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Blog - Torah Insights

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.
 

Unmasking the Golden Calf

Mask.jpgUnmasking the Golden Calf

Right in the middle of the second half of the book of Exodus the story of the sin of the golden calf is told:

When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: "Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don't know what has become of him."[1]

That a mere forty days after the people heard the ten commandments directly from G-d, they created an idol and violated the first two of the ten commandments, tells us that idol worship had a powerful allure upon the imagination of the people. Indeed for the next thousand years, the story of the Jewish people is a recurring one, relapsing to idol worship.   

Idol worship in it’s more refined and abstract form, is still very much a spiritual threat. Specifically when we seek a relationship with G-d, when we stand at our figurative Sinai, there is a risk that we too can fall prey to the spell of the golden calf.

The root of all idol worship is the belief in duality. The belief that there is something, anything, that has a power independent of G-d’s all inclusive unity. 

The perspective that the infinite G-d is regulated exclusively to the domain of the spirit, to the moments when we pursue abstraction, religion and philosophy, is Idol worship in its more subtle form. The belief that G-d is disconnected from the finite, from the earthly and from the physical, is the belief that there is something independent and disconnected from G-d.

The Torah tells us that Aaron made an “Eigel Masecha” (עגל מסכה) which usually translates as “molten calf”. Yet the word “Masecha” also means a mask. For that is precisely the function of the idol, to direct our attention to the concealment of nature rather than to the Divine presence beneath the mask.  

This explains why the story of the golden calf and its aftermath is sandwiched between the four portions that discuss the construction of the Mishkan, the sanctuary that the Jews were commanded to build in the desert. The construction of the Mishkan is the antidote to the story of the golden calf. The four portions tell a story that, if internalized, will protect us against the mistake made by the creators of the golden calf. It tells that we are called upon to make a home for G-d on this earth, and that we do so with our material possessions.[2]

The Mishkan teaches that G-d must be found not only in the hall of study but also in the marketplace. Not only when we pray but also when we eat. The apparent dichotomy between the physical and spiritual, body and soul, heaven and earth create not duality but oneness, not conflict but harmony.

The second half of the book of Exodus builds upon and expands the message of the first half of the book. The first half of the book tells of G-d’s awesome, supernatural power. We read about the great miracles that shatter the natural order. We encounter G-d in moments of revelation. Yet, the second half of the book tells a story that, in some ways, is far more profound: beneath the mask of duality and separation lies unity and harmony. When we use our material possessions to fulfill the will of G-d, we are creating a home for him within the concealment of nature.

This is also the theme of the holiday of Purim (which occurs during the week of, or in proximity to, the reading of the story of golden calf). Purim is the sole Jewish holiday that celebrates an event that occurred while the Jews were in exile, while they were subject to the rule of a foreign king. G-d’s name as well as supernatural miracles are absent from the scroll of Esther, the book that chronicles the story. While the events of Passover are far more miraculous than the events of Purim, the story of Purim is no less profound.[3]

Purim teaches that even where we see nothing but darkness, G-d is very much present.

On Purim the custom is to dress up in a costume. The idea is to recognize that what is obvious to the eye is no more than a mask. We dress up so that we become aware of the presence of G-d beneath the mask of nature. Purim teaches us not to be distracted by the masquerade, but rather to look beneath the mask, and sense is oneness.



[1] Exodus 32:1. 

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe. Lekutei Sichos Vayakhel vol. 3. 

[3] See Lekutey Sichos Purim, vol. 6.

The Path to Oneness

ketores.jpgThe Path to Oneness

Just because something is true does not mean that knowing that truth is always helpful. Sometimes, the deepest truths can cause the most frustration and difficulty.

The Kabbalistic truth, that bride and groom are two halves of one whole that unite in marriage, that man and woman are two halves of one soul, is indeed the truth, yet it is not always helpful to contemplate on this truth.

After man and woman unite in marriage, when the honeymoon is over, man and woman may look at each other and see not unity but differences, not oneness but fragmentation. Experiences arise that bring to light the differences in personality, attitude, characteristics and values, differences that were not seen previously due to the blinding glare of love.

