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Blog - Torah Insights

Confronting the Heifer

r.jpgConfronting the Heifer

The law of the red heifer is the most mysterious law of the Torah. Somehow the red heifer would provide purity for the most severe form of ritual impurity, that of coming in contact with a human corpse.

Life is synonymous with holiness, for G-d is the source of life. The red heifer represents the power to purify even the most severe form of ritual impurity, represented by death, the antithesis of holiness and life.  

Indeed, Chassidic philosophy explains that the red heifer captures the secret of the uniquely Jewish approach to purifying the negativity within each of us; the key to dealing with our inner passions, which overwhelm us with the force of their energy.

What were the key requirements for the red heifer? The Torah[1] tells us:

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.

The heifer must be red, it must be unblemished, and it must never have been burdened by a yoke. Red is the color of passion. The heifer represents the animalistic emotions within the human heart. A yoke represents the taming of the animal. At times we look inside ourselves and we experience the emotional intensity of our animalistic urges and cravings.

We look at our inner red heifer and we fear that its animalistic raw energy is too powerful for us to control; we look at our inner red heifer and we see nothing but impurity. 

The Torah’s insight into the red heifer is as profound as it is revolutionary. After the priest would slaughter the heifer the Torah[2] tells us: 

The cow shall then be burned in his presence; its hide, its flesh, its blood, with its dung he shall burn it…

They shall take for that unclean person from the ashes of the burnt purification offering, and it shall be placed in a vessel [filled] with spring water…

A ritually clean person shall take the hyssop and dip it into the water and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, and on the people who were in it, and on anyone who touched the bone, the slain person, the corpse, or the grave.

Purity is not achieved by suppressing or waging war against desire. The Torah teaches us to look right at the passionate, forceful red heifer. Look at its core and understand that, the red heifer is not negative, nor is it spiritually neutral. The Torah wants us to understand that the heifer can be the most powerful agent of purity in our life. The power of desire, its incredible force and energy, is not evil. For while the external expression of the desire may be negative and must be burned, the ashes of the heifer, its inner essence, the power of desire, is the source of purity. Mixed into the “living waters”, when the power of desire is directed toward a positive goal, the heifer itself will be an unbridled force which will provide spiritual and emotional purity.[3]

 



[1] Numbers 19:1-2.

[2] Ibid 19:5-18.

[3] Adapted from Lekutei Torah Parsahs Chukas.

The Gift of Individuality

K.jpgThe Gift of Individuality 

Korach, a prominent member of the tribe of Levi and a cousin of Moses and Aaron, led a rebellion against Moses.

He instigated others and together they claimed that the Jewish people were all holy and therefore there was no need for Moses and Aaron to lead the people, as the Torah tells us:

They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"[1]  

The rebellion had a tragic ending. G-d intervened, punished Korach and his camp, and reiterated that G-d himself was the one who chose Moses and Aaron as leaders.

Perhaps the part of the story which is most difficult to understand is, not why Korach rebelled or why he was punished so severely, but rather, what was wrong with his claim? Korach put forth a convincing argument; all Jews are holy. The entire Jewish nation heard G-d speak to them at Sinai. All Jews have a soul that is part of G-d. So why are there differences between people? Korach argued that if indeed we all have the same source, if we are all part of the same G-d, then why is the priesthood reserved for only a small group of Jews? Why can’t all Jews be equal?

Rashi quotes the Midrash which refers to Korach as an astute, wise person (as the Midrash asks: “But what did Korah, who was astute, see to commit this folly?”). The wise person has the ability to see not just the reality as it presents itself but also the source and energy of the phenomenon. Thus, when Korach looked at the Jewish people he saw them as they were within their source above, complete oneness with no distinctions between them.     

Yet Korach was wrong. His desire to blur the differences between them, his claim that all Jews are equally holy and therefore there is no need for a leader, is misguided and dangerous. We live in a world of limitations, definitions and distinctions. This world cannot be a vessel to receive the full potency of Divine unity. In this world, the Divine unity is revealed  when the multiplicity of creation joins together to express unity. Divine unity is expressed, not by eradicating the differences between people but rather by each individual celebrating their own individuality, recognizing that specifically because he or she is unique, different and distinct from the billions of human beings living on the planet, he or she is indispensable to G-d. Only when each individual expresses their own unique perspective and talents, contributing a critical, vital  detail to the overall purpose of creation, is a true and lasting unity achieved.

At the conclusion of the story of Korach’s rebellion the Torah tells us that Moses collected one staff from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, the staff of the tribe of Levi was inscribed with Aaron’s name. Miraculously Aaron’s staff blossomed and produced almonds, which was a sign that G-d chose Aaron as the high priest. As the Torah[2] describes:

Moses spoke to the children of Israel, and all their chieftains gave him a staff for each chieftain according to their fathers' houses, [a total of] twelve staffs, and Aaron's staff was amidst their staffs.

Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the Tent of the Testimony.

And on the following day Moses came to the Tent of Testimony, and behold, Aaron's staff for the house of Levi had blossomed! It gave forth blossoms, sprouted buds, and produced ripe almonds.

When the Staff of Aaron blossomed, the story continues:

Moses took out all the staffs from before the Lord, to the children of Israel; they saw and they took, each man his staff.

The Torah emphasizes that, after Aaron’s staff blossomed, the leader of each tribe took his own staff back. This captures the purpose of the story. You may not be a Kohen, you may not have the gifts that someone else has, yet you must know that you do have your own staff, your own path, your own mission, your own gifts. Moses teaches each of us, that after our staff is placed next to Aaron’s staff, after we are inspired by Aaron’s leadership, we must each take our own staff and pursue that which we alone can achieve.

