Shabbos Rosh Chodesh

Yeshaya 66 

This week’s haftorah, read in conjunction with Shabbos Rosh Chodesh, reveals to us a secret dimension of this significant date. In fact, as we will discover, Rosh Chodesh possesses the potential of assuming a greater personality than ever seen before. Its heightened effect will be so powerful that it will be likened to the impact of one of our three Yomim Tovim. 

The prophet opens the haftorah with a fiery message regarding the privilege of sacrifice in the Bais Hamikdash. Yeshaya declares in the name of Hashem, “The heavens are My throne and the earth is My foot stool. What home can you build for Me and what is an appropriate site for My Divine Presence?” The Radak explains that Hashem was rejecting the notion of His requiring an earthly abode wherein to reside. Even the span of the universe barely serves as a throne where upon Hashem rests, how much more so our small Bais Hamikdash. But the purpose of His earthly abode is in order for us to experience His Divine presence. And it is in this uplifting environment that we offer sacrifices to Hashem and commit ourselves to fulfilling His will. 

Yeshaya continues and expresses Hashem’s view of the Jewish people’s sacrifices at that time. Hashem says, “One who slaughters the ox is likened to smiting a man; he who sacrifices the sheep is akin to slashing a dog’s neck; a meal offering is like swine’s blood…..(66:3) The Radak explains Hashem’s disturbance and informs us of the attitude of those times. The people would heavily engage in sin and then appear in the Bais Hamikdash to offer their sacrificial atonement. However, this uplifting experience was short-lived and they would return home and revert to their sinful ways. Hashem responded and rejected their sacrifices because the main facet of the sacrifice was missing, the resolve to elevate oneself. From Hashem’s perspective, a sacrifice without an accompanying commitment was nothing more than an act of slashing a useful animal. 

The prophet continues and notes the stark contrast between the above mentioned and the humble and low spirited people. Hashem says, “But to this I gaze, to the humble and low spirited and to the one who trembles over My word.” (66:2) These humble people do not need the experience of the Bais Hamikdash. They sense the Divine Presence wherever they are and respond with proper reverence and humility. Unlike the first group who limits Hashem’s presence to the walls of the Bais Hamikdash, the second views the earth as Hashem’s footstool and reacts accordingly. In fact weare told earlier by Yeshaya that they are actually an abode for His presence as is stated, “So says Hashem, “I rest in the exalted and sanctified spheres and amongst the downtrodden and low spirited ones.'”(57: 15) 

In a certain sense we resemble the first group when relating to our Rosh Chodesh experience. Rosh Chodesh is a unique holiday because its entire festivity consists of a special Rosh Chodesh sacrifice. There are no specific acts of Mitzva related to Rosh Chodesh and there is no halachic restriction from productive activity. However, the first day of the month provides the opportunity for introspect. After our serious contemplation over the previous month’s achievements we welcome the opportunity of a fresh start. We offer a sacrifice in atonement for the past and prepare ourselves for the challenges of the new month. Unfortunately this new opportunity is met with trepidation and is always accompanied by mixed feelings of joy and remorse. Because each Rosh Chodesh we realize how far we have strayed during the previous month and we look towards the next month to be an improvement over the past. 

This is the limited status of our present Rosh Chodesh. However, as we will soon learn, a greater dimension of Rosh Chodesh was intended to be and will eventually become a reality. The Tur in Orach Chaim (417) quotes the Pirkei D’R’Eliezer which reveals that Rosh Chodesh was actually intended to be a full scale Yom Tov. The Tur quotes his brother R’ Yehuda who explains that the three Yomim Tovim correspond to our three patriarchs and that the twelve days of Rosh Chodesh were intended to correspond to the twelve tribes. This link reveals that each Rosh Chodesh truly has a unique aspect to itself and that one of the Biblical tribes’ remarkable qualities is available to us each month. However, as the Tur explains, due to an unfortunate error of the Jewish people this opportunity has been, to a large degree, withheld from us. 