At that point, reminding them that deep down, on the soul level, they are one entity, may cause more damage than good. After all, “if we are one”, they might each think to themselves, “why is the other so different from me? Why is it that whatever I want he/she wants something dramatically different? If we are truly one, then why doesn't he/she conform to my perspective and desires?”

In truth, relationships cannot be predicated on the truth of oneness alone. Instead, both spouses need to focus not on “becoming one” but rather on “becoming close”.

“Becoming close” implies that there are two distinct people, quite different from one another. “Becoming close” implies that there is a gap between them that must be bridged in order for them to move toward each other. And, perhaps most importantly, “becoming close” contains the secret of how they should view, and than harness, their differences. Like stones placed in a stream of water, which create the tension that transform the peaceful flow to a torrent, so too the tension of difference, is the oxygen needed to fuel the fire of passion that will overcome difficulty and bring them close.

Only once the two become close, can they experience the space in which they can feel their innate oneness.  

The same is true about our relationship with G-d. Judaism teaches that human love is a reflection of the relationship between G-d, the groom, and the Jewish people, the bride.

Thus, after the marriage at Sinai, G-d asked the Jewish people to construct the Mishkan, the sanctuary, as a home which would represent how the bride and groom would live together. The primary function of the sanctuary was to perform the service which would bring the people closer to G-d. Most of the activity in the sanctuary associated with the “Kurbanot”, the offerings, whose Hebrew root “Karov”, means “coming close”. Much of the service of the offerings represented the tension that comes about when two very different perspectives endeavor to come close to each other.

The Torah dedicates two portions to the specifics of the sanctuary and its service. The first, the portion of Terumah, describes the commandment to build the sanctuary and it’s furniture: the ark, the table, the altar for the offerings. The next portion, Tizaveh, describes the garments of the priests who would perform the service. Only at the very end of the portion does the Torah “remember” one more piece of furniture: the incense altar. All the commentators ask why the incense altar is not mentioned in the first portion together with all the other vessels of the sanctuary?

The answer is that all the details of the sanctuary and its service represent the notion of coming close to G-d. It captures our struggle to bring our ego, our sense of self, closer to the holy and the transcendent. The two portions describing the sanctuary, its furniture and the garments of those who perform the service represent the act of “becoming close”. Only after we become close to G-d can we experience the incense altar. The Kabbalists explain that the Hebrew word for incense “Ketoret” means bound up, and represents that deep down, at the core of our soul, we are truly one with G-d.[1]

Only after studying about all other aspects of the sanctuary can we learn about the incense altar. For only after “becoming close” can we become one.


__________

[1] See Hisvaaduyos, Parshas Tizaveh 5752. 

Construction in the Desert

Mishkan.jpgConstruction in the Desert

Reading the second half of the book of Exodus one begins to wonder why the Torah spends so much time on a project that, by design, was only supposed to be temporary.

This week’s portion, Terumah, begins with the commandment to build a home for G-d:

And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.[1]

In this portion, the Torah elaborates on the details of the “sanctuary”, and we learn that G-d was not referring to an enduring temple of stone, similar to the one the Jewish people built, centuries later, on the temple mount in Jerusalem. Instead, G-d was referring to a more modest structure that was assembled from beams of wood for the walls and curtains for the roof. This sanctuary was designed to be temporary. It was designed to be assembled and disassembled as the Jewish people traveled through the desert, it was never meant to serve as the permanent structure in Jerusalem, which was the placed referred to in the Torah as “the place that G-d will choose to establish his name there”.    

The temple was the spiritual capital of the Jewish people. It was the place where they were commanded to visit three times year, on the three pilgrimage holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. It was, and continues to be, Judaism's holiest site. Why then does the Torah spend so many chapters on the details of the construction of the sanctuary which the Jewish people built in the desert? Doesn't the sanctuary of the desert pale in comparison to the size, beauty, grandeur and permanence of the temple in Jerusalem? 

