Friday, July 29, 2011

The Nine Days: Beneath the Surface

The following concepts have been adapted from and inspired by Reb Tzadok HaKohen. Feel free to print this out to read over Shabbos Kodesh, just please not during Tefilos!

This Shabbos Kodesh is Shabbos Mevarchim Chodesh Menachem Av, meaning that this week we will announce the onset of the new month of Av that will arrive this upcoming Monday.

Chodesh Av is serves as the pinnacle of anguish in the Jewish calendar. The center of our connection to Hashem, the center of the universe as a whole, the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed twice in this month. The repeated demolishment of the universe’s religious center leaves a scar in the fabric of time that we re-enter and re-experience every year in this season. So as we cross the threshold into this difficult stretch of t we need to ask ourselves – what’s the meaning of it all?

We are told that each month has a number of factors that generate the characteristics that form the month’s ‘personality’ so to speak. It is this identity from which all of the events in the month emerge.

The Kabalistic Sources tells us that the month of Av emanates from the letter Tes and the sense of Shmi’a, hearing. A delicate study of each of these factors will hopefully reveal their unifying theme. Let’s discover.

Let’s begin with the letter of the month – Tes. The Gemara in the ninth Perek of Brachos says that he who sees a Tes in his dream should expect Tov, good things, to occur in his life. Why does Tes signify Tov? The answer is that the first time that the letter Tes appears in the Torah it forms the word Tov. “VaYar Elokim Es HaOr Ki Tov.” ‘And Hashem saw the light, for it was Tov – it was Good.’ Because we know that the first appearance of something in the Torah defines its nature, Tes is forever the symbol of Tov.

Chazal revealed to us that before the creation of the world the letters of the Alef-Beis approached one by one and requested from God be the letter with which the world was created. When Tes steps up – I’m Tov! Create the world with me! God says that although Tes is the manifestation of Tov, it’s not designed for this world. True Tov is saved for the next world, as the Passuk says in Tehilim, “Mah Rav Tuvcha Asher Tzafanta L’Yreiecha” ‘How abundant is Your good that You have treasured away for those who fear You.’ Hashem declared that Tov in its very nature has to be stored away; it is waiting to be revealed in the proper time.

This is the reason that Chazal explain that the Or Ki Tov, the Light of Goodness was immediately stored away after its creation. It was Tzafun LaTzadikim, treasured away for the righteous in Times to Come. Why? Because Tov, by the very spirit of its existence, is meant to be veiled.

We learn from Tes that true Tov is only experienced via existing in universe devoid of it. Taking the world at surface value is missing the point. Those who are aware that the darkness of the universe is merely a mask are the unique few who will merit to recieve the Light at the end of the tunnel of history. Tes is not merely Tov, it is the existential Good that is discovered by penetrating past reality’s dark mask.

It is Chodesh Av brings darkness to the world. The Beis HaMikdash is called Oro Shel Olam, the light of the world. From it shined forth God-consciousness. Its destruction was the extinguishing of that Light. Therefore the tragedies of Av generate the darkness of our lives. Without the Beis HaMikdash perceiving God becomes exponentially more difficult. That destruction creates a mask in the world.

Obviously, in darkness our sense of sight is taken from us. But as we have experienced in our own lives, when we take a frightening walk in a pitch-black forest, in those moments when our sight is robbed from us another sense heightens in its place. When we can’t use our eyes our hearing sharpens. Perhaps on a different level we have surely felt that to truly vibe with the song playing in our headphones we need to close our eyes as to shut out visually perceived world.

Our eyes only have skin-deep perception. The nature of sight is that it is surface level. That, on the other hand is contrasted by hearing. When a person speaks he is emitting nothing from the external levels of his presence. The breath is channeled from inside. The sound is formed inside. The thought being expressed is coming from inside. Therefore, when you listen to a person’s words you begin to relate to their internal world. When it comes to communicating, seeing a person’s face and lip-reading is a far more difficult task than not seeing them but being able to listen. This is because the sounds coming from within a person are a much more honest revelation of his essence than his body is. Shmi’a is intrinsically deeper.

This is not only the physical level of sight versus hearing. It applies on the spiritual level as well.

The Geulah Asida is ultimately dependant on spiritual Shmi’a. The Passuk asks, ‘When is Mashiach coming? He’s coming HaYom – today.’ Today? Yes, Today. “HaYom Im B’Kolo Sishma’uMashiach comes today if you listen to Hashem’s Voice. Now we understand that by Hashem’s ‘Voice’ we mean His internal will and ‘hearing’ means to sense it beneath the surface. Geulah means becoming aware and sensitive to the makeup of reality. Geulah comes by perceiving, understanding and ultimately revealing that which is hidden beneath the surface – spiritual Shmi’a.

