Friday, December 23, 2011

Chanukah 2: Beis HaMikdash on my Porch

The following is based on the Sfas Emes. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh, just please not during Tefilos!

All of the various constructs of time that we experience work based on a unified Kabalistic formula called ‘Ratzo V’Shov’ – ‘Going and Coming’. ‘Coming’ is a reference to gaining energy while ‘Going’ means to expend it. This means that all time-systems, from the smallest all the way to the grandest, grow in a rising crescendo to their peak and then descend from there to a point of total powerlessness.

In the most microcosmic sense this is a person’s breath. When breathing in, my chest expands and pushes out until a point where it simply can’t contain any more. But then comes the moment of where I exhale and all of that vitalizing oxygen rushes out until I’m empty.

The day begins with sunrise. The sun creeps out without making too much of a presence. The dew of the previous night is not yet evaporated. There is no beaming heat. But all of that changes as we make our way to mid-day. Now we can barely be outside. I can feel the sun’s influence on the back of my neck. Only to be followed by another descent into sunset, and then towards the absolute darkness of midnight.

This applies to the week as well. The Kabalists teach that the light of Shabbos Kodesh already beings to enter the world on Tuesday night. The spiritual build-up reaches its climax on Shabbos itself and the universe makes it way down from there.

And during the month this manifests in how the moon waxes and wanes. We constantly experience how the moon’s presence pulsates from full until new and then back again.

And so too within the year’s seasons. In the summer the sun rises early and sets late. There is simply more light in the world. But as we make our way into the heart of winter the opposite occurs. The sun makes it’s way out up significantly later and comes down again before we can barely manage to enjoy the few, cloud-concealed rays that it does emit.

And on the grandest scale this is the life of a human being. From a powerless infant until a full-grown adult and then back down to a point where once again instead of being providers – we become dependant on our care-givers.

All of these systems are parables for one another. The peak of the inhale is the sun at noon, the week during Shabbos, the month during the full moon, the year during the summer and a person at their personal height. The end of the exhale is synonymous with the sunset, end of the week, new moon, heart of the winter and the end of life as a whole.

In the cycle of the year we are currently experiencing the most lifeless segment. We have the absolutely shortest days of the year. We are in the final days of the month where the moon is barely visible. And it specifically right now, in this dark and numb portion of the year that God said it’s divinely ordained that we have Chanukah. Seriously? Right now?

Let’s learn about a Machlokes in the Gemara. We know that our custom is to begin with one candle and add one each night until the climactic eighth night. This is the opinion of Beis Hillel. But Beis Shamai famously disagrees. They are of the opinion that we should begin with eight and remove out each night as to end off the holiday with one final candle.

Why do Beis Hillel maintain their position? Because of a universal concept called Ma’alin BaKodesh V’Ain Moridin – In areas of holiness we always seek to increase and grow as opposed to descend. Based on this principle, it’s only logical to go up each night.

And Beis Shamai? Where are they coming from? The Gemara tells us they want to learn the laws of light Chanukah-candles from “Parei HaChag” which is a reference to the seventy sacrifices brought on Suco; each corresponding to one of the seventy nations of the world. The Gemara in Perek HaChalil explains that with these Korbanos the Goyim have a once-a-year opportunity to receive spiritual cleansing from the Beis HaMikdash. And how are these sacrifices brought? On the first day thirteen offerings are brought. On the second, twelve. And so on and so forth until all seventy Korbanos are offered. Just as Parei HaChag descends, so too Neiros Chanukah.

I understand Beis Hillel. There is a universal concept that applies here just like anywhere else. Ma’alin BaKodesh. Great. But what in the world is Beis Shamai driving at?  Why would I see a comparison between Parei HaChag and Nerios Chanukah? What common denominator links these two events as to allow me to theorize about learning Halachos from on to the other?

Perhaps by analyzing two more Halachos we’ll be able to answer our questions. The Gemara states that it is prohibited to receive any benefit from the light of the candles. This is not merely going on mundane activity like using the light to see my food or count pocket-change. I am disallowed from using the light even for a Dvar-Mitzvah – a holy activity such as learning or checking for Shatnez.

Why? The Ran explains that we learn the Halachos of the Chanukah Menorah from the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash. Just as the Menorah in the temple was not allowed to be used for anything – including a Dvar Mitzvah. So too, each person’s own Menorah can’t be used for anything – including a Dvar Mitzvah.

