Erev Shabbos BeShalach 5781

A gitten erev Shabbos! This week’s parsha is Parshas BeShalach, which means it is Shabbos Shirah (Shabbos of Song). We cross the Yam Suf this week and finally escape Mitzrayim, and we go through the experience of the undrinkable, bitter water being rendered drinkable when Hashem grants Moshe a piece of wood that accomplishes this feat. This parsha also marks the beginning of receiving Mon (manna), which leads to our receiving the first mitzva of Shabbos, that being not to go collect Mon from the fields which we then use to learn out many other mitzvos related to Shmiras Shabbos (keeping Shabbos).

Siddur Masok Midvash brings from the Siddur Rabbi Shabsai that through saying Shiras HaYam, which is one of the main incidences of this parsha, with simcha we can attain complete atonement for our various iniquities. The Zohar in Terumah explains that this specific song is exalted above all other praises to Hashem, which is one of the reasons it is placed so directly to the blessings before Krias Shma. In Zohar BeShalach itself, R’ Chiya teaches that through the Torah, the power of the Chitzonim (Outsiders, forces of the Sitra Achra) are broken, which is alluded to in Shiras HaYam in the posuk “ימינך ה’ נאדרי בכח ימינך ה תרעץ אויב” (Your right hand Hashem is exalted with power, your right hand destroys your enemy). The “enemy” is the reference to the Chitzonim, and the Torah was given with Hashem’s right hand. There is also an idea in sifrei chassidus that we must visualize ourselves as being at the Yam Suf and participating in the crossing the sea while we say Shiras HaYam. Bringing this together we know that through saying Shiras HaYam with great joy and kavana (intent), we can break the powers of the Chitzonim that try to prevent us from serving Hashem properly with simcha uv’tuv levav (joy and goodness of heart).

The entire process of the Mon is quite fascinating, especially considering we use this to learn out various details in halacha, such as hilchos techum, (prohibition of going more than 2000 amos beyond your home on Shabbos) the prohibition of collecting objects and bringing it into your residence on Shabbos, as well as the halacha to have two loaves of bread by each seudah (meal) on Shabbos as a remembrance of the extra Mon we were given every Erev Shabbos. We even learn the halacha for Sof Zman Tefillas Shachris (end of time to daven the morning prayer) from when the Mon would rot and be rendered wormy. It is the bread that descended from Shomayim and sustained us for forty years in the desert. One of the main lessons to learn from Mon is that we have to trust and believe in Hashem, and if you’ll notice the word Mon consists of the main two letters of the word Emunah (מן–אמונה), which alludes to the idea that we must rely entirely on Hashem for our sustenance and not worry. Hashem always has a way to send us our parnassah, even if it seems completely outlandish we’ll always have what we need.

Lail Tu B’Shvat: Producing Fruit

Tonight we celebrate Tu B’Shvat. There is no Tach’nun by Shachris in the morning according to the Shulchan Aruch, and it is a common minhag in Klal Yisroel to eat different kinds of fruit. The Ateres Tzvi would have many people by his tish and give out lots of new fruit for everyone to make a shehecheyanu on them. It’s brought that the Yismach Moshe of Ujhel zy’a would eat 13 varieties of fruit, presumably in order to arouse the 13 Middos HaRachamim (Traits of Mercy). There are some who say the trees are judged today, but this is essentially incorrect as the gemoro in Rosh HaShonoh says that Shavuos is the Yom HaDin (Day of Judgement) for trees.

To understand how Tu B’Shvat became anything beyond reckoning Orlah and Maaser is practically impossible, it is effectively a folk holiday like Lag B’Omer. To describe something as such is not to be understood as a bad thing or an insult, chas v’sholom, quite the opposite. This shows the great flexibility of Jewish life to fit in more simcha at every turn.

It is commonly done throughout Torah Sh’Baal’Peh and Sifrei Chassidus to compare people to trees, and our state of existence as a field, like in Elul with the imagery of Melech BaSodeh (The King is in the field). Trees also have important symbolic import to us as separate from people, like the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life), serving to show us the flow of Hashem’s influences and the whole pattern of Creation. Even then, the Sefiros on the Etz Chaim diagram are often correlated to parts of the human body.

