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The Sound of Inspiration

images.jpgThe Sound of Inspiration  

What is the most important ingredient in a relationship? Is it love, respect, trust, commitment, understanding, fun, loyalty? What is the foundation of the connection, without which all other aspects of the relationship would collapse?

The answer, the Kabbalists explain, is will.

I may take you out to dinner, spend time with you, discuss your favorite ideas, I may be respectful and committed to you. I may be providing you with all you would ever want in a relationship, but if you sense that I don’t want to be here, that my will is not present, that I’d prefer to be elsewhere, then you would feel rejected and the foundation of the relationship would collapse. Thus, for a relationship to exist and thrive, the will, the underlying desire and delight to be in this relationship to begin with, must be nurtured and cultivated.

This, say the Kabbalists is the essence of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

The infinite G-d, the creator of heaven and earth, is invested in a relationship with his creation. The relationship is multidimensional, it is imbued with G-d’s wisdom and love, with his ideas and his compassion. Yet, just as the new year is about to begin, G-d’s desire for the connection evaporates. After all, what possible benefit could the creation contribute to an infinite G-d? Why would he desire to relate to a universe that is utterly insignificant in comparison to his infinity?

As we move from the end of one year to the beginning of the next, the creation is bereft of its vitality, for, although it continues to be created by G-d, it nevertheless lacks the Divine enthusiasm, pleasure and desire. He is still in the relationship, He is still providing us with life and vitality, but He is unsure if He wants to be here.

The job of the Jew on Rosh Hashanah is to awaken that will. It is to communicate with G-d in a way that will inspire an even deeper dimension of desire and will for the new year. We do so through sounding the blasts of the shofar, a cry from our heart calling to G-d, telling him that we want to be connected to him. In the language of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: we want Him to be our king and the king of the universe. We are saying that our deepest will and delight is to be connected to G-d.

Throughout the year the details of everyday life often obscure the big picture. We are busy paying bills, working, raising children and trying to carve out time for physical and spiritual well being. We sometimes forget to ask the big question: are we distracted and frustrated by our daily tasks to the extent that we are distracted from the vision of what we are working to achieve? Do we engage in our daily activities with will, desire and enthusiasm? Are we in touch with the spark of spirituality within everything we do?

As we hear the Shofar’s blast on Rosh Hashanah we know the answer. The Shofar is a scream from the depth of our hearts. Words won't do it. Words are too scripted. It must come from the deepest part of our soul. On Rosh Hashana we look into our soul and realign our will and pleasure with holiness. The cry of the Shofar peels away the outer layers of our consciousness and reveals the part of us which desires unity with G-d. G-d, in turn, desires us and showers us with blessing and potential for material and spiritual well being.[1]

 


[1] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Shir Hammalos 5734.  

The Center of His Universe

gpnc8462020.jpgThe Center of His Universe 

When a baby is born the baby can be excused for assuming that it is the center of the universe. All the people around it, mother, father, grandparents, seem to be doing nothing other than caring for the baby. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, adults will respond to its calling. 

As the child begins to grow, as he or she develops from infant to child to teenager to adult, the child begins to recognize that he or she is indeed not the center of existence.  As children grow into adulthood they are burdened with the intellectual recognition that they are only one of seven billion people, that the entire human species, as well as the planet they inhabit, are but a speck in a solar system within a galaxy, containing one hundred billion stars, which is insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe.

Yet, despite this knowledge, something deep inside of us protests. Something deep within the psyche of the individual insists that he or she is special and indispensable. A healthy person cannot fully escape the perspective of the infant, something within himself will always look out at humanity, at the world, and at the universe, from a self centered, perspective.

And that is a good thing.

Moses’ greatest fear, as the Jewish people were about to enter the land of Israel, was that the Jew would not see himself as the center of the universe. Moses was afraid that once the Jews cross the Jordan River the individual would see himself as nothing more than one among millions; as merely one individual citizen whose choices don’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Moses understood that in order for a nation to survive, for it to maintain a high moral ground, for it to live up to its calling of being a light unto the nations, each individual must appreciate that the destiny of the nation is in his or her hands. The greatest threat to morality is if every individual believes that the purpose of creation, that the mission of the Jewish people and the fate of humanity is out of his or her control. The greatest assurance that people will make the correct choices in life is when each individual understands that G-d looks to him or her as the center of the universe.

In the opening verses of this week's Parsha, Nitzavim, Moshe creates a covenant with the people, he gathers them together and tells them:

You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers. [1]

And then, after speaking to them in the plural, Moses says the following statement in the singular:

in order to establish you this day as His people, and that He will be your God, as He spoke to you, and as He swore to your forefathers to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

The “you” in “in order to establish you this day as His people” is written in the singular. Moses is telling each and every Jew “you are not just one in a nation of millions”, you cannot outsource Judaism's great ideals to be implemented by others. Moses is telling each and every individual: “you”, in the singular, are G-d’s nation. Don’t look to others to carry the Jewish heritage for you. Don’t look for others to make the right decisions. There is no one else. You, personally and singularly, are G-d’s nation. He is looking to you to carry the torch.

You are the center of His universe. 

 



[1] Deuteronomy 29:9-10.

The Heart of the Covenant

Tavo.jpgThe Heart of the Covenant 

It is a word that describes the heart of the bond between the Jewish people and G-d, yet no one knows for sure what the word means.

As the Jewish people were about to enter the land of Israel, as the time of Moses passing was fast approaching, Moses facilitated a covenant between the Jewish people and G-d, in addition to the covenant created at Sinai.

At Sinai it was G-d who pursued the relationship, he took the people out of Egypt and expressed his great love to them by selecting them to be a “kingdom of princes and a holy nation”. The people were passive recipients of this love. Forty years later, however, the relationship had matured, the people were active in its creation[1], they were the ones who pursued the bond with G-d, and G-d reciprocated to the commitment shown by his people.

The verb used to describe what the people did for G-d, and in turn what G-d did for the Jewish people is “Heemarta” (הֶֽאֱמַ֖רְתָּ) and “Heemircha” (הֶאֱמִירְך). What exactly does this verb mean? 

Rashi, the classic Biblical commentator, tells us that in the entire Bible there is no word precisely the same as this one, thus we don’t know for sure what the word means, yet he does suggest two possible meanings: 

We do not find any equivalent expression in the Scriptures [which might give us a clue to the meaning of these words]. However, it appears to me that [the expression הֶאֱמִיר] denotes separation and distinction. [Thus, here, the meaning is as follows:] From all the pagan deities, you have set apart the Lord for yourself, to be your God, and He separated you to Him from all the peoples on earth to be His treasured people.

