An elaboration of remarks made this week at the l’chaim for my son Yaakov and his kallah, Amanda:
It’s especially fitting to celebrate an engagement this week, when we will observe Shabbos Shira. It’s difficult for us to imagine what it was like for the Jews of Egypt when, after watching the systematic and miraculous obliteration of the empire that had oppressed them for generations, after witnessing the death of four-fifths of their brethren who refused to trust in the hand of heaven, after setting forth into the forbidding desert with great wealth and fanfare, after finding themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing chariots and the unyielding sea – after all that, to launch themselves forward between towering walls of water may have been the only option available to them but was by no means a simple act of self-preservation.
Panic, desperation, terror, relief, and disbelief – all these emotions caromed back and forth through their collective consciousness as they raced forward into uncertainty. And, as they came out soundly on the other side, the cacophony of thoughts and feelings coalesced into a divinely inspired harmony we call the Shir Shel Yam – the Song of the Sea.
For all that, the commentaries all question the syntax of the opening phrase, Oz yoshir Moshe u’vnei Yisroel – contextually translated as, “Then, Moshe and the Children of Israel sang,” but curiously rendered in the future tense rather than the past. Explains the Sfas Emes: although the people were inspired to sing as they passed through the sea, their preoccupation with the practical business of fleeing for their lives demanded that their lyrical expression of elation would have to wait until their salvation was completed.
And so we learn that Hashem is closest to us not during those times when we have already connected with Him, but rather when we are seeking Him with the sense that revelation is nearly within reach. Naturally, we express our deepest gratitude after we have been saved. But our most intimate connection with the Almighty comes during those moments when salvation is imminent but not yet complete. Only then can we experience the spiritual intensity of absolute dependence upon divine intervention even as we see our redemption unfolding before our eyes.
Indeed, the Zohar tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu felt humbled when he beheld prophetically the generation before the coming of Moshiach. For Moshe, who lived in an era of open miracles and divine revelation, it seemed a simple matter to trust in Hashem and His providence. But to live in a generation of such spiritual darkness that even the faintest glimmer of divine light seemed to have vanished, and to retain nevertheless even the smallest shred of faithfulness to Hashem and His Torah – that was something the Moshe himself could not fathom; that was the source of his profound humility.
We find ourselves in such a generation, so much so that it’s easy for us to reckon ourselves like King Louis XV of France who said, “Things may last my time, but after me – le deluge.”
It’s terrifying to contemplate the world in which our grandchildren will grow up and the storms our children will have to navigate. But on the occasion of this l’chaim, I’m filled with hope.
After two decades of trying, by constant teaching and imperfect modeling, to instill in my children the primacy of middos tovos, after laboring to impress upon them by any means that qualities such as honesty, integrity, loyalty, modesty, and respect are the foundations of Torah life and Torah society, I thank the Ribono Shel Olam that my son has chosen a young woman whose impeccably fine character testifies to the quality of her parents and her upbringing. I look with nachas at my own son, whose maturation into a ben Torah and a ba’al middos testifies to the inscrutable power of tefillah.
And looking at them, I feel as the Jews must have felt when they were passing through the Yam Suf – I want to sing shira. For as frightened as I am for them and all the challenges they will have to face, they give me hope for the future and inspire me with confidence that very soon we will all merit the final redemption and the coming of Moshiach.
Originally posted at Beyondbt.com.
None can match the power and eloquence of Rav Shimshon Rafoel Hirsch:
There can be true peace among men only if they are all at peace with G-d. One who dares to struggle against the enemies of what is good and true in the eyes of G-d is – by this very struggle – one of the fighters for the “covenant of peace” on earth.
Conversely, one who, for the sake of what he imagines to be peace with his fellow men, cedes the field without protest and allows them to stir up strife with G-d makes common cause – by his very love of peace – with the enemies of the “covenant of peace” on earth.
Parshas Vayeishev reveals insights into our unending war for spiritual integrity and survival.
The number seven is neither random nor coincidental in the pattern of Creation.
No one understands everything. The problems begin when we think we do.
This week’s parsha concludes the arba parshios — the four special readings that help us prepare ourselves to enter Nisan, the month of redemption. If you haven’t seen it yet, please take a look and my adaptation of a shiur by Rabbi Nachman Bulman zt”l, which brings into focus what we hope to accomplish during this season.
The parsha itself revisits the construction of the mishkan, already described in Parshas Terumah. Please see my discussion there.
40 days after the Almighty revealed Himself to the Jewish nation at Sinai, the people seem to have reverted to the most primitive kind of paganism.
Understanding the philosophy of Amolek, and why there is no compromise with evil.
And you shall make Me a dwelling (mikdash), and I will dwell (v’shochanti) among them (Sh’mos 25:8).
The construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert – which foreshadows the Beis HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem – offers a compelling perspective on the nature of the universe. But a complete understanding requires an explanation why the Almighty commanded the construction of a mikdash, which lay four hundred eighty years in the future, rather than a mishkan, which is what the Jewish people were about to build.
The word mishkanliterally means “that which creates a dwelling.” In the desert, with no land, no permanence, and no boundaries, the tabernacle provided the focal point around which the Jewish nation could coalesce. Of course, the spirit of HaShem is everywhere. But the House of God that would reside in the midst of the people would bind them together in a way that the conceptual knowledge that they were a holy people could not. Indeed, a careful reading of the verse reveals HaShem’s true intention. Build Me a tabernacle, commanded the Almighty, and I will dwell not in it but in and among them, the people.