The essential purpose of eating fruit then on this day is not plain just to eat fruit and make a few extra brochos. We should keep the minhag to eat fruit so as to instill in our minds and souls the idea that our actions should bear fruit, rather than being empty and worthless. Not only that, but our actions should serve to improve the lives of others and make them sweeter, rather than simply bringing ourselves temporary gratification.

The Perfectly Sweet Mixture of Torah Based Life

Today, boruch Hashem, I made a siyum on Maseches Eiruvin. There are countless halochos in this particular masechta, primarily having to do with eruvin, which for those unfamiliar are various legal devices to allow certain things like carrying outside on Shabbos, cooking for Shabbos on a holiday, and walking beyond 2000 amos (cubits) in one direction outside of the city on Shabbos. The literal meaning of “eruv” though is “mixing,” which is effectively what each form of an eruv does, mixing either space to allow carrying outside, mixing time to cook on Yom Tov for the Shabbos it leads into, or mixing space in yet another sense for permitting walking beyond a certain distance.

For such a halachically-dense masechta, one would be surprised that nearly one entire perek (chapter) is devoted to Aggadata, which is decidedly un-halachic. There are many pieces of advice meant for helping one to learn and become a scholar, and many other interesting parables that one would not typically expect to find there.

As a little word play, we can see that Maseches Eruvin is in itself very mixed together. The last perek has much drawn directly from Maseches Shabbos as well. So we see that there are lots of ideas from other areas of Torah brought up here. The word ערב can also mean to sweeten, like we say every morning in Birkas HaTorah והערב נא השם אלקינו (and sweeten for us Hashem our God…). Through living with the concepts we learn in Aggadata, those things that are meant to help us become better Yidden or just better people on the whole, as well as having integrity in our halachic practice, this is the proper mix we need to live with in order to sweeten the Dinim (Judgments) and serve Hashem properly. By bringing together the heart and the mind, as we are directed to in the first line of Krias Shma, we can bring down sweetness and holiness to this world that is impossible to attain otherwise.

Motzei Shabbos Parshas Bo 5781

A gitte voch! In Parshas Bo we receive the mitzvos of Pesach and Pidyon HaBen in the midst of our Geulah. What follows is from what was said by seudas shlishis.

This is a fascinating part of the Torah if you sit and think of it. Amidst all the plagues, and the freeing of Klal Yisroel from Mitzrayim, we receive an incredible mitzvah: that of observing Pesach, the Korban (sacrifice), eating matzah, and telling over the story of how we were freed from Egypt. What makes this interesting is that it is not Toras Kohanim, popularly known as VaYikra (Leviticus), with all the other sacrifices and ritual observances. All other Yomim Tovim have their laws given over there, but Pesach specifically is given in the beginning of Yetzias Mitzrayim (leaving Egypt).

Everything in the Torah has an aspect that is eternal, even if it doesn’t appear as such on the face of it. What this is meant to teach us is that the avodas haPesach (service of the Passover) applies even in the depths of Golus (exile). Seeing that these mitzvos were given before the Yidden were out of Mitzrayim, not even to the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds) yet, this is meant to teach us that in the midst of Golus we still must recount the stories of Hashem’s redemption and have Emunah. Through engaging with this aspect, that is Pesach, which is the aspect of Cheirus (freedom), even in the midst of Golus, we merit therefore to Geulah. Everyone must attain Geulah Yechidis (Personal Redemption) before we can merit the Geulah Shleimah (Complete Redemption). This is clear if we view this inyan through the story of the Baal Shem’s visiting Moshiach, asking Moshiach “When will you come, Master?” and the Moshiach’s answer “When your Torah spreads over the world as water from a wellspring, and everyone attains the ability to perform Yichudim (Spiritual unifications) as you and attains your level.”