Rashi continues:

 [Notwithstanding,] I did find a similar expression [to הֶאֱמִיר], which denotes “glory,” as in the verse “[How long will] all workers of violence glorify themselves (יִתְאַמְּרוּ)?”[2]

Why does the Torah choose to use a word that is so rare that it defies a precise definition? How is it that the Torah does not describe the heart of the covenant with a word whose meaning is clear? 

Perhaps the reason is that our relationship with G-d is multifaceted and multidimensional and does not always look the same. Thus the Torah specifically uses a word that has multiple shades of meaning so that it will encompass all phases of our relationship.  

Rashi’s first suggestion is that the verb describing the covenant “denotes separation and distinction”. This interpretation describes a person who is totally committed to a bond with G-d, and is not distracted or enticed by anything else. To him G-d is separate and distinct from anything else in the world, holiness is all that is worth pursuing, everything else in his life serves his relationship with holiness. Thus G-d is the only one who he has a relationship with, and he, in turn, is the one who G-d has a sole relationship with. The relationship is just like two people newly in love, who, while navigating through work and life, see nothing other than each other and experience an exclusive and wholesome relationship.

Yet there is more than one way to experience a relationship.

While sometime we feel a wholesome connection to the holy and to the spiritual, at other times we feel the struggle and pain. Our spiritual life is sometimes more like a warzone than a vacation resort. We try and fail. We sometimes face disappointment frustration and confusion. We experience a deep struggle in our attempt to bond with G-d.

This is why Rashi continues with his second interpretation.

Rashi tells us that the verb describing our relationship can also mean “Glory”, and the verse he quotes is one that describes “workers of violence”, which is a verse with a negative connotation. What Rashi is telling us is that while we prefer a wholesome, loving, tension free relationship, sometimes we “find” another meaning. Sometimes life teaches us that there is beauty in overcoming challenge. That struggle produces a deeper bond.

The verses describing our covenant can be read as describing the times when we are in love with everything good and holy. When we designate G-d as our exclusive love. In those times the verses read:

You have designated the Lord this day, to be your God, and to walk in His ways… And the Lord has designated you this day to be His treasured people.

Those same verses can also be read to describe the times of challenge and the beauty of engaging in the struggle. Describing this dimension the verses read:

You have glorified the Lord this day, to be your God, and to walk in His ways… And the Lord has glorified you this day to be His treasured people.

For indeed, the heart of the covenant is that the Jew is connected to G-d both in peaceful times and in challenging times. The nature of the relationship may be “separation and distinction” - where there is nothing that distracts from the exclusive relationship - or it may entail the “glory” of struggling with darkness, Either way the bond between the Jew and G-d is unbreakable.[3]

 

 


[1] See Malbim. 

[2] Rashi on Deuteronomy 26:17

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Ki Savo, vol. 9 Sicha 1. 

Mother Bird

MB.jpgMother Bird  

Raising children in a modern democracy introduces unique challenges; chief among them is how to impose some measure of authority in a society that promotes individual choices, freedom and rights?

As parents it is our responsibility to show our children unconditional love, but also to set boundaries for our children. We often hesitate and wonder what right do we have to teach our children to respect us? What right do we have to impose our perspective on our children? Perhaps our children know best when they argue that our suggested bedtime is too early and our taste in fashion is outdated? 

We watch with amazement as our children surpass us in the ease with which they navigate technology, and wonder: perhaps we are holding them back, perhaps they know what's best for themselves in this changing world, perhaps they are better suited to creating their own boundaries just as they are in writing their own computer code? 

In this week’s portion, Ki Teitze, the Torah provides deep insight about the importance of honoring parents. The Torah instructs us how to treat a mother bird: 

If a bird's nest chances before you on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother upon the young. You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days. [1]

A person may not take the eggs or young birds together with the mother, instead he must send away the mother before he takes the children. Taking the mother bird together with the children exploits the mother's natural kindness to her children which causes her to stay with her children and not escape. The Torah commands us to send away the mother in respect of the mother bird's natural motherly devotion. 

The Torah is teaching us more than just to respect our parents who brought us into this world, as described in the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “honor your father and your mother”. With its instruction to send away the mother bird the Torah is teaching us that we have to respect parenthood in general, even if the parent isn't our parent and even if she is not a member of our species. Respecting a parent brings to our attention that every phenomenon has a parent, a source, from which it derives. That, in turn, makes us conscious that the entire world has a source, a parent, a creator. G-d, the first cause, the parent of all existence, who possesses the power to create, bestowed that power to a created being, gifting him or her with the ability to give life.

Thus, when we teach our children to honor their parents we are not asserting our own right to authority, we are not claiming that we are always correct or that we always know all the answers. We are teaching our children to respect their parents because their parents are a vessel to the Divine power to create.

Immediately following the Mitzvah to send away the mother bird the Torah continues: 

When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof]. [2]

Once our children learn to recognize that their parents were gifted with a Divine creating power, they will discover that same creative spirit within themselves. They will learn that G-d placed within their souls the imagination and spirit to create, they too, can “build a new home” and leave their unique imprint and contribution upon the world. When they realize that their creative ability is a Divine gift, they will ensure that it is used in a responsible way, in a way that is not harmful to other people. They will create a “fence” on the “roof” of the “home they built” to ensure that others are not harmed, and that the gift of creativity is used consistent with the will of G-d, the “parent” of the ability to create.

Teach your children to respect their parents. They will learn to respect the Divine spark wherever they see it: within their parents, within nature and within themselves[3]

  



[1] Deuteronomy 22:6-7. 5

[2] Ibid. 22:8.

[3] Inspired by the commentary of the Kli Yakar. 

Plead the Fifth

b.jpgPlead the Fifth 

To “plead the fifth” is to evoke the fifth amendment of the United States Constitution[1] which protects against an individual being forced to testify against himself.

Legal protection against forced self incrimination is anything but obvious; it did not appear in Roman law or in early Common law. Historically it was common practice to torture defendants until they would confess. 17th century England saw the beginning of the rejection of forced confessions, the shift in attitude and practice made its way across the Atlantic and ultimately became part of the Bill of Rights.

