Friday, August 26, 2011

Re'eh/Elul: There is no Middle of the Road

The following concepts are based on Reb Tzadok HaKohen, the Ohr G’Deliyahu and Rav Moshe Shapiro Shlit’a. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh, just please not during Tefilos!

We are on the verge of entering the emotionally charged month of Elul. As we have been taught through the generations, the Torah portions that we are reading always match up to the events on the Jewish calendar. This is called ‘HaKriyah Meoreres Es HaZman’ – the Scripture is awakening the Occasion. This being said, we need to uncover the common denominator between this week’s Parsha of Re’eh and the upcoming days of Elul.

The Passuk in the beginning of the Parsha says as follows: “Re’eh Anochi Nosein Lifneichem Bracha U’Klala” – Behold, for today I set before you (the possibility of either) Blessing or Curse. “Es HaBracha Asher Tishmi’u El HaMitzvos” – The Blessings will come as a result of adhering to the Commandments. “V’HaKlala Im Lo Tishmi’u” – And the curse which will descend upon you by not listening to them.

Says the Sforno, something much bigger than an ultimatum is being set down here. We already know that we get reward for doing the right thing and punishments in the opposite situation, so that cannot be the extent of these verses. Rather, the Chiddush, the new idea, the new concept that is being laid before us is that there is no middle path. It’s either Blessings for the Mitzvos or Curses because of Aveiros: Your Call.

But how can this possibly be? No middle-of-the-road? There are many aspects of my life that are not governed by the strict letter of the law. There are areas of my day-to-day that are not part of the Six-Thirteen! So how can it be that my whole life only has two paths with no intermediate option?

Says the Chovos HaLevavos; my carrying out of a Mitzvah is an expression that I am in tune with Ratzon Hashem. It is a physical statement that declares that I am HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s emissary in the world. I’m here to carry out His Will. The same applies when I refrain from any transgression. This being said, every aspect of my life – no matter how mundane – has the possibility of becoming either a Mitzvah or an Aveirah. There is no longer a middle path. From my morning cup of coffee to the brands of clothing that I wear; if I’m doing it for Hashem then it’s a Mitzvah as real as Honoring One’s Parents or shaking the Lulav. And it goes without saying that the opposite holds just the same.

Let’s momentarily leave these thoughts on the backburner and take an Elul-related detour…

The Kabalistic tradition reveals to us that there are several factors that create the ‘personality’ of every month. The Sefer Yetzirah (attributed to Avraham Avinu) breaks up the letters of the Alef-Beis, human capabilities (walking, digestion, sight etc…) among other factors to correspond to each of the months. (Addressing them all is beyond the current scope of this essay) It’s by reaching the depth of each of the components and how they relate to one another that we will be able to understand the full scope of the month’s significance.

Says the Sefer Yetzirah, this month’s letter is Yud (י) and the human capability of the month is Making/Doing/Creating. At first this seems very random, so let’s try to make some sense of it.

Chazal explain that Yud is a lofty and exalted letter. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that it represents God’s desire to bestow of His essence. It’s the letter that epitomizes Ratzon Hashem. Rashi in the beginning of the Torah hints to us that Yud is the letter of Chochmah – Wisdom. Because the prefix of Yud in a word makes the word future-tense, Yud comes to manifest that which only exists in thought. The Gemara in Brachos tells us that the World to Come was created with a Yud. The World to Come is - exactly as its name implies – a world of potential.  This is really a reference to the fact that Yud, parallels the Kabalistic Sfira (Divine Emenation) of that name – Chochmah – which is the first and highest of the series of Sfiros. Therefore Yud really is a concentration of God’s all-encompassing Wisdom.

But this leads us to an issue. For if Yud is about Widsom, if it literally hangs above all of the other letters, then what in the world is its connection to the other theme of the month - Ma’aseh – Making? Practical action is so down to earth! Surely it would be more appropriate if the month’s human capability was meditation or contemplation; something better suited for the Chochmah of Yud!

Another question about Ma’aseh:

The Vilna Gaon, otherwise known as the Gra, in his commentary to the Sefer Yetzirah briefly explains why this month is historically connected to ‘making’. It was on the first day of Elul that Moshe Rabbeinu ascended the mountain to receive the Luchos Shniyos (the Second Tablets) forty days after the first ones were destroyed. Therefore the month itself is kicked-off surrounding the theme of Luchos. The Passuk says about the LuchosV’HaLuchos Ma’aseh Elokim Heimah” – ‘And the Tablets were God’s making.’ So we see a clear connection between Ma’aseh and Elul.