T’shuva Fixes Everything

Boruch Hashem, t’shuva (repentance) breaks through all barriers and removes all problems. The Zohar HaKodosh in Saba Mishpatim states unequivocally that t’shuva removes all potential damages that come from sin, and that absolutely nothing can stand in the way of t’shuva. Through doing complete and honest t’shuva, we go beyond the limits of time and literally repair whatever blemishes were made in our neshomos and the higher worlds to be exactly as they were before the sin was committed.

Unfortunately, there are many popular internet figures who like to pour fire and brimstone upon people who have erred rather than talk about this inyan (matter). According to the Toras HaBaal Shem Tov, based upon the earlier sources in Kabbalah, these people are part of the Erev Rav mamesh, since they take people away from doing t’shuva. The main thing in life is to work on knowing Hashem. Though the process of searching and reaching for God involves increasing in sadness, like it says in Koheles that one who grows in Chochma (Wisdom) grows in sorrow, as we grow in Binah (Understanding), we come closer to simcha amitis (true joy). Someone who chooses to bring more sadness and disappointment with a Yid’s avodas Hashem is essentially guaranteeing that such a person will fail and never come to true closeness with God.

Baruch Hashem, we have the Zohar HaKodosh to teach us that t’shuva overcomes all things, and restores us to the pure state we must be in to be in peace with Hashem. It must be remembered that those who teach these wicked ways of fear of Gehennom and Hell Fire are teaching what is essentially a goyish religion, and not Torah. The Torah way is to know that Hashem is the ultimate Rachamon (Merciful One), who loves His Creation and wants us to grow ever closer to Him, and to exist in the original state of purity in which He creates us.

Sadness and Happiness: Accomplishments in Avodas Hashem

In the Sefer Ner Mitzvah V’Torah Ohr, in the section called Shaar HaYichud by the hailige R’ Dov Ber from Chabad, known as the Mittler Rebbe zt’l, we can learn an amazing Sod (secret) in avodas Hashem. In all Torah we can learn how to better serve Hashem, but this particular piece is amazing.

The Mittler Rebbe teaches us that there have to be two separate aspects to attaining high levels in avodas Hashem: bechiya (crying) and chedva (rejoicing). For the crying he brings that one should be careful to say Tikkun Chatzos and mourn over our separation from Hashem, which is the primary character of this form of sadness; and that we should be certain to daven and do all the mitzvos every day with great joy. He says there that as close as we get to the main thing, that being the Ohr Ain Sof (Light of the Limitless), so too do we become more immersed in the opposite; therefore as the Ohr Ain Sof is pure spiritual joy, so does attempting to come closer remind us of our lowliness and distance from Hashem, leading to crying from sadness at this and bitterness of the soul. He says there a very sharp remark that someone who only has one or the other, absolute joy or absolute sadness, has done absolutely nothing in coming closer to God and will in fact completely lose all his accomplishments and sever his connection he has attained thus far, chas v’sholom.

The reason I share this is because it is important to remember that we have to have both aspects in our avodah: that of crying and of rejoicing. The Baal Shem himself says in Keser Shem Tov that one should never cry from anything but great simcha or d’veikus (cleaving to Hashem). Rebbe Nachman teaches that we must always be happy, but also broken-hearted. This may seem to be a contradiction but ultimately it isn’t at all.

It says in Tehillim that Hashem is close to the broken-hearted. Therefore, through feeling broken and in pain due to feeling distant from Hashem we ultimately come even closer to Him. The state of sadness is in the aspect of Din, and that of joy in Chesed. Through experiencing both states, and realizing them as an aspect of Hashem’s world and an integral part of His service, we perform a huge Yichud (Spiritual unification) in the worlds above, which brings us personally as well as the entire world to a higher spiritual level. The truth is that only through experiencing the full range of human emotion can we really attain anything in coming closer to Hashem and cleaving to Him in truth. The key piece of advice that the Mittler Rebbe, as well as his father the Baal HaTanya, teach us is to partition times for each thing: Tikkun Chatzos is for being sad, the rest of the time should be devoted to serving Hashem with great joy.