The construction of the sanctuary represents more than a conventional building project. Our sages explain that the verse, quoted earlier, “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them”, employs the plural “I will dwell in them”, (instead of the singular ”I will dwell in it”), in order to teach us that every Jew is commanded to construct a figurative sanctuary within their own heart, and, indeed, the Divine presence dwells within the heart of every Jew.[2]

 The commandment to construct the sanctuary is the core purpose of the creation of the universe and our mission on this earth. G-d desires that we create a home for Him in the most unlikely of places, constructed of the most unlikely materials. He empowers us to construct a home for Him built of the stuff of daily life, our material possessions and experiences. Every time we use our body or our possessions for a good purpose we are creating space for the Divine presence to dwell and we are sanctifying that part of ourselves and of the world.

Of all the sanctuaries built for G-d, the most precious to Him is the one built, not in the holy city of Jerusalem, but in the inhospitable desert. In our life, we experience “Jerusalem” moments, moments when we feel uplifted, inspired, connected. There are, however, other moments when we feel that we have been exiled from Jerusalem and we find ourselves in a spiritually inhospitable environment. We may feel fragmented, disconnected and deflated of the joy of life. At those moments we must take to heart the message of this Torah portion.

The sanctuary to which the book of Exodus devotes no less than four portions is the sanctuary of the desert. For it is precisely the sanctuary of the desert that captures the transformative power granted to us through the Torah and its commandments. No matter where we may find ourselves, geographically, emotionally, spiritually or psychologically we are able to transform our environment, and create a home of peace and tranquility amidst the inhospitable desert. No matter how challenging the external circumstances, we can take the material of the world and construct a haven, a home, where we can experience the presence of G-d in our life.[3]


______________________ 

[1] Exodus 25:8

[2] Indeed, the commentators, both the classic commentators as well as the mystics, seek to explain how each of the details of the temple is an expression and reflection within the life of the Jew.  

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos Terumah vol. 21 sicha 1.

The Arrow of Fire

f.pngThe Arrow of Fire  

Immediately following the Torah portion of the ten commandments, we read the portion of Mishpatim which discusses the laws of monetary obligation.

Among the many laws are the laws of torts, the obligation to pay for damage that one has caused. The Torah classifies four general categories of damages, they are: the ”ox that gored”, a “pit”, “an animal that ate produce”[1] and “fire”. These categories are analyzed and explained at great length in the Talmud.

In this week’s portion the Torah states:

If a fire goes forth and finds thorns, and a stack of grain or standing grain or the field be consumed, the one who ignited the fire shall surely pay.[2]

Of all the forms of damages, damage by fire is, in some ways, the most intriguing. Fire is distinct from all other forms of damage and does not fit neatly into the usual theory of liability. There is, therefore, a disagreement between two Talmudic sages, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, as to the underlying reason, or doctrine, under which the “owner” of the fire is held responsible:

Rabbi Yochanan says “fire is like his arrow”, while Reish Lakish says “fire is like his property”.[3]

According to Rabbi Yochanan, when a person’s fire causes damage, it is very different from a scenario in which a person’s animal causes damage. An animal is a  tangible possession of value and as such the person is responsible for damage caused by his possessions. Fire, by contrast, is intangible, and therefore cannot be considered as a possession which has caused damage. Rabbi Yochanan, therefore, believes that the obligation to pay for damage caused by fire is based on the doctrine that “fire is like an arrow”.

Rabbi Yochanan’s logic is as follows: when a person throws an arrow which causes damage, the person is held responsible on the basis of the theory that although he did not actually cause the damage with his own hands, the arrow is considered an extension of himself, and thus he is responsible just as if he himself had caused the damage. Similarly, argues Rabbi Yochanan, in the case of fire, although the person did not cause the damage with his own hands, lighting the fire and not protecting it is comparable to throwing an arrow. We therefore consider the damage done by the fire to be equivalent to the damage done by the owner’s own hands.

Reish Lakish disagrees.