In 1966, in the landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona, the United States Supreme Court expanded this right and ruled that a statement of a defendant who is in police custody can be admitted as evidence at trial only if the defendant was aware of, and explicitly waived, his right to remain silent. To comply with the ruling, Police officers are required to tell the defendant that he or she has the right to remain silent.

The Torah's perspective on self incrimination is astonishing.

Not only does the Torah disqualify a forced confession, but the Torah goes much further; even if a person confesses voluntarily, the court cannot use the testimony against him.

At first glance this seems very difficult to understand: after all, it seems that a voluntary confession is the most powerful evidence.

There are multiple ways of understanding the Torah’s view of self incrimination. We will focus on three perspectives, one legal, one psychological and one mystical.

The Legal Explanation

The Talmud[2] offers two legal interpretations as to why we reject self incriminatory testimony. The first is the opinion of the Talmudic sage Rav Yosef and it is based on a legal doctrine that states that the testimony of a wicked person is not admissible in court because the wicked person is not trustworthy.

Now, if a person enters the courtroom and confesses to murder, he is obviously wicked. Had he offered testimony on behalf of or against anyone else we would not be able to accept his testimony, as he is clearly wicked. We therefore cannot accept his testimony against himself either, if we believe his self incriminatory testimony then we must accept that he is a wicked person whose testimony is not trustworthy.

Rava, one of the most famous of Talmudic sages, offers an alternative explanation as to why we reject self incriminating testimony even if a person offered the confession voluntarily. This interpretation is based on the Biblical law that a person cannot testify about his relative.

Rava explains that “a person is his own relative”. Rava argues that if the Torah rejects a relative's testimony because the relative is close to the subject about whom he is testifying then the same must apply to the one testifying against himself, as “he is his own relative”. He is also “close” to the subject he is testifying about, namely himself, therefore, we must reject his testimony.

Psychological Explanation

The Talmud’s explanations on why we reject self incriminating evidence, although logical from a scholarly perspective, it is undoubtedly counter intuitive. Maimonides therefore offers a revolutionary psychological explanation:

The Sanhedrin (high court)… may not execute a person who admits committing a transgression, lest he have become crazed concerning this matter. Perhaps he is one of those embittered people who are anxious to die and pierce their reins with swords or throw themselves from the rooftops. Similarly, we fear that such a person may come and admit committing an act that he did not perform, so that he will be executed.[3]

It was, and in many cases still is, very hard to imagine that someone would confess to a crime they did not commit; therefore studies show that juries consider a confession as the most conclusive evidence of guilt. Maimonides argues that there can be many unanticipated reasons why an innocent person would confess.

In recent years science has been confirming the Torah’s position on confessions. In recent years there has been an effort to overturn convictions on the basis of DNA evidence. After studying the Torah’s perspective, it should be no surprise that about 25 percent of 240 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the U.S. have involved some form of a false confession.[4] We are beginning to discover that people will confess for many reasons; psychological coercion is the most common, yet there have been many cases that prove the basic point of Maimonides: not only is a confession not the ultimate proof of guilt, as most people believed up until relatively recently, but it is (by itself) no proof at all. 

Mystical Dimension

The mystical explanation to the law is gleaned from contrasting the law of confession about a capital crime, which we reject, to the confession of a monetary obligation, which we accept, as the Talmud explains (regarding a monetary confession): ”One’s own admission is equivalent to the testimony of one hundred witnesses.”

Why the difference? Why would we accept testimony against one’s self in monetary cases if we reject it in criminal cases? Are we not concerned about monetary injustice?

The answer is that a person has the right to give a gift to whomever he wants; and once a person declares that he will give a gift he must do so. Meaning, a person can obligate himself to pay even if there is nothing obligating him to so – other then his own voluntary commitment. 

The Radvaz, in his commentary on Maimonides, explains that one's money belongs to himself, thus he is able to choose to gift it to anyone he would like. Therefore we accept a person's testimony that obligates him to give money to someone else, because it is within his right to spend his money as he pleases. Life, however, does not belong to the person. It is given to us loan from G-d, it isn’t ours to forfeit.

This, according to the Torah, must be our approach to life: our body, our soul, and therefore life itself, is a gift from G-d, given to us to as a loan, in order to accomplish the purpose of our creation.

 

 


[1] nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”. Fifth Amendment, United States Constitution

[2] Sanhedrin 9b.

[3] Rambam, Laws of Sanhedrin, Chapter 18, Halacha 6.

[4] www.innocenceproject.org/causes/false-confessions-admissions

Choice?

C.jpgChoice?  

In the 20th century, as brain scanning technology was rapidly developing, many scientists began to question, and ultimately reject, the notion of free choice. Looking at brain scans they argued that everything the human being does is determined by the physical properties of our brains. 

As a recent article put it:

we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.[1]

What’s most interesting about this argument is that it is as old as human history. In the first story in the Torah, in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we discover that the first to make the claim that a person has no free choice was none other than the serpent.

The serpent engaged Eve in conversation and planted within her a morally dangerous idea. As the Torah tells us:

Now the serpent was cunning, more than all the beasts of the field that the Lord God had made, and it said to the woman, "Did God indeed say, 'You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden?'" And the woman said to the serpent, "Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat. But of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, God said, "You shall not eat of it, and you shall not touch it, lest you die.'"[2]

Reading the conversation between the serpent and Eve the most important word is the word that does not appear. If we turn back to the verse that describes how G-d forbade the fruit if the tree of Knowledge the Torah says:

And the Lord God commanded man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it."[3]

There is a crucial difference between the verb the Torah employs to describe the prohibition of the tree of knowledge and the verb the serpent employes. The Torah uses the verb commanded - “And the Lord God commanded man” - while the serpent uses the verb said - “Did God indeed say”. While it is easy to overlook this seemingly subtle change, in fact, the serpents chief claim lies within this change.[4]

What is the difference between “commanded” and “said”? Command implies free choice, for there is no meaning in issuing a command about something that the recipient of the commandment has no control over. “G-d said”, by contrast, does not imply free choice. In the story of creation, all through the first chapter of Genesis, the Torah uses the phrase and “G-d said” - “and G-d said let there be light”, “and G-d said let there be a firmament” - to describe the creation of natural phenomena that have no free choice at all. When deliberately substituting “G-d said” for “G-d commanded”, the serpent was telling Eve that the human being is essentially no different than an animal, that she too, like the serpent and like the rest of nature, doesn't have choice regarding her actions. When the serpent said "Did God indeed say, 'You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden?'" he is asking Eve did G-d indeed say, did he create you to naturally be attracted to and unable to consume the fruit of the tree? Eve, accepted the terms imposed by the serpent and in all her discussion she does not refer to the prohibition as a commandment. She does not tell the serpent clearly and explicitly that the human being is indeed unique for he/she was created in the Divine image and blessed with the potent ability to choose freely.  

Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation and ate the forbidden fruit; yet the underlying mistake was succumbing to the idea that they were just like the serpent. That the human is no more than a sophisticated animal trapped by its instincts.

In the midst of Moses’s final words to his beloved people, Moses repeatedly emphasizes the idea that is the foundation of any code of morality, namely, that we were endowed by our creator with the freedom to chose our own path, thus we are responsible for both our failings as well as our triumphs.

As Moses says in the opening phrase of this week’s portion:

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.[5]

The choice is yours. 

 


[1] theatlantic.com  /2016/06/ there’s no such thing as free will

[2] Genesis 3:1-3.

[3] Ibid. 2:16:17.

[4] See Malbim to Genesis 3:1.

[5] Deuteronomy 11:26. 

Two Tablets

L.gifTwo Tablets

The Ten commandments are the foundation of the Torah. They encompass the most important principles of the Torah and therefore, unlike the rest of the Torah that was transmitted through Moses, the entire Jewish people heard the Ten Commandments spoken directly from G-d himself.

The Ten Commandments were inscribed on two tablets, each tablet containing five of the commandments. In this week’s portion, while retelling the story of Sinai Moses emphasizes that there were two tablets: “And it came to pass at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the Lord gave me two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant.” The question arises: why the need for two tablets? Couldn't Moses have inscribed all ten commandments on one tablet?

The Torah contains two general forms of Commandments: 1) the Commandments that relate to the relationship between man and G-d, such as loving G-d, fearing G-d, not mentioning His name in vain, etc. 2) and Commandments that relate to the relationship between man and his fellow, such as the Commandment to love a fellow as one’s self, and various forms of charity. Examining the ten commandments we find that they contain both categories of commandments. In fact, the first five are between man and G-d, and the second five are between man and fellow man.

Had all the Ten Commandments been written on one tablet, the only way to read them would be vertically from top to bottom, which would lead to the mistaken impression that somehow there is a hierarchy between the categories, that somehow G-d is more concerned about how we treat Him than about how we treat our fellow person.

The Torah therefore emphasizes that the commandments were inscribed on two tablets, which allows the commandments to be read not just vertically but also horizontally, thus the first commandment, “I am the L-rd your G-d”, which was inscribed on top of one tablet, and the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder”, which was inscribed on top of the other tablet, are both on the same level.  

In fact, when we read the Commandments horizontally, we see that the column of man’s responsibility to G-d and the column of man’s responsibility to fellow man share the same theme:

1. I am the L-rd your G‑d. 6. You shall not murder:

Murder is a terrible sin specifically because “I am the L-rd your G-d” and every Human being was created in the Image of G-d. Thus taking a human life is denying the sanctity of G-d.

2. You shall have no other gods before Me. 7. You shall not commit adultery:

The binding theme between these two commandments is the theme of loyalty. We must be loyal to are relationship with G-d and to our sacred relationship with our spouse.

3. You shall not take the name of the L-rd your G‑d in vain. 8. You shall not steal:

Stealing from someone else compromises our honesty and will inevitably lead to swearing falsely in G-d’s name in order to deny the theft.

4. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. 9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

By resting on Shabbat we testify that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, thus celebrating Shabbat is an act of testimony.

5. Honor your father and mother. 10. You shall not covet.

Coveting something that belongs to another person implies that one believes that he does not have what he needs, and he feels that in order to achieve happiness and meaning he must possess that which belongs to someone else. The truth however is that meaning in life and happiness comes from celebrating the talents, personality, possessions and circumstances we are blessed with. Honoring the parents who brought us into the world implies that we accept that the person we are, the G-d given talents we possess, our unique life story, being born into a specific family at a specific time, is exactly the person we need to be in order to fulfill our purpose on this earth.

 

Hear the Oneness

s.jpgHear the Oneness

To experience life on this earth is to experience opposite extremes. There are moments of creativity, love, joy and meaning, while there are other moments of frustration, pain, sadness and confusion. Likewise, when we look into our hearts we also find opposing drives: the selfish and the selfless, the animalistic and the G-dly, the inclination for good and the inclination for evil. These extremes are a source of tension that, to one degree or another, each of us experiences.

What advice does Judaism offer on how to manage these tensions? What insight does the Torah provide to help us make it through the times of darkness and confusion? In this week’s portion Moses speaks the phrase which, perhaps more than any other, captures Judaism's heart and soul, as well as relaying its message on how to navigate the stormy sea we call life.

Moses tells us that despite the tension we feel every day, despite the world being divided and fractured - as expressed so poetically by King Solomon in Ecclesiastes: “there is a time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot… A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing… A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace”[1] - despite all of this, the true essence of our existence is oneness. As Moses states:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.[2]

This message is so radical, so counter intuitive, so life changing that we are commanded to recite these words, as well as teach them to our children, not once but twice each and every day - once in the morning and once at night. 

When we recite the words of the “Shema” prayer, we are telling ourselves and telling our children, that both the “morning”, the moments of life in which we feel the blessings of G-d shining upon us, as well as the “night”, the moments of darkness and challenge, are expressions of the one G-d.[3] The Kabbalistic meaning of the phrase “the Lord (Hashem) is our G-d (Elokeynu)” is that the Divine power of expression and revelation (Hashem), as well as his power to conceal and hide his presence (Elokim), are, in truth, one and the same. The difference between revelation and concealment, between good and evil, between night and day, is only from our prospective. The truth however is that both are expressions of Godliness. There are times when G-d’s love, providence and protection is concealed, yet the central pillar of our faith is that G-d’s presence, although it may be hidden, exists and pervades all of reality.

The same is true for the opposing drives within our own heart. Immediately after declaring that at the core all of reality is oneness, Moses continues in the Shema: “And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart”, Rashi, quoting the Midrash and the Mishnah, explains that “with all your heart” means “love Him with your two inclinations [the good and the evil].” What is true for the macro universe is also true for the micro universe, the one within the heart of man. Although we feel the evil inclination and the good inclination pulling us in completely different directions, although it seems that the animal soul and the G-dly soul do not share a common goal, the truth, however, is that at the core they are one. They were both created for the same purpose, and both are necessary in order for us to reach the purpose of our creation. The passion of the animal soul must be transformed to the love of G-d, not by suppressing the passion but by channeling it. At its core, the animal soul wants what is good for itself, once we teach it to develop a taste and an appreciation for spirituality, the passion and might of the animal soul will be reoriented, and the love to all that is positive, constructive and holy will be far greater than the love that the G-dly soul can produce on its own.