Motzei Shabbos Voero 5781

A gitte voch! In the Zohar in Saba Mishpatim, there’s an interesting idea brought out, partially based on a Gemoro in Brochos, that states that someone who doesn’t render thanks to Hashem is reincarnated as an inferior sort of creature due. While we are not supposed to be too heavily involved in these sorts of reckonings, in regards to Gilgulim (Reincarnation) and how someone is brought into the world a certain way, this ties in with an aspect of Parshas Voero.

In next week’s parsha, Parshas Bo, when describing the makas bechoros (plague of firstborns), Hashem says that he shall render judgement upon all the Elohei Mitzrayim, the Gods of Egypt. Reasonably you’ll probably wonder why this is relevant to the above Zohar passage, especially since they’re from entirely different parshiyos. There is an idea brought from early sources that each one of the plagues was attacking a different god of the Egyptians and rendering judgement upon them. Ramban explains this is because they were actually Malachim (Angels) that convinced the Egyptians to worship them, so Hashem was punishing the angels for their insolence.

So this week the Mitzri’im are plagued with Sh’chin (Boils). This is curious because there isn’t such an obvious connection between explicitly Egyptian deities and this specific plague. This is when it’s helpful to view Torah through the lens of Chassidus and Kabbalah, which helps us understand the internal and spiritual aspects of Torah, rather than the simple exoteric meanings. Viewing Mitzrayim as the archetype of absolute gashmiyus (corporeality) and impurity, and the Mitzr’im (Egyptians) themselves being those immersed in and a part of this mindset, helps understand the significance of Sh’chin. The boils covering the flesh of all the Mitzri’im shows Hashem destroying the false god of vanity, that is worship of the body. Typically as Jews we tend to associate this particular obsession with the Greeks, but this applied to the Egyptians as well, where everyone of any remote means had huge amounts of makeup, skin oils and ointments, etc. For sure it makes sense they would be plagued with boils, since they spent so much time curating their bodies to the degree it became an obsession and pure vanity.

An extension of this idea of worshiping the self leads to not rendering thanks to God. Rather than saying, “Thank God, I managed to get my project done on time,” or “Boruch Hashem, I have been blessed to be intelligent” etc. it is easy to fall into the habit of taking credit for our individual accomplishments or traits. The ultimate truth is that Hashem is the only one Who does anything in this world, even though we have to do some amount of work to get things done, this is only to be done with the knowledge that we are only a shliach (agent) or k’li (vessel) to accomplish Hashem’s Will. Without this, and taking credit for our learning, work we do, intelligence or looks, etc. this leads us into the false deity of vanity, which we must be cautious to avoid as much as possible.

A gitte voch, a mazeldige voch, a gezinte voch! Hashem should bentsh us all with simcha, menuchas hanefesh, yishuv hadaas, and we should merit to see the Geulah Shleimah!

Erev Shabbos Voero 5781

A gitten erev Shabbos! This week’s parsha is Parshas Voero, the second Shabbos of Shovevim. For those unfamiliar, Shovavim is the period of time between Parshos Shemos to Mishpatim. In Kabbistically based Judaism it is a great time for cheshbon nefesh (self-evaluation) and teshuva (return to Hashem).

This week we start the process of the Makos, the great plagues that Hashem set upon Mitzrayim to punish them for their great treachery. Hashem instructs Moshe to tell the Pharaoh that the B’Nei Yisroel need to head out of Mitzrayim in order to bring sacrifices, which Moshe dutifully relays to Pharaoh. Pharaoh then tells Moshe that they don’t need to leave, rather they can perform their sacrifices in the land of Mitzrayim itself. Moshe explains that the problem is that their sacrifice is of one of the Gods of Egypt, and it is a “toeva” (abomination literally) to the Egyptians to do this thing. This same adjective is used in regards to Egyptians eating with the Ivri’im (Hebrews) in Parshas Mikeitz. Rashi explains in this context that it is something frightening to them, or that they hate it in some other way.