***

This Shabbat, the third of Tammuz, is the twenty fourth Yohrtzeit of the Rebbe. The Rebbe saw the unique beauty within every person. The Rebbe inspired each person he met to express the Divine soul that is within them, by illuminating their surroundings with the light of Torah and Mitzvot. May we each continue to live the Rebbe’s legacy until we merit the coming of Moshiach, speedily in our days.[3]

___________________

[1] Numbers 16:13. 

[2] Ibid. 17:21-24 

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Korch vol. 18 sicha 3, and Parshas Korach 5749.
 

 

Scouting a New Path

s.jpgScouting a New Path  

For the first time in his career Moses did not receive a direct instruction from G-d. The Jewish people requested of Moses to send spies to scout the promised land. G-d told Moses:

Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel.

Rashi, the primary commentary on the Torah, clarifies and explains that the words “for yourself” are not a commandment to dispatch spies, in the words of Rashi:

Send for yourself: According to your own understanding. I am not commanding you, but if you wish, you may send.

The spies brought calamity upon the Jewish people. When they returned from scouting the land they reported that the Jewish people were incapable of conquering the land. The Jewish people wept and called for the appointment of a new leader who would l bring them back to Egypt. In response to their rejection of the promised land, G-d decreed that the Jewish people would wander in the desert for forty years, the generation of people that was liberated from Egypt would die in the desert. Only the next generation would merit to enter the promised land of Israel.

Why did Moses decide to send the spies? Until that point Moses did not make a move without an explicit instruction from above. Why did Moses not consider that, by emphasizing that He was not commanding Moses to dispatch the spies, G-d may have been signaling to Moses to hold back and not send the spies? Why did Moses miss the red flag?

When he heard the words “if you wish, you may send” Moses was filled with joy. Moses understood that the Jewish people were being asked to climb to greater spiritual heights and exercise free choice. They were now developed to the point where they were capable of performing the will of G-d, not because they were commanded to do so, but because of their own will and desire. G-d was opening a new path in the service of G-d, no longer would there be a direct commandment from above, specifically because the goal of the Torah is not to superimpose its will from above, but rather it is for people to discover that they themselves want to do the right thing.   

Until now, the people were shown which path to take, G-d led them out of Egypt took them to Sinai, and led them through the desert toward the land of Israel. Once they entered Israel, they would no longer experience Divine revelation leading their every step. The sending of the spies, represented the critically important ability of the Jewish people to decide that they wanted to enter the land, not because of a commandment alone, but because their own will and desire directed them to do so.    

This explains why forty years after Moses sent the first group of spies, Joshua, the student and successor of Moses, once again sent spies, as we read in the Haftorah:

And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men out of Shittim to spy secretly, saying, Go see the land and Jericho.

The mission of Joshua’s spies was successful. Joshua, despite witnessing the calamity brought on by the spies sent by Moses, took a risk and sent spies. Joshua understood that they could not enter the land without first sending spies. Because we cannot truly transform the earth, we cannot imbue the earth with lasting holiness, unless we do so because of our own desire.


(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Parshas Shlach 5749.)

 

Who will Give us Meat?

m.jpegWho will Give us Meat?

Only three days had  passed since the Jewish people left Mount Sinai, beginning their journey toward the Land of Israel, and already there was a stunning setback. The people who experienced Divine revelation, the people who merited to see the cloud of glory rest upon the tabernacle they built for G-d, began complaining. They cried out that they wanted meat!

As the Torah[1] tells us:

But the multitude among cultivated a craving. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat?

How is it possible that the people so quickly abandoned the spirituality which they had cultivated at Sinai and demanded meat?

Every story in the Torah is multi layered, and can be understood on many levels. According to the Chassidic interpretation, the people’s desire for meat was, in fact, a positive desire. Upon closer reading of the story we discover that the people complained not because they wanted meat, but because they wanted a  desire for meat (the literal translation of the verse is “they desired a desire”, meaning they desired to experience desire). After almost a year of intense spiritual experience, they departed from Sinai and  realized that they had ceased to feel any craving for materialism. The lack of desire troubled them because they felt that the purpose of life is to experience challenge. They craved the challenge of overcoming temptation. They said:

We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.

They wanted fish, cucumbers and watermelons, because they wanted to experience desire, to be challenged by passion, and then channel the desire. They desired  to feel the natural craving for delicious food and transform that desire to a craving for G-d. At Sinai, they did not experience passionate love to G-d, which is predicated on feeling the self and feeling how the self desires to cleave to G-d. At Sinai they experienced complete devotion and humility before G-d. The humble person does not focus on himself, instead he is devoted to and focused on someone or something outside of himself.

Moses responded with  despair. Moses turned to G-d and cried:

Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, 'Give us meat to eat.' Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me.

Moses, was  the humblest of men. Moses is referred to as Moses our  teacher. According to Kabbalah wisdom is synonymous with humility, for wisdom is the ability to separate oneself from his or her own subjective emotions and point of view, and focus on the objective reality that is greater than the self. Moses, therefore told  G-d that he, Moses, was incapable of leading the people who craved a desire. He had no common language with people who wanted to experience passionate love. As the Torah continues:

Moses said, "Six hundred thousand people on foot are the people in whose midst I am, and You say, 'I will give them meat, and they will eat it for a full month'?

Moses said “these are the people in whose midst I am”. Moses said to G-d, that he, Moses had invested much time and effort in order to impart within the people a spark of Moses, a glimpse of his own selfless humility and devotion to G-d. Now that they wished to experience desire, argued Moses, they were disconnecting themselves from Moses and his unique spiritual lifestyle!  

G-d, however, did  not share Moses’s concern. He told Moses:  

"Is My power limited? Now you will see if My word comes true for you or not!"