But in the era of Mashiach this error will be rectified and the experience of Rosh Chodesh will actually reach its intended capacity. Yeshaya reflects upon this and says at the close of our haftorah, “And it will be that from month to month. . . . all will come and prostrate themselves before Hashem.” (66: 23) The Psikta Rabbsi (1:3) explains that in the days of Mashiach we will have the privilege of uniting with Hashem every Rosh Chodesh. All Jewish people will come to the Bais Hamikdash each month and experience His Divine Presence. During the illustrious era of Mashiach sin will no longer exist and Rosh Chodesh will be viewed exclusively as an opportunity for elevation. Each month will provide us its respective quality and opportunity which we will celebrate through the Rosh Chodesh festivities. The sacrifice of Rosh Chodesh will reflect our great joy over being with Hashem and will no longer contain any aspect of remorse or sin. In those days, the experience of His Di vine Presence in the Bais Hamikdash will be perpetuated throughout the month and the entire period will become one uplifting experience. 

This, according to the Maharit Algazi is the meaning of our Mussaf section wherein we state, “When they would offer sacrifices of favor and goats as sin offerings …. May you establish a new altar in Zion …. and we will offer goats with favor.” With these words we are acknowledging the fact that the goats which had previously served as sin offerings will now become expressions of elevation. Without the need to reflect upon our shortcomings of the previous month, Rosh Chodesh will be greeted with total happiness, and we will welcome with great joy the uplifting spiritual opportunity of each respective month.

Maimonides on Life

Maimonides, Laws of De’os – Chapter 2, Law 4

Law 4 (end) “A person should always accustom himself to keeping silent…

“So too regarding words of Torah and wisdom. The words of the scholar should be few and their content much. This is as the Sages instructed: ‘One should always teach his student in a succinct manner’ (Talmud Pesachim 3b). Conversely, many words of little content is foolishness. Regarding this the verse states, ‘For the dream comes through an abundance of matters, and the voice of a fool is in many words’ (Koheles 5:2).”

For the past few weeks, we have been discussing the dangers of excessive speech. The Rambam told us to avoid speaking of extraneous matters to whatever degree possible. Today we are taught that even regarding Torah and wisdom one should apply judiciousness. We must take care not to go overboard even when discussing worthy topics. Just because something is worthwhile does not mean we have an open ticket to cram in as many words as we can get in edgewise. To the contrary, words which are truly precious should be treated with reverence. Rather than piling on words of wisdom making them cheap, we must select our words carefully, allowing the Torah’s wisdom to speak for itself.

The Rambam illustrates this with the Talmudic principle that one should teach his student in a concise manner. The simplest reason for this is because too many words confuse the issue. The more verbiage and detail, the more the basic points are obscured and lost. Further, explaining a matter cheapens it. Words somehow lose all their aura when they become excessive. Rather, let the teaching speak for itself. Have the student pick up the thread and figure it out for himself. Ultimately, this is the best form of teaching.

(I have done a lot of one-on-one tutoring in Talmud study in past years. In so doing, I constantly test the fellows I study with, having them work through the ideas on their own, or seeing if they can anticipate the upcoming counter of the Talmud. One fellow several years ago basically paid me x dollars an hour to keep my mouth shut (not one of my better talents) 😉 so he could attempt to figure out the Talmud himself. Some of the mistakes he made were really laughable (not of course that I laughed…), but then again, that’s the only real way to do it.)

There is an additional reason why the Torah should not be explained too well. The more we explain, the more we’re conveying to our students our own take on the Torah’s wisdom. And this limits our students unfairly. Each student must approach the Torah from his own angle; he must see things from his own perspective.