Based on this, the Sfas Emes reaches a beautiful conclusion. If the Halachic realities surrounding the Chanukah Menorah in my window draw from the Halachic life of the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash it must be that their light is one in the same. The light of my private Menorah is a microcosmic representation of the Beis HaMikdash’s light. And this translates into a very dramatic and perspective-shifting insight into the inner-workings of Neiros Chanukah: I can transport the light of the Beis HaMikdash to anywhere that my Menorah is lit. In Tallahassee, Indonesia, The Ivory Coast and the North Pole: If there is a Jew lighting the Menorah, then the Beis HaMikdash is there.

One final concept: The Gemara in a number of places says that “L’Olam Lo Yarda Shechina L’Mata Me’Asarah” The Divine Presence never descends below Ten Tefachim (slightly less than the height of an average table). Ah, but the Halachah states the ideal placement of the Chanukah Menorah is below Ten Tefachim. Why? All of the Sfarim say together that through lighting Chanukah candles in this space I can draw the Divine Presence into a place that it would otherwise not go. “L’Olam Lo Yarda Shechina L’Mata Me’Asarah” – except for during Chanukah.

Amazing. Between these two Halachos we gain a terrific insight into the goal of the Menorah. When we light Chanukah candles we have the ability to draw the Spiritual Aura of the Beis HaMikdash and Shechinah into places that are normally off limits. On Chanukah I can elicit the most profound levels of holiness in the darkest, farthest, most spiritually inactivated corners of the world – and my heart.

Perhaos now the opinion of Beis Shamai in better understood. We explained that the experience of Parei HaChag is the rare moment where the nations of the world receive the purifying effects of the Beis HaMikdash’s holiness. This is exactly what Neiros Chanukah seeks to achieve! The Korbanos of Sucos are the one time that the nations of the world can make there way inside the Beis HaMikdash to achieve purity. This same concept applies but perhaps in an even more accentuated form by Neiros Chanukah. For instead of allowing the nations of the world into the Beis HaMikdash – we bring the light of the Beis HaMikdash to them. The far corners the exile come alive.

And now we can answer our very first question as well. Why is it that Chanukah is placed at the darkest, coldest part of the year? Because we need Chanukah’s unique ability to descend to the lowest places and enliven them so that we can make it back into the light.

Souls chilled by the ‘winter’ that is our exile. Hearts exhausted as if at the end of a long day. The feeble-bodied and tired-minded. Chanukah brings the invigorating light of the Beis HaMikdash to them. L’Mata Me’Asarah. Parei HaChag. The darkest time of year.

The light of the Menorah envelops me in a spiritual reality of stimulation. Kindling them and absorbing their glow affects my soul and imbues it with wellsprings of inspiration that are merely waiting to be tapped into. Treasuries worth of inner-strength and courage come down to awaken the darkest most dormant levels of my being. With the proper mind-state I can walk away from Chanukah with the vesseles necessary to carry through the most difficult times.

We should be Zocheh.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Chanukah: The Illuminated Mind

The following is based on the Sfas Emes the Shmuzen of R' Yaakov Meir Shechter Shlit'a. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh - just please not during Tefilos!

The Neis, the miracle of Chanukah was historically the final event to be turned into an established Chag. The burning of the Menorah for eight days served as the last open miracle before the beginning of the exile that we still experience today.

All of the Sfarim HaKedoshim explain that the significance of this is that the light of Chanukah is the Chizuk, the source of strength that we need to carry on through the Galus and make our way to the Geulah. God sends us into the Galus with Chaunkah to protect us. The inner energies of Chanukah will provide us with what we need to make our way out and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. Chanukah is our lifeline.

We want to tap into this, we want to access the history-shifting force of Chanukah, and we want to rebuild the Temple with it. Be we are yet to understand the dynamic of this connection. What about Chanukah will bring us back to the Beis HaMikdash?

So we need to identify two things: First, what is the Temple? We must seek to clarify the contours of its nature. What did it stand for and what spiritual vacuum is left in its destruction? Second, what is Chanukah? What is the inner meaning of the Mitzvah of the holiday? With the answers to two questions then our question will answer itself.

The root of the Beis HaMikdash is found the Torah HaKedoshah’s prototype for what a sanctuary is all about. The Mishkan that was built in the desert served as the archetype for a House for Hashem’s imminence amongst the people.

So how did we get the Mishkan?

Rebbe Nachman MiBreslev explains that when one does an Aveirah he brings within himself a Ruach, a spirit, a presence of Kfirah, of heresy. Similarly, the Kutzker Rebbe used to say that any Aveirah that a person does is really two Aveiros, for in the moment of the sin the person ‘conveniently forgot’ about the existence of God as to justifify the sin and therefore such an outlook is the beginning of Avodah Zara – idol worship.

At Har Sinai, when the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf they brought within their midst a spirit of Kfirah and Hester that was never previously experienced. It was the deepest fall in their young history.