G-d gave the Jewish people meat. He allowed them to experience desire and to transform the desire and passion for meat to a passionate love to G-d. Because, as G-ds told Moses, “is my power limited?” The message of Judaism is that G-d can be found not only in the humility of Moses, but, perhaps even more importantly, in elevating our craving and channeling our passion to bring us closer to G-d.[2]

 


_________________________

[1] Numbers 11.

[2] Adapted from Arvi Nachal and Lekutey Torah Bihaaloscha 31:3.

 

The Blessing of Peace

BK.jpgThe Blessing of Peace

Finally, it was time to bless the children of Israel.

After the exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Torah, the construction of the tabernacle and the tribes organizing themselves into four camps, as the Jewish people were preparing to depart from Mount Sinai and travel toward the land of Israel, they were ready to receive the Divine blessing. At that point G-d commanded the priests, Aaron and his sons, to bless the Jewish people with the words dictated by G-d. Until this very day, the priests use these holy words when they bless the Jewish people.

What is the nature of a blessing?

If a blessing is just a form of prayer, asking G-d to bless the people, and if the people are merely passive recipients of the blessing, then the blessing should be said to G-d and not to the people. In fact, the Torah commands the priests to say the blessing to the Jewish people because the purpose of the blessing is not merely to receive without exertion but rather it is in order to inspire the recipient to strive to achieve the blessing, and make the blessing a reality in his life. The priestly blessing, then, represents the totality of all that the Jewish people should aspire to achieve.[2]

The blessing reads as follows:

"May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace."[2]

Each of the three verses represents another dimension in the life of the Jew. The first verse, “"May the Lord bless you and watch over you”, is a blessing for material prosperity. Rashi explains “your possessions shall be blessed” and “no thieves shall attack you and steal your money.” The Torah does not shy away from material blessing, the Torah teaches us that we should strive for success and blessing in the material world.

Material success, however, brings with it a challenge. Materialism can present a threat to, and a distraction from, spiritual pursuits. The second verse of the blessing, therefore, addresses this concern. The Torah continues “May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you”. The “Lord's countenance” is a metaphor for spirituality. The second step of the blessing is that despite our material blessing we should be successful in cultivating a spiritual life. G-d’s spirit should shine upon us.  

The ultimate level of blessing is expressed in the third verse, which concludes with the words “and grant you peace.” The peace in this blessing is not only peace between the people of Israel and the surrounding nations, not only peace among the Jewish people themselves, but also peace within every individual. The third blessing, inner peace, is the ultimate goal of Judaism. Judaism teaches that the material and spiritual do not need to be at war with each other. Instead, the blessing in the first and second verses, the material and spiritual blessings, should complement and enhance each other. The spiritual experiences give meaning to the material possessions and the material possessions serve to enhance the spiritual life.[3]

Throughout the continuation of the fourth book of the Torah we read about the natural tension between physical and spiritual aspirations. We read about some of the Jews descending to pure materialism, which is why they demanded meat, and, on the other hand, we read about the spies who did not want to enter the land of Israel because they wished to remain in the desert, retreat from the material, and remain in a completely spiritual environment. The fourth book represents the struggle to reach the promised land, to reach the ultimate purpose of existence. In the beginning of the book the Torah reminds us of our mission: to succeed in both the material realm as well as the spiritual realm, and, most importantly, to make peace with them both.    



[1] See the commentary of the Alshich.

[2] Numbers 5:24-26

[3] See commentary of the Malbim.

In the Desert

B.jpgIn the Desert

As we begin to study the fourth book of the five books of Moses, the book of Numbers, it is an opportunity to get a birds eye view of the objective the Torah is striving to achieve with all of its stories, lessons and teachings. 

Looking at the book of Numbers in isolation it appears to be a collection of challenging circumstances and negative outcomes. The book begins with the description of the orderly Jewish camp, the temple in its center and the tribes of Israel organized in four camps each on their respective side of the temple; before long, the order and structure turned into chaos. We read about the calamity brought about by the spies, the rebellion of Korach, Miriam speaking about Moses, and the Jewish people constantly complaining that they wanted to go back to Egypt. Moses and Aaron lost control, hitting the stone instead of speaking to it, and as a result, they were not permitted to enter the land. In short, it appears that the fourth book, whose Hebrew name is Bamidbar which means “in the desert”, describes the descent into a spiritual desert, where order, organization and civilization was severely compromised. 

When we take a deeper look, however, we discover that the fourth book represents the ultimate purpose of the Torah. For the desert is the arena in which the creation of the world as well as its divine purpose, is completed. The fourth book then, is the climax of the Torah (the fifth book is a repetition and restatement of the first four books). 

The first book of the five books of Moses, the book of Genesis (“Bereishit”), describes the creation of the world. It describes the relationships and experiences of the people as they were living within the parameters of nature. Genesis is the story of the people and of civilization prior to the Divine revelation of the giving of the Torah.

The second book, Exodus (“Shmot”), describes how G-d revealed his greatness to the people of Israel. He freed them from Egyptian bondage, gave them his Torah and instructed them to create a tabernacle, a home for Him, so that He would dwell in their midst. In the second book of the Torah, we advance beyond the natural and we experience holiness which transcends nature.

The third book, Leviticus (“Vayikra”), is a collection of laws and instructions, procedures and rules, which teach us when and how we can come close to the Divine. We offer offerings, purify ourselves, and then, on unique occasions, we enter the temple, the home of God, the realm of holiness. The third book teaches us how to elevate ourselves and become close to G-d.

Unlike the third book, which teaches us the appropriate way to enter the tabernacle, the fourth book flows in the opposite direction. The fourth book, the book of Numbers (“Bamidbar”), teaches how to bring the holiness into the desert. In the fourth book we are taught that our object is not we cannot to remain in the confines of the temple awash in holiness, but rather we are empowered to bring the teachings of the Torah to every corner of the world, even to its most inhospitable spiritual desert.   

