu channels His Will into concepts that man can deal with. His desires become actions within our reach to accomplish. His hopes for the universe are transformed into stories that we can relate to and lessons that we can really live by. By giving us the Torah Hashem gives us the power that we need to slowly but surely bring about the Tikun that the universe to desperately craves.

The Point A of history is imperfection; a universe full of problems and impurities and forces that seek bog down holiness – God’s enemies so to speak. The Point B of history is Tikun a world where God’s presence dwells with His creations in peace and without obstacles. The vehicle that will get us from Point A to B is the Torah.

Our two Psukim deal with this specifically. The Aron HaKodesh’s travels to bring Tikun to remote desert corners is a small glimpse into history as a whole. The Aron and the Torah which it contains going from place to place to eradicate impurity, and bring sanctity and godliness in its place. “When the Ark would journey Moshe would say, ‘Arise Hashem! Let your foes be scattered and let those who hate you flee from before You’.” And then, when the proper Tikun is brought about God and the Jews can dwell peacefully in that space - “And when the Ark rested he would say, ‘Reside Hashem among the myriad thousands of the Jews.’”

So why bracket this lesson off with the letter Nun specifically?

Chazalexplain that every letter in the Alef-Beis can be broken down into component parts, which the is style in which scribes write. For example a Hei is really a Daled and a Yud. An Alef is two Yud’s and a Vav. The list goes on.

What is a Nun? A Nun is a Yud affixed on top of a flipped-over Vav. Yud, as Rashi tells us in Bereishis is a reference to God’s Kavana, His intent – His will for things to play out a certain way. Yud as a prefix makes a word future tense – directing any verb towards the flow that God willed for the universe - Tikun. Vav, which as a prefix always means ‘and’ is a reference to Chibur, connection. This and this. The ‘and’ between them connects them. The sources that bring down that on the grand scale the goal of Vav is to make the greatest connection of all – the connection of heaven and earth. Thus if Nun is a convergence, an affixation of a Yud above a Vav directed downward then the Nun is a manifestation of the channeling of God’s intention from lofty place above and its arrival down in our world. The Nun takes God’s abstract Will – the Yud, concepts too grand for us to handle, and through the Vav takes it down to a level that this world can appreciate. The Nun then, in very obvious fashion, represents everything that the Torah as that a vehicle of Tikun is all about.

Thus it is specifically the letter Nun and all that it represents that is chosen to frame the Psukim that detail the microcosm of Torah HaKedosha’s role throughout history.

The practical lesson is clear. If I want to be an active participant in the perfection of the world, there is one - and only one – way to pull that feat off. All my good intentions, all of my positive feelings can be a really helpful force in this world – under on condition. I can make the most of myself – I can make my personal power infinite by connecting it to the infinite source. When I’m hooked up to Hashem’s Ratzon I get the opportunity to become something bigger than myself. I get the chance to feed off an energy that I otherwise couldn’t attain. Being connected to the Divine Master-Plan is my ticket to greatness, it’s the boost that I need to be a part of the one force that the history as a whole is propelled by - Tikun.

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us the inspiration that we need to tap into this profound mindstate. He should give us the energy to constantly remember that a life unified with His will is a life of substance, and a life that is bringing the world to a better place. If we can live by this, there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Shleimus, moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shavuos: Seeing Sounds

The holiday of Shavuos is the unique moment in the year where Am Yisrael convenes to re-experience Ma’amad Har Sinai - the national assembly at the foot at Mount Sinai; the moment of Kabalas HaTorah, the receiving of the Torah HaKedoshah.

There are a vast amount of sources dedicated to detailing the abundant and fantastic miracles that occurred at Ma’amad Har Sinai, but among the most famous is not found in the Midrashim or the commentaries, rather it is simply stated in the Torah itself. The Passuk says (Shemos 20:15), “V’Chol Ha’Am Ro’im Es HaKolos” – ‘And the whole nation saw the sounds’. Amazing. Had the Torah itself not said it, telling the average reader that the Jewish nation perceived auditory messages with their eyes would be passed off as a far-flung psychedelic interpretation of the experience. But there it is; the Torah tells us, “V’Chol Ha’Am Ro’im Es HaKolos” – ‘And the whole nation saw the sounds’.

In order to reach a deeper understanding of what it means to see sounds, we need to understand the components separately by clarifying the seemingly obvious difference between our senses of sight and sound. With Hashem’s help, if we explore the profound words of the holy Sfas Emes hopefully we will walk away with a clearer and more inspiring understanding.

Everything in the Briyah, the expanse of creation, has Ma’alos and Chesronos - pluses and minuses. When comparing anything, one side will have strengths and weaknesses that the second side won’t. In the sensory world this applies just the same; sight affords us opportunities that sound doesn’t; and conversely, the ability to hear can accomplish things that sight cannot.

In the visual spectrum of Re’iya we say that what you see is what you get. We can perceive a whole message at once. There is a certain Shleimus, wholeness, that sight affords. We can take in an entire landscape in one shot. We can utilize Re’iya to recognize a person’s face with all of its factors and unique characteristics at once. Sound doesn’t quite pull this off. Sound by its very nature is a sense built on sequential processing. In a conversation or a song, syllable after syllable is decked on top of various nuances of tone to create a flowing idea that is only understood as the concept develops. Under normal circumstances, if we attempt to process the sounds that make up the phrase ‘have a nice day’ all at once, we will be left confused by the senseless cacophony.