This then is Judaism's unique perspective: G-d is the one truth that pervades all existence and we, in turn, must create that oneness within our heart, channeling the animal soul’s immense passion toward the love of G-d.[4]  



[1] Ecclesiastes 3:2-8.

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4. 

[3] See Lekutey Sichos vol. 14, Vaeschanan Sicha 2. 

[4] See Lekutey Torah Vaeschanan, 7:4.

Allow them to Fail?

D.jpgAllow them to Fail? 

What took them so long? Why did it take the Jewish people forty years to cross the Sinai Desert?

In the opening of the fifth book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses retells the history of the forty year journey and address this question. In the second verse of the book the Torah states:

“It is eleven days' journey from Horeb [Mt. Sinai] by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea [just south of Israel’s southern border]."

In the next verse we read that forty years later they were still in the desert:

It came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel…

By juxtaposing these two verses the Torah is implying that there are two possible answers to the question of how long it takes to get from Sinai to Israel: the journey could either eleven days or forty years.

How long does it take to cross the desert? Well, if the journey is one where the people are passive participants, being led by G-d who is sheltering and protecting them from internal and external harm and conflict, if the journey is one in which the people are the mere recipients of G-d’s blessing and, like a loving parent he solves all their problems, then, indeed, it is an eleven day journey. If Moses would have discouraged the people from sending spies, if Moses could have protected them from failing, he would have been able to lead them quickly and decisively to the border of Israel. 

Moses explained to the people that they could have arrived in Israel in eleven days. Moses could have protected them from facing challenges, and sheltered them from the possibility of failure. Yet, had that been the case, they would have eventually experienced disappointment and pain; they would not have had the tools to survive, overcome, and transform, when they reached their destination.

If however the people were to reach Israel on their own accord, by the fruit of their own effort then the duration of the journey was forty years. If they were to learn to trust their inner voice of inspiration, if they were to learn to conquer their own fears, find the courage to believe in their own ability and awaken a desire to enter the land, if they were to cross the desert, literally as well as figuratively, with their own effort, then the journey and the transformation would take forty years.  

As parents, we sometimes feel that we must step in and protect our children from failure. Here, for example, is an  excerpt of a review of the book 'The Gift of Failure’ which describes the phenomenon:

Any day they can “help” their child — on the playground, rushing breathlessly from sandbox to swings to ensure nobody gets hurt; at home, shuttling forgotten l­­unches or assignments to school and doing the student’s homework; in class, contesting grades; or at sports, second-guessing coaches and referees — they reassure themselves that “Yes, you are a good parent today.” It’s a parent’s ego trip, but children pay the price. When parents try to engineer failure out of kids’ lives, Lahey says, kids feel incompetent, incapable, unworthy of trust and utterly dependent. They are, she argues, unprepared when “failures that happen out there, in the real world, carry far higher stakes.[1]

To express true love we must withhold the urge to solve all our children's challenges.

We learn from Moses that true parental love is allowing the child to fail in a safe environment. We must allow them to realize that they can survive defeat and recover from setbacks.  We must teach them to find strength within themselves to work their way through pain, to overcome failure and transform pain and disappointment into a drive for even greater success.

 


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/books/review/the-gift-of-failure-by-jessica-lahey.html

Be the Bridge

22.pngBe the Bridge

Toward the end of the book of Numbers we read about the Jewish people concluding their journey through the desert and arriving at the border of the Promised Land.

The Torah describes that the tribes of Reuben and Gad requested that they be granted the lands that the Jewish people conquered outside of Israel, on the east bank of the Jordan River, as their inheritance. At first Moses was angered with their request. He suspected that it would discourage the other tribes from wanting to cross the Jordan and enter the land, but once they explained their intention of leading the other tribes in battle, Moses agreed to their request and gave them the lands east of the Jordan as their inheritance.

Although they did not request it, Moses also placed half the tribe of Menashe, the son of Joseph, on the eastern bank of the Jordan. The question arises: if Moses was so disturbed by the request of the tribes who wanted to settle outside of Israel, why did Moses, on his own initiative, split the tribe of Menashe in two, and place half the tribe outside of Israel across the Jordan River? 

What do we know about the tribe of Menashe?

Back in the Book of Genesis we read about how ten of the twelve children of Jacob, who later became the tribes of Israel, kidnapped their brother and sold him into slavery. We read about the many challenges Joseph, a seventeen year old boy, a slave in a foreign country, had to face, and how he miraculously rose to become the viceroy of Egypt and the acting leader of the ancient world’s superpower.

We read about Joseph naming his eldest son Menashe: “for G-d has caused me to forget (“Nashani”) all my toil and all my father's house.”[1] With the name Menashe Joseph reminded himself that the culture of Egypt was a foreign one, it was a culture that sought to make him forget his father’s home. He chose this name to remind himself that while he was physically distant from his father’s home, while he was completely invested in the well being of the Egyptian nation and economy, he must never forget that his essence remained back home with his father and with the legacy of Abraham.

Menashe, then, was a symbol of Joseph’s ability to have a foot in both worlds. On the one hand he was present, invested and successful in Egyptian society, while on the other hand, at his core, he was a Hebrew. His heart and soul, his thoughts and aspirations were back home in the land and ideas of his father’s home.

This is why Moses divided the inheritance of the tribe of Menashe, placing them on both banks of the Jordan River. Moses understood that Mensahe could bridge the gap between Israel and the rest of the world. Moses knew that the purpose of the Jewish people was not only to build a haven of spirituality in the land of Israel, but rather they were also tasked with spreading their influence and message to the rest of the world. No tribe was better suited to this task than Menashe, who exemplified that even while living in a spiritually hostile environment one can bridge both worlds. One could remain loyal to his spiritual home, while prospering in a foreign land and one could bring the influence of Israel to the heart of a foreign capital.