Reish Lakish argues that lighting fire cannot be compared to throwing an arrow. While the arrow flies only because the person throws it, fire, by contrast, travels on its own. Fire travels through burning the fuel it finds in its path. Fire, argues Reish Lakish, is very different from an arrow. 

Rejecting the arrow doctrine, Reish Lakish believes that “fire is like his property”. Despite the differences between fire and conventional property, whereas conventional property is tangible while fire is not, Reish Lakish maintains that the owner of the fire is responsible for the damage caused by the fire, because the fire is considered to be his property.

Based on this Talmudic discussion, the post Talmudic codifiers rule that indeed “fire is like an arrow”.[4]

***

Law is more than a utilitarian system that allows for a functioning society. The law is an expression and a reflection of the values, attitudes and morals of a culture. Indeed, reading the Talmudic debate, studying and internalizing that indeed “fire is like his arrow” can have a profound impact on our spiritual well being.

Almost all “damage” that a person brings upon himself stems from the separation in his mind between an act that causes pleasure at the moment and the negative consequences which result in the future. Almost all good and valuable achievements come from investing time and effort which subsequently produce a benefit in the future. In other words, “damage” is the separation of the act from its final result, while “goodness” results from envisioning in the present effort the reward that will come in the future.

The most important ingredient for success in life, then, is the ability to see the end result of a given action as a direct extension of the action.

For, indeed, “his fire is like his arrow”.   

 

 


[1] Others interpret the third category as referring to damage caused by a person himself.

[2] Exodus 22:5.

[3] Talmud, Baba Kama 22a.  

[4] There is a practical ramification to the debate. If the liability is based on the doctrine of “fire is like his arrow”, then, in a case that the fire damaged a person, the owner of the fire would have to pay not only for damages but also for the pain, medical expenses, lost labor and shame, which are required only in a case where a person himself, not his possession, damaged. If, however, the liability of fire is based on the doctrine that “fire is like his property”, then, in a case where the fire damaged a person, the owner would only be liable to pay for the damages alone, and not the additional four categories. See Talmud Baba Kama 23a.

Jethro’s Contribution

S.jpgJethro’s Contribution 

In some ways, it is the most important portion of the Torah. It contains the most fundamental principles of our faith. It tells the story of the most significant event in the history of our people. It is the portion about the Divine revelation at Sinai, where G-d spoke the Ten Commandments in the presence of all the children of Israel.

We would expect the name of the portion to capture this monumental revelation. Instead the portion is named Yisro, Jethro, who was the father-in-law of Moses, who left his home in Midyan and came to join the Jewish people in the desert. As the Torah relates:

Now Moses' father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt…

Now Moses' father in law, Jethro, and his [Moses'] sons and his wife came to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God…

Jethro said, "Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities...”[1]

While Jethro was certainly a distinguished man and his story adds a twist to the narrative, it does seem strange that the portion is named after a person, Jethro, who has merely a supporting role in the story.

After the splitting of the Red Sea the Jewish people sang a beautiful song to G-d. To sing is to express inspiration. To sing is to elevate one’s self from matters of the mundane. To sing is to surge upward and to seek transcendence.

The ultimate purpose of the Torah, however, cannot be achieved through song alone. The Torah’s message is not to seek escape from daily life but rather to sanctify it. Not to climb the mountain and remain aloof, but rather to draw holiness within the existing parameters of culture and society.

Thus Jethro was critical to fulfilling the objective of the Torah.

Indeed, the Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism, explains that the Jewish people were unable to receive the Torah, until Jethro came to the Jewish camp and offered thanks to G-d.

Jethro was no ordinary person. Jethro was a leader of Midyan and was considered one of the foremost scholars of his time. Jethro was able to state: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities” because he was an expert on the religions, philosophies, and theories of his time. Jethro represented the peak of human scholarship. His arrival to the Jewish camp represented the ability of the Torah to reach, to transform, and to imbue holiness within every culture and society.

Song is important. Seeking transcendence is essential. But the ultimate goal is to reach the level of Jethro, to draw inspiration into daily life.