Every one of us has his own personality and his own unique perspective on wisdom. We will each see something a little bit different in the Torah; it will carry a slightly different message for each of us. If we are given the freedom to apply our own creativity to our Torah study, we may just discern its message to us. We will see our own insights and appreciate the Torah’s wisdom from our own perspective. If, however, someone else’s lectures are spoon-fed to us to every last detail, our own growth will be stifled; our Torah study will not truly express our own individuality. For the true Torah student must see what the Torah means to *him*, not only what it meant to his teacher.

There is an even more critical issue here. Our goal in Torah study is not simply to understand the Torah; it is to understand ourselves — and ultimately to fashion ourselves in the Torah’s image. And this is why it is so essential that we are given the freedom to fathom the Torah in our own way. If we can truly *connect* to the Torah’s wisdom, we will understand what it all means to us — and then we will begin to change. When *we* understand the Torah, we will make its wisdom a part of ourselves. We will understand precisely how we relate to the Torah’s wisdom, and we will begin to internalize it and integrate it into our psyches.

And this is the true goal of Torah study. It must be a very personal and intimate experience. Rather than sitting back and having someone else explain it to us, we ourselves must bridge the gap between the Torah’s wisdom and our own souls. And this can only be achieved if we make our personal acquisition of the Torah: hearing its personalized message to us and rising to its calling.

A related thought is that if the teacher brings the Torah down entirely to our own level, we will never expend our own efforts to understand. Torah study must be a growing experience. We must work and exert ourselves to understand it. We must raise ourselves up to the Torah’s level, rather than expecting it to be explained down to us. One only truly understands that which he has worked to understand. What one peruses quickly and effortlessly makes very little impact. Thus, we must approach Torah study with the mindset that we will lift ourselves up to comprehend it. We must be prepared to make the effort: we will change ourselves and adapt to the Torah’s eternal teachings, rather than sitting back expecting to remain who we are while the Torah is brought down to us.

As I often comment, the ideal form of Torah study is not receiving engaging and stimulating ready-made lectures over the Internet. One can read them all day and night — and still be the same halfhearted servant of G-d he was all along. It’s only when the reader starts pondering and applying that the Torah comes to life. I consider my own on-line classes worthwhile not primarily because of the x-thousand subscribers who passively receive and (hopefully) read it, but because of the very few whose returned comments make it clear to me they are taking it to heart.

(As an interesting footnote, our own R. Menken, when he first got his feet wet with the World Wide Web around 20 years ago (he was one of the first Torah educators to take the dive — how else do you think he claimed the acronym “torah.org”?), he at first envisioned a kind of brokering service for study partners, which would link up individuals, allowing them to study together one-on-one (whether on-line or in person). Ideally, we should be studying Torah on our own, attempting to make our own acquisition, rather than reading ready-made lectures prepared by others. However, for better or worse there was little market for this among the uninitiated. Very quickly Torah.org (then Project Genesis) began to assume the form it has acquired today.)

Incidentally, a good example of this principle is the study of Kabbalah, the hidden wisdom of the Torah. The Talmud (Chagigah 11b) writes that one may teach the secrets of G-d’s “Chariot” (“Merkava”) only one-on-one, and that even then the teacher may only provide the outline. The student must piece together the real meat of it himself.

I believe there are a number of reasons for this. One reason is simply because the vocabulary does not exist to explain such lofty concepts in human terms. Kabbalah is an understanding of the heavenly spheres, of G-d’s interaction with the heavens and the world at large. It touches on concepts wholly outside the human experience, and as such, it cannot be expressed in terms and concepts familiar to mankind. You just have to understand them; there is no explaining them to you if you don’t. (Frustrating, eh?)

I believe a big part of the idea, however, is what we wrote above. Having someone explain the Torah in every detail is *never* truly the ideal. The student must bridge the gap and internalize the Torah himself. But when it comes to Kabbalah, such would defeat the purpose entirely. Kabbalah is wisdom entirely spiritual. To fathom it, one must raise himself to its level. Only a person who has transformed himself into a being sufficiently spiritual can truly gain a connection to it. Conversely, explaining it down, attempting to lower it to the level of the uninitiated layman (unfortunately a common practice nowadays) will only cheapen Kabbalah beyond recognition. Kabbalah is the sort of discipline that if you cannot understand yourself, there’s no use explaining to you. If you are prepared to scale its heights, to raise yourself up to its level, fine, you are ready for the big leagues. If not, don’t expect any short cuts. The heights can never be lowered to you.