No question, the desert is a challenging place. We experience constant struggle between our inner soul and the world around us. We have our share of “ups” and “downs”, “highs” and “lows”. We face confusion, doubt and delay. We suffer setbacks and disappointment. Yet, despite the setbacks, along the way we experience spiritual triumph, commitment and dedication.

Along the way, we advance to the point where we are able to do more than merely retreat to the house of G-d. Over time, we fulfill the purpose of creation, which is to carry the light through the desert and transform the earth, all of the earth, to the holiness of the promised land.[1]     

 



[1] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey sichos Pekudey vol. 16 Sicha 3.

Proclaim Freedom

Y.jpgProclaim Freedom

In Biblical Israel life vibrated to a rhythm of cycles of seven. We are commanded to work six days and rest on the seventh; to work the land for six years and to let it lay fallow on the seventh. We would then count seven cycles of seven years and proclaim the fiftieth year as the year of the jubilee, a year of freedom, when all slaves were set free and any land that was sold would return to its original owner.  

While the laws of the jubilee year don’t apply today, and while the laws of the sabbatical year only apply in the land of Israel, the message and spiritual lesson of the sabbatical and jubilee years are relevant for all of time they are the roadmap for the journey to achieve spiritual freedom.  

When the Jewish people entered the land of Israel they devoted themselves to agriculture; their days were dedicated to plowing, planting, harvesting and working the land, work which required a tremendous amount of devotion. Left unchecked, this devotion could, over time, enslave the person to the land. Left unchecked the earth could rob a person of his or her higher, more spiritual pursuits.   

The Torah therefore commands that every seventh year we refrain from working the land and dedicate the year to matters of the spirit:  

You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard.[1]

The sabbatical year is described as a rest for the land; the person rests only as a result of the obligation for the land to rest. In other words, the sabbatical year does not transform the Jew. During the Sabbatical year, a person might still prefer to be in the field, and, even while refraining from work, might worry about what he would eat.[2] The land achieved its freedom, but the Jew was still only on his journey to freedom.

In the spiritual service of the Jew, the sabbatical year represents the service of “Bitul Hayesh”, subjugating the self to a higher purpose. The person has not yet reached a place of inner peace and tranquility. At this point in his spiritual development, there is challenge and struggle. He overcomes the part of his inner self which only values the material, he separates from the mundane “work of the field” and designates time in which he devotes himself to the service of G-d.   

After seven cycles of the Sabbatical we reach the fiftieth year. The year of freedom:

And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.[3]

The fiftieth year is described as the year of freedom for the person, “It shall be a Jubilee for you”, because by the time we reach the jubilee year, we are transformed. We are in touch with our true identity, our soul, we therefore are happy to experience a reset to the economy, allowing land we may have purchased to return to its original owner and slaves to return to their freedom.

The jubilee, in the spiritual sense, signifies a time when there is no longer any inner conflict and strife. The jubilee represents the Jew who, at least at this moment, understands and internalizes the vision of the Torah. The Jew’s mind and heart are aligned with his core inner self.

Each year we experience a taste of the jubilee cycle. Beginning on the second night of Passover we are commanded to count forty nine days, seven cycles of seven, and sanctify the fiftieth day as the holiday of Shavuot.

Each year as we escape our inner Egypt, we begin the journey to attain freedom. At first we encounter seven sabbaticals, during which we sometimes must overcome temptation, confusion and negativity. The sabbatical is a time when we overcome negative habits by simply abstaining from them and directing our attention to the good and positive, despite our internal struggle.

On the fiftieth day, the holiday of Shavuot, the day we received the ten commandments engraved on the tablets of stone, there is no longer a need for struggle. On the fiftieth day, we achieve a taste of the jubilee and experience a taste of freedom. The words of Torah are engraved upon our hearts, we identify with its teachings, and internalize its message.[4]

 



[1] Leviticus 25:3-4. 

[2] As the Torah describe: “And if you should say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!" [Know then, that] I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years.” (Leviticus: 25:20-21)

[3] Leviticus 25:9.

[4] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Behar, vol.7 sicha 1. 

Count Yourself

T.jpgCount Yourself

The holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, is unique among the holidays in that every other holiday is celebrated on a specific day of the Hebrew calendar, yet there is no date given for the holiday of Shavuot. Instead, the Torah instructs us to count forty nine days from the second day of Passover and to celebrate the giving of the Torah on the fiftieth day. As the Torah tells us in this week’s portion:   

And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord… And you shall designate on this very day a holy occasion it shall be for you; you shall not perform any work of labor. [This is] an eternal statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations.[1]

There is another anomaly in the holiday of Shavuot. There are other commandments for which counting is required: counting six days and resting on the seventh day, (in the land of Israel) counting six years and celebrating a sabbatical in the seventh year, counting seven sabbatical years and celebrating the Jubilee in the fiftieth year. On all other occasions there is no requirement for each individual to count, the commandment to count is upon the community. The counting of the court, on behalf of the community, establishes the occasion for everyone. The holiday of Shavuot is unique in that the commandment to count is upon each and every individual.

[There is a fascinating practical ramification to the individual count. If one travels from the United States to Australia crossing the Pacific Ocean, he will have crossed the dateline and skipped a day. He would celebrate Shabbat not on the seventh day since the previous Shabbat he celebrated, but rather on the seventh day according to the count of the community in Australia (although it is only the sixth day since his previous Shabbat). The Holiday of Shavuot, however, is an exception to this rule. If one skips a day by crossing the dateline from east to west, his holiday will follow his own count. Thus his Shavuot will begin one day after the beginning of Shavuot for the Jews of Australia].

