Friday, February 20, 2015

Brazen as Brass, Soft as Soil

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּח . . וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ נְחשֶׁת . . נְבוּב לֻחֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתוֹ (שמות כז, א-ח)

The outer mizbei’ach, the altar that stood in the courtyard of the Mishkan, was coated with a layer of copper. Rashi explains that copper is a metaphor for brazenness (see Yeshayahu 48:4), and likewise the mizbei’ach atoned for Bnei Yisrael’s brazen and insolent behavior.
There is also a positive form of brazenness that the copper coating of themizbei’ach represents. Namely, this means that a Jew must be bold and unashamed about his Judaism, defiantly unfazed by those who might mock his worship of G-d.
Beneath its external toughness, however, the inside of the mizbei’ach was hollow, and in each location that Bnei Yisrael assembled the Mishkan, themizbei’ach would be filled with earth. This symbolizes that internally we must always feel humble, like the insignificant and trampled-upon earth—even while approaching any challenge to Judaism with toughness and chutzpah.
These two aspects in the construction of the mizbei’ach, its copper coating and its hollow inside filled with earth, represent two contradictory, yet vital qualities that a Jew must always have.
—Reshimos 108

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Friday, February 13, 2015

It's Not All about You

וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֵת ה' אֱלֹקֵיכֶם . . לֹא תִהְי' מְשַׁכֵּלָה וַעֲקָרָה בְּאַרְצֶךָ אֶת מִסְפַּר יָמֶיךָ אֲמַלֵּא (כג, כה-כו)

These verses contain profound insight and guidance in the struggles that many people face in their worship of G-d.
There will be no bereaved or barren woman:
The servant of G-d strives to worship Him with inner passion and devotion, but finds, at times, that he is bereaved or barren. This means that the inspiration and passion that he cultivated within himself are short-lived, or that his efforts to develop true love and fear of G-d do not bear fruit at all.
In your land:
The reason for this is hinted in the next word in the verse, בארצךin your land. The word בארצך is also related to the Hebrew word רצוןwish or desire, (see Beraishis Rabbah 5:8); בארצך can thus be interpreted as "due to your wishes," meaning, due to the personal satisfaction that you derive from your worship of G-d. Paradoxically, the feelings of fulfillment that one has from his Divine service ultimately hinder genuine feelings of devotion to G-d. These feelings cause one's Divine service to become defined by the degree to which it makes him feel happy and content. Eventually, instead of being a devoted servant of G-d, he picks and chooses between the aspects of Divine service he feels that he relates to and those he does not. Obviously, genuine feelings of unconditional love and commitment to G-d cannot thrive in such an environment.
I will fill the number of your days:
The key to overcoming this pitfall is internalizing the message found in the end of this verse, "I will fill the number of your days." The days allotted to a person in this world are numbered; G-d gives each person precisely enough time to fulfill the purpose for which he was created. It follows that with every passing moment that is not fully utilized in the service of G-d, the mission that G-d gave the individual to fulfill is being sabotaged. One who takes this message to heart will quickly abandon his search for satisfaction and achievement, and will devote his every moment to fulfilling his G-dly mission. With no time to harp on feelings of achievement, his internal relationship with G-d will flourish and thrive.
—Likkutei Sichos vol. 16, p. 273-274

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Who Wouldn't Want the Torah?

וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר (שמות יט, יז)

According to the Talmud, the words "at the bottom of the mountain" mean that G-d raised Mt. Sinai over Bnei Yisrael and said to them, "If you accept the Torah, that's great. But if not, you will be summarily buried beneath this mountain." The Talmud concludes that this "furnished a strong disclaimer against the acceptance of the Torah" until the Jews "reaccepted" the Torah willfully after the Purim miracle, almost a thousand later (Shabbos 88a).
We know, however, that when Moshe told Bnei Yisrael that they would be given the Torah, they proclaimed, "We will fulfill and we will listen" (Shemos 24:7), willfully committing themselves to the Torah's complete full observance!
The Talmud's assertion that Bnei Yisrael were forced must therefore be explained not as coercion against their will, but that their willful acceptanceitself was coerced. It would be unthinkable and virtually impossible for someone to refuse to accept the Torah once he recognizes and truly understands that a life of Torah observance is the ultimate goodness a person can be blessed with, and that the opposite is true of a life devoid of Torah. However, having left Egypt a mere fifty days earlier, Bnei Yisrael could not have naturally undergone such an extreme paradigm shift—from the influence of Egypt, "the shame of the earth" (Beraishis 42:9), to an appreciation of the Torah's holy ideals. Thus, Bnei Yisrael's willful and unconditional affirmation that they will live by the Torah was the product of them being shown from Above how a life without Torah is no life at all, but it was not an ideal that they had come to appreciate on their own.
Therefore, when the G-dly revelation at Sinai passed, Bnei Yisrael were faced with keeping their prior commitment but without the level of appreciation of the Torah's beauty that they had been previously been exposed to. Observing the Torah now, without that inspiration, was much more difficult than at the moment of their original acceptance. "This", says the Talmud, "furnished a strong disclaimer against the acceptance of the Torah," until they later reaccepted it on their own initiative.
—Likkutei Sichos vol. 26, p. 424

The Correct Response

וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר (שמות כ, א)

The Midrash (Mechilta) explains that the word לאמרto say, in the verse that introduces the sounding of the Ten Commandments, is not an instruction to those being addressed to repeat what they are being told to others, as לאמר is generally used. Rather, לאמר in this instance means to respond, meaning that Bnei Yisrael responded to G-d after each of the Ten Commandments. The subject of their response, however, is a matter of debate. According to R' Akiva, they responded "Yes!" to the positive commands as well as to the prohibitions, indicating their willingness to comply with whatever G-d demanded. R' Yishmael disagrees and says that they would respond "Yes!" to the positive mitzvos, indication their willingness to fulfill that commandment, and "No!" to the prohibitions, indicating that they would refrain from whatever G-d says is forbidden.
This debate is, in essence, a commentary on the nature of mitzvos, and what our primary focus in their fulfillment must be. Should our emphasis in the observance of a mitzvah be on experiencing its unique message and particular effect on our lives and on the world, or on the common theme shared by all themitzvos – simply, that their observance fulfills the will of G-d?
R' Yishmael is of the opinion that the refinement of the individual (and the world) that each mitzvah impacts is the ultimate purpose of mitzvah's observance. He therefore asserts the Jewish people sensed the unique purpose and effect of each of the Ten Commandments. In line with their experience, their responses alternated between "Yes!" – expressing their excitement to implement the positive mitzvos in their lives, and "No!" – voicing their aversion to the negative effects caused by transgression of the prohibitions.
Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, maintains that the highest form of worship is thetranscendence from the physical reality that can be experienced thoughmitzvos. This is found equally in restraining from transgression as it is in fulfilling the positive commands—they are all opportunities to surrender our selves to G-d and His will. R' Akiva therefore asserts that the Jewish people at Sinai experienced this transcendent nature of mitzvos and appropriately responded a uniform and affirmative "Yes!" to all Ten Commandments.
—Likkutei Sichos vol. 6, pp. 124-125