Thus immediately after reading of the awesome revelation at Sinai, the Torah continues, in next week’s portion, to elucidate the Jewish civil laws. Because, while it is inspiring to gather at the foot of Mount Sinai, to seek to hear the voice of G-d, to attempt to hear the song of inspiration, the message of the Torah is that we must bring the inspiration into our daily life. We must strive for the Torah to permeate every part of our life, not just in our most spiritual moments but, perhaps more important, in our business and in our interactions with our fellow man.[2] 

 

 


[1] Exodus 18:1-5.

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos vol. 11. 

The Song Called Life

n.jpgThe Song Called Life

“Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord." [1]

This is the opening phrase of the song that Moses and the Jewish people sang to G-d after the miraculous crossing of the sea. The children of Israel, following the lead of Moses, sang a beautiful song celebrating the final stage of their liberation from Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and their future entrance into the land of Israel.

The opening word of the verse that begins the song is “Az” (אז), which means “then” (Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song). Every detail and every choice of word in the Torah is precise. The Midrash, therefore, seeks to explain why the word “Az” (אז) was chosen to open the song. The Midrash reminds us that this is not the first time we have encountered the word “Az” (אז). Earlier in the story Moses turned to G-d with precisely the same word “Az” (אז).    

When Moses went to Pharaoh for the very first time, to demand that Pharaoh allow the Jewish people to leave Egypt, Pharaoh refused the request and instead decided to increase the burden of the slavery on the Jews. Moses was devastated. The Torah relates:

Moses returned to the Lord and said, "O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people."[2]

From the outset, Moses doubted G-d, and used the word “Az (אז)” which also means “since”: “Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people”.

The Midrash informs us that when it came time for Moses to sing the song of praise to G-d, Moses sought to correct his previous lack of faith in G-d. Thus, Moses chose the word “Az” (אז) (“Since I have come to Pharaoh”), the same word he used to question G-d, he is now using to open the song of praise (“Then Moses sang”).

There are two ways a person may react upon being liberated from a distressing situation. One emotional reaction is that although he experiences a feeling of tremendous relief, his joy is dimmed by the feeling that he would have been better off never having gone through the distressing experience.

The second way a person might react is that although he fully recognizes the hardship he has gone through he realizes the hardship was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. That without the adversity he would never have attained the greatness he achieved. Thus the joy is complete. The joy does not seek to forget about the suffering, on the contrary, the joy is a wholesome one, it incorporates the entire experience. Once the challenge has been overcome, the happiness is fueled by both the initial suffering and its conquest.

Initially, in the darkest moments of slavery, Moses saw only suffering and sorrow. He cried out to G-d in pain and cried “Az” (אז).

After the exodus and the crossing of the sea, Moses reached a deeper understanding. Now he realized that the experience in Egypt was critical in order to allow the Jewish people to experience the Divine. The humility of slavery would allow them to rise to the heights of spirituality, sensitivity and kindness to all mankind. Now the joy was complete. Now the song and the joy were fueled by both the hardship and the salvation. By the “Az” of the song of the sea, as well as the “Az” of the cry due to the hardships.

The Torah teaches that each and every day we are capable of breaking free from our inner bondage, our inner Egypt, which holds us back from attaining that which we want to achieve. The same is true of the song of the sea. As we work to free ourselves from Egypt, we hear the music of the song. We understand that every part of our life, the moments of delight, laughter and elation as well as the times of trouble and tribulation, all lead to one joyous song. They may include different notes but they combine to create one song full of meaning and joy.[3]



[1] Exodus 14:1.

[2] Exodus 5:22-23.

[3] Adapted from The Beis Halevi Al Hatorah (Bishalach). 

Double New Year?

Calendar_1.pngDouble New Year?  

We are a complicated people.

While most cultures and people celebrate their new year on the first day of the first month of their calendar, we Jews, surprisingly, do not do the same.

Our new year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated on the first day of the seventh month. As the Torah relates:

In the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of [Israel through] the shofar blast a holy occasion.[1]

Half a year after new year's day, we celebrate the new year. As the Torah tells us in this week’s portion, the very first commandment issued to the Jewish people, just days before the Exodus, was the commandment to establish the Hebrew calendar, which would establish the month of the exodus as the first month. As the Torah relates:

The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.[2]

Why the complication? Why do the Jewish people need to have two new years, one for the days of the year and one for the months of the year?