Moshe Rabbeinu pleads for their forgiveness. He is not only asking Hashem to spare their lives – he is asking for much more. He is asking to spare their souls. He is beseeching Hashem to remove the heresy that injected itself into the veins of the people. He is asking God to cleanse the people of their spiritual corruption and touch their minds with Godliness once more.

So what is God’s response? How does Hashem show that He has forgiven and is ready to restore His presence amongst the people? He says, Let’s build the Mishkan. That is the sign of the forgiveness.

Why is this the indication of God’s return to the people’s awareness? The dynamic is as such: The Passuk says – V’Asu Li Mikdash V’Shanchanti B’Socham – And they will make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them. Note that the verse does not say that Hashem will dwell in the sanctuary itself; that’s not the point of the Mishkan. The physical building in which there is a concentration of God’s presence is merely an external manifestation of the fact that God’s presence is resting in the hearts of the people. They are living with an awareness of the Creator. Their decision making processes are totally shifted and altered by a wave of holiness. Because God dwells in them, there is a physical manifestation that takes the form of a building.

It thus emerges that the destruction of the temple serves as an equally external manifestation of the reverse. Once Hashem’s presence no longer touches the hearts and minds of Am Yisrael then the structure that is designed to house His aura is automatically rendered useless. The building can stand but it will be an empty shell. When we gaze at Har HaBayis and see Churban, it is a reflection of a Churban in the inner framework of the people.

Geulah means returning to the state of mind where I sense Godliness inside of myself. When the people will attain V’Shachanti B’Socham then V’Asu Li Mikdash will happen by itself.

But we began with the assumption that the historical placement of Chanukah as the final holiday comes to show us that it will pull us through the exile and into the redemption. The question now becomes: How?

Well, we need to hone in. For it is obvious that Chanukah revolves around the Menorah. The Mitzvah of the holiday is the lighting of the Menorah. So really it emerges that candle lighting is the vehicle of redemption. The light of the Menorah is the one aspect of the Beis HaMikdash that wasn’t destroyed. The Avodah of Hadlakas Neiros Chanukah was handpicked by Hashem to be the central driving force of salvation.

Why the Menorah of all of the many vessels of the Beis HaMikdash? Why specifically the lamp? What’s so special about candles? Why is the Menorah divinely ordained to be the tool that will bring us back to V’Shachanti B’Socham?

So we need to ask: What’s a candle? We have a Pasuk in Mishlei that on the surface seems incomprehensible but when clarified will hopefully shift our perspectives towards a deeper understanding of the Menorah, our Neshamos, and how to achieve Geulah.

Ner Hashem Nishmas Adam Chofesh Kol Chadrei Vaten – The Candle of God is man’s soul, God searches out man’s inner-chambers.’ What in the world is going on here? God has a candle? What, He’s in the dark? He’s looking inside of men? What’s he looking for?!

Let’s say I’m in a dark room. It’s so void of light that I’m blocked off from having any basic level of perception of items that are in my immediate surroundings. I have no way of identifying, associating with, mentally extending myself into anything near me. I’m frozen where I am without any means of intellectually moving forward. So I light up a candle. The flame empowers me to begin to perceive things that were previously unattainable. My mind can now move outward and interact with the once locked-off world.

Hashem is in the same situation. He wants V’Shachanti B’Socham. He wants to extend Elokus into us. He deeply seeks to send forth His holiness into our lives. But there is a problem. We are dense and coarse. We are made of physical bodies that have a natural tendency to reject the unfamiliar realm of spirituality. So in such a situation He has no way of reaching into us. What will make such a thing a possibility?

The soul. The Chelek Eloka MiMa’al. An expression of celestial holiness that has been engrained into the human experience. Ah, now there is a way. Now, through the Neshamah, HaKadosh Baruch Hu has a way of extending His Presence to my inner-chambers, every limb, every last fiber of my being. My mind can become infused with Godliness because in the same way that I extend myself in the dark room with a candle, God extends Himself through my Neshamah. Ner Hashem Nishmas Adam.

This is the role of the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash. Normal windows let light in. But Chazal explain that the design of the windows of the Beis HaMikdash was to let light out – proving an entirely different purpose. The Beis HaMikdash needs no exterior source of illumination. To the contrary – it lights up the rest of the world.

What is the light of the Beis HaMikdash? We explained that the Beis HaMikdash stood for something. Its presence was a message. The Beis HaMikdash declared, “Hashem is real. He’s inside of you. Live accordingly.” The Menorah is literally the source of that light. The purpose of the Menorah was to take the message of the Beis HaMikdash and deliver it to the people – to deliver it to the world.