We read the end of the book of Numbers in the days leading up to the ninth of Av, the day the temple was destroyed and we were exiled from the land of Israel. The lesson to be learned, especially at this time of year, is clear. Although, our people were exiled from Israel, we have not abandoned Israel and its message. Like the tribe of Menashe, we are able to have a foot on both sides of the River. Although we are in the diaspora, our heart is in Israel. Our presence is the bridge that allows the holiness of Israel to reach the rest of the world. We are the bridge upon which the inspiration emerging from Jerusalem will transform the rest of the world, the bridge that will fill the world with the knowledge of G-d, ushering in an era of peace and harmony.[2]



[1]Genesis 41:51.

[2]Inspired by Lekutey Sichos Matos-Masey vol. 28. 

In Love with the Moon

Moon.pngIn Love with the Moon  

Jews are in love with the Moon.

We have always been fascinated by its soft glow, by its ability to illuminate the dark night, and, most importantly, by its capacity for rebirth. At the end of the Lunar month we look up at the sky and we see no moon at all, yet, a day or two later, the moon reappears, reborn, invigorated and reassuring, it once again begins to steadily grow and increase its beauty and light. We look up at the moon and we see our story. We, like the moon, are called upon to illuminate an often spiritually dark world. As individuals and as a people we wax and wane, we experience ups and downs, we are sometimes fully bright, while at other times we feel devoid of all light and we fear that this may be the end of our people. Yet, miraculously, we reappear. We have a capacity to adapt, to recreate ourselves, not to be trapped by the negativity of our past, to rise to the new challenges of the day. Thus, every month we celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the rebirth of the moon, on the first day of the Hebrew month.

Looking back at the verses in Genesis which describe the creation of the moon, there is an interesting discrepancy. At first the verse states that G-d created “two great luminaries”, and then the verse proceeds to elaborate: “the great luminary (the sun) to rule the day and the small luminary (the moon) to rule the night”. The question is obvious: are they both “great luminaries” or is one “great” and the other “small”?

The Talmud explains that initially both the sun and the moon were created as “great luminaries”, however, the moon was diminished and it became “small”:

The moon said to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, ‘Master of the Universe, How can two kings share one crown?’

He said to her, ‘Go and diminish yourself!’

She said to him: ‘Master of the universe, because I said a logical thing before you, I should diminish myself?’...

The Holy One said, “I will bring an atonement on Me for I have diminished the moon.”[1]

Indeed, in this week’s Torah portion, the portion of Pinchas, we read about the commandment to offer a sin offering on Rosh Chodesh, as the Talmud continues:

“Why the difference in how the New Moon offering is written, “A he-goat on the new moon, for the Lord?’ Because the Holy One is saying, ‘Let this he-goat be an atonement for me, for the diminishment of the moon.”

What are we to make of this seemingly strange teaching? Why indeed was the moon punished for speaking the truth? And how can human beings possibly be the ones who atone for G-d’s injustice?

The sun is a metaphor for the shining light of G-d, while the moon, which has no light of its own and receives its light from the sun, represents the creation. G-d’s plan was that both the sun and the moon would be great luminaries. That the infinity and intensity of the Divine energy and light would be felt by the moon, by the creation, just as powerfully as when it shines forth from G-d. There would still be a creation separate from the creator, but there would not be any spiritual darkness within the creation, because the Divine light would shine in all its intensity. Thus both the source of light and the recipient of the light, both the sun and the moon, both the creator and the creation, would be great luminaries.

The moon protested.

“How can two kings share one crown?” cried the moon. “If the full force of the divine light will shine in this world then I will not have my own distinct identity and personality”.

G-d agreed. G-d told the moon: “Go and diminish yourself!”. Yes, creation will plunge into spiritual darkness, yes, creation will feel separated from its great source of holiness, but the moon, and the creation it represents, will have its own identity. It will have the ability to forge its own path, to illuminate the darkness with its light. For once the moon is diminished, once it no longer reflects the full intensity of the sun’s light, there is spiritual darkness in the world. There is chaos, pain and confusion, yet, precisely because of the darkness, the human being is able to feel its own identity, to feel the satisfaction of creativity, and to discover his or her purpose: to bring light to the darkness, to fill the world with goodness and kindness. 

The moon, however, was still troubled. It tells G-d “Master of the universe, because I said a logical thing before you, I should diminish myself?” The moon was protesting all the pain that would exist in this world as a result of the world being plunged into darkness. The concealment of the Divine light is, in fact, what enables all suffering loneliness and sadness to exist.

G-d therefore responds that indeed, the moon has a just claim. In order to create space for man and woman, to give meaning to their choices and a feeling of satisfaction to their achievements, there must be darkness and pain. And G-d is in need of atonement for the suffering enabled by the darkness of the diminishment of the moon. Thus G-d says to the Jew: “bring a he-goat to be an atonement for me, for the diminishment of the moon”. G-d is telling us that we alone can atone for G-d. That we alone must work to overcome the spiritual darkness, the pain and suffering that exists in this world. We alone must look up to the moon, watch it emerge from the darkness, and take its lesson to heart.

Like the moon, we must always understand that it is our responsibility to keep shining even in the darkest of times. It is our responsibility to heal the pain on earth, and to bring the universe closer to its creator.[2]   



[1] Talmud Chulin 60b.

[2] See Maharal, Chidushey Agados, Shavuos 9a. 

Who’s Your Zaidy?

109652.jpgWho’s Your Zaidy[1]?

After more than two hundred years in Egypt, after forty years of wandering in the desert, the children of Israel came back to the border of their homeland; only the Jordan River stood between them and the land promised to their ancestors.

Then it happened. Billam, a gentile prophet, was called to come from Aram, (Charan, modern day Iraq) to curse the Jews. His intention was to harm the Jewish people, but G-d intervened and the curse was transformed into a blessing.

Does this story sound familiar? Have we heard of someone coming from Aram to harm the Jews when they were on their way back to Israel? Does this story ring a bell?

If so, it is because there is a strikingly similar story in the book of Genesis, the very first book of the Torah. When Jacob was returning home to Israel, after a twenty year stay in Charan, Laban, his dishonest father-in-law, chased after him and wanted to harm him. G-d came to Laban in a dream and warned him not to harm Jacob. The evil plan was averted and Laban created a peace treaty with Jacob.

With so many similarities between the stories - both Bilam and Laban came from Aram, both wanted to harm the Jews, both were forced by G-d to refrain from causing harm, both experiences led to a transformation, Laban created peace and Billam blessed the Jews with extraordinary blessings - is there an inner connection between the stories?      

Indeed there is.