Thus, to wrap up this week, Torah study and Kabbalah in particular are ideally for those prepared to transform themselves and grow into their teachings. And for this reason, the vast majority of books of serious Jewish scholarship (especially mystical scholarship) were never written with the uninitiated in mind. As I once heard R. Berel Wein put it, you open the first page of the Talmud and attempt to read it, and the way it throws around concepts, terminology and ideas the authors seem to just assume their audience basically knows the entire Talmud already. There are many reasons for this, but a great part of it is what we’ve been saying. The Torah must not be spelled out in every last detail. We must study and ponder for ourselves — and as my student of years back, we may make many false starts until we truly understand. For only then will our Torah study truly become a part of ourselves and will we truly grow.


Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org

Pirkei Avos

Pirkei Avos


Staying in the World

Chapter 4, Mishna 28

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

“Rabbi Elazar HaKappar said: Jealousy, lust and the [pursuit of] honor remove a person from the world.”

This mishna bears a strong resemblance to a much earlier one — Chapter 2, Mishna 16 . We learned there: “Rabbi Yehoshua said: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others remove a person from the world.” Here too, R. Elazar lists three qualities which have the same catastrophic effects on a man’s life — and the qualities map almost precisely to the earlier ones. A person ruled by jealousy has an “evil eye” towards others who are better off, begrudging them their fortune and successes. A lustful person, whether for money or worldly pleasures, becomes slave to his evil inclination. And last, one who craves honor will quickly come to actual hatred of others. He will care first and foremost about himself and the recognition he receives. Anyone who has the chutzpah to be worth something on his own and detract from his own honor — which is of course basically everyone — will earn the honor-seeker’s resentment and ultimately hatred.

It seems that our mishna is dealing with underlying character flaws, while the earlier mishna discussed their evil manifestations. Either way, the resultant behavior will be the same:”removing a person from the world.”

All of this raises an interesting question. Our mishna is very harsh on such people. The world cannot so much as suffer their existence. And that’s far worse than the run-of-the-mill sinner. We all sin, but somehow the world puts up with us. G-d is merciful; He is not so quick to “remove sinners from the world.” He gives us a little time to come to our senses and repent.

But these guys are granted no such grace. Their traits are so self-destructive as to actively remove them from this world. And this is interesting: such people are not even really “sinning” per se. Does the Torah ever state “Thou shalt not be jealous” or lustful, or pursue honor? (It’s true that the final of the Ten Commandments is not to desire another’s possessions (Exodus 20:14), but the Sages understand this as primarily referring to acting on your desires, such as forcibly taking the other’s coveted item, even if you leave money for it.) Are these really actually “sins”? I mean, we are all prone to occasional bouts of jealousy, we all desire honor to a greater or lesser extent, and no son of man is entirely beyond lusting for that which is forbidden?

The answer, in a word, is that it’s true — our mishna is not dealing with “sins”. In fact, it does not state that G-d will strike you down if you engage in such behavior. It is dealing with character flaws. And in a way, this makes them less serious: Regardless of what is seething in my mind, I haven’t actually *done* anything wrong. And so from a technical standpoint, I deserve no punishment. Outwardly, at least, I’m a perfect saint!

Yet now we arrive at a Jewish fundamental. There is more than one way of measuring sin. We cannot simply gauge deeds according to the punishment that they incur — or if they’re forbidden at all for that matter. It’s very possible for a person to obey every jot and tittle of the law (That’s actually from Matthew; it just happened to sound right for the occasion) but to not really be much of a committed Jew.