But when we say redemption what do we mean? We mean that the Tov becomes revealed again! It means that the light of God-consciousness is restored to the world. Thus at this stage we understand why Tes correlates to Shmi’a. If true good is only beneath the surface then only one sense truly gets us to that level.
The Passuk in the beginning of Bereishis describes the terrible state of the universe before the creation fully came into form. V’HaAretz Haisa Tohu VaVohu V’Choshech Al Pnei Tehom – And the land was Chaotic and Desolate and Dark upon the surface of the Abyss.  Say Chazal in the Midrash, these four descriptions: Chaotic, Desolate, Dark and Abyss are references to the four agonizing exiles that the Jews will undergo. Those negative energies are weaved into the fabric of reality. But the Passuk doesn’t end there, “V’Ruach Elokim Mirachefes Al Pinei HaMayim” – And the Spirit of Hashem was hovering upon the surface of the waters. Continue Chazal – this fifth component of Ruach Elokim that follows the first four is a reference to Rucho Shel Mashiach, the redemptive spirit of the Messiah. The depth of it is as such; Specifically through the process of entering and overcoming Tohu, Vohu, Choshech and Tehom can one fully experience Rucho Shel Mashiach.
And this is depth of what the Gemara means when it says that Mashiach is born on Tisha B’Av. If Av’s letter is Tes whose numerical value is nine, then it serves logic to say that the month’s theme expresses itself most boldly on the Tes, the ninth of the month. That day is Tisha, the ninth of Av. That means that Tisha B’Av, the most tragic and darkest day of the year is specifically the day from which the most Tov and most light will sprout. When Am Yisrael pays attention to the Tohu, Vohu, Choshech and Tehom of Tisha B’Av, a little bit more of Rucho Shel Mashiach is born into the universe.
When we keep our perceptions shallow we rob ourselves of pleasure in this world and the next. We can’t enjoy this world because we are consumed and distracted by our day-to-day bothers, and we can’t enjoy the next world because we will have missed out on the opportunity to become sensitive to godliness.
But when we begin to see world in a deep way, when we choose to realize that the difficult moments are there to be entered into and overcome then we place ourselves on a path to achieve greatness. The darker the situation the more Tov must be potentially possible to attain. When we begin to listen to the vibrations of the universe in this way we not only refine ourselves to but we also push history in direction that it should be moving.
Av affords us the opportunity to enter into the darkest depths, to perceive that which is hidden beyond the surface. We can either get lost in our sorrows or we can take a moment to use the difficulty of the situation to push us to achieve further in our Avodas Hashem. Hashem should give us the strength and the inspiration that we need to take full advantage of this most profound of moments. For if we can there is no doubt that we will live lives full of Tov and Shleimus, moving closer to the Ribono Shel Olam and ultimately we will be meritorious to experience Rucho Shel Mashiach!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Matos: I Pledge Allegiance...

The following is based in part on concepts from the Sfas Emes and Rav Moshe Wolfson. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos, just please not during Tefilos!

In the beginning of this week’s Parsha we are introduced to the concept of Nedarim and Shvuos, oaths and vows. To make a vow, a person invokes God’s Name in a pledge and commits himself to do an action, or, conversely, to refrain from something. For example, “I need to be kinder. Therefore I swear, B’Sheim Hashem, to water my neighbor’s plants.” Or on the side of refrain, “I’m looking out for my health, and in God’s name I pledge not to consume any more energy drinks.”

Something astonishing happens when this pledge is made. Because the Torah now requires of me to uphold that vow, when I am Mekayem, when I fulfill my promise I carry out a Mitzvah Deoraisa – a Torah commandment! Why is this amazing? It’s miraculous because I created a new Mitzvah that’s all my own! This seems striking at first glance, so let’s explain.

Because of my Shvu’a to water it, my neighbor’s plant becomes a Cheftzah Shel Mitzvah – a Mitzvah object. Like we said, the Torah now requires of me to keep that oath. Therefore, in regards to me, those flowers are intrinsically holy. They are the object upon which I carry out the Mitzvah to uphold my vow. With the power of the Torah, I have infused them with Ratzon Hashem – the will of the Creator. They are now part of the framework of the Torah. For me, these plants are now Mitvah #614. Simultaneously (and this is the perplexing part) what is a Cheftzah Shel Mitzvah to me is just an ordinary potted plant to everyone else. There is some level of subjective holiness to them.

What emerges is that through the power of Nedrarim and Shvuos I can create a unique Mitzvah that applies just to me. But we need to understand how the Shvu’a makes this happen. What ocurs when I pledge an oath that all of a sudden a new Mitzvah is brought into the world?

A journey into another teaching of Chazal will shed more light on our subject…

The Pasuk in Koheles tells us, “V’HaNefesh Lo Timaleh” – No matter how many physical pleasures the body encounters and experiences; the soul will never be satisfied with such things. Why is this so? Why can’t I simply calm down my spiritual aspirations via physical avenues. For this, our sages provided us with a parable.

A young and excited mountain dweller attempted to capture the heart of the princess. After much persuasion the mature, sophisticated maiden decided to spend the day with the rural man. He attempted to win her over with a home cooked meal, a trip to the rodeo and all of the rugged-style delights that he was used to. But as nice as it all was the princess just wasn’t satisfied. It was a nice attempt, but simply put she was too refined for his coarse lifestyle.