When we look at the world around us we notice that there are generally two tracks by which the world operates. The first is the natural, predictable order. The sun rises and sets, the seasons flow from one to the next, the agricultural cycle produces its crops. The first track is the one we call the path of nature. 

The second track is the one of the extraordinary and the unexpected. In every area in life there are moments that defy the predictions, shatter the expectations and leave us in a better place than we could have ever imagined. The second track we call the miraculous path.

Both tracks, the miraculous and the natural, lead to the same unified source, they are both expressions of the one G-d.[3] Judaism explains that both the ordinary as well as the extraordinary are expressions of the Divine. The consistent, unchanging, laws of nature, express the infinity of G-d just as powerfully as the miraculous and the unexpected, the rising sun is just as impressive an expression of the Divine as the splitting of the sea.

Thus Jews celebrate two new years in order to commemorate both aspects of Divine expression. On Rosh Hashanah, in the beginning of the fall, the opening of the agricultural cycle which follows the cycle of the sun, we are celebrating the Divine power expressed within the natural order. Just as the sun appears the same everyday, we need to excel in the realm of the predictable. If we want to reap the produce, we must plow and sow, following the order of nature established by G-d as an expression of his awesome power.

Six months later, we celebrate the new year for the months. We celebrate G-d’s unexpected, miraculous, blessings. As we celebrate the moon’s ability to reappear and reemerge, we remind ourselves of our own gift to miraculously reappear out of the darkness of the sky. We celebrate the supernatural blessings G-d has performed for his people and the ability He instilled within us to free ourselves from the confines of the predictable, and achieve the miraculous.

 


[1] Leviticus 23:24. 

[2] Exodus 12:1-2.

[3] See Hachodesh 5666. 

From Serpent to Staff

Staff.jpgFrom Serpent to Staff

Twice in the book of Exodus we read about a stick being turned into a snake and then back to a stick. This was the first sign G-d gave Moses, after Moses requested a sign to demonstrate that G-d had indeed spoken to Moses. And it is also the first sign that G-d instructed to Moses to demonstrate before Pharaoh.

It seems that the fluidity between snake and stick is critical to the story of freedom. It is the first sign because, in some ways, it is the most important sign, for both Pharaoh as well as the Jewish people, to internalize. 

Snake and stick are extreme opposites. There are various words for stick in Hebrew, (“Makel”, “Mateh”, “Mot”) the word used in this story is “Mateh” which refers to a walking stick designed to convey honor and dignity, which implies that the stick provides support for the person. The “Mateh”, the walking stick, is thought to be one of the earliest technologies that man learned to use for his own benefit.

The snake is the polar opposite of support to man. The snake does not lend itself to be domesticated, and ever since the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden there is animosity and hatred between the human being and the snake, as the Torah tells us:

And the Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this… And I shall place hatred between you and between the woman, and between your seed and between her seed. He will crush your head, and you will bite his heel."[1]

The first step in breaking the oppression of Egypt was the recognition that the destructive serpent, which is at war with man, and the supportive staff, are one and the same, and are therefore interchangeable.

The serpent is a metaphor for the animalistic instincts within the person that can sometimes lead man on a path of negativity and destruction. In the story of the Garden of Eden, G-d cursed the serpent; the curse was that the person would perceive the snake as the enemy. When a person looks within his heart and senses a tendency to be self centered and destructive, the person views it as a serpent that can do nothing but destroy. As a result, the person becomes frightened of what he sees within himself. He feels trapped by his own internal animalistic cravings, he feels he has no choice but to succumb to its powerful lure, and becomes enslaved to and entrapped by, his internal negativity.    