The Ramban (Nachmanides, Torah and Talmud commentator of 13th Century Spain) comments on the verse “You shall be holy…” (Leviticus 19:2) that one can observe the letter of the law in its entirety, but still basically be a disgusting human being. Most pleasures are permitted by the Torah — at least in some form — and so a person can live for his passions and still live within the parameters of Jewish law. And, continues the Ramban, the Torah never explicitly forbids such things as foul language. And so, a person can live a very coarse and vulgar life, imagining he has done no wrong. Thus, explains the Ramban, the Torah exhorts us to be “holy”: not simply to observe the letter of the law, but to go beyond: to truly sanctify ourselves as beings in the image of G-d.

In a similar vein, I once heard R. Berel Wein (http://www.rabbiwein.com/) observe that a person can act out the role perfectly — wear the right clothes, follow all the stringent customs, hang out with the right crowd, send his kids to the right schools — but not *really* be all that committed. He referred to such a person as a “professional” tzaddik (righteous person). It’s a role he’s filling: he’s mimicking a tzaddik — and possibly doing a fine job at it. But how intensely religious is such a person *really*?

On the other hand, we have a person such as King David who really did sin grievously, yet he had the passion, the devotion, the commitment of a truly holy human being. You can be truly righteous even if you slip now and then. But just because your behavior is always prim does not necessarily mean you are a true believer.

Thus, to return to our track (which at least at one point we had), character flaws technically may not be so severe. If I stew in my pettiness or jealousies, I may not have *done* anything wrong. Yet in a sense I am far worse than one who simply transgresses. A person who is always lusting or seeking honor may be distant from G-d in a far more profound sense. As our mishna puts it, he will be removed from this world. He won’t even have a life. He will pine away wishing he were someone else or had that which is not meant for him. And in the process he won’t even live his own life: He will be unable to enjoy the blessings and talents he does have. The Talmud writes, “Whoever sets his eyes on something inappropriate for him, that which he seeks will not be given to him and that which is his will be taken from him” (Sotah 9a). If a person refuses to accept his own lot in life, he will be unhappy, frustrated and unfulfilled. His faults may not have manifested themselves on the physical plane, yet in a very profound and tragic sense, his life will not be worth living.

To conclude, one the truly profound messages of Judaism is that we cannot judge ourselves according to our deeds alone. It is not enough to do everything right. We must ask ourselves a far more profound question: What am I truly doing for G-d? What kind of relationship do I have with Him? Are my actions a reflection of heartfelt commitment, or are they just unthinking, habitual actions which happen to be good deeds? Even if I do it all, is it really an indication of passion and commitment, or is it basically a comfortable framework for my life — within which I live for myself?

The Talmud, in its characteristic succinctness, sums it up perfectly: “G-d wants the heart” (Sanhedrin 106b). The commandments of the Torah provide us with the guideposts for true fulfillment, and as we know Judaism is not a religion which simply says “Have a good heart and everything else will (somehow) follow.” It takes a lot of work to develop a truly good heart — as anyone in the business can tell you. Yet the ultimate factor is not our deeds; it is our hearts. We must begin with deeds, but we most go beyond them. Our actions must serve as indicators that we are truly divine beings, in the image of our Creator.


Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.

A Different Type of Strength

D’var Torah

Parshas Chukas

A Different Type of Strength


By Rabbi Label Lam

HASHEM spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. (Bamidbar 20:7-8)

It’s not so easy to pinpoint the mistake that caused that Moshe and Aaron should enter the Holy Land. It seems purposely obscured.Was it that Moshe hit the rock rather than speaking to it? Was it that he hit it twice? Was it that he spoken disparagingly about the congregation? Was it a loss of patience?In any case, why was Moshe told to take a stick if he was to speak to the rock? Is that not a mixed signal and a cause for confusion? Is he to speak to the rock or to hit it? What was purpose of telling Moshe to take the stick if the intention was for him to speak?