This is the meaning of “V’HaNefesh Lo Timaleh”. The spiritual essence present within us is an outgrowth of Godliness that is rooted in the loftiest echelons of the metaphysical reality. Our body on the other hand, as we learned in Bereishis, is formed out of dirt. As hard as the body may try to entice the soul with earthly pleasures, it’ll never work – the Soul is a Princess. She has already been satisfied with the sublime joy of closeness to Hashem and nothing else will do.

The Gemara in Messeches Nidah describes what is perhaps the moment of this upmost satisfaction. There we are told that before the fetus leaves the mother, the spiritual consciousness of the unborn child lives in bliss. Chazal describe how the soul of the child is illuminated by a universal awareness where the whole world, with all of its details is seen as one unified energy. The unborn child is granted a perspective where Divine Providence is at the peak of recognition. And with this global meta-perspective the child learns the whole Torah with an Angel. This, in spiritual terms, is as good as it gets. It is at this ripe time that the Angel forces the child to take upon itself an oath. An oath to be a Tzadik - A Shvu’a to keep all of the Mitzvos.

Why do we need to pledge something that we don’t remember? The answer is that it’s not the pledge that is the importance; rather it is the spiritual reality that it affects which is the real focus of a Shvu’a.

We see Shvuos made several times in the Torah. Avraham Avinu made his servant Eliezer take upon himself a Shvu’a before setting out to find a wife for Yitzchak. Yaakov Avinu made Yosef HaTzadik swear to take his body to be buried in Eretz Yisrael. Why was such oaths necessary? What, Eliezer, a faithful servant and a Tzadik in his own right, wasn’t going to listen? Avraham was scared? Similarly, Yaakov didn’t believe that Yosef would obey? Why did they demand promises?

The answer comes from the makeup of the word Shvu’a. There are two main approaches to its meaning that we need to address.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that the word for an oath is deeply rooted in the word Sheva, meaning seven, which is spelled the same way. What is the importance of seven? Says the Maharal, the number seven is nature and man within it. How so? Seven days of the week, seven colors in the rainbow, seven notes in the musical scale. Seven creates a whole picture. At the same time the Kabalists speak of the seven Midos, root character traits that man embodies. Because of this duality, the Shvu’a thrusts the essence of the person into the makeup of reality.

Also, Shvu’a is profoundly connected to Save’a – satisfied (also spelled the same way). The Koach, the power of a Shvu’a totally fills a person. Because an oath is made in the Name of Hashem, when a person swears he directs the lifeforce that Hashem sustains the world with into the essence of his being. He becomes spiritually satisfied.

It is the meeting point of these two meanings that we can understand the full ramifications of the Shvu’a. The Shvu’a creates a tremendous alignment of forces. At the dramatic moment were there is a precise placement of man within the world (Sheva), he becomes ripe and ready to serve as the vessel that he needs to be for the incoming energy of Sheim Hashem that fills him (Sove’a).

The oath serves as the precise spiritual boost that he needs to become imbued with an exacting flood of fresh strength; perfect for whatever his new mission may be.

Yosef HaTzadik and Eliezer were made to take oaths not to ensure that they would remain faithful, rather it was in order to empower them to carry out their missions with levels of intensity and inspiration that they previously didn’t know that they could attain. The goal of the Shvu’a was to spin the cosmos in such a way that they would be able to carry out the task in a way that was until that time unimaginable.

So too we say V’HaNefesh Lo Timaleh because at that moment of surreal holiness in the womb, the soul accepts upon itself uniquely magnificent and transcendent concentrations of spiritual capability. Those precious moments that we described above serve as a very special convergence of Sheva and Sove’a. Once that happens, once the Shvu’a takes place, the soul is satisfied, it’s empowered, it feels whole, and therefore it is obvious that any baser animalistic pleasure simply won’t be able to compare.

With one more parable we can understand how this generates the anomalies of Cheftzah Shel Mitzvah.

There is Chinese folk music playing all around you right now. Why don’t you hear it? You don’t hear it because you don’t have the proper tool tuned into the proper frequency that can extract it from the air. But with a radio on the right station you would be able to enjoy the relaxing tones of the paixiao and the yangqin (yes, they are real) as you read this.

This is what Shvu’a does. Through the unique dynamic of the Shvu’a, he who takes the oath attains the exact Kochos to emit the perfect spiritual frequency that transforms a potted plant into a Cheftza Shel Mitzvah. For one person it’s holy, and for another person it’s a potted plant.

And it is the Shvu’a in the womb that makes all the difference in the world between Jew and gentile. Why is it that on Succos a Yid can grab a Lulav and it is holy, and yet Goy holds the exact same thing and for him it serves no particular purpose? Why is that when a Jew wears a combination of wool and linen it serves as a steel block on his soul, and yet when a non-Jew wears the same combination it’s totally fine? It's the same answer as the potted plant, just bigger.