Indeed, Moses was frightened by the sight of the snake:

“And He (G-d) said, "Cast it to the ground," and he cast it to the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses fled from before it.”[2]

G-d then instructs Moses to overcome his fear and grab the snake:

And the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch forth your hand and take hold of its tail." So Moses stretched forth his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand.[3]

The message to Moses was that the first step on the road to inner freedom, the first step in taking control of one’s life, is the recognition that the curse of the serpent as the enemy of man can be healed.

As soon as Moses grabbed the serpent in his hand, as soon as he resolved to take control of and channel the animalistic desires and passions, that passion ceased to be a destructive serpent and, when applied correctly, fueled an outburst of targeted positive growth.   

This then was the message to Pharaoh: you may continue using the power of your kingdom to dominate and enslave, to be a destructive serpent, which will eventually lead to the ruination of Egypt, or you may channel the mighty power of your empire to be a source of positivity for all people. The choice is yours.

The story of the Exodus, with all its intricate details, plays out in the heart of every man and woman. The key to internal freedom is the understanding that we are not enslaved to our inner negativity and we are not entrapped by our inner serpent. To free ourselves we must realize that the passion disguised as a serpent can and must be elevated, channeled, and, when grasped by the mind, it is bound to become a source of support and fuel for all that is pure and kind.[4]


____________________

[1] Genesis 3:14-15.

[2] Exodus 3:3.

[3] Ibid. 4:4.

[4] Adapted from Malbim on Exodus 4:4. 

Creator of the Future

Creator of the Future Moses.jpg

At the burning bush Moses was called upon to start a revolution. He was called upon to inspire a people bound in slavery to break free from their Egyptian masters and become a liberated people. This transformation was possible only by revolting against the common philosophical beliefs and attitudes regarding the universe that prevailed in Egypt at that time.

This explains why, before he agreed to accept the mission to Pharaoh, Moses raised the question about G-d’s name:

And Moses said to G-d, "Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be)," and He said, "So shall you say to the children of Israel, 'Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you.'"[1]

This exchange seems strange. What is the meaning of this strange name “I will be what I will be”? Of all the questions Moses could have asked G-d why was it so important for Moses to know the name of G-d? The discussion of G-d’s name seems to interrupt the flow of the story - G-d’s effort to convince Moses to accept the mission to Pharaoh, and ignite the flame of freedom within the Jewish people.  

In truth, however, in this exchange lies the heart of the story of the Exodus. 

Pharaoh and the Egyptians believed that G-d created the world. Yet the word “created” was in the past tense. Egypt and its culture believed that G-d interacted with the universe at  a single moment, at the point of creation; in the distant past, G-d was responsible for setting the process of creation into motion. Once the laws of nature had been established, G-d could no longer interfere and influence the nature of the world. After the genesis of the universe, they thought, the laws of nature reigned supreme, rendering both G-d and man subject and enslaved to the inevitable and unchanging natural order.   

There can be no Exodus, no freedom, until people realize the fallacy of a G-d of the past. People can never be free, unless they first realize that G-d is free.

Moses asked G-d, when I come to the Jews and declare that G-d sent me to announce that freedom is imminent, the first question they will ask is “what is His name”? What are His attributes? How can we expect a G-d frozen in the past to shatter the natural order and create change in the present?

G-d responded to Moses: “I will be what I will be”. While “creator” represents the past, “I will be”, represents the future.

This is the revolutionary idea the Jewish people needed to hear before they could dream of freedom. G-d is not enslaved to the natural order created in the past, on the contrary, G-d will be what he chooses to be. He is free to be whatever He chooses to be, and He gives humanity the ability to so the same.

The most bitter form of slavery is internal slavery. The most confining form of bondage is when a person believes he is trapped by his nature, shackled by past experiences and imprisoned by past failures.

At the burning bush, Moses received the key to redemption. G-d is G-d, not only because of what He created in the past, but primarily because of his ability to influence the future.

“I will be what I will be”. G-d is free. He can be whatever He chooses to be, and, by cleaving to Him, the human being, too, can attain true freedom, and be whatever he chooses to be.[2]

 _____________________

[1] Exodus 3, 13-14.

[2] Based on the commentary of Rabbi S.R. Hirsh.

 

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