The Talmud states that the prophet Bilaam was a descendant of Lavan. It would seem that the story of Billam offers closure to the story of Laban. Somehow the transformation of Laban was incomplete, and therefore his descendant Billam had to correct and finalize the transformation of hostility to blessing. 

Just before Laban offered a covenant of peace to Jacob, the verse states:

And Laban answered and said to Jacob, "The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine.”[2]

Laban declares that he, Laban, was the patriarch of Jacob’s family. While he understood that Jacob had a moral legacy which he had received from Abraham and Isaac, Laban declared that the spiritual legacy which Jacob received from his fathers was relevant solely for Jacob himself. Jacob himself was free to believe as he desired. However, the daughters and sons, the next generation, as well as all of Jacob’s material possessions, are attributed to and belong to Laban. They would carry the legacy of Laban. Laban declared that the Jewish ideals of morality have no place in the real world. They may be interesting abstract concepts, but they have no place in influencing the manner of raising a family and earning a living.

More than two centuries later, Billam, like his grandfather before him, came to curse the Jews. He expected to find a people that fit Laban’s description "The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine”. He expected to find a people who were the descendants of Laban and the bearers of his materialistic legacy. He expected to find a people whose holiness was confined to specific moments; a people who, in their daily life, are a nation like all other nations. A people whose unique values don’t influence their real life experiences.

Billam, inspired by prophecy, discovered his mistake and set out to correct the record. He said:

For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.[3]

“Mountain peaks” and “hills” are a metaphor for the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people. As Rashi explains:

For from its beginning, I see them as mountain peaks: I look at their origins and the beginning of their roots, and I see them established and powerful, like these mountains and hills, because of their patriarchs and matriarchs.

Billam declared that Laban was unequivocally wrong. Billam declared that the roots of the children of Israel are not the conniving Laban but rather Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah. They are a nation loyal to the teachings of the patriarchs and matriarchs. A nation whose holiness, morals and spirit permeates every area of their life. They are “a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations”, because their unique beliefs affect the way they raise their families and the way they engage in commerce and agriculture. 

Billam declared that they are not the descendants of Laban, but rather of the “mountains” and “hills”. Their Bubys and Zeidys are the patriarchs and matriarchs.[4]

 


[1] Yiddish for Grandfather.

[2] Genesis 31:43.

[3] Numbers 23:9.

[4] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey SIchos Balak, vol. 2. 

Pure Happiness

zRTt6595112.jpgPure Happiness

In the background of all existence lies a deep sadness. The sadness is faint, it can be ignored, but it always lurks in the background, occasionally bursting forth into the human being’s consciousness.

The sadness is a result of the mortality of existence. We are all trapped by the march of time. Time consistently moves forward, it never stops to take a rest, and it refuses to free us of its grip and allow us to slow the clock, to freeze a moment in time for prosperity.[1]

No matter how strong the joy felt in the human heart, perhaps at one’s wedding, at the birth of a child or another intensely joyful experience, the joy is experienced against the subtle knowledge that this moment in time can never be recreated. That in a fleeting moment this experience of joy will slip away. 

The sadness is magnified when a person contemplates that from the moment of birth the clock is ticking, he is moving closer to the end of his life. While most people successfully navigate through daily life without facing the sadness of mortality, when we come in contact with death, this natural feeling of sadness is magnified. When we see death we are forced to recognize our own mortality, we realize that eventually everything we cherish and our very existence will end. Thus, the Torah teaches that if someone touches a dead body they become ritually impure, because death produces sadness which is the antithesis to a relationship with G-d, who is the source of life and the source of joy.  

The opening commandment of this week’s Torah portion discusses the law of the red heifer, which provided ritual purity for the impurity of contacting the dead. The portion begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid...[2]

The commandment of the red heifer is categorized not as the “statute of the heifer” but rather as the “statute of the Torah”. The commentators explain that the laws of purity and impurity in general, and the law of the red heifer in particular, cannot be fully understood by the human mind and must be observed simply because it is a statute commanded by G-d with no explanation that we can comprehend.

How does this commandment provide purification? How does it cure one of the sadness produced by experiencing human mortality?

There is one path to true and lasting joy; when a person transcends himself, freeing himself from his obsession with self and doing something that is beyond himself, in that state he is breaking free of his mortality. Which is why, perhaps counter intuitively, happiness comes from giving to others. When a person shifts his focus from himself and empathizes with another, when he reaches into himself and takes something which is precious to him, whether it be his time, his money, or his attention, and gives to another, he will feel joy. Because he has broken free of the grip of material existence, and experienced a spiritual existence, one that transcends time and space.  

A person has a limited lifespan but when he fills his life with experiences that connect him to the infinite creator, he achieves immortality, for G-d is the infinite source of life. Connecting to the Divine, going beyond human reason and fulfilling a Mitzvah simply because it is the will of the infinite G-d, allows a person to escape his limitation and leave the sadness of the universe behind him. For he is connected and becomes absorbed in the infinite, transcendent, source of life.  

The law of the red heifer, then, captures a profound lesson in life: in order to be able to experience joy, we must not look toward accumulating more physical objects and experiences. In fact, doing so may increase our sadness as it makes us realize that that which we value is physical and therefore ultimately fleeting. Instead, in order to experience a purifying feeling of happiness, we should turn to the spiritual. We must fill our lives with moments of transcendence. We must connect to the source of life and joy.[3]



[1] See Kli Yakar on Genesis 1:14.

[2] Numbers 1:1-2.

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Chukas vol. 4, as presented in the Kehot Chumash. 

Naming Rights

2609.jpgNaming Rights

Korach was a dangerous man. He led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron which threatened to undermine the veracity of Moshe’s prophecy and destroy the cohesion of the Jewish people necessary for them to survive in the desert and ultimately enter the land of Israel.

Why then do we give the “naming rights” of a portion in the Torah to Korach? Why do we refer to the portion as the portion of Korach, thus enshrining his name for eternity as a model for admiration?

Korach wanted to be the high priest instead of Aaron. Korach spoke out against the division within the people whereby Aaron was deemed the only one holy enough to perform the service of the temple while all other Jews were excluded from that role and, in his estimation, were therefore less holy and spiritually significant. Korach wanted spiritual equality: he wanted everybody to be on the same level of holiness.

The truth, however, is that there must be various grades of holiness.

The High Priest, must remain completely dedicated to the temple service, and disengage from worldly matters. The High Priest is likened to Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a day when all Jews experience an angelic existence, ignoring the needs of the body and focusing on the soul's relationship with G-d. 