The Shvu’a that we all take in the womb opens us up and tunes us in to the frequency called Ratzon Hashem. There’s a vibration pumping through the universe, there’s ‘Chinese folk music’ blasting everywhere – our souls can hear it and their souls can’t. The oath that each and everyone of us experiences puts us in a place totally incomparable to a soul that has not undergone such an experience. The significance of the oath that we can’t remember is the fact that because of it we stand on a plane above and beyond everything else. Every other Shvu’a taken over the course of history is merely a microcosm of that.

What I need to take out of all of this is that there is a wellspring of tailor-made Kochos inside of me, just waiting to be tapped into. An amazing spiritual calculation has resulted in my unique role in the universe. I can extract Kediusha from the world around me in a way that no one else who ever has does or will exist can. When we have this amazing realization we can begin to find and access those Kochos - and HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha that we will – there is no doubt that we will live lives of Shleimus and Simcha, moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pinchas: Something Interesting About an Elephant

The following concepts were gleaned from the Sfas Emes, and conversations with HaRav Moshe Shapira Shlit’a and Rav Amos Luban Shlit’a. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh, just please not during Tefilos!

At the end of last weeks Parsha we are told of how the debauched and morally denigrated women of Moav were sent into the Jewish camp to ignite the lusts of Am Yisrael. Tragically, they succeeded. The situation escalated to the point that Zimri, a man of esteemed stature as well as a spiritual giant beyond our comprehension, crudely and publicly gave in to his desires with a woman by the name of Cuzbi. It is on this appalling and heart-breaking event that the Passuk says, “V’Heima Bochim” – And the nation was weeping.

One man, Pinchas, didn’t just weep. He didn’t keep his anguish and outrage to himself. Romach B’Yado – spear in hand, he got up and decided to do something concrete about the situation. He literally drove the message home by raining on their promiscuous parade with a fatally penetrating stab of his spear. The imagery was crude but the message was clear: Compromises in Kedusha have no place amongst the Mamleches Kohanim.

Hashem commands Moshe to inform Pinchas his reward. “Hinini Nosein Lo Brisi Shalom” ‘See that I have given him My covenant of peace. He is to become a Kohein; a Priest. This is immensely unique being as at this point in history the priesthood was strictly familial. Therefore, to be rewarded entry into the Kehunah is a gift of radical proportions.

The question we need to ask ourselves is how does the reward fit the deed? We believe that HaKadosh Baruch Hu deals with the world in a system of Midah K’Neged Midah, meaning that every reaction from below stimulates the perfectly befitting response from Above. The reactions that Hashem grants our actions are literally tailor-made each and every time. What about Pinchas’ intense zeal and passion warranted specifically his receiving of the Kehunah?

Our answer, interestingly enough, begins with a Gemara in Perek HaRo’eh about an elephant. The Gemara there goes on at great length interpreting all sorts of different omens that one may see in a dream. As it would seem, there are many levels to the interpretations to these words of Chazal, and a universe’s worth of their depth belong to realm of the secrets of the Torah. That being said we can attempt to uncover some of their beauty.

HaRoeh Pil BaChalom”, He who sees an elephant in his dream, “Pla’os Na’asu Lo”, Wonders shall be done for him. “V’HaRo’eh Pilim BaChalom”, and he who sees many elephants in his dream, “Pilei Pla’os Na’asu Lo”, wonders of wonders shall be performed for him.

The most surface-level connection between elephants and wondrous occurrences is strictly phonetic: Pil, the word for elephant sounds and awful lot like Pele, the word for a wonder.

But Chazal are not that shallow. They are by no means interested in wordplay. The fact that Pil sounds like Pele does not reveal to me any particular significance or depth. So we need to find something more.

The names that Torah grants to the innumerous creations in the world as a whole are not merely titles that sound nice. Rather, the names that Hashem gives are a matter crucial importance. The Hebrew name of any given object is a reflection of the truest nature of its essence. It derives its identity from its name. If its title were to be anything else then it would take on a different physical manifestation perforce. Therefore, we are required to say that the elephant is intrinsically wondrous. It is due to the Pele-oriented nature of the elephant that its name becomes Pil. The question then becomes: how?

At least once per day, each person in Am Yisrael makes the Bracha of Asher Yatzar – the blessing that thanks God for the amazing dynamics of the human body, and its total dependence on Hashem. That Bracha ends “U’Mafli La’asos” - Hashem is wondrous in His doings.  Says the Rama, what is Nifla, wonderful, about the body? When we say Mafli La’asos, the intention is the wondrous fact that God connects to seeming opposites together. Spirituality and physicality, spirit and flesh, body and soul coexist and even compliment one another. This is the definition of Pele that strikingly profound miracle that Guf and Neshama can live together in one cohesive unit. This is Pele.

