Mishpatim/Shabbat Shekalim 5762
February 8th-9th, 2002
27 Shevat, 5762
The classic medieval work of Jewish ethics, Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart), describes in detail our obligation to examine the wonders of nature--in order to gain an appreciation of the great kindnesses the Creator bestows on us constantly, and of His awesome wisdom.
After discussing some of the wonders associated with gestation, birth, and human infancy, the author outlines for us a curriculum of giving thanks for the various parts of the human body--external and internal:
"One should then contemplate and examine the uses of the limbs and organs
of the body and the various ways in which each one of them contributes to man’s welfare. The hands [were created] to give and take;
the feet to walk; the eyes to see…the stomach to digest; the liver to purify…the bowels and
bladder for temporary retention." (Feldheim edition; translated by Daniel
His list goes on and on. For if we are honest, I think we’ll admit that the number of blessings we do constantly enjoy (even if we only focus our attention on the human body, and nothing else in the world at large) is well nigh endless.
But do we really spend the required time thinking and thanking for all the manifold wonders of creation? Even people observant of the laws of the Torah, and careful to make blessings before and after eating…do they put enough thought into what G-d does for them every day? (Don’t think I’m here to criticize other people; there’s a
blistering self-indictment at the end of all this.)
I’ll raise the stakes even higher. Do we who come to synagogue in the morning, and say the various "morning blessings" that specifically acknowledge the daily benefits G-d bestows on us (sight, clothing, the ability to walk, strength to overcome weariness, etc.) do anything but mumble through them on most days? Do we ever really "contemplate" the meaning of the words of these blessings?
I’m afraid to say that the above delinquency even applies to people like myself, who love (and constantly review) the tapes and writings of the great departed
tzadik, R’Avigdor Miller, zichrono l’vracha (of blessed memory). Rav Miller was an individual who truly lived the words of the Chovos HaLevavos mentioned above, and constantly exhorted his listeners to sing the praises of G-d (in the greatest and most colorful of detail) in every aspect of life!
For example, when Rav Miller would speak about contemplating the morning blessing, malbish arumim (Who clothes the naked), he would exclaim that we must thank Hashem not just for "clothes," but for buttons and zippers and seams and linings! Contemplate each one of those amenities (and think what your life would be like without it), he would say; it’s not enough to give a bland, general, one-second "thank you." All the details have to be studied and appreciated individually. Then we can really sing to Hashem in gratitude and appreciation (and joy) the way we are supposed to—the way exemplified by King David ("All my bones shall say:
Hashem, who is like You?"), and by Rav Miller himself in his own lifetime.
Now, then, to the point of this sermon. There’s another one of the morning blessings that I have (proudly) mumbled for years, not expending too much time contemplating its significance. Blessed are You,
Hashem, King of the Universe, Who releases the bound (matir asurim). As the commentaries explain, the simple meaning in the context of morning prayer is giving thanks for the ability to sit up and stretch our limbs after having been constrained during sleep. The phrase, releases the bound, actually appears later in the morning service as well, both in a verse of Psalms—146, 7—as well as in the
Shemone Esrei itself in the second blessing. In those places, it takes on broader meanings as well: G-d is the One Who releases those constrained or limited by difficult circumstances of all kinds--prison, for example, or even the great constraint (either personal or national) known as exile. (And beyond that, death…which is why "releases the bound" appears in the blessing of Shemone Esrei dealing with the resurrection of the dead!)
But let’s stick with the simple meaning (p’shat): the ability to stretch our limbs. And let me tell you about a frightening experience I had just this week, which led me to a new appreciation of this wondrous ability.
I drove14 hours to New Jersey, and 14 hours back, by myself, in the space of two days (with a paltry few hours of a rabbinical conference sandwiched in between the car trips). Lots of great Torah tapes, CD’s (Mozart, Chassidic songs, and more…an interesting mix, to be sure) and plenty of caffeinated beverages helped me get through what turned out to be (surprise!) a rather hellish journey.