Ibn Ezra really gives an amazing explanation of this whole issue though. He explains that the Egyptians followed a religion known in his day wherein people eat no parts of animals whatsoever, that they were completely vegan. So to the followers of this particular religion, seeing others sacrificing animals and eating meat was so disgusting that they would stone those who do it. Now the great irony is that they would kill people for eating meat, rather than just being okay with eating meat.

This is not to be a criticism of those who are vegan, just as a disclaimer. The interesting thing is that there is a Midrash on Parshas Noach that says the people had more mercy upon animals than fellow humans, which is what led to the flood. Mitzrayim being the pinnacle of all tumah, even though the entire place and their lifestyle is brought forth as the archetype of coarse corporeality and darkness, were according to this understanding of the Ibn Ezra vegans, though they did use animals for ploughing and general labor. The reason this comes out to be such a problem, and associated with the deepest tumah, is the aspect in which they would kill another person for eating meat.

Though freedom is often not really discussed as a Jewish concept, Bechira (Choice, speaking in the realm of the theological concept of free-will) is definitely a thing. Though there are rebbes who teach there is no such thing as true Bechira, since everything is ultimately directed by God alone and hence nobody ever makes a choice about anything, this is something that requires deep investigation and understanding of various subtleties. When your own philosophical belief leads to oppression and even killing others, chas v’sholom, this is when an idea enters into the realm of the Klippa (Evil Husks) and becomes an aspect of Mitzrayim. This can even apply, rachmono litzlon, to ideas in Torah. Even if something is a wonderful idea, once it becomes used as a tool of harm and oppression this is also the aspect of Mitzrayim. The Torah cannot be given and kept in the aspect of Mitzrayim, which is why B’Nei Yisroel had to leave and go to Sinai to receive the Torah, because to be properly spiritual in the way Hashem wants us, one has to feel free.

Now you could ask quite rightly, “So what say you to the whole concept of halacha then? If we’re supposed to be free and un-oppressed, then how does this work with the entire halachic system and enforcement thereof? Aren’t rabbis all in the business of Mitzrayim then?!”

The way this seeming contradiction should be understood is that it is not really a contradiction at all. The Torah and halacha as taught by Chazal through the Rishonim up until the Achronim, continuing through our modern era is a tool of liberation. Proper observance of halacha and certain minhagim (customs), particularly those of the Mekubalim and Chassidim (which is a whole topic for a kuntress of its own….) is the true path to freedom. Hashem didn’t give us the Torah so we could be imprisoned and die, like it says we need to live through the mitzvos explicitly in the Torah itself. The physical world, according to the Ramchal in Sefer Derech Hashem, is essentially a dark prison where everything is wretched and cruel. However Hashem was kind and granted us the Torah HaKedosha (Holy Torah), so that we have a key to unlock the concealed holiness hidden within the world, and gain freedom from the oppression of the Klippah and all the other wicked forces. The Zohar HaKodosh in the first chelek expresses such an idea with an explanation of the 100 brochos every day, that they are all keys to open up all the powers and beneficial influences of the 10 Sefiros to bring blessing down to our world.

In this Shovavim period, we should all take upon ourselves to learn more Torah, do extra mitzvos, and give more tzedaka to various causes. Especially learning Zohar HaKodosh, which nullifies the Klippah and thwarts the Sitra Achra (Other Side, side of evil) in its plans to destroy us and remove the Torah from the world.

Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat 5781

It is now Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat! A gitten choidesh everyone! The Zohar HaKodosh teaches us that on Rosh Chodesh all the gates to Shomayim are open, and the Arizal teaches we receive an extra nefesh just like Shabbos as well. In the Zohar HaKodosh Parshas Chayei Soroh it states there are two times when the aspects of the nefesh, ruach, and neshomo gain a special connection and go to Gan Eden to inhale the sweet smelling winds there: Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos. This means that Rosh Chodesh is somewhat similar to Shabbos. The Rambam himself paskens that we should make a proper seudah on Rosh Chodesh just like Shabbos, involving meat and wine, which is brought as halacha l’maaseh in the Shulchan Aruch.