The elephant is unique, obviously, for the size of its nose. No other animal even comes close. And as we know, the elephant uses its nose like we use our hands. It feels around and picks things up with it. However, the interesting thing about the nose within the worldview of Chazal is that it is the most spiritual of all of the body parts. It is the sense of smell that was not blemished in the sin of the tree of knowledge. Says the Gemara, when one smells something it is soul that enjoys the scent, not the body. The end of Shabbos comes with the loss of the amplified double-soul, a source of great distress that can only be overcome by smelling sweet spices. The Navi tells us that Mashiach will be able to smell who has the proper type of relationship with Hashem. In short, the nose is a big deal. And the elephant displays it in a dramatic way. This is clearly then must be a symbol of tremendous spirituality. But amazingly it uses its wellspring of spiritual intuitiveness as a hand! There is a striking convergence of spirituality and physicality in how the elephant implements its uniquely metaphysical sense of smell in a totally down-to-earth practical usage.

And on a bigger level, the elephant – as any zoo keeper will tell you – is among the smartest animals in the zoo. There is well-recorded data that proves that elephants understand concepts like self-recognition, math and tool making in a way that puts them far ahead of the competition. Not only that, but there is a very special emotional sensitivity to the elephant as well. There is a strong’s concept of family which extends into the unique anomaly of their mourning, burial and periodical visitation their dead – a practice only conducted by elephants.

And all of this in such a tremendous body. Plain and simple – when it comes to land-walking animals, nothing comes close to the elephant. This requires no explanation. It’s a tremendous amount of sheer power and mass.

This ironic connection between weight and smarts is the very point that we were hitting at in our definition of Pele. The elephant uniquely embodies the fantastic, otherworldly connection between the spiritual and physical. The elephant is a Pil because it is a Pele.

This is all very nice – but what in the world does this have to do with Pinchas? The answer is that the Gemara in HaRo’eh, in the line before the one we just discussed says an amazing thing. “HaRo’eh Pinchas Ba’Chalom; Pla’os Na’asu Lo” He who sees Pinchas in his dream wonders shall be performed for him!

The meaning being that whatever the concept of Pele that we just developed is – it intrinsically applies to Pinchas as well. Let’s begin to tie things together.

Like we mentioned, during the moments that Cuzbi and Zimri were together the entire nation as a whole was shaken. There was a spiritual awakening among the people. They felt that this whole scene was wrong. But they didn’t concretize it. They didn’t bring it home.

Pinchas did. Pinchas, B’Derech Pele took this mass spiritual feeling and brought it down to earth. He made it real. He forged the connection between the nations inspiration and practical application. And because of this – HaRo’eh Pinchas Ba’Chalom; Pla’os Na’asu Lo!

This also explains why his reward was the entrance into the Kehunah. The entire role of the Priest within Judaism is to serve as the connection, the conduit between the people and God. Their extraction of holiness from animal sacrifice is the idealistic implementation of Pele. They are the hooking point between heaven and earth.

Chazal tell us that Eliyahu HaNavi is a future manifestation of Pinchas. They are intrinsically one soul with more than one historical expression. We are amazed by the soul’s presence in the body. That’s very novel for us. But, as the Navi explains, Eliyahu does one better – he takes his body and injects it into the heavenly realms of spirituality. Wonder of wonders. He, as we are told throughout Shas comes up and down between heaven and earth relaying messages, keeping that macrocosmic Pele-connection of heaven and earth intact.

Finally, on the most global scale, this is the depth of Brisi Shalom – Hashem’s Covenant of Peace that is promised to Pinchas. The word Shalom, peace, comes from Shaleim which means whole. Every object in this world has a specific role to play in the Divine Masterplan; we call this its Tafkid. The problem is that all too often pinpointing that spiritual essence in ourselves and the world around us is a delicate, nuanced and esoteric task. The world comes to Shalom when its multifarious details all become Shaleim, when they all make that special connection between their physical reality and spiritual purpose. The Bris Shalom is the promise to be a part of the forging of that connection. It is Avodas HaPele, the work ‘spearheaded’ by Pinchas that will manifest that endgoal.

Lo BaShamayim Hi – these concepts are esoteric but attainable. There is a spiritual reality, a wellspring of enthusiasm present in every Jew. There is a part of me that sometimes I feel (and sometimes I don’t) that wants so badly to do the right thing. In my essence, I yearn to be the unique Pinchas-like figure who stands up and makes a difference. That inspiration drives me, it pushes me, but it doesn’t pull the trigger for me, it doesn’t make it real. I need to make it real. I need to make that connection. I need to tap into my own personal Avodas HaPele, to take those big, shiny, hopeful dreams and aspirations of mine and turn them into something amazing.

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us the inspiration to constantly bring our potential into fruition. He should bless us to be in the proper headspace so that we can have the inner strength to make the micro and macrocosmic connection between body and soul. To forge that relationship of Pele in all of its levels; in the way that it pertains to me, the elements of the world around me and heaven and earth on the whole. 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 Geulah Sheleimah!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Balak: Teacher's Pet

The following is based on the Sefer MiMa’amakim, Rav Kook in Oros HaKodesh, the Sfas Emes and the Maharal in Derech Chayim. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh, just please not during Tefilos!

In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to Balak, King of Moav. Balak felt threatened by the presence of the Jewish people near his border, and so he brought the neighboring country of Midyan in for a brainstorming session and they decided to call upon Bila’am Ben B’or, a sorcerer, to curse – and thereby annihilate – the Jewish people.