I once heard the following educational point from a friend of mine: It helps to speak to the rock if you have a stick in your hand! Even if you don’t use the stick, having that giant symbol of authority, helps open the ears of the listener. There’s no mystery in the matter that a policeman gets a little more respect because of the fire power he carries on his hip. It’s like Teddy Roosevelt had famously uttered, “Speak softly and carry a big stick!”

There may be another factor at play. The story is told about a Rabbi who came to the wealthiest man in his congregation just moments before Shabbos and he requested a loan for $5000.00. The Rabbi thanked him and hurried home. Now just after Havdalah the Rabbi appeared at the wealthy man’s home with the money in his hand thanking him for the loan. Curiously the Rabbi repeated his request again the next week receiving the money just before the Holy Shabbos and returning it immediately afterwards.

This behavior repeated itself for a number of consecutive weeks until the rich man worked up the courage to ask the Rabbi the obvious question, “Rabbi, what can you possibly be doing with the money on Shabbos?” The Rabbi responded,“Absolutely nothing?” The wealthy fellow inquired again with great wonderment,“Then why does the Rabbi come to me for such a large loan just before Shabbos!?“Ahhh!” the Rabbi responded, “When I stand up each week in Schul to address the congregation, I have to admit that it’s a little intimidating for me to speak exactly what’s on my mind without concern about losing my job! However, when I know I have a large sum of money in a cookie jar at home, I must confess to you, I feel much more self-assured!”

Having the authority associated with the “stick” can give a boost of confidence to the speaker too when he knows he has a powerful default option in his hand.

There may even be another approach worth examining. Moshe somehow lessened HASHEM’s lesson plan by hitting rather than speaking to the rock. How so? “If a rock is responsive to Moshe’s words, so should we!” Also, when one with might chooses to employ words, it demonstrates a different type of strength!


DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and Torah.org.

Sfas Emes,Parshas Chukas

Parshas Chukas

Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Parshas Chukas

The Sfas Emes begins this m’amar with a quote from the Zohar. The Zohar notes that our parsha starts: “Zos chukas haTorah” (“This is the Torah’s decree … “). By contrast, in Sefer Devarim (4:44-45), the Torah communicates the same message, but does it with very different language and a very different tone. The pasuk in Devarim phrases the message as: “Vezos haTorah asher sahm Moshe lifnei B’nei Yisroel. Eileh ha’eidos, vehachukim, vehamishpatim …”. (“And this is the Torah that Moshe presented to the Jewish people. Here are the testimonies and the decrees and the statutes … “)

The Sfas Emes does not explain why he — and the Zohar — quote the pasuk in Sefer Devarim in the present context. Apparently he took it for granted that we would know why he — and the Zohar — cite the other pasuk. This question — why introduce the pasuk from Devarim — is important. For, if it were not trying to teach us something, the Sfas Emes would not have given the pasuk from Devarim the first place in his ma’amar. Accordingly, I suggest that we attempt to answer an obvious question. What are the Sfas Emes and the Zohar trying to teach us by giving such prominence to a pasuk whose message is virtually the same as the pasuk in our parsha?

The answer, I suggest is that style and nuance are vital for the tone of a message. Tone, in turn, is crucial for how a person relates to the message. Chazal have taught us — by example — to be sensitive to the Torah’s stylistic nuances. In that spirit, note some important differences in style and nuance between the two texts. Thus, the initial phrase in Devarim — “And this ….” — comes in sharp contrast to the abrupt “This is … ” in our parsha. Likewise, the apparently unnecessary clause “asher sahm Moshe” in Devarim strikes a noticeably friendly note. By contrast, the tone implied by the presentation in Chukas comes across as a stark — “take it or leave it”. Note one more difference. The phrasing in Devarim presents the Torah in terms of laws which have varying degrees of accessibility to human intelligence. By contrast, the text in Chukas presents the Torah as a “Chuka” — totally inaccessible to our rationality.