Consequently, we understand that the Mishkan was never intended to be permanent. Its purpose was to sustain the people until they could enter the land. At that point, they would no longer require a mishkan, for the land itself would bind them together. From then on they would require a mikdash — literally, that which creates sanctity. Once in the land, the purpose of a House of God would be to remind the people of their divine mission and inspire them to strive for ever higher levels of spiritual achievement.
To that end, the people would gather three times a year for the pilgrim festivals — Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos. And herein lies the secret of the Mikdash, as explained by the Chassidic classic Arvei Nachal.
Just as the universe is created with three physical dimensions, similarly is it created with three spiritual aspects: space, time, and life. As a microcosm of the physical universe, the human body provides the most familiar model for the pattern of spiritual existence.
Within the body, the heart pumps blood throughout the system. Through arteries and capillaries, the blood reaches every corner of the body, carrying with it oxygenated blood that literally breathes life into every cell. Returning to the heart, the blood is pumped through the lungs to become oxygenated once again, so that the body’s internal cycle of life can continue.
The same pattern manifests itself in the nature of time. According to the kabbalists, time is not linear but circular. In the course of each year, every soul visits every day and every moment in the 365 days that describe the solar year. Just as the flow of blood deposits life-giving oxygen to the body’s cells, similarly does each soul deposit kedusha, sanctity, to the individual moments that together form the body of time. And just as the body’s cycle begins and ends with the heart, similarly does the annual cycle begin and end with Yom Kippur — the holiest day, and the heart, of the year. The extent to which the Jew renews his relationship with the Almighty on Yom Kippur will affect not only his own fortunes for the coming year, but the fortunes of all mankind. Symbiotically, our involvement in Torah and mitzvos draws the innate kedusha from the temporal fabric of the universe and allows us to return to the next Yom Kippur on a spiritual level higher than we were on the year before.
Finally we come to physical space. Once established in the land, the Jewish people spread out to settle their country, striving to strike the perfect balance between material prosperity and spiritual purpose. Their involvement in Torah and mitzvos throughout every corner of the Land of Israel would draw out the spiritual essence of the land, enabling them to achieve greater levels in preparation for each successive festival, when they would come together at the Beis HaMikdash — the heart of the world. Inspired and elevated by each festival, the Jews would return to their homes, elevated in their spirituality so that they could elevate the land on which they toiled, thus creating a virtuous cycle that brought them ever closer and closer to their Creator.
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the great sage Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai decreed that every shul, every place of Jewish prayer, should be treated as a mikdash ma’at, and Temple in miniature. Every time the Jewish community comes together to pray, on weekdays and on Shabbos, on festivals and on the High Holy Days, we have the opportunity to renew the cycle of spiritual elevation. Prayer is not for God; it is for us. It is not a burden; it is a privilege and an opportunity. It is not an inconvenience; it is as fundamental to our existence as our life’s blood, as our heart, and as our soul.
You shall not ascend my altar by steps, so that you will not reveal your nakedness upon it. And these are the statutes that you [Moses] shall place before them [the Jewish people]
During the early days of the Second Temple era, the sages divided the Torah into portions, or parshios, to be read on successive Sabbaths. The juxtaposition of any two of these parshios always alludes to some principle in Jewish thought. In the case of this week’s Torah portion, however, the connection with the end of last week’s parsha seems particularly elusive.
After the drama of the Almighty’s revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, the narrative switches to a rather dry and technical description of the altar in the Tabernacle. Not by stairs should the kohain go up, lest the gaping of his robes expose his private regions to the stones upon which he walks; rather, he should ascend by a ramp, so that his shorter, more even steps will not result in any impropriety.
Immediately afterward, the Torah introduces the mishpatim, the statutes that govern civil law by establishing the legal parameters of business dealings, private property, loans, and damages. Superficially, no two subjects within Torah could be more disconnected from one another.
The revered Chassidic Master, Reb Elimelech of Lizensk, offers a tantalizing explanation. As we go through life, we should see ourselves as kohanim, the priests of the Almighty, engaged in a perpetual quest to ascend spiritually, approaching ever nearer to a more perfect service upon the conceptual altar of the Creator. Every attainment of a new spiritual level is called by the kabbalists a madrega — a “step” onward and upward. The Jew is not meant to remain static, but to pursue ever more challenging goals in pursuit of spiritual perfection.
The danger, however, is that we may try to take too much upon ourselves, that we attempt to move forward by unrealistic leaps, that we may seek inspiration in the ethereal at the expense of more fundamental forms of heavenly service. By reaching for the stars, we may find ourselves without firm footing underfoot, rendering ourselves vulnerable to the indictments of the divine attribute of Justice. By artificially propelling ourselves to a level that we cannot realistically sustain, we may find ourselves judged with a strictness that is beyond our capacity to endure.
The ramp up to the altar, therefore, serves to symbolize the measured, determined consistency with which we should approach our commitment to spiritual growth. HaShem may bless us at times with great leaps forward and moments of dazzling inspiration, but spiritual development is often like physcial development — painfully slow and paradoxically mundane.
This, teaches Reb Elimelech, is the connection between the details of the altar and the words that introduce this week’s portion, “And these are the statutes…” If we look for spiritual excitement only in mystical secrets and ethereal mysteries, we will inevitably miss the most essential opportunities for spiritual growth that our daily routines provide us. The concern for others, for their money and their time and their property, the respect for boundaries both personal and legal — these are the sensitivities that most effectively and meaningfully transform us into spiritual beings. If we think we can overlook them in our quest for personal revelation and divine intimacy, we will have no foundation upon which to stand. If we carefully cultivate them, we will awaken within ourselves a spiritual perspicacity that will enable us to recognize the presence of the Almighty in every aspect of our lives.