All holidays are a time when the celebration encompasses the nation as a whole. We commemorate our shared history, we celebrate G-d’s blessings of agricultural bounty and, in biblical times, we would unite with other Jews in a pilgrimage to the temple in the holy city of Jerusalem. During all the holidays the individual is part of the collective, he celebrates as part of a people and a nation.

The holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, is the exception. When the Jews gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, G-d spoke the words of the ten commandments in the singular. G-d said to every individual “I am the lord your (“your” in the singular) G-d”. As the Midrash explains:

When He (G-d) spoke, every individual Israelite maintained: "He spoke to me!" "I am Hashem your (plural) G-d" is not written here, rather " I am Hashem your (singular) G-d".[2] 

The Jew standing at Sinai as well as the Jew reading the words of Torah, must appreciate that his relationship with G-d is not merely with the Jewish people as a whole. Rather G-d desires a relationship with him as an individual. G-d is speaking to him as if there was nobody else present, as if he were an only child. For G-d finds meaning in every individual.

To make this point clear, the Torah emphasizes that to prepare for the holiday of Shavuot, to prepare to receive the Torah anew, to reestablish our bond with G-d, every individual must count seven weeks. Every individual must refine and prepare himself in order to recommit to the relationship. It is not enough to join a community that counted forty nine days. Each individual must rely on his own counting, for each individual has their own, personal relationship with G-d and his Torah.

The Torah tells each individual: Do not rely on the counting of the community. Count, prepare, reconnect on your own. Because G-d, through the words of the Torah, is waiting to speak to you.[3]

 

 

 _________________________

[1] Leviticus 23:15,16,21.

[2] Yalkut Shimoni, Yisro, Remez 286.

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Emor vol. 3.

 

 

Mystery of the Lottery

FC.jpgMystery of the Lottery

One of the central parts of the service of the high priest on Yom Kippur was the service of drawing lots. As explained in this week’s parsha, the high priest was commanded to draw lots between two goats. He would take two pieces of wood, on one was written “to G-d” and on the other was written “to Azazel”, (to the wilderness). He would place one of the lots on each goat. The lottery would determine which goat would be an offering to G-d in the temple, and which goat would be sent off to the wilderness.[1]

What is the lesson and meaning of the lottery between the two goats?

A central principle of Judaism is that the human being is gifted with the incredible gift and responsibility of free choice. The human being has the ability to make the correct moral choice. He has the complete freedom to overcome any internal or external temptation or pressure and choose the right path.

The principle of free choice is the basis of all of Torah, because what would be the purpose of G-d commanding us if we didn’t have the freedom to control our own actions? In addition, recognition of the gift of free choice is a prerequisite to repentance and returning to G-d. One can only resolve to return to the right path and to reconnect to his truest self, if he believes that he has the ability to do so.

On the day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day dedicated to correcting the mistakes and omissions of the past year and returning to G-d, the ceremony of the two goats served to remind the people that the choice was in their own hand. They alone could determine whether they wished to, like the goat offered to G-d, move closer to the temple and to holiness, or would they choose to embrace the path of the goat sent to the dessert, a path which leads to a morally and spiritually desolate desert.

But why all the drama and suspense of the lottery?

If the point of the service was to express free choice then why didn’t the high priest make the choice himself and decide where each animal would go? Why the need for the lottery?

Chassidic philosophy explains that free choice is multi layered; its deepest aspects are expressed specifically through the metaphor of the lottery.

A lottery is used when a decision is not based on logical criteria. When a teacher raffles off a gift, he or she decided not to award the gift based on logical criteria. Instead the teacher is delegating the decision to something other than reason; in this case, the decision is relegated to chance.

When we make a logical choice between two options, we are, in a sense, compelled to make that choice. When making a choice because we understand or feel that one choice is preferred, then, in a sense, we are compelled to make that decision because of the logical or emotional superiority of the preferred option. This type of choice, determined by our rationale or emotions, is the type of choice we exercise all year. We choose the right path because our mind or heart directs us and compels us to do so. 

On Yom Kippur, however, we experience a deeper dimension of choice. The Yom Kippur lottery symbolized that our decision to return to the path that leads to our inner temple is motivated not merely by logic and rational. It is not based, solely, on the appreciation of the goodness inherent in choosing to connect to G-d. On Yom Kippur the deepest part of our essence, our soul, emerges. The choice to return and reconnect to G-d is not defined by, nor limited to, emotion or logic. It is an expression of the Jew’s core identity. The soul chooses G-d because of its inherent bond with G-d.    

For much of the year our relationship with G-d is likened to a couple who seek a mutually beneficial relationship. They choose to remain together because of a logical calculation, because of the fulfillment and happiness they each derive from the relationship. On Yom Kippur, however, our bond with G-d transcends the logical calculation. On Yom Kippur we are like the couple who are committed to each other, not because of mutual benefit, but rather because of the deep commitment to each other.

The lots drawn by the high priest on Yom Kippur remind us that, just as the lottery is not defined by logic, so too our relationship with G-d is unconditional. On Yom Kippur we sense our soul; the part of G-d that is within us and yearns to reconnect with its Father in Heaven.[2]

 

 


 [1]As the Torah (Leviticus 16:5-10) describes: “And from the community of the children of Israel, he shall take two he goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering… And he shall take the two he goats, and place them before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And Aaron shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot "For the Lord," and the other lot, "For Azazel." And Aaron shall bring the he goat upon which the lot, "For the Lord," came up, and designate it as a sin offering. And the he goat upon which the lot "For Azazel" came up, shall be placed while still alive, before the Lord, to [initiate] atonement upon it, and to send it away to Azazel, into the desert.

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Mammar Al Kein, Purim 5713.