In the Torah’s detailing of Bila’am’s journey to meet with Balak, Rashi and other commentators point out numerous allusions to Avraham Avinu’s experiences as he made his journey to sacrifice Yitzchak Avinu at the Akeidah. Why the repetitive comparisons? We are here to talk about Bila’am – not Avraham! Why do we need to highlight the association?

Chazal give us the answer to this question in Pirkei Avos (5:19). There the Mishna sets up an epic historical battle between Bila’am and Avraham. The Mishna states as follows: ‘Whosoever possesses these three qualities belongs to the disciples of Avraham Avinu: Ayin Tova - a benevolent eye, Ruach Nemucha - a humble spirit, and Nefesh Shfala - a meek soul. On the other hand, he who possesses the three opposite qualities; Ayin Ra’a an evil eye, Ruach Gvoha a proud spirit, and Nefesh Rechava -  a haughty soul, he is of the disciples of Bila’am HaRasha. How do the disciples of Avraham differ from the disciples of Bila’am? The disciples of Avraham enjoy this world and inherit the World to Come, while the disciples of Bila’am go down to the pit of destruction.’

One simple question on the text: Chazal here claim that if one has these three bad character traits he becomes a disciple of Bila’am. Since when do I need someone to teach me bad traits?! For this I need a character as famous and dramatic as Bila’am HaRasha to teach me? Any immature and insensitive person can figure these traits out by themselves! We need to implement specifically Bila’am HaRasha to teach me this?

And similarly, there are many great Tzadikim from our generations, and yet in contrast to Bila’am HaRasha’s unique quality to be a teacher of Ayin Ra’a, Ruach Gvoha and Nefesh Rechava we need specifically Avraham Avinu to teach me the opposite? No one else could emulate these Midos?

In short – why do we need this precise pair to bring out these contrasting sides?

As we attempt to refine our sensitivity to the words of Chazal, we need to understand that everything they say is intrinsic – the connections that they make, the comparisons that they draw are all stemming from deep-rooted universal truths. Meaning, if Avraham Avinu is lined up against Bila’am HaRasha, and we see that whatever his attributes are – the other personifies the diametrically opposing side, it shows us that Avraham Avinu and Bila’am HaRasha are inherently polar opposites.

This Mishna is coming to illustrate the concept of “Zeh L’Umas Zeh Bara Elokim” – Hashem created the world in such a way that every force has a counterforce. Each pair involved in a Zeh-L’Umas-Zeh relationship are involved in an existential tug-of-war. There is a point over which these two opposing forces are trying to prove their supremacy. Furthermore, this central point of contention is by the nature of its very existence is the only common factor between the two sides. Applying this concept back to our Mishna will hopefully add clarity…

The point of conflict between Bila’am HaRasha and Avraham Avinu is that they emerge in history as diametrically opposing ‘Firsts’, and they started a historical battle that is yet to end.

We know that Bila’am HaRasha was a gentile prophet, but it goes a fascinating step further:  The Torah HaKedosha at the end of Parshash VaYishlach tells us of eight evil Edomite Kings who ruled in succession of one another. This seemingly overlookable factoid is really of tremendous significance. Comes the Arizal and reveals to us that these eight kings play a central historical role: These kings were responsible for the supernal potential for evil manifesting in the world on a practical level. These weren’t just evil people – they were responsible for letting evil and impurity enter this realm of existence.

The first king mentioned in this list – meaning the leader, founder and ideological head of this group was a man named Bela Ben B’or. Sound familiar? It should: Because Bela Ben B’or was simply another way of referring to Bila’am Ben B’or.

This sets Bila’am HaRasha apart in a big way; he’s no longer just a non-Jewish prophet. Now we see him for what he truly is: On the historical scale, he is nothing less dramatic than the foremost and fundamental challenger to holiness in this world. He is the embodiment of Kilkul­ – spiritual destruction

On this level he stands diametrically apposed to Avraham Avinu. The role of the first of our forefathers is not difficult to explain. Avraham Avinu came down to this world in order to found a nation whose entire essence is to reveal holiness in the world. It was he who instituted this movement toward the discovery and revelation of godliness. Avraham is the force of Tikun – rectification.

It is the purpose of Am Yisrael to make the world a deeper, more meaningful, holier – and thereby automatically – better place. And it is Avraham Avinu who stands as its ideological originator.

But how do we do this? What is required of us to pull off the remarkable feat of transforming the world into a sanctified dwelling space? This starts with our Midos – our character traits.

We are forced to say that Midos of Avraham Avinu: Ayin Tova - a good eye, Ruach Nemucha - a humble spirit, and Nefesh Shfala - a meek soul are the keys, the tools that we need to refine and implement in order to fulfill our universal task of Divine Revelation. And we can even say one step further – it’s not the character traits that make me an ideological disciple of Avraham Avinu, that’s not what he is teaching me. I become a student of Avraham because he’s teaching me my purpose in this world. He’s teaching me how to bring about spiritual rectification to the expanse of creation. The only way to accomplish this is through the implementation of these Midos. When do so I will automatically connect myself to, become a student of, be a part of his historical mission.