Sound - Shmiya, has its strengths as well. Sound gives us a glimpse into the internal workings of the world. Sight only reveals the surface level. Any blockages in the way serve as the farthest point that can be perceived. If I visually judge a book by its cover, I remain clueless as to what its content is. On the other hand, sound is not bogged down by such things. Shmiya by its very nature comes from an internal reaction and it can never be seen. Speech – not just in the psychological sense – starts on my insides. Air is channeled form my guts and emerges developed. Speech, then, is a revelation of internal expression that surpasses shallow externalities; it is an internal experience. The eyes, which themselves remain surface-level organs are not like the ears, which in the very design channel sound deep inside my head.

Sight is externally full, but it ends with that level of profundity as well. Sound is deep but choppy. Sight is whole while sound needs to be pieced together. But, as we will explain, for Torah to be experienced as transcendental and other-worldly, it needs to be accepted on both levels and in the counterintuitive order.

This is what happened at Ma’amad Har Sinai. Because the Jews accomplished the supernatural feat of accepting the Torah both wholesomely and internally it came across to them supernaturally. Am Yisrael accomplished this with their famous words Na’aseh V’Nishma - first they accepted to fulfill all the Mitzvos and only then they resigned to learn about them. Let’s explain what this means.

Na’aseh - we will do – is connected to Re’iya because like we said, Re’iya means to absorb a greater context. When the Jews say Na’aseh first it means that Jews first accepted upon themselves the entire picture, the full spectrum of Torah-observance. Only then they said Nishma - we will listen, they took upon themselves the detailed education process second. Education is intrinsically a Shmiya-related process. One piece of information is build on top of the next to formulate a coherent lesson. Trying to digest an entire textbook at once would be very much like attempting to decipher ‘have a nice day’ in one confusing sound-bite.

But the Jews said, ‘We don’t care! We are so excited to bring Ratzon Hashem into our lives that we’ll try to take the whole thing on at once, with all of its massive implications. Na’aseh. Only after we’ve been completely fused with God’s will can we start to pick up the details. Nishma. First we full heartedly sign up, we get on board and sign at the dotted line - Na’aseh. Once we’re fully invested, emotionally and physically and we know that we won’t back out will we work out how to really grasp all of its complexities and really make it our own - Nishma.

Because the Jews were willing to go against logic and accept the big picture without knowing the details, because they brought Na’aseh before Nishma, Hashem reciprocated by reflecting their courageousness in the form of the Torah’s counterintuitive delivery – they were able to See (in connection to Na’aseh) the Sounds (in connection to Nishma).

What does this have to do with my acceptance of the Torah? The answer is that the concepts that we just discussed are the remedy to an all-to-common general lack of excitement about Torah that many of our peers may sometimes feel. How many times have we heard someone say that a certain aspect of Judaism, a specific concept or series of laws simply doesn’t speak to them? ‘I dunno; it’s just not for me.’ This is tragic. But it comes from a very ‘Nishma-first’ attitude. We believe - and for good and justified reason – that Judaism will be more meaningful if we accept it in parts. ‘I’m not interested in being a 100% Eved Hashem just yet – let’s learn a little bit and see where it goes.’ Such an outlook may be logical but it’s doomed for mediocrity. The Jews at Sinai certainly didn’t feel that way. They knew that accepting all of the seemingly endless details of an observant lifestyle may have been a little too much to handle at that moment, but they knew that they wanted to be fully on board, they knew that we were going to be entirely in-sync with the grand plan, even if it meant a slow process of picking up more and more knowledge as they went along. They were Na’aseh-first. We can learn from this model.

Na’aseh V’Nishma, and its production of V’Chol Ha’Am Ro’I'm Es HaKolos teaches us that any attempt at spiritual growth must be preceded by a whole-hearted dedication to everything holy – even if in actuality such deed is out of reach. The emotional and mental dedication to the cause - Na’aseh is absolutely crucial if there is to be meaningful and internalized carrying out of action - Nishma. Only when I go through this seemingly backwards logic in my dedication to spiritual growth will I be open to the possibility of experiencing a truly meaningful - and perhaps even magical - experience of my own Kabalas HaTorah.

Shavuos is our opportunity to set the record straight once again. Shavuos means that Am Yisrael is once again standing at the foot of Har Sinai, and if until now I’ve been picky-choosy and thereby overall unfulfilled and uninspired by my Judaism, now’s the time to turn it around. Now’s the time to say to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “It’s just me and You. Nothing else. I’m on your side. It’s going to be hard, I know that already, and I may not be able to do everything at once, but I want to. I want to be a massive Tzadik. I want to be on a spiritual high 24/7. I want to keep all of the Mitzvos all the time. First I’ll say Na’aseh, I’ll tell you that I want it all. The I’ll say Nishma, I’ll show you that bit by bit I’ll make my way.”

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha to tap into the amazing inspiration that comes to us by standing at Ma’amad Har Sinai once again. We should have the energy and motivation to achieve our upmost in Avodas Hashem. If we can do this there is no doubt that we will live lives of Shleimus and Simcha mocing closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!