Now consider the following question: if Yom Kippur is the holiest day, if it is a day on which we touch our core self as like on no other day, why don’t we simply declare everyday as holy as Yom Kippur? Why are most days mundane?

The answer is that if every day is as intensely holy as Yom Kippur then the purpose of creation, which is to sanctify the mundane and make it a dwelling place for the Divine, cannot be achieved. A world where every day is Yom Kippur, or, where every person is a high priest, is a world where, although the soul is connected to G-d, the body and the mundane reality are out of the picture. As a result, instead of the material existence being elevated and sanctified, it will fall lower, it will become more selfish, and farther away from its Divine source.

Which is why the devastating results of Korach’s rebellion were that the rebels were punished in two ways. The two hundred and fifty leaders who offered the incense were burned by fire, while the rest of Korach’s camp was swallowed up by the earth. The consequences demonstrated what would have happened had Korach’s plan been implemented. Fire, always surging upward, is a metaphor for spirituality. Yes, if we were all high priests, then our spiritual side would surge upward and would always be connected to G-d, yet our body would not come along for the ride. Our intensely spiritual existence could not understand or communicate with the more physical part of our existence. Thus, while the soul would ascend in fire, the body would be swallowed up by the earth, unable to elevate itself.

Which is why the Divine plan was that there should be both holy and mundane. One day a year we escape the body, and that experience empowers us to elevate the body during the rest of the year. At all other times, we have a high priest who is intensely holy, who inspires the rest of the people, who are engaged in the material world, to be more spiritual.

While Korach was mistaken, as there must be varying degrees of holiness, there is one aspect of Korach which is not only desirable but also necessary. In order for the mundane to be elevated it has to experience the desire and yearning for holiness. Thus although on a Tuesday afternoon in  November, a Jew is not as holy as he is on Yom Kippur; there must be part of him which, like Korach, wishes it were Yom Kippur. In the final analysis, then, while Korach’s actions were disastrous, his desire for holiness must be celebrated.

Thus the name of the portion is not “(and Korach) took”, the first word of the Parsha[1], which describes Korach disastrous actions, his rebellion; but rather the Parsha is named, Korach. For Korach himself, the desire to be holy, is positive and should be celebrated.

Korach himself, as opposed to his actions, earned for himself the naming rights to the Parsha. Because the desire for holiness must be cultivated and celebrated.[2]     

 


[1] In Hebrew the verb - “took” - precedes the subject - “Korach”.

[2] Adopted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos vol. 18, Sicha 1 and 3.

The Miracle of Bread

C.jpgThe Miracle of Bread

The spies returned from scouting out the land of Israel with a report describing the might of its inhabitants. The hearts of the Jewish people filled with fear, they lost faith in G-d’s ability to bring them into the land, and they cried: “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!”[1]. As a result of their rejection of the land, it was decreed that they, the generation that was liberated from Egypt would remain in the desert for forty years. Only the next generation would merit to enter the land and to see the fulfillment of the Divine promise to bring the people to the land of their ancestors.

After the tragic episode of the spies, the Torah tells us:  

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them, When you arrive in the Land to which I am bringing you, and you eat from the bread of the Land, you shall set aside a gift for the Lord. The first portion of your dough, you shall separate a loaf for a gift... From the first portion of your dough you shall give a gift to the Lord in [all] your generations.[2]

Why would G-d choose to place the commandment of Challah, the commandment to dedicate the first piece of dough to G-d, at this point in the story? The words: “When you arrive in the Land to which I am bringing you”, clearly state that the commandment would not take effect for forty years. Discussing a Mitzvah that applies only in the Land of Israel immediately after the decree barring the Jews from entering the land, seems, at first glance, to be quite cruel.

To understand this, we must turn back and analyze the mistake made by the spies, we must address one of the most difficult questions raised by this story: How is it possible that the same people who experienced great miracles, from the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea to the manna descending from heaven, could undergo a dramatic change of heart and suffer a colossal loss of faith? How could a people who perceived G-d’s wonders deny his ability to help them conquer the land?   

The answer to this question is, that the spies, as well as the Jewish people, witnessed G-d’s ability to perform miracles, to shatter the laws of nature, and they understood that the laws of nature are no match for G-d’s might. G-d can, and occasionally will, suspend the laws of nature and display his miraculous wonders.

Yet, they were aware that once they entered the land the miracles would cease. They would have to wage a natural war of conquest, they would have to farm the land to sustain themselves, no longer could they expect G-d to interfere and change the laws of nature on their behalf. Thus, they were afraid to enter the land; not because they thought that G-d could not perform miracles, but rather because they thought that G-d would choose not to perform them. Without shattering the laws of nature, they feared, they would be powerless to conquer the land.[3]

What they failed to understand is that nature itself is a miracle.

They understood that G-d could shatter nature but they failed to grasp that G-d operates through nature, that the miraculous as well as the natural are both expressions of the Divine. 

That it is why, shortly after the debacle of the spies, G-d commanded the Jewish people to separate the first piece of dough and gift it to the priest. Kneading dough follows many months of toil; man must invest his effort, plow, sow and harvest; months will pass before the earth works its magic and produces wheat. At the culmination of all his effort, before he enjoys the fruit of many months of labor, the Jew dedicates the first piece of dough to the priest, because the Jew understands that the bread is a result of G-d’s blessing. The Jew recognizes that the earth yielding its produce is an expression of the Divine power. That nature is nothing but an expression of G-d’s will. That the loaf of bread is as great a miracle as the splitting of the sea.

Thus, the commandment of Challah is placed soon after the story of the spies for it is, in fact, a roadmap to rehabilitation from the mistake of the spies. Understanding that G-d operates through nature would give the Jew the confidence, as well as the merit, to leave the miracles of the desert and embrace life in the land.

The Commandment of Challah reminds the Jew that while he is engaged in the natural process of plowing, sowing and harvesting, he is experiencing the kindness of G-d.[4] The Jew realizes that G-d is found not only in the miracles of the desert but also in the fields of the Land of Israel.

Separating the Challah demonstrates that for the Jew, G-d is present not only in the miraculous but also in the mundane. 

 


[1] Numbers 14:4.

[2] Numbers 15:17-21.

[3] See Lekutey Sichos Shlach, vol. 4.

[4] See Lekutey Sichos Shlach, vol. 18 Sicha 5. 

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