And so, Ayin Ra’a an evil eye, Ruach Gvoha a proud spirit, and Nefesh Rechava - a haughty soul; the tell-tale signs that one is a disciple of Bila’am HaRasha; must be tools needed to make a the world a less spiritual, less holy, less God-conscious place. And the same holds true here – it’s not the Midos that make me a Talmid, a student, of Bila’am HaRasha – rather it’s self-attachment to the furtherance of Bila’am’s goals that makes him part of the club. This ideological association is revealed by the manifestation of his qualities

Chazal define Bila’am HaRasha’s Midos as such:  Ayin Ra’a – Resentfulness. Jealousy. The distaste for the good fortune of others. The thrill of watching something break. Ruach Gvoha – Pumped-up ego. Self-centeredness. The inability to function within a group. The furtherance of ‘self’ being the highest cause. Nefesh Rechava – Insatiability. And endless hunger for more and more physical pleasure. Lust and greed.

When a person gets caught up in these qualities he furthers Bila’am HaRasha’s goal. He creates disconnection and dissonance between the creations of the universe. He trains himself to be shallow. He disallows himself from connecting to the Divine.

Conversely; they define Avraham Avinu’s traits in the following way: Ayin Tova - Benevolence. My deep-rooted desire to complete that which is lacking and to fix that which is broken. My internal drive to make things right. Ruach Nemucha Humility. Having the proper perspective that there is a greater goal, the wisdom as well as sensitivity to see myself as part of a bigger plan. Nefesh Shfala – Not living with an overdependence on the physical. Being satisfied with my lot.

These qualities facilitate Avraham Avinu’s ideology to come to fruition. Inasmuch as I myself as a vessel for holiness, a conduit for sensitivity, I can make the world a deeper, more meaningful place. A feeling of being settled without a constant nag to be shiny and shallow. An internal drive to see that my surroundings are always getting a little bit better. A kind word. Picking up a piece of trash. It is these qualities that the students Avraham Avinu put into practice in order to complete his – and their – task over the course of history.

The comparison between Bila’am HaRasha to Avraham Avinu allows me to take an assessment of which side I am on. Am I on the side of Tikun or Kilkul? Am I here to associate with Bila’am or Avraham? What do I want the world to look like?

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us the strength to fulfill our destiny and attach ourselves to Avraham Avinu’s vision of the world. We should be given the constant flow of inspiration and strength to polish and reveal our elements of Ayin Tova, Ruach Nemucha and Nefesh Shfala so that we can bring about the ultimate purpose of the universe: To make a beautiful, pure and holy world. A world that is receptive to Ratzon Hashem. 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 Geulah Sheleimah!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Chukas: One Step Ahead of Death

The following is based in part on concepts gleaned from the teaching of Rav Moshe Shapiro Shlit’a. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh, just please not during Tefilos!

The start of this week’s Parsha deals with the abstract concepts of Parah Adumah - a fully red cow that is totally burned and whose ashes are used as part of the process which overcomes Tumas Meis - a spiritual impurity contracted via contact with the dead.

The Passuk says as follows “Zos Chukas HaTorah” ‘This is the law, or more accurately, the transcendental precept of the Torah’. The Torah then goes on to describe the very detailed and elaborate procedure of the Parah Adumah.

There are two questions that we need to ask: First, the word Chukas comes from Chok which is a different type of commandment than we usually find. Most Mitzvos fall under the category of Mishpatim, these are laws that we understand, the type that make logical sense to us. Don’t steal. Don’t kill. But Para Adumah is a Chok, the type of commandment which supersedes logic and goes beyond reason. The human mind is incapable of fully determining how in this case A causes B. It goes beyond reason and sense to explain how the ashes of the Parah Adumah overpower the control of Tumas Meis. So then why is it that the solution to, the resolution of, the tool by which Tumas Meis is overcome have to be specifically through a Chok?

Secondly, The Passuk’s terminology is famously ambiguous. We are here to talk about the Parah Adumah. Therefore it would be logical for the verse to state, “Zos Chukas HaParah” ‘This is the super-rational law of the cow.’ But it doesn’t. It instead says, “Zos Chukas HaTorah.” This is the meta-logical law of the (whole) Torah. How is this at all plausible to say? We are talking about the very specific nature of the Parah Adumah, and yet we are referring to it as the Torah itself!

To answer why HaKadosh Baruch Hu defines the Parah Adumah as the Torah, we need to locate the point upon which the fundamental status of the Torah crosses paths with the truest nature of Parah Adumah. And in order to do so we need to analyze each side by itself.

The process of undergoing the purity brought about via Parah Adumah is a Me’ein, a small taste, a mini experience of Techiyas HaMeisim - the resurrection of the dead.

How is this so? Misah, death, by all logical standards, is a force that cannot be contended against. Everything in this world that is alive is subject to death. Death is an eventually insurmountable energy that forces itself upon all things that live.