The Mogen Avrohom brings in his commentary on Shulchan Aruch that there is a Midrash which states that Rosh Chodesh was a complete Yom Tov until the Cheit HaEigel (Sin of the Golden Calf). Though this great descent occurred spiritually, there is still an aspect of Yom Tov to Rosh Chodesh. This is why the Likkutei Maharich brings l’halacha that we should have special garments for Rosh Chodesh, as well as the inyan of holding back a little from certain melochos (not cutting fingernails or hair), and why we must make a seudah with meat and wine. Just washing on some breakfast sandwiches with a bit of tuna and a coffee is not fulfilling the obligation, we all must eat in a distinctly different manner from a normal weekday.

In the z’chus of our tefillos and making proper seudos Rosh Chodesh we should all merit to see yeshuos niflo’os (wondrous salvations), to perform the Yichud D’Nukva as described in Pri Etz Chaim, and as such draw down the influences from Hashem we all need to bring about the Y’mos HaMoshiach swiftly in our days!

Loving the Torah Opens Up Her Secrets

The Zohar in Saba Mishpatim (99a) teaches us something very helpful and revealing in terms of accessing the secrets of the Torah. It says there that the truest aspects of the Torah are hidden, and covered completely up. The way to come to these is through love, and the Zohar teaches us the process through a moshol of courtship. We must know, if we wish to be considered in the Chakima D’Liba (Wise of Heart) that the way to opening the secrets of the Torah is to come by the door of her house every day until she notices.

“What will the Torah do then? She’ll show her face from within her chamber, and will hint to the seeker, and immediately after this run back into the secret part of her room and hide. Every other person walking by will not see this except for the true seeker, who is waiting by the door and looking for her, and his guts and heart and soul will run after her, and through this way is the Torah revealed and concealed; and she goes forth with love to the side of her beloved to arouse his love for her.

“The way of the Torah is like this: in the beginning when the secrets become permissible to reveal to a person, in one second will the hints be alluded to; if he knows then this is good, and if not then he is called a fool. The Torah then says to the one who is near the fool to bring the foolish one to her and she will speak to him in the way that he can understand; from then she will speak to him from behind her veil that she has spread for him (which is an allusion to the stories and exoteric aspects of the Torah) in the path that he can understand, until his eyes open little by little and he begins to understand more than p’shat and progresses from p’shat, to remez, to d’rash.

“After a time that the Torah has been around this person, she changes from the thick veil to hiding behind a thinner garment and instructs him in Aggadah, which is closer to Sod. After he becomes used to being near to the Torah, she begins to reveal herself to him face to face, and speaks with him in the matters of all her secrets concealed deep within, beyond all the stories and Aggadah. From then on all the paths within her heart that were concealed from the time before will be revealed to this individual and he will become a complete person, the Morei D’Vaisa (Master of the House), that all of the Torah’s secrets are revealed to him, and she is no longer distant from him or concealed in any way. After he attains this level, the Torah then begins to show him how all the things she showed him in hints from the beginning are really all expressions of these same great secrets he has now attained understanding of, and they are not to be taken away from or added to, even the simplest aspects of Torah are not to be discarded or added onto even one letter. Verily people must be careful, and pursue the Torah constantly, to be her beloved as said above.”

That is my rough translation of the Zohar there. The essential message is that we must pursue the Torah with great love. Even if at first it seems there is only p’shat, or only remez, or only d’rash, the truth is that everything is Sod. Sodos HaTorah must not take us away from the fulfillment of the mitzvos, or saying that a mitzvah no longer applies etc. Rather Sod must inflame us even further in our service to Hashem and our love for His Torah, to dive deeper into her study. The true acquisition of Torah is through love, not through fear or distaste of others; rather only through love for Torah. We could darshan also that this form of love is relevant to ahavas Hashem, ahavas Yisroel, and ahavas haTorah, since Hashem is considered one with all these things as explained in the Zohar in another place.