Treasured Words

2000px-Treasure_chest.svg.pngTreasured Words

Often, people like to characterize events or experiences as either positive or negative. Our brain prefers the ease and simplicity of clear distinctions. Life, however, is more complicated than that. Often, the positive and negative overlap in surprising ways; often, the greater potential for risk holds the greater potential for profit. The more potent the experience the more likely it can be either deeply traumatizing or profoundly enriching.

An interesting illustration of this principle is the Tzara'at, the mysterious discoloration, which would appear, in biblical times, on the Jewish home in the land of Israel. As the Torah describes in this week’s portion:

And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place a lesion of Tzara'at upon a house in the land of your possession.[1]

The Torah then proceeds to elaborate on the details of the discoloring and how, in some cases, it was necessary to remove the discolored stones (and, in some cases, the entire home would have to be destroyed).

Rashi, the classic biblical commentator, offers opposing explanations as to the purpose of Tzara'at. Rashi[2] explains that Tzara'at would appear as a punishment for “Lashon Hara” for evil speech. Yet he also offers another interpretation: 

because the Amorites had hidden away treasures of gold inside the walls of their houses during the entire forty years that the Israelites were in the desert, and through the lesion, he (the Israelite) will demolish the house and find them.

What are we to make of theses opposing explanations? Is the Tzarrat an indication of negativity, a sign of impurity which must be removed, or is it a sign which appears in order for the Jew to take possession of the treasure behind the wall? Rashi teaches us that the positive and negative explanations are both true simultaneously. The same force which the pagans used for impurity, when used correctly could, in fact, be a great treasure.

Indeed, the Amori was the name of the nation that hid the treasures in the walls. The word Amori comes from the word Amor, which means to speak. The Torah is alerting us to the power of the word. Few things can be as destructive or as constructive as the spoken word. 

The Tzara'at was designed in order to lead us to a treasure. Indeed, the Jewish home must be free of the impurity of destructive speech. The stones that captured the energy of pagan speech must be removed. Yet removing the negativity is always just a first step, never the ultimate goal. The Torah teaches us that the power of speech must be used to build, to comfort, to empower. Words have a way of reaching deep within ourselves, releasing the inner treasures of our soul, and allowing us to understand, empathize and connect to the people around us.[3]

 

 


[1] 14:34.

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 14:4.

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Metzora vol. 32. 

 

Eight

8.pngEight

In Judaism, every number carries a specific energy and meaning. This week’s parsha, “Shmini” which means “eight” (the eighth day, following the seven days of the inauguration of the temple), is a chance to think about the spiritual symbolism of the number seven and the number eight. 

The number seven appears throughout the Torah quite often: seven days of creation, the seventh day being the day of rest, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishrei, the month of the festivals, and the seven years in the cycle of the sabbatical year. The kabbalists[1] explain that the number seven represents nature and the Divine force that creates nature. The natural world, which was created through the seven Divine emotional attributes, was created in seven days, the number seven, therefore, represents all that which is natural.

The number eight, however, is above nature. It is the power of holiness that is greater than natural order. When we encounter the number eight in the Torah, the Torah is alerting us that the topic we are discussing is one which transcends the natural expectation. 

When the Jewish people completed the construction of the Mishkan, the temple they built in the desert, upon fulfillment of G-d’s commandment “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst”[2], there was a seven day inauguration celebration. During each of the seven days the temple was erected and offerings were offered. Yet, throughout the seven days of inauguration there was no sign of the Divine presence. This is because it is beyond the natural ability of a human being to draw down a Divine revelation into this world of spiritual concealment.

Only on the eighth day, with the number eight representing the infinity of G-d which transcends the natural order, did the Divine presence reveal itself in the temple. As the Torah describes:

And it was on the eighth day… and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.... And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.[3] 

The number eight seems to contain two conflicting elements. On the one hand the number eight is in a class of its own, not included in the cycle of nature. Yet on the other hand, the number eight is a direct continuation of the number seven. This, seeming paradox, explain the mystics, captures the mystery of the number eight. While the supernatural Divine energy cannot be drawn down by the human being and can only be gifted to us by G-d Himself, G-d chooses to reveal the energy of the number eight only after people invest themselves in achieving the number seven. Thus, only after the people celebrated the seven days of inauguration, representing the culmination of human achievement, did G-d reveal the eighth dimension - that which transcends nature and could be expressed by the will of G-d alone. 

In our life we are sometimes called upon to accomplish feats that we may think are beyond our natural capacity, whether in our personal life, our professional life, in our role as spouse, child, parent, friend or community member. The goal may seem elusive, far beyond anything we can imagine ourselves accomplishing. We are sometimes called upon to perform what is no less than a miracle: to bring spirituality, inspiration, goodness and kindness to a spiritually desolate environment. We tell ourselves that we don’t possess the ability to create transformation. We tell ourselves that only a miracle can help. We tell ourselves that the job is not for us.  

The answer to our despondency lies within the number eight.

For indeed, to break free of natural limitation is beyond our ability, for the infinity of the number eight is gifted from above. Yet, eight follows seven. When we do all that is in our capacity, when we commit to the full “seven days of inauguration”, then we are assured that on “the eighth day”, G-d will bless our efforts with his infinite ability.[4] 

 


[1] Kli Yakar beginning of Parshas Shmini. 

[2] Exodus 25:8. 

[3] Leviticus 9:1-24

[4] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekuteu Sichos Shmini vol. 3.

Passover Night

Pesach.jpg Night

As we begin to tell the story of the exodus on the night of Passover, the Haggadah, the book we read at the seder, tells a story of a debate that, on the surface, has absolutely no relevance to the night of Passover.

There is a biblical commandment to remember and mention the exodus from Egypt every day. The Haggadah tells us about the discussion that established that the obligation to mention the exodus of Egypt daily applies not only during the daytime but to every night time as well. 

Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: "I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night-until Ben Zoma explained it: "It is said, `That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life;' now `the days of your life' refers to the days, [and the additional word] `all' indicates the inclusion of the nights!"[1]

This debate has nothing to do with Passover night, for all agree that there is a biblical commandment to retell the story of the Exodus on the night of Passover. Why then should we spend the precious time on the night of Passover discussing the debate of whether there is a commandment to mention the exodus on all other nights of the year? Why is that important to discuss on the night of Passover?

If the exodus from Egypt was merely the birth of our nation, we would not have to be so obsessed with the exodus to the extent of having to remember it every day of our life. The exodus is the story of everyday of our life. Each and every day we are empowered to break free of the habits and perceptions that limit us to the person we were yesterday. Mentioning the Exodus every day is the recognition that we can and should break free of our constraints, that no matter how good of a person we were yesterday, we should always seek to be more kind, compassionate, wise and strong today.

But what do we do if we find ourselves in the “night” time? What if we find ourselves in a dark moment in history? What if we find ourselves in the darkness of our life, a time devoid of any inspiration, excitement and passion? Must we mention the exodus? Are we capable of experiencing liberation even in the darkness of our own night?

This question must be addressed specifically on the night of Passover, when we celebrate and re-experience the energy of freedom. For this question is critical to understanding the scope and power of freedom. Is it an energy reserved for specific moments in our history, for the moments of “morning”, or can we experience its liberating energy even in the midst of our personal “night” time?

The answer, according to the Haggadah, is yes. The commandment and empowerment to mention and experience the exodus applies every day as well as every night. 

It was not a simple point to prove. The prevailing wisdom held that breaking free from one’s inner limitations was possible only in the “morning”, when the soul senses the light of inspiration. Yet, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s perspective prevailed. For the liberation granted to us on Passover is such that regardless of how strong the shackles, how intense the despair, how heavy the darkness we can always break free.[2]    



 [1] The Mishnah continues: The sages, however, said: "`The days of your life' refers to the present-day world; and `all' indicates the inclusion of the days of Mashiach." According to many opinions the sages do not disagree with Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah, they are just adding an additional teaching.

[2] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Parshas Vaera 5751.

Mindful Eating

Eating.jpgMindful Eating

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that eating mindfully has many health benefits. The Harvard Health blog, for example, reported on the health benefits of mindful eating:

paying more attention to what you eat, not less, could help keep you from overeating. Multitasking—like eating while watching television or working—and distracted or hurried eating can prompt you to eat more. Slowing down and savoring your food can help you control your intake.[1]

Jews have always understood the power of mindful eating.

Judaism teaches that eating is not only a necessity of survival, not just a pleasurable experience, but also a spiritual exercise.

Much of the discussion in this week’s Parsha, Tzav, is about eating the offerings that were offered in the temple. There were offerings which were eaten by the priests while other offerings were eaten by the person who brought the offering. Either way the eating of the offering was part of what achieved the offerings spiritual effect. 

The Talmud[2] states: “Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar both said, while the temple still stood the altar used to make atonement for a man, but now that the temple no longer stands a man's table makes atonement for him.” This teaching is extraordinary: how can it possibly be that when we sit down to eat a meal we are experiencing the same spiritual effect, the same atonement, as with the offerings that were offered upon the altar?

Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy teach that every creation has a soul, a spark of G-d. This is true for each of the forms of life on earth: the inanimate, the plant and the animal. Each possesses a soul that yearns for the opportunity to transcend and reconnect with its source.

All of creation can be elevated through the human being, the only creation created in the image of G-d and the only creation who possesses free choice.

When man consumes the inanimate, plant or animal, one of two things can happen. If he consumes food for his own personal pleasure than he is lowered to their spiritual level, which, from the souls perspective, is a missed opportunity for both man and food. If however he eats the food with a spiritual purpose - so that he will be healthy, so that he will have the energy to serve his creator and achieve his mission on earth - then man elevates the spark of holiness within the food and allows it to be reunited with its divine source.[3]

The daily offerings, which were offered in the temple on behalf of all the Jewish people, were comprised of all the categories of creation. Every animal was brought together with an offering of grain, representing the plant kingdom, and salt, representing the inanimate. The intense holiness of the temple affected holiness not only to the specific offerings but also to the rest of the world as well[4]. Through the offerings in the temple all animals, plants and minerals were sanctified.  

Today, however, we don't enjoy the spiritual benefits of the temple. As such, the task of elevating the sparks within creation lies upon each of us. “While the temple still stood”, says the Talmud, “the altar used to make atonement for a man, but now that the temple no longer stands a man's table makes atonement for him”. Today, the atonement of the world around us, its spiritual elevation is in our hands, and is upon our table.

So, next time you eat do so mindfully.

Next time you eat notice the colors, smells, flavors, and textures of your food.

But don’t stop there. Dig deeper. Be mindful of the spark of holiness within the food. Be mindful of the soul of the food and its desire to be elevated.

Be mindful of the food, its taste, texture and colors; but most importantly, be mindful of its soul.

 


[1]https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/distracted-eating-may-add-to-weight-gain-201303296037

[2] Menachot 97a.

[3] See Tanya chapter 7.

[4] See Tanya ibid.

Moving Ever Closer

k.jpgMoving Ever Closer

The Third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, begins with the laws of various types of offerings that were offered in the temple.

[To be sure, the words “offering” and “sacrifice” do not express the meaning of the Hebrew word “Karban” which means “to come close”. See here for more on this].

The three general categories of offerings mentioned in the Parsha - 1) the elevation offering, 2) the peace-offering, and 3) the sin offering - represent three levels of a relationship, three expressions of our journey to become ever closer to G-d.