Now everything comes together. The Menorah serves as the vessel that delivers to the world the message upon which a House of God stands. Thus if we need to attain that consciousness of V’Shachanti B’Socham in order to achieve the Geulah then there is no better vessel for the job than the Menorah. It is specifically the Menorah that equips us with the state-of mind needed to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. The light of the Menorah envelops us in the vibrations of redemptive energy. With the proper focus it helps me reestablish and rediscover my relationship with my soul. And it is the communal attainment of that relationship that will build the Beis HaMikdash.

In my soul is the potential to attain and relate to Godliness in the confines of my personal life. The Menorah serves as the tool to help me access that consciousness. When I light my Menorah I am transported into the inner world of the Beis HaMikdash and the elevated state of existence that comes with it. This will bring the Geulah.

We should be Zocheh,

Friday, December 2, 2011

VaYeitzei: Dance Like Nobody's Watching

The following ideas have been adapted from the Chasam Sofer in Toras Moshe. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh, just please not during Tefilos.

In the beginning of the Parsha the Torah HaKedoshah sets before us a vision that is so majestic, a prophecy that reaches to such mythic proportions that without proper clarification it leaves us on the one hand awed by its beauty but on the other hand confused as to its meaning.

On his journey to leave Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov Avinu takes a detour and spends the night on the Makom HaMikdash – the future site of the Temple. As he rests, God shows him a ladder; rungs that are Mutzav Artza, they are rooted in the ground and they are also Magi’a HaShamaimah, they reach the heavens. The ladder is connecting heaven and earth. He sees spiritual beings ascending and descending the ladder. And the most spectacular of all – the Presence of God Himself is poised at the top.

Yaakov Avinu awakes from his slumber in a state of sheer awe from the experience and he says, “Achein Yeish Hashem BaMakom HaZeh Va’Anochi Lo Yadati” – Yes, there is God in this place. And I? I did not know.

There is a peculiar Midrash in the Tanchumah Yashan that stems from this divine encounter. Let’s read it together carefully and examine some of its depth. Yilamdeinu Rabeinu! Master, teach us! Mah Bein Chalomoseihem Shel Tzadikim L’Chalomoseihem Shel Resha’im? What is the difference between a righteous person’s dreams and those of the wicked? V’Ana Lahem: Tzadikim Chalomoseihem BaShamayim U’Ba’Aretz. He answered that the dreams of the Tzadikim are in the heavens and earth. V’Chalomoseihem Shel Resha’im Ainan BaShamayim U’Ba’Aretz. But the dreams of Resha’im are not in the heavens and the earth. Shene’emar: Va’Yachalom V’Hinei Sulam Mutzav Artza V’Rosho Magi’a HaShamaimah. As we see by Yaakov Avinu’s dream where the ladder was in the heavens and the earth.

Somehow, someway, this Midrash is telling me how to be a Tzadik.

You know, all things in the world have a causality that makes them exist and the results that come about as a result of their existence. The first part is called a Sibah –a cause. A Sibah brings something about. The second part is called a Siman. The way to notice the presence and effects of that ‘something’ is through the Siman that it gives off. The need for mass-production is the Sibah for a factory, and the pollution is the Siman of the factory being there.

Our Midrash has given us a Siman – a way of discerning if a person is good evil by examining the quality of his dreams. Just like you can tell there is a factory by noticing the pollution you can also determine the spiritual nature of a person by the quality of his dreams.

But this Midrash doesn’t give us a Sibah. It doesn’t provide us with a reason. Fine, a Tzadik has one kind of dream and the Rasha has a different kind of dream. The Tzadik’s dreams are in heaven and earth and the dreams of the Rasha are not. But why is this so? What about being a Tzadik makes one’s dreams span heaven and earth? What about being a Rahsa disallows such a possibility? The Midrash gave us a Siman and left us to unravel the Sibah.

For this we need to take a detour and analyze how one could serve Hashem like a Tzadik and one could serve Him like a Rasha.

In the Beis HaMikdash during the holiday of Sucos there was a nightly festivity called the Simchas Beis HaShoeiva. In other essays we’ve discussed why it was so joyous. There was fire juggling and all night dancing. The Tana named Hilel used to say about the party, “Im Ani Kan HaKol Kan! V’Im Ein Ani Kan, Mi Kan?” ‘If I’m here, everyone is here! And if I’m not here – whose here?’ The simple meaning of this statement is that Hilel is calling himself the life of the party. When I show up the party really starts. But when I decide to leave? Shut the music. Turn out the lights. The party ends.