The real hell, however, was still in store for me. Sitting in a Honda for 28 hours, arms outstretched with hands gripping a steering wheel (and gripping it rather tightly at times through some snowy weather) can have an interesting effect on the human frame, I was to find out. Let me tell you what it did to mine. I returned home and began to go about my business. A few hours later, my arms started to feel kind of achy and stiff; by bedtime that night, I could not extend them more than an inch or so without excruciating pain. It was a stiffness/soreness of limbs (my legs did not feel much better) far more painful--and frightening--than any I had ever experienced before.
It may be obvious, or it may be news to you, but there is a WHOLE LOT involved in the simple shifting we do in bed at night to get comfortable (not to mention more exquisitely complex tasks, like putting on a shirt). I know, because all the countless muscles and/or joints that usually carry out their functions flawlessly for me, day in and day out, without a murmur (from them…or from me) were on mandatory clampdown that night, and for almost 24 hours after. I could not stretch my limbs without excruciating pain; they were fearfully immobile. Moving in bed was agony, putting on shirt or bathrobe was all but impossible (don’t talk to me about
And there was heard in the house, that night and that day, much murmuring (and yelping and modified cussing) from the Rabbi with the limbs so painfully constrained…
What’s the text of the blessing? Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who releases the bound. I’m back from the other side, guys, and I can assure you: we need to say this blessing with kavannah (concentration) and with true simcha (joy). I’m still a little sore, but now--a couple of days later--I can put on my shirt! I can turn from one side to the other in bed! I can stretch both arms over my head (still a little stiffness, though)! Thank you, dear Lord.
It is a true blessing to be able to execute the "simplest" (read, incredibly complex) movements. Rav Miller: you were right! To be able to walk (and stretch) is to have true wealth. To enjoy all of the gifts of daily life--including those spoken about in the morning blessings--is to have the greatest treasure. 20 million would be great, sure, but I’m happy right now that I can button my shirt. Very happy.
And now I’ll even tie this true story into the Torah readings this Shabbos. It is Shabbos Shekalim, when we read the section from the Torah that discusses the
half-shekel contribution each Jewish household would contribute for the purposes of a taking a census, and in later times, for purchase of communal atonement offerings in the Temple. The rabbinical courts would make the announcement for this collection at the beginning of the month of
Adar, so that allocations could be made at the start of the following month, Nisan. So, it is our custom to this day on the Sabbath directly before the start of the month of Adar, to remember this
mitzvah by having a special Torah reading after the weekly portion.
There are many beautiful ideas associated with the half-shekhel contribution. For one thing, it is meant to teach us that we must
"love every individual Jew greatly—since all Jews are regarded as equal before
G-d, and the most important of the sacred services—the bringing of the communal offerings of atonement—was performed by all Israel in equality. Before G-d none was poor, and none wealthy [and so all had to contribute the half-shekhel equally]…all were near in the attainment of forgiveness for Israel." (The Book of our Heritage)
The S’fas Emes (great modern commentary on the Torah) explains that we are approaching the month of our redemption, Nisan. Adar is a time, therefore, of teshuva—of returning to G-d, and to the pursuit of godliness in our lives. The reading of the portion of the half-shekel awakens our souls to the beauty and nobility of contributing to the Jewish people…and of acting on behalf of G-d. This prepares us for the spiritual renewal, and renewed commitment, of Pesach. We return to G-d at this time of the year from a sense of love…not so much from awe (as is the case before the High Holy Days). AND GIVING AWAKENS LOVE. And our love awakens G-d’s love…
Here’s the punch line. To give of ourselves, the S’fas Emes writes, leads to an expanded consciousness, a sense of true freedom and release from all constraints (and the Hebrew word, Mitzrayim—Egypt—is related to the word for narrow straits, mitzarim). It is a time, therefore, to celebrate the release from constraints--our own personal constraints, and those our nation suffered historically (Egypt…and all other exiles). It is a time to say, along with me, Blessed are You, Hashem…who releases the bound! A time for muscles…and souls…to stretch out, and stretch forth, in joy and love, in song and praise and painless movement. In all directions…and especially, UPWARDS.
My new e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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