But there is one massive problem with the Gra’s explanation. That Passuk - “V’HaLuchos Ma’aseh Elokim Heimah” – has nothing to do with Moshe’s ascent on the first of Elul to receive the second tablets. Why? Because the biblical statement describing the Tablets as the work of God was said about the first Tablets - not the second ones! That verse is connected to when the first Tablet’s were supposed to be received four months ago in Sivan. It is not an Elul-related verse. So then what is the connection between Ma’aseh and Elul?

Well, what does the Torah mean when we are told that the Luchos Rishonos were Ma’aseh Elokim? We are taught that Hashem wrote His very Essence into the Torah. The Gemara in Messeches Shabbos reveals that the Torah HaKedoshah is God’s Soul in written form, so to speak.

Therefore, if the Torah is totally Godly, then the vessel onto which it is received needs to be Godly as well – otherwise there is an obvious incompatibility. Thus the Luchos need to be Ma’aseh Elokim in order to receive the Godly letters of Torah that are to be written upon them.

When Moshe smashed the first Tablets we lost that Divine Vessel. But God, after heading to Moshe’s prayers said Psal Lcha Shnei Luchos KaRishonim – Engrave for yourself two new Tablets like the first ones. God was empowering to Moshe to come up with man-made Tablets that reach the level of Ma’aseh Elokim.

The Torah, as it is, is a series of verses that transform into lengthy, fluid concepts. Because of the fact that the Torah is made up of words, I have the ability to speak out Torah concepts. On the other hand, if I take a cowhide and leave it as it is, it’s still not a Torah. It’s a piece of leather. But the moment I take those words of Torah and inscribe them on the parchment that piece of cowhide gets elevated to the holiness of the Torah itself! Amazing! It’s really a profound concept that we have the ability to take mundane parchment and infuse it with God’s innermost Will. Through this we lift it up to indescribable levels of holiness.

On a much bigger scale this is what happened when Moshe Rabbeinu went up on the first day of Elul. He was beginning the new process of being able to elevate that which is man-made into the realm of the Divine. Psal Lcha Shnei Luchos KaRishonim – You can make Luchos that hit the standard of Ma’aseh Elokim.

Therefore the Gra’s explanation makes perfect sense. The entire ascent of Moshe Rabbeinu on Rosh Chodesh Elul was only to craft a man-made Ma’aseh that would be able to reach the levels of Godly Creation. Thus the Second Luchos that we begin Elul with are specifically there to bring us to V’HaLuchos Ma’aseh Elokim Heimah. Elul is where the mundane can transcend into and become the Divine.

This now explains why we learn about Re’eh as we enter Elul. As we mentioned in the very beginning, the first verses of the Parsha - Re’eh Anochi Nosein Lifneichem Bracha U’Klala, Es HaBracha Asher Tishmi’u El HaMitzvos, V’HaKlala Im Lo Tishmi’u” teach us that there is no middle ground. Nothing is plain. Nothing just is. Every mundane facet of my life, everything that seems to be as physical and coarse as cowhide literally has the potential to be elevated to the status of a Torah. If I drink it for the right reasons then my morning coffee is as holy as any other Mitzvah in the Torah. In Elul I’m Mamesh raising up my whole life. I’m turning my life into Ma’aseh Elokim.

This is why the letter of the month is the lofty Yud and with no contradiction it is the month of commonplace Ma’aseh. In Elul we are taking my ordinary mundane Ma’aseh, the simple things, and we attach them to the Yud, the letter of Chochmah, of Hashem’s innermost Wisdom. Elul is where the mundane can transcend into the Divine.

There is an amazing empowerment entering into the world if we are just ready to be aware of it and let it in. HaKadosh Baruch Hu is giving us a year-end event, a rare opportunity to step up everything that we’ve gotten accustomed to until now. There is no longer a middle path. Every last detail, every nook and cranny – everything is yours to be elevated. There is so much inspiration and motivation to be taken from the fact that our seemingly little, dull, and commonplace actions down here can create such monumental shockwaves in loftier, spiritual realms than we can see.

The practical application starts with simple awareness. If we try more and more to remember the fact that there is no middle path – everything either adds or detracts – then it is obvious that we will see an immediate impact on our decision making and on our Avodas Hashem as a whole.

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should bless us with the consciousness and alacrity to continually live through such a lofty and supremely refined perspective that Elul is making available to us. If we can tap into this dynamic there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Shleimus, moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

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