The Haflah turns this statement of Hilel on its head. You see, sometimes there are those who, Chas V’Shalom like to get into Avodas Hashem because it makes them feel secure. In certain circles it’s the ‘in thing’ to be as Frum as you can. The more dramatic they sway and the longer their prayers, the more accessories or books that they amass, the more advanced their studies are, the flashier their Chesed (acts of charity) is the cooler they become. When one falls into such a situation, he is not serving God. Anything but. He’s serving his circle of friends and himself.

But sometimes we don’t care who is watching. We care about one thing and one thing only. What is Ratzon Hashem? We just want to do the right thing. We want to appreciate the world and connect to God with our learning. We want to refine our character and to as much Chesed as we can so that we can save the world. My consciousness spreads far and wide looking for my next opportunity to do something amazing. And it doesn’t matter what people say. If people try to get me down – it doesn’t matter. If it seems that someone else is doing better than me – it also doesn’t matter. I don’t need to compare myself to others. I’m not serving Hashem for anyone else other than Hashem. The whole world, with their chuckling and their raised eyebrows and their snide comments can go bother someone else. This is not about me. I don’t exist. No one exists. This is about HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

The first guy is constantly comparing himself. There is no sense of real security because he always has to second-guess himself. He constantly is looking over his shoulder to check if he needs to Daven a bit more intensely. He is always worried about what his friends will say.  But the second? What does he care about? He’s trying to be close to Hashem. He’s trying to be a Tzadik and he doesn’t notice who’s watching.

This is what Hilel was saying. I came here to dance. Not to show off. Im Ani Kan – If I’m here - if I look at myself as something substantial. If I convince myself that I’m something that I’m not. Then HaKol Kan – Everyone is here. All the pressure is on. Everyone is looking at me. My Avodas Hashem is an outcome of peer pressure. But Im Ein Ani Kan – If I’m not here – If my Avodas Hashem is not about myself, when my Avodas Hashem ceases to be a result of my insecurities then Mi Kan? Who is here to stop me? Who can hold me back? No one. Im Ein Ani Kan, Mi Kan?

Why was Hilel the life of the party? Because he danced like no one was watching.

What’s a dream? Chazal tell us that a dream is your mind revealing to you the common thread between all of your thoughts that day. So Yaakov Avinu’s dream is telling us about the inner workings of his mind. The mind of a Tzadik.

What did Yaakov Avinu say when he awoke from his dream? “Achein Yeish Hashem BaMakom Hazeh - Yes, there is God in this place. Va’Anochi Lo Yadati – And I? I didn’t know.” Yaakov Avinu would have gotten his point across just fine had he simply said V’Lo Yadati – And I didn’t know? What is V’Anochi Lo Yadati? What is the need for the extra word? Va’Anochi Lo Yadati means, ‘And I didn’t know myself.’ V’Anochi Lo Yadati is synonymous with Im Ein Ani Kan. I’m not aware of personal biases in Avodas Hashem. I don’t sense the need to prove myself to anyone. Im Ein Ani Kan – If I’m not here – Mi Kan? Who is here? Once I step outside of my self I can begin to feel God in my life. Because Anochi Lo Yadati – he was able to sense Achein Yeish Hashem BaMakom HaZeh.

Now let’s go back to the Midrash.

Master, teach us! What is the difference between a righteous person’s dreams and those of the wicked? He answered that the dreams of the Tzadikim are in the heavens and earth. But the dreams of Resha’im are not in the heavens and the earth. As we see by Yaakov Avinu’s dream where the ladder was in the heavens and the earth.

Yaakov Avinu succeeded in becoming selfless in his Avodas Hashem. Through V’Anochi Lo Yadati he attained the level Im Ein Ani Kan Mi Kan. His consciousness, his inner desire to seek out spirituality and to attain it surpassed his body and social structure and instead became universal. His mind had God at the forefront as he connected heaven and earth.

But here’s a pretty simple question: If not in heaven, and if not on earth – where is the Rasha’s dreams? He thinks about himself. Im Ani Kan HaKol Kan.

But this is not us. We live in a world where we can be like Yaakov Avinu. No one is watching. Life is a one-on-one with God. Every moment is a private date with the Master of the Universe. I don’t fall prey to the pressures of my surrounding. I do the best I can because that’s the only true representation of my self. I’m not in this for anyone but God.

When my Avodas Hashem stops being about the gratification of my ego or my friends then I can really soar. Once I stop caring about what people will say, when I don’t judge myself based on how the other guy is doing, when I don’t look back, when I dance like no one is watching, when I just try to achieve as much as I can for no other reason other than it’s Ratzon Hashem – then no one can hold me back. Im Ein Ani Kan, Mi Kan?

We should be Zocheh.