I suggest that what the Zohar and the Sfas Emes are telling us by quoting the two pesukim with their marked differences in nuance is a basic yesod (principle). They are pointing out that there are different ways of viewing the Torah, or of presenting it (to other people and/or to ourselves). As long as we observe Halacha, each of these modes of presentation is valid. They may speak to different people. Different perspectives on the same issue may speak to the same person at different points in his/her life (or even to the same person at different points in the same day). If we are aware of this yesod concerning equal validity, we can spare ourselves much fruitless argument (including arguments with oneself).

Moving on, we find the Sfas Emes’s reading of the word “Chok.” We are used to seeing “Chok” as a “decree”. A decree is: something external to us, something imposed on us with no apparent reason; something that we must somehow muster the strength to swallow. The Sfas Emes views Chukim very differently. He sees the word Chok as coming from the root CHaKoK: to engrave. Thus, he views Chukim as behavior that — far from being extrinsic to us — is, in fact, engraved in our psyches. In today’s parlance, he might express this idea by saying that HaShem has “hard-wired” us to observe even the most difficult chukim. Note that “Chakok” has the connotation of being carved into the material — in this instance, carved into us – and hence, indelible.

The Sfas Emes continues with a thought that we have seen before: That our mission in life is to extend the light of the Torah to all Creation. In reality, the whole cosmos contains the light of the Torah; for HaShem used the Torah to create the world. However, HaShem chose to put away (to be “goneiz”) the light of His Omnipresence. And we have been given the task (and the responsibility) of finding and making contact with HaShem’s Presence in all creation.

How can a person accomplish that momentous task? The Sfas Emes proposes two complementary approaches. First, he notes an alternative meaning of the word “chok”: namely, “a fixed, daily portion.” (For an example of this usage, see Mishlei 30:8: “Hatrifeini lechem chuki.”) Mention of a “fixed portion,” in turn, evokes for the Sfas Emes a passage in Gemara Brochos (32): “Chassidim harishonim ahsu Torah’sam keva … ” (“The chassidim of earlier generations made their Torah learning the fixed point in their lives … “) The Sfas Emes takes this alternative meaning of “chok” — fixed, immovable — as an injunction to have knowledge of the Torah fixed and immovable within us. Thus, the Sfas Emes is telling us that knowledge of the Torah will enable us to find — and maintain contact with — HaShem in the physical world.

The second approach that the Sfas Emes proposes to keep close to HaShem’s Presence is harder. The Sfas Emes tells us that if we go about our everyday, mundane activities with an awareness of HaShem and a desire to do retzon HaShem (HaShem’s will), we can in fact transform those activities into a source of contact with HaShem. He proceeds to elaborate on the idea that a person can — and should — look behind “reality” to see Reality, i.e., HaShem’s Omnipresence.

The Sfas Emes recognizes that some of us may not (yet) have the capacity to see HaShem — the Source — in the midst of the world (=”olam”= hidden) in which He is hiding. To help us, the Sfas Emes offers a meta-pshat on a pasuk in Koheles (2:14). The pasuk says: “He’chacham einav berosho … “. This pasuk is conventionally understood as saying: an intelligent person uses his eyes and his head to anticipate the likely consequences of events that are occurring now. The Sfas Emes reads this pasuk very differently. Working with the word “rosho”, the Sfas Emes sees this pasuk as telling us: “An intelligent person sees HaShem — the Raishis — as the Source from which all existence flows.”

The Sfas Emes goes even further. Not only is HaShem’s Presence not easily apparent, but to the naive observer the world seems to be full of autonomous forces that are distant and, indeed, antagonistic to Kedusha (sanctity). Don’t let superficial appearances mislead you, says the Sfas Emes. Those phenomena, too, draw their existence from HaShem. Why is the world like this — confusing and misleading? Because it is HaShem’s will that He be nistar (hidden). As we have seen, this is a fact of life to which the Sfas Emes returns, and confronts time and time — and time — again.