Techiyas HaMeisim is the only way to overcome Misah. Anyone or anything which is taken hold by death’s inevitable grip, stays in that status until Techiyas HaMeisim will extract it from that grasp.

Tumas Meis, the impurity generated by death’s presence is the same. All impurities are resolved by a combination of immersion in ritual waters and time. The regular levels of Tumah (impurity) are subject to negation at the hands of standard procedures. On the other hand, Tumas Meis’s clench on a person resembles that of its source in death itself. Just like Misa is an energy that cannot be terminated by normal means, so too Tumas Meis cannot be terminated by normal means. And therefore just as it is only Techiyas HaMeisim that overcomes Misah, it must be that something intrinsically like it will overcome Tumas Meis.

But the question is, how is Parah Adumah like Techiyas HaMeisim? For this we need to delve into the next level of the questions we asked: Why is the Parah Adumah addressed as the whole Torah, and what does the Torah HaKedosha have to do with Techiyas HaMeisim?

The Gemara in Sanhedrin, in Perek Cheilek talks about B’Arichus (goes on for great length) how he who doesn’t believe that Techiyas HaMeisim is rooted in the Torah has no portion in the World to Come. The discussion there goes on and on offering scriptural references to the Resurrection.

This is truly unique. As we know, there are thirteen Ikarei Emunah - Principles of Faith - that are requisites of every Jew to believe in. (For example – Existence of God [Principle #1], Reward and Punishment [#11], the Coming of the Messiah [#12].) All of these Ikarim are fundamental concepts that we need to approach Judaism correctly. But it is not required that one believe that there are scriptural sources for them. There is no Passuk that obligates faith in the fact that it is only fitting to serve Hashem and no other imaginary deity [#5]. And yet we see that simple belief in Techiyas HaMeisim is not enough. Comes the Gemara and says that the belief must be that there is a reality of Techiyas HaMeisim, and it is in the Torah. Why does this have to be the case?

Like we mentioned before, death is an energy to which no living thing is impervious. It will bare down on everything. Therefore, how can one eventually overcome death? It must be through something that is an exception to the rule. It must be via a connection to something not subject to death.

A seed rots. Rotting is a type of death. It is not a total loss of life, but there is decay nonetheless. But it is specifically through this that something bigger and more potent and alive comes about. If it were not for the rotting of the seed then there would be no eventual tree.

Eitz Chayim Hi LaMachazikim Ba - the Torah is a Tree of Life. It is not subject to the force we call death. The seed microcosmically, and the Torah macrocosmically are beyond decay.

How is it that the Torah is beyond death? The mystical sources tell us that HaKadosh Baruch Hu used the Torah to create the world. If the Torah was used to create the world that means that by its very nature it is beyond the world, it precedes it. The Torah is part of a different reality than this world. Death, as we learn in Bereishis was a direct result of the sin by the tree of knowledge. Death was not part of the original plan. It is a creation from within this level existence. But, if a connection can be made to something that is relevant to an existence above and beyond this world then death can be avoided.

It is for this reason that we say in our prayers about the Torah, “V’Chayei Olam Nata B’Socheinu” And you planted within us eternal life. By giving us the Torah, we are given a peek into a universe beyond the reality of death.

If the only connection we have to the surpassing of death comes from the Eitz Chayim, then if one doesn’t believe that Techiyas HaMeisim is rooted in the Torah he inherently doesn’t believe in the essential go-power that makes Techiyas HaMeisim work! Take the Torah away as the basis of belief in Techiyas HaMeisim and you are left with no floor for belief in Techiyas HaMeisim to stand on at all!

And which parts of the Torah are least subject to this world? The ones that remain outside of human intellect – the Chukim. It is specifically the Chok which is most outside of this world, and thereby most connected to a reality beyond death.

This is how we can understand the whole subject of Parah Adumah. “Zos Chukas HaTorah” ‘This is the transcendental precept of the Torah.’ The part of the process of Parah Adumah that overcomes Tumas Meis has very little to do with the fact that it’s a red cow and everything to do with the fact that it is a Chok of the Torah. Relating the Parah Adumah to the nature of the Torah as a whole, and more specifically through the element of Chok gives it the Techiyas HaMeisim energy that it needs to overcome Tumas Meis.

The inspiration to be take from these concept is easily taken. When I am Osek the Torah HaKedosha, when I involve myself in God’s will, when I connect my being to the Divine Masterplan, I attach myself to life in the purest, most untaintable form. When I become adjoined to Ratzon Hashem I’m stepping outside a universe which is tainted with death-relevancy and I enter a space that if fully, vibrantly alive. ”V’Atem HaDveikim Ba’Hashem – Chayim Kulchem HaYom!” ‘And you - those who are connecting to Hashem - right now, in this moment of bonding - you all are fully alive.”

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us the inspiration to live like this. To be in this world and simultaneously be connected to a reality that is above it. If we can do this – if we can live in the greater context of Avodas Hashem - there is no doubt that we will live lives of Shleimus and Simcha moving closer to the Chei HaOlamim (Hashem, the lifeline of the universe) and eventually the Geulah Sheleimah!