The first category, the “Karban Olah”- the elevation offering, represents the yearning to escape the shackles of the material, to escape the pull of gravity and, like a flame surging upward, to elevate oneself and connect to the infinite G-d. When a person felt the intense desire to become close to G-d, or when he wished to cultivate this desire within himself, he would bring the elevation offering to the temple. The entirety of the animal was offered up to G-d as an expression, of man’s desire to be subsumed within the infinity of G-d.

The elevation offering, despite its awesome holiness, is only the first of the three categories of offerings. Because the desire to escape the material and cleave to the spiritual is merely the first step in a journey to reveal our deep-rooted, essential, connection to G-d.

Judaism teaches that far greater than escaping the material is the ability to sanctify it. While we must begin with a yearning to transcend, the goal must be to “return”, to live our physical life on this earth. Many schools of spirituality teach their adherents to escape the confines of the material. The novelty of Judaism is that it shows how the pleasure we feel in living life on this earth, can be elevated from being merely a narcissistic pleasure focused only on the self. Judaism teaches that the enjoyment a person experiences from the material can, in fact, bring him close to the Divine. Judaism teaches that the material pleasure itself, when experienced as a means to serving something greater than itself, can be sanctified and elevated to holiness.  

The second category, the “Karban Shlamin” - the peace offering, expressed this truth.

The peace offering was divided into three parts, one portion was eaten by the priests, one portion was burnt on the altar, and one portion was given to the person who brought the offering, who would eat it in celebration within the boundaries of the holy city of Jerusalem. Through the peace offering, eating of meat, an earthy pleasure, became an experience of holiness that intensified one’s joy and connection to G-d.

The peace offering gets its name from its unique capacity to bring peace between the body and the soul.

The third category, the “Karban Chatat” - the sin offering, expresses an even deeper closeness. It gets to the heart of our relationship with G-d: no matter if we cover our ears to the voice of our soul, no matter how far we stray, G-d’s love to us is unwavering. He offers a path for us to correct our mistakes. The third category of offerings is the final one because it expresses the deepest form of closeness: it teaches us that G-d’s love to us is unconditional.

When the Jew would sense that despite any possible betrayal, he was always loved by G-d, he would not only return to the pre-sin relationship, but rather his passion to connect to G-d would intensify. For just as being in the desert deepens the thirst for water so too the distance created by sin is transformed to fuel greater longing and love to G-d.

The three general categories of offerings, the elevation offering, the peace offering and the sin offering represent the three steps of closeness: 1) yearning for transcendence, 2) sanctifying the material, and 3) experiencing G-d’s unconditional love.      

 

Mirror

mi.jpgMirror

The Jewish people were eager to donate. The project, the building of the sanctuary in the desert, was a symbol that, despite the pain of betrayal with the golden calf, the relationship had been restored and, in fact, strengthened, and G-d desired to dwell in the midst of the Jewish camp.

The people donated enthusiastically.  Bracelets, earrings, rings, all kinds of golden objects, blue, purple and crimson wool, linen, goat hair, ram skins dyed red or tachash skins, silver and copper, were some of the items that were gifted.

There was, however, one item that Moses refused to accept.

The Torah describes that the women contributed even more than the men, they even brought their mirrors to be used in the sanctuary.  Moses refused to accept the mirrors. A mirror, he argued, is the antithesis to the sanctuary. A mirror is used to adorn the externality and superficiality of the person, it intensifies a person’s pride and narcissism. A mirror is pure vanity, a tool for self-worship. It has no place in the service of G-d.

Moses saw the mirror as an enemy. Here was a tool designed to, at best, focus attention on the self rather than on the Divine, and at worst, a tool to create destructive lust and seduction.

Moses sought to create a transparent “window”, he sought to teach people how to view the world as a “window” through which one can see the awesome power of the creator.  The “mirror”, blocking the light and reflecting the vision back to the viewer, was the precise opposite of everything Moses stood for.

G-d disagreed.

The Midrash describes how G-d explained to Moses that not only should the mirrors be accepted but indeed they are more precious than all the other gifts. For it is precisely the mirror that represents the purpose of the entire effort of creating the sanctuary, and more broadly, the purpose of creation itself.

G-d explained to Moses, that the mirror could be just as holy as it could be destructive. Desire and temptation could be, not ego driven but rather, an expression of intense holiness. As Rashi[1] explains:

Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan, but Moses rejected them because they were made for temptation [i.e., to inspire lustful thoughts]. The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “Accept [them], for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, they [the women] would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then they [the women] would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands desire and would copulate with them, conceiving and giving birth.  

Every creation on this earth, from a beautiful flower to nuclear energy, has a soul, an energy, which can be used for both good or evil. Ironically, the more potent the energy, the more potential it has for good, the more destructive it can be. The reverse is just as true: the more destructive the force, when transformed or channeled, the deeper the goodness and enlightenment.    

The mirror captures a deep truth. When glass is covered with a layer of silver that obstructs the transparency the result is deeper. Looking at a mirror, while one cannot see forward, there is no “direct vision”, one is able to see behind. One will see the unexpected.

The mirror does not completely obstruct the light, as do other objects. Instead it reflects the light that shines upon it. It symbolizes how the creation itself can reflect and express the Divine light.

Moses preferred the clarity of vision. He was drawn to transparency, to a place where holiness is obvious. G-d explained that the purpose of the Mishkan, which reflects the purpose of the creation of the world, was to be mirror-like; to see the holiness where it is least expected, to understand that “desire” can be an expression of transcendence and spirituality. The mirror reminds us that in order to experience the true profundity of the infinity G-d, one should look not directly upward to the transparent heavens, but rather instead one should look down here on earth; where the concealment of the material, creates a deeper reflection of the oneness of G-d.[2]

 

____________________________

[1] On Exodus 38:8.   

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos. Ki Tisa vol. 6 